On this day in 1912 the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sunk less than three hours later, killing more than 1,500 people. Amongst the dead were five postal workers, British citizens James Williamson and Jago Smith and US citizens William Gwinn, John March and Oscar Woody.
RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship (at the time though it stood for ‘Royal Mail Steamer’), indicating that the Titanic was contracted to carry mail. The Titanic had a Post Office and Mail Room deep in the ship on decks F and G, the blue prints of which are held by the BPMA. The five postal workers were tasked with sorting much of the mail which had been brought on board the ship, 3,364 bags in total, as well as dealing with any letters which were posted on the ship by passengers and crew.
Amongst other Titanic-related material held by the BPMA is a file containing memos and copies of letters concerning an inspection of the ship on 9th April 1912, the day before the ship sailed. The description is reminiscent of the lower decks revelry in James Cameron’s film Titanic.
The [sleeping] Cabins are situated among a block of Third Class cabins, and it is stated the occupants of these latter, who are mostly low class Continentals, keep up noisy conversation sometimes throughout the silent hours and even indulge at times in singing and instrumental music…if their [the sorting clerks] work during the day is to be performed efficiently it is essential that they should enjoy a decent sleep at night.
The five postal workers were eventually granted alternative accommodation and permission to dine in a private area.
When the ship struck the iceberg, the postal workers were celebrating Oscar Woody’s 44th birthday. However, they soon realised that the Mail Room was flooding and so attempted to move 200 sacks of registered mail to the upper decks in the hope of saving them. They press-ganged several stewards into helping them, one of whom later recalled:
I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued at their work. It might have been an inrush of water later that cut off their escape, or it may have been the explosion. I saw them no more.
In London, the Post Office had received word that the ship was in danger and became concerned for the wellbeing of the workers and the mails. Ismay Imrie & Co., owners of the White Star Line, sent three telegrams to the Secretary of the Post Office in relation to the matter. These telegrams are held by the BPMA. Coming so soon after the disaster, they contain information which would later turn out to be incorrect.
A memorial to the five postal workers was errected in Southampton, from where the Titanic departed. Part of it reads “Steadfast in peril”.
More information on this topic can be found in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s Online Exhibition Posted Aboard RMS Titanic.