THIS Saturday marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic - a story of human tragedy on an immense scale. In the early hours of April 15, 1912, more than 1,500 passengers and crew died on a ship that was thought to be practically unsinkable and the golden age of steamer ship travel came to a disastrous end.

Mike Davies, chairman of the Rayleigh Town Museum, has spent years researching the Titanic – its history, its brilliance, its flaws and its victims. He says all towns in the country were associated in some way with a passenger or member of crew and there were a number of interesting and often surprising connections to the tragedy right here in Essex.

Mike explains what first ignited his passion for all things Titanic: “My first interest came about at a postcard fair in Southend in the mid 1980s,” he recalled.

“On looking through a batch of cards I came across a postcard of the Titanic (mis-sorted) and noticed is was for sale at £30! I could not believe that any postcard could be worth that incredible amount.

“The most expensive postcard I have since seen sold on the Titanic was £50,000 and almost unbelievably was written on the Titanic, posted in Queenstown – the last port of call - and posted to Castle Road, right here in Rayleigh. The postcard is now in a museum in the USA.

“I then went to the local library, borrowed a book on the Titanic and was soon hooked. I became one of the very early members of the British Titanic Society and I have attended a number of Titanic conventions and met three survivors and many descendants of crew and passengers.”

Over the years Mike has also visited every Titanic-related site in the world, with one exception - its current location, two miles down at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Although trips to dive down and see the wreckage are on sale for an eye-watering £50,000, Mike says: “In my opinion it is a grave and should be respected as such. However I have sailed over the site when on the QM2.”

There are a number of Essex Titanic connections, in fact these were the focus of a special two- hour talk that Mike presented on the tragedy in 2012 to mark the centenary of the sinking.

“There are some heart wrenching stories from survivors of their time in the lifeboats—Eva Hart from Chadwell Heath wrote an excellent book on her experiences, and many struggled to get into already overflowing lifeboats to be forcibly rejected by those still clinging to life,” explained Mike.

“Eva was seven years old when she sailed with her mother and father who were emmigrating to Winnipeg in Canada. The family were on 2nd class ticket no 13529 at a total cost of £25 and 5 shillings (£1,500 today). Before leaving they had a farewell party at the Cauliflower Hotel in Seven Kings (by Ilford swimming Baths).”

Interestingly Mike explained: “Eva’s mother had a premonition that something tragic was going to happen and she never got undressed during the voyage. A pub was later named after Eva in Chadwell Heath (the old Police Station) even though Eva was tea-total all her life and she passed away in 1996. Eva’s biography, Shadow of the Titanic, is well worth a read.”

Then there was Frank Goldsmith, a third class passenger who was born in 1879. He was travelling with his wife and nine-year-old son on ticket number 363291 costing £20, 10 shillings and 6 pence.

“The family were emmigrating to Detroit in the US,” said Mike. “Frank did not survive but his wife and son were in Collapsible lifeboat C (although some records show it as Collapsible D) which left the Titanic at 1.40 am. Mrs Goldsmith’s sister, a Mrs Stevens, lived in Castle Road, in Rayleigh, and was sent this postcard which is now in a museum in America. Similar such rare postcards have been sold at auction in the region of £50,000.”

Thomas Franklin, born in 1875, was travelling 1st class on ticket no 113778 at a cost of £26 and 11 shillings in cabin D34.

“He died in the sinking and his body was not recovered,” said Mike.“His mother lived in Ceylon Road, in Westcliff, and there is another valuable postcard that was sent to her. He also sent his mother a letter from the ship and mentioned a conversation he had with chairman of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay.”

There was also a member of the crew with an Essex connection and an interesting story.

“Joseph Scarrott was born in 1878 and was an Able Seaman on a salary of £5 per month. He was in charge of lifeboat 14 (the one with Eva Hart) and was joined by 5th Officer Harold Lowe. Officer Lowe fired several shots from his firearm to keep male passengers from the boat,” Mike explained.

“Lifeboat 14 was the one of only two to return to the ship to see if it could pick up anyone else. Other boats were concerned that the suction when the ship sank would pull them down and in addition they did not want to be overloaded and sunk by too many people trying to come aboard.

“Mr Scarrott, was the only the second person called to give evidence at the British enquiry. He described the Titanic as the finest ship he had ever seen. He confirmed that the 3rd class passengers had ample time and access to the lifeboats. He worked as a night watchman on Southend Pier in the 1930’s and passed away in Rochford in 1938.”

Mike continued: “Next we have Gus Cohen who was born in 1893 and sailed on 3rd class ticket no 3540 costing £8 and 10 shillings.

“He was due to sail on the Adriatic but due to the coal strike he was transferred. He was rescued in Lifeboat 12 which departed the ship at 1.25am. There were only 19 people in the boat. He later claimed that the last song played by the band was “Nearer my God to Thee’’. Gus died in Rochford hospital in 1978.”

