By John Welshman
The latest news for period drama fans is that Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey, has created a four-part ITV mini-series commemorating the centenary of the Titanic sinking. Publicity indicates that ‘Titanic’ will feature a mix of real and fictional characters. However, what many viewers may not realise is that there was a real Fellowes on board the ship in 1912. But rather than being an ancestor of the popular writer, Alfred J. Fellowes was a humble crew member and one of the estimated 1,514 people to perish in the maritime disaster.
Copyright ITV. Source: metro.co.uk
Alfred Fellowes was part of the ‘victualing crew’: his official position was Assistant Boots Steward in First Class, and he received monthly wages of only £3 15s. Born in Liverpool, Fellowes was 29 years old, single, and he joined the Titanic at Belfast on 1 April 1912. Signing on again, at Southampton, on 4 April, he gave his address as 51 Bridge Road. His previous ship had been the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic.
Like many other crew members, Alfred Fellowes died in the sinking, and his body was retrieved by the steamer the Mackay-Bennett. The body (number 138) was described as being ‘male, estimated age 30, hair and moustache, black’. Fellowes was found wearing a green overcoat, blue trousers, grey coat, his Steward’s white jacket, black boots, and socks. He wore a gold ring, and had keys and scissors in his pockets. Fellowes was buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 6 May 1912.
There were eight other Boots Stewards on the Titanic — Sydney Stebbings, William Rattenbury, Cecil Jackson, and John Scott in First Class, and Henry Bulley, Joseph Chapman, Edward Guy, and William Perrin in Second. Like Fellowes, many had worked previously on the Olympic, and like him, they typically gave addresses in Southampton when they signed on. Of these eight, only two survived – John Scott and Joseph Chapman, and of those who died Fellowes was the only one whose body was recovered. In fact, very little is known about any of them, usually only their name, where they were from, the address that they gave when they signed on at Southampton, and the level of wages that they received.
The Boots Stewards offer an entrée into the world of the Titanic’s large ‘Victualing Department’. It numbered 421 people in all, of whom 322 were Stewards. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, there were only 23 women — 20 Stewardesses, 2 cashiers, and 1 matron. But what is amazing is the number and diversity of the different occupations — scullions, lift boys, clerks, vegetable cooks, bakers, bell boys, kitchen porters, chefs, cooks, Turkish Bath Attendants, postal clerks, pantrymen, butchers, storekeepers, confectioners, stenographers, barbers and so on. The two telegraphists, or wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, employed by Marconi, were officially part of the victualing department. And apparent too is the diversity of occupations even within a single occupation such as Steward.
John Welshman is the author of Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain. He is currently working on a book provisionally entitled Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town (forthcoming, 2012). Below he talks about Walter Lord, who wrote the acclaimed book A Night to Remember about the Titantic. You can read his previous OUPblog posts here.
It was Walter Lord, in A Night to Remember (1955) who described the sinking of the Titanic as ‘the last night of a small town’. Lord had been born on 8 October 1917, in Baltimore, the only son of a prominent lawyer. As a boy, he had enjoyed a transatlantic cruise on the Olympic, during which he had fantasised about what it must have been like to have been aboard the Titanic. He attended private schools in Baltimore, and then read History at Princeton, graduating in 1939. Lord was at the Yale Law School at the outbreak of the Second World War. He then went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, first as a code clerk in Washington, and later as an intelligence analyst in London. In 1945, he returned to Yale and completed his law degree. However he decided that he did not want to practise, and instead wrote business newsletters and books.
Shortly after going to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, Lord published The Freemantle Diary. It was reasonably successful on its publication in 1954. But it was A Night to Remember for which Lord was best known. Published in November 1955, the book had sold 60,000 copies by January 1956, and it stayed on the best seller list for six months. Condensed versions appeared in the Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest, and it was the first of Lord’s several ‘Book of the Month Club’ selections, in June 1956. A successful television adaptation directed by George Roy Hill and narrated by Claude Rains was broadcast on 28 March 1956; it attracted 28m viewers. The British-made film of the same name, directed by Roy Baker, and starring Kenneth More and David McCallum, came out in 1958. The book has never been out of print.
On its publication, the New York Times said that the book was ‘stunning … one of the most exciting books of this or any other year’, while the Atlantic Monthly declared ‘a magnificent job of re-creative chronicling, enthralling from the first word to the last’. The magazine USA Today said that the book was ‘the most riveting narrative of the disaster’, and Entertainment Weekly declared it ‘seamless and skilful … it’s clear why this is many a researcher’s Titanic bible’. In the New York Herald Tribune, reviewer Stanley Walker drew attention to Lord’s technique as being ‘a kind of literary pointillism, the arrangement of contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader’.
No books on the Titanic had been published between 1913 and 1955. Cultural historian Steven Biel has noted that the book was well marketed, but also explains its resonance through the highly visual and aural nature of the narrative. Lord blurred history into news and drama, collapsing ‘historical duration into intense moments of lived experience’. The book