Hugh Woolner

HUGH WOOLNER’s account dates from very shortly after the sinking and is, like Helen Candee’s, significantly more valuable than memories replayed in one’s mind over the course of several decades, during which they are likely to pick up a “mutation” or two along the way… as in the case of Fireman George Kemish who recalled, fifty years later, a bright full moon, when in fact there was no moon on the night of April 14, 1912. Evidently, either the Titanic’s brightly burning lights reflecting off the water until the moment of the break was recalled decades later as moonlight, or his imagination had woven a false memory into the picture – aided, perhaps, by one or two famous book cover paintings erroneously showing the Titanic sinking under a full moon and partial cloud cover.

Woolner’s memories were still fresh when he committed them to writing (after which he rarely spoke about the Titanic again). Indeed, most of what follows was written aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, on April 19, 1912, a newspaper turned notes written by Woolner while still at sea into an interview, with embellishments. A friend of Woolner’s tried, but failed, to have an accurate account published. Unfortunately, by April 25 the press considered Woolner and the Titanic “old news.” Here, Mr. Woolner speaks, at last, in his own words.

The Loss of the “Titanic”

Mr. Hugh Woolner’s Experience.

Prefaced by Ed. C. De Segundo, April 26, 1912, New York, New York:

In the issue of the “New York Sun” of April 19 Th. 1912, there appeared an article which purported to be an account of the disaster given by Mr. Hugh Woolner to a representative of the Newspaper. The impression seems to have gained ground that Mr. Woolner sought to make capital out of this tragic episode, and I think it right – as one of his oldest friends, and from my intimate knowledge of the facts – to correct this impression, by a recital of the circumstances in which this account reached the “Sun” newspaper. On Thursday evening, the 18th of April, I went to the Cunard pier to meet Mr. Woolner, and was accompanied by a Doctor and two gentleman who were staying at my Hotel. On our return, Mr. Woolner (who was fortunately uninjured, except for a number of bruises) read to us a portion of a private letter he had written on board the “Carpathia” in which he described his experiences after the “Titanic” struck. One of my friends, recognizing the obvious ring of sincerity in this account of what had just occurred, suggested that it should be published just as it was written, and this view being endorsed by us all, Mr. Woolner handed over his letter to this gentleman, who happened to be a personal friend of the Editor of the “Sun”. Unfortunately, however, the original idea of just publishing the extract from Mr. Woolner’s letter was not adhered to, and the account was prefaced by the words which gave it the appearance of an “interview’. This is in no sense the fact. Mr. Woolner declined to see any Reporters, and I made it my business to see that he was not disturbed by anyone on that memorable night. He neither stipulated for, nor expected any remuneration of any kind whatsoever, a point that subsequently found expression in a courteous letter from the Editor which ran as follows

To: Mr. Hugh Woolner,

Hotel Wolcott, New York City

My dear Mr. Woolner,

I thank you for permitting us to publish the account of your experiences connected with the sinking of the Titanic which were contained in the private letter home that you wrote on board the Carpathia, and also for your consideration in not having stipulated for any remuneration for it.

Very truly yours,

(Signed) Geo. B. Mallon.

City Editor.

Mr. Woolner, who is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and the only son of the late Thomas Woolner R.A. (The celebrated sculptor) has received so many requests from friends and strangers for a copy of this article, that he has decided to have it reprinted, and as he has been obliged to leave New York, he has asked me to get this done for him. He left me absolute discretion in the matter, and I have therefore caused the account to be reprinted in its original form, namely as an extract from his private letter home.

(signed) ED. C. De SEGUNDO.

Extract from Mr. Woolner’s letter written on board the S.S. “Carpathia.”. . . and on Sunday night, I noticed that everyone was drinking hot drinks. On the previous night iced drinks had been the favorites, but on Sunday night everyone seemed to be drinking grog. It had suddenly become deadly cold in the lounge and restaurant and the lady of our party [Helen Candee] had gone to her room. Then we men strolled up just above to the smoking room and had been seated only a few minutes when there came a heavy grinding sort of shock beginning far ahead of us in the bows and rapidly passing along the ship and away under our feet. Everyone sprang up and ran out through the swing doors astern.