Another victim was Father Thomas Byles, who was rector of St Helens Parish church in Ongar from 1905 to 1912. He was travelling on the Titanic on his way to officiate at a family wedding in New York. It is recorded that he helped 3rd class passengers up to the lifeboats and at the end said prayers, heard confessions and gave absolution to more than 100 3rd class passengers trapped in the stern.

“A stained glass window to commemorate the tragedy is in St Helens Church and reads ‘Pray for the Rev. Thomas Byles for eight years Rector of this mission whose heroic death in the disaster to S.S. Titanic April 15 1912 earnestly devoting his last moments to the religious consolation of his fellow passengers this window commemorates”.

In the 105 years since the Titanic tragedy there have been as many conspiracy theories about what happened as there have TV documentaries, films and books on the subject.

Mike admits: “I don’t subscribe to any of the many ‘conspiracy’ theories that abound. My view, is that it was a combination of different circumstances that if any one had not occurred the Titanic would have sailed the oceans for many years.

“The steel was not inferior, the rivets were not substandard, the crew were not inefficient, and there were more lifeboats than required by law not less. The Captain of the Californian (renowned for its inaction during the sinking of the Titanic) was NOT negligent, although not everyone would agree!

The year 1912 was the worst in decades for the number of icebergs. Ship captains would speed up in the vicinity of icebergs not slow down so as to get through them as soon as possible.”

During a visit to a convention of the British Titanic Society in Southampton in 1989 Mike met three survivors of the tragedy. Edith Haisman, Eva Hart from Chadwell Heath and Milvina Dean the last Titanic survivor to die aged 97. Milvina was just nine weeks old when she sailed on the Titanic with her family- her mother and brother survived but her father sadly died.

What does someone who has searched so hard for the truth about the Titanic think of Hollywood’s take on the subject, in particular the 1997 blockbuster that swept the board at the Oscars?

“James Cameron made a wonderful film in 1997, but there were inaccuracies. Edwardian society at that time had three distinctly separate classes so Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet would never have met,” said Mike.

“One of the many other somewhat more amusing distinctions was in the toilet seats. First class passengers got marble, 2nd class porcelain and 3rd, well they got iron.”

The end of the 1997 Titanic film also shows the ship’s captain, Edward J Smith, stoically going down with his ship.

Mike says: “The whereabouts of Captain Smith at the end cannot be confirmed. There are stories of him on the bridge at the end—telling the crew to ‘Be British’, him getting drunk (highly improbable) and of him in the water after the sinking holding a baby afloat, trying to save it. We will probably never know where and how he died.”

One thing Mike points out that we do know about Captain Smith was how much he was paid for the Titanic voyage.

“To compare here are some examples of the crew’s wages. Captain Smith received £105 per month (£6000 today) with an annual bonus of $1000 if his ship was not involved in any collisions.

“A cook on the ship got £6 per month, an Able bodied seaman-£5 per month, a saloon steward who would work from 6am till 9pm—7 days a week was paid £4 per month.”

Owners of the Titanic, the White Star Line, were later lambasted for their lack of compassion over the sinking: “All crew wages stopped at 2.20 am when the ship sank,” said Mike. “Also, the eight bandsmen (two pianists - one of whom was born in Essex - three violinists, two cellists, and a bass player) were classified as second class passengers, all perished and relations received no compensation from the White Star Line. Indeed the musician’s agents sent claims to the relatives for the uniforms that had been supplied and were not returned.”

“Figures also show 724 of the crew came from Southampton - only 175 returned. Tragically at one school in Southampton 125 pupils had lost their fathers. Can you imagine the devastation that affected the town? Some of us will remember such places as Abervan in Wales and the colliery disaster in 1966 which killed 116 children. No doubt a similarly devastated community.”

The Titanic had claimed several lives before it even set sail.

Mike explained: “The building work on the Titanic started on March 31 1909 and during the next two years a total of eight workers died of accidents during the construction.”

To this day the Titanic is synonymous with luxury and class distinction. Some of the millionaires on board travelling in first class included John Jacob Astor 4th, Isidor and Ida Strauss, Benjamin Guggenheim and Molly Brown (known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown). There were also 13 honeymooning couples on board as well as eight dogs - two of whom survived.

“Luxury was the key,” said Mike. “There was an indoor swimming pool, Turkish baths, fully equipped gymnasium, luxurious staterooms and top class cuisine for all.”

The disaster has also become famous for its lifeboat debacle. But Mike stresses again how the ship had more lifeboats than was actually legally necessary at the time: “When full the Titanic could carry a total compliment of 3547 passengers and crew. Fully compliant with British Board of Trade regulations the Titanic carried 16 lifeboats plus 4 collapsible canvas sided ones. On the maiden voyage the lifeboats had a total capacity for 1178 people. In addition 3560 Life jackets and 49 Life Buoys were available. However bear in mind that on the night of the 14/15th April 1912 life expectancy in the water was 15 minutes and that few drowned in the disaster, most died from hypothermia.”

  •  If Echo readers would like more information about the Titanic they can pay a visit to the Rayleigh Town Museum. Mike may give a repeat of his hugely popular 2012 talk on the Titanic if there’s enough interest! Visit