Dulwich and the Titanic
by Sharon O’Connor
The SS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg on 15th April 1912. Five Dulwich men were on board the ship, four as crew members and one as a passenger.
Lawrence Beesley - The Passenger
Lawrence Beesley was born in Derbyshire in 1877. A prize-winning scholar, he took a degree in Natural Sciences at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and during his post graduate work discovered a rare fountain algae which was named after him (Ulvella Beesleyi). In 1904, he became a science master at Dulwich College where he played a lively part in the life of the school, judging exhibitions and contributing to the Debating Society and he was especially praised for his biology lessons
His first marriage produced a son who would later marry Dodie Smith, the children’s author whose books include One Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle.
He became interested in Christian Science and began teaching it from his home. In 1911, having resigned his position at the College, he bought a £13 ticket and boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a second class passenger.
Beesley was in his cabin when the collision happened. He went on deck and asked a steward what had happened and was at first advised that it was nothing. At the first sign of danger he went to his cabin, recited the 91st and the 23rd Psalms, collected the Bible and Science & Health and returned to the deck to wait his turn to be rescued. While watching the women and children being evacuated into the lifeboats, he noted that second class female passengers were not allowed to board first class boats but that steerage ladies were allowed into second class boats. He later surmised that this was the reason for the low survival rate of second class male passengers (of whom, of course, he was one). When men were allowed to board the lifeboats he jumped into Boat 13 and as it was rowed away he watched the Titanic sink and the “lights go out for good”. While on Boat 13 he comforted a crying baby by tucking a blanket under its toes and, getting into conversation with the lady holding the baby, he discovered that they had mutual friends in Ireland, a coincidence he found very striking. Boat 13 was subsequently rescued by the SS Carpathia and the survivors were taken to New York. After his rescue Beesley penned a beautifully written and poignant book, The Loss of the SS Titanic, about his experience, which includes many now famous scenes: the orchestra playing as the ship sank, the calm of the crew and passengers in the ship’s last hours and the eerily peaceful sea and starlit night. After returning to England he continued his teaching career and became a headmaster of a prep school. He also became something of a consultant to researchers and film-makers and he wrote an article for the Christian Science Sentinel, attributing his survival to his knowledge of Christian Science. Five days after the sinking he wrote a remarkable letter to The Times which gave an outline of the possible causes of the disaster together with recommendations for the prevention of a similar tragedy, eg every passenger and crew member being assigned a seat in a lifeboat, regular lifeboat drills and ships to slow down a few knots when in iceberg regions.
Having been widowed, in 1919 Beesley remarried and had three children. He became a keen golfer, entering the British Open several years running. His family said that the one time they went to the seaside, their father sat with his back to the water.
The novelist, Julian Barnes, met Beesley in 1964 and subsequently wrote about him in “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters”. There exists a small piece of footage reporting on the premiere of “A Night to Remember” which has Mr Beesley talking about the film. He had been to watch it being made and, keen to be one of the extras on board as it sank, he forged a union card, dressed up in costume and found a place at the rails of the ship. Just before filming began, however, the director spotted him and ordered him off the set. As Julian Barnes puts it, “for the second time in his life Lawrence Beesley found himself leaving the Titanic just before it was due to go down”.
He died on 14 February 1967 at the age of 89. In his book The Loss of the SS Titanic Beesley talks eloquently of the moment when the survivors learnt that the disaster had been avoidable:
“The beautiful Titanic wounded too deeply to recover, the cries of the drowning still ringing in our ears and the thousands of homes that mourned all these calamities - none of all these things need ever have been! It is no exaggeration to say that men who went through all the experiences of the collision and the rescue and the subsequent scenes on the quay at New York with hardly a tremor, were quite overcome by this knowledge and turned away, unable to speak; I for one, did so, and I know others who told me they were similarly affected.”
The other Dulwich connections to the Titanic were the four crew members. Thomas Lahy, aged 32, who lived in Spurling Road, East Dulwich was a fireman/stoker on the ship. His body was never recovered. William Dashwood, aged 19, a steward, was born in Dulwich and his family lived in Pellatt Road. His body was recovered by the Cable ship Mackay-Bennett and Dashwood was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ernest Corben, aged 27, was also born and bred in Dulwich and was an assistant printer steward. His body was never recovered and he left behind a widow and a 3 year old son. Edward Hogue, aged 22 was a plate steward and lived in Allison Grove. His body was not recovered.