A man in front of me called out that he had seen an iceberg towering fifty feet above the deck, which was 100 ft above the sea, and passing away astern. This was the explanation.

I went with a Swedish friend whose acquaintance I made on board. Bjornstrom Steffanson of the Swedish Embassy in Washington. We sought out the lady who had been recommended to my care, Mrs. Churchill Candee, who was returning from Paris to see her only son who had met with a serious accident in America.

We found her and I took her up on to the A deck to see how things were going. We found the engines stopped and the officers and crew making preparations to lower the boats.

The officers were assuring everyone that there was no danger to life, but that the ladies were to be put into the boats as a precautionary measure.

We continued our walk awhile, and then I saw passengers coming up with life belts on. I got Mrs. Candee’s tied on to her and then went off to my room and got on mine and brought away an extra one which I soon gave to some scared person who had none. Bjornstrom and I took Mrs. Candee up to the upper A deck where the boats were hung and we put her safely with a rug into the first boat, which gradually was filled with women and children and a few of the crew were put in, three I think and a youth with a broken arm. Not enough men were put into the first boats really. We then bade her a cheery good-bye and told her we should help her onboard again when the ship had steadied herself. She wanted us to come too but we laughed this off.

We then went and helped with several more life boats bundling in the women and children. Meanwhile several gentlemen were standing calmly by and looking on. Several men crept into these few boats, as it came out, and they [later] gave fatuous explanations how they came to do so. They were forced in by zealous friends against their own wish, and so on.

The calm courage of the passengers was most inspiring. Many women refused to leave without their husbands. Bjornstrom and I took many of them at their husband’s desire and bodily chucked them into the boats. Eventually all the life boats on the port side were launched, and while the crew were putting a big Berthon collapsible boat on the davits [Bjornstrom] and I went down to the lower deck to look for stray women.

We found three women close together and then we rushed them into a boat on the starboard side by sheer bluff. We shouted our way through the press; “Make way for ladies!” and we hoisted them up, one of us on each side, and giving them a final heave in they had to go, head over heels. We then turned our attention to a boat ready on the starboard side, [Boat C, Ismay’s Boat] where there was shouting going on.

We saw the first officer [William Murdoch, at Boat C] twice fire a pistol in the air ordering a crowd of the crew out of the boat. We ran in and helped bundle the men onto the deck and then we got a lot, about ten, Italian and other foreign women into that boat and when we saw it was being safely lowered we went away and made a final search on the deck below.

The electric lights were beginning to turn red and not a soul was to be seen on the whole deck of 160 yards. The thick glass windows were all closed and Bjornstrom said to me: “I think we may now make a try for ourselves.” I replied; “All right.” We walked along through an open door beyond the glass windows, where there was an open gunwale. Looking out we saw the sea [over the forward railing. A waist high wall on A deck] pouring over the bows and through the front of the “Bridge Deck [A deck]. Just opposite us was the collapsible boat which we had seen being hooked onto the last davits on the part side. She was being lowered into the sea and hung about nine feet away from us. I said: “Let’s make a jump for it! There is plenty of room in her bows!” Bjornstrom replied “Right you are!”

We skipped on the gunwale, balanced ourselves for a moment and leaped into the air. He landed fair and square into the boat. I landed on my chest and caught hold with my hands on the gunwale and slipped off backwards. I hauled myself up with my arms and got my right foot over the gunwale. Bjornstrom said, “All right, I’ve got you,” and levered me up by my right foot. But by that time my left leg was in the sea, so it was a near thing. The water was pouring in through the door we had just walked through. It rose so rapidly that if we had waited another minute we should have been pinned between the deck and its roof. We first hauled in another man passenger who was in the sea, and then I climbed over a number of women and children and got out two oars. Bjornstrom took one, I took another, a steward got out another and another man took the fourth.

I handed him a row lock so that he could steer and we began to pull like the deuce to get clear of the ship, which I knew was doomed; but I was anxious to get away from the suction when the big ship went under. I never pulled harder in my life. About thirty women and children were in the boat, with only three oars to pull. However we got away from her and got clear, but only about 150 yards, when I saw the monster take a huge tilt forward and her stern came clean out of the water at least eighty feet.

Lights were still burning and she settled forward still further, then stopped for about thirty seconds. Suddenly, with a terrific roar, like thousands of tons of rocks rumbling down a metal shute, she plunged down, head first. Every light went out and the roaring went on for about a minute.

Then arose the most fearful and bloodcurdling wail. It was awful. One thousand seven hundred men in the dark, going down amid that ghastly turmoil! I can never forget it.

We continued our course, for it would have been sheer madness to have returned and tried to pick up any more. It would have meant all of us perishing.

The sea was as smooth as a pond or none of us would be alive. The Titanic struck at 11.45 pm. on a starry clear night. She sank finally at 2.22 am. I believe seventeen boats got away. I was in the seventeenth.

It got colder and colder. Fortunately I had on my fur coat and under that my dress clothes. The only thing I saved was my money. I worked all through the excitement [of the foundering ship] with Bjornstrom at my side. We spoke with strong authority and people simply stood aside and made way for us when we came up with women in tow. It was remarkable!

There were scenes of magnificent unselfishness and devotion; women who absolutely refused to go without their husbands; dozens of husbands who simply obeyed orders and remained silent and quiet on the deck while their wives were put into safety. In particular a very handsome old gentleman, Mr. Isidor Straus, and his wife were there and declined to be separated and when we suggested that so old a man was justified in going into the boat that was waiting, Mr. Straus said: “Not before the other men.” His wife tightened her grasp on his arm and patted it and smiled up at him and then smiled at us. In our boat we floated around for a long time in the dark, the cries getting fainter and fewer in the distance. Then a boat with an officer came along and he gave orders for us to form a string by making fast our painter’s head and tail, so as to make a more conspicuous mark on the ocean for a passing ship to see. This we did and it gave us something to do.

After a while orders were given to lighten the officer’s boat, so that he could go and help some poor wretches on an upturned boat, which by now was faintly visible in the distance. We got seven more into our already pretty full boat, but we could stand them upright. Other boats go others, and the officer went away with his sail up and got in about twenty shivering men who had been balancing themselves for over three hours up to their ankles on an upturned collapsible boat. Think of it! Faint streaks of light began in the east by this time and I saw a breeze coming towards us, which was a serious matter in our heavily loaded condition. I advised throwing off the painter and keeping her head into the sea. This was done. The wind continued to freshen.

Looking around, I saw about twenty icebergs that looked like photographs of the Antarctic expedition. The whole horizon was snow — the edge of a flow, which turned out to be at least forty miles long and yet our lookout on the Titanic had seen nothing and we had been going full speed ahead all through the night.

Then I saw a rocket and a little later the lights of a steamer coming our way. This cheered us mightily, as you may imagine. Very slowly she seemed to come on, picking her way through the ice. Eventually she slowed down and then stopped and we saw boats about her sides and I understood that our first boatloads were being taken aboard.

The officer in the sailboat bore down on us and seeing we were being rather roughly knocked about by the sea, gave us a tow, but started away from the steamer and we then saw he was making for another set of unfortunates, who were standing up, apparently in the water. They were a party of fourteen or so, among them a black haired woman and three corpses. [The flooded collapsible A.]

The living having been taken aboard, we wore around and made for the ship, the breeze freshening all the while. It seemed to take a very long time, but eventually we came alongside the Carpathia on her way with a crowd of tourists on their way to Gibraltar. Getting under the lee side, we made fast and soon had the women hoisted in a sling, and then we men clambered stiffly up the rope ladders.

Stewards steered us to the dining saloon, where hot brandy and water and biscuits awaited us. Seven hundred about, were saved out of, I believe, 2,500.

Everything possible has been done on board to make us comfortable, and nothing could exceed the kindness the passengers on the Carpathia showed to the shivering people who came up out of the sea. I was given a sofa in the first officer’s cabin. We had fogs nearly all the time since we were rescued and our speed was therefore moderate.

This general description will serve to show that the behavior of the American and English passengers and of the whole crew was admirable with very few exceptions.”

(Signed) Hugh Woolner.

I consider it relevant to append the following extract from a letter I wrote to a friend after a conversation with two other survivors, who gave me an account of an incident in which Mr. Woolner played an important part, but to which — for reasons which all who know him will readily understand — he makes no reference in his personal narrative.

In view, however, of the Enquiry now proceeding at Washington into the facts connected with the loss of the “Titanic” it seems to me that this incident should be recorded, because it does not reflect either upon the conduct or the ability of Captain Smith (whom I knew personally) but rather serves to emphasize the undesirability of multiplication of detail by competing Companies in catering for the demand by the traveling public for increasing luxury and speed, which — it would appear — should be considered the primary cause of a disaster, the unprecedented magnitude of which has overwhelmed and appalled the whole civilized world. Extract from a Letter Written to a Friend by

Ed. C. de Segundo.

“…… We shall never know all Hugh did on board the “Titanic” for it is not easy to get him to talk about what he did, so I have asked other of the survivors to tell me. There can be little doubt that a large number of people owe their lives to his personal exertions, and a larger number yet, to his coolness, resource and attention to detail. For instance: – when it became evident that the ship was sinking, the Captain ordered all passengers to assemble on the “A” deck (the deck below that on which the boats were carried) it being the intention to lower the boats to that level before transferring the passengers to them. Hugh had noticed that the thick plate glass windows protecting the greater portion of the length of the “A” deck had been closed. He accordingly went up to the Captain and saluting him, (this being particularly mentioned by my information) said, “Excuse me Sir, but are you aware that all the windows on the “A” deck are closed.” The Captain, on hearing this replied, “My God, you are right” and at once altered his orders, made the passengers assemble on the boat deck and manned the boats from that deck.

It is clear that if all the passengers had gone to the “A” deck, and the boats had been lowered to that level, a considerable amount of valuable time would have been lost in getting them back to the boat deck, and in hoisting the boats up again. As the ship was rapidly sinking, it is not improbable that in such circumstances there would have not been time to get all the boats off, for the “Titanic” sank within five minutes of the launching of the last boat (a collapsible) in which Hugh and his friend Steffenson were saved.

Another of his useful acts was to go to the aid of one of the officers who had been overpowered by a horde of craven foreigners. Now this was a matter fraught with considerable personal risk. In the first place, he had to do with men crazed with fear, or drink, or both. In the second place there was the officer firing his revolver in semi-darkness to try and scare these cowardly brutes into submission to discipline.

Mr. Steffanson tells me that Hugh never gave a thought to his own safety, but worked away coolly but energetically in helping others to safety. Of course, every credit is due to Steffanson on the same account.

Ed. C. de Segundo.

The Wolcott Hotel

New York

April 26th, 1912

It is noteworthy that one of the first acts aboard the Carpathia was to re-segregate the survivors according to class. Hugh Woolner has noted that he was given a sofa in the first officer’s cabin. In Mrs. Mellinger’s account, we learn that second and third class children slept on the floor of the Carpathia’s library. Woolner and his friends were, like many surviving officers and first class passengers, quick to attribute rapidly circulating tales of cowardice exclusively to third class foreigners, as in the statement that one of Woolner’s “useful acts” was to “aid one of the officers who had been overpowered by a hoarde of craven foreigners… these cowardly brutes.” The numerous accounts of cowardice in the first class – including Dr. Frauhenthal leaping into a lifeboat with three lifejackets tied to himself, and knocking a child unconscious in the process – seem too easily ignored by Woolner and many of his fellow travelers.

Walter Lord adds one last detail to this account of human behavior under conditions of extreme danger: “Woolner mentioned that as they settled into Boat D, between 2:05 and 2:10 am (probably closer to 2:05), and looked back to see the promenade (A) Deck forward flooding up to ceiling-level – [with] the water now approaching floor-level on the bridge – a steward in the boat (John Hardy) remarked that this was going to cost a pretty penny to fix up in dry dock. Woolner was astonished that anyone at this late stage could convince himself that the ship was going to get anywhere near dry dock. Hardy, he guessed, must have been the last man to think so.


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