Titanic tales of heroism

Titanic and (below) the of the Musical at the Grand Theatre, (bottom) Admiral Lord West joins descendants of victims of the Titanic disaster for a minute's silence before casting a wreath into the dock in Southampton.
Titanic and (below) the of the Musical at the Grand Theatre, (bottom) Admiral Lord West joins descendants of victims of the Titanic disaster for a minute's silence before casting a wreath into the dock in Southampton.
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Local lives were lost when the Titanic went down 100 years ago this Sunday. Crew, passengers – and a heroic priest.

We’ve read the books, seen the films, watched the TV mini-series – complete with a Blackpool star. And Titanic the Musical is at the Grand Theatre until Saturday.

The cast of Titanic the Musical at the Grand Theatre.

The cast of Titanic the Musical at the Grand Theatre.

Memorabilia hunters are snapping up the T-shirts, mugs and copy survivors’ medals at museums, on commemorative cruises, or flying from Blackpool to see the new Titanic visitor attraction in Belfast.

There’s a fine line between commemoration of the White Star Line maritime disaster and that sinking feeling the centenary is being played out for all its worth.

Titanic tugs at our senses to this day. Tragedy on an epic scale. All the more moving because of the alleged class divide that may have sold life down the river for the price of a third-class ticket.

And the individual stories of heroism – and self interest – on a so-called unsinkable ship.

Admiral Lord West joins descendants of victims of the Titanic disaster for a minute's silence before casting a wreath into the dock in Southampton.

Admiral Lord West joins descendants of victims of the Titanic disaster for a minute's silence before casting a wreath into the dock in Southampton.

Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellowes is unlikely to debunk myths in the ITV1 series which ends on Sunday night.

It also marks a sea change in the fast rising career of Blackpool actress Jenna-Louise Coleman who plays second-class stewardess Annie Desmond (a fictitious character).

The former Emmerdale soap star’s performance has won a new fan base ahead of her Christmas debut as Dr Who’s new sidekick.

Jenna-Louise admits she’s seen film director James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett a “million times”. She also attended the recent star-studded 3D premiere.

But she researched by reading the story of real life survivor stewardess Violet Jessop.

“It helped me create a back story,” she explains.

Filming proved haunting for the young actress. “What made it chilling was knowing it happened for real.”

That’s the key to the fact interest is unlikely to ebb even after the 100th anniversary on Sunday.

Across the old county palatine, proper Lancashire cherishes links with the most famous ship of all.

In Colne there’s a campaign to bring Lancashire bandmaster Wallace Hartley’s last letter home to the town’s museum – it goes under the hammer in America next Thursday.

Penned on White Star Line headed paper, dated April 10, 1912, it says: “This is a fine ship. We have a fine band. I shall probably arrive home on the Sunday morning.” It is said to have accompanied his laundry home. It’s that kind of detail which catches your heart.

Contemporary reports in the Blackpool Times and Fylde Observer list “sons of Blackpool missing”.

They include Arthur Gee – of St Annes – who was off to manage cotton mills in Mexico.

In a letter to a friend Arthur called the ship “a knock out; I might be living in a palace. We seem to be miles above the water.”

Mr Gee’s wife had worried about the maiden voyage, and Arthur himself is said to have had “a presentiment”, for he sent letters to all his family. It was also reported his dog had been “strangely demonstrative” when he left.

Also lost was the ship’s Turkish baths attendant Leonard Taylor, 19, son of Frederick Taylor, head of the Imperial Hydro Hotel’s Turkish baths.

Leonard had also worked as a swimming teacher in St Annes. A postcard home to his mother at North Shore was auctioned for more than £4,000 in London 10 years ago – although estimated at £800.

Leonard said the “coal strike” had delayed him writing a letter.

Charles Sedgwick, 25, married only days before, also died. He was heading to Mexico to work as an electrical engineer – a post he had held at Blackpool Corporation – at a large oil refinery. His wife had stayed at home in Liverpool.

Blackpool Central Library archivist Tony Sharkey points out the late captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, was a regular visitor to the Fylde, staying with a friend, a New York banker, who lived at Salwick Hall.

But does the name Reverend Thomas Roussel Byles ring any bells? He was an unsung hero, a man of faith whose final mission brought comfort to others.

He attended Rossall School between 1884 and 1889 – a school founded primarily to educate the children of clergy, rather than the well-heeled.

Model pupil Roussel excelled at maths and won the school’s Ainslie mathematics prize three years running – along with a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford.

The grandson of the Yorkshire Gazette founder and the son of an Anglican clergyman, Roussel hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He converted to Catholicism at Oxford and spent two years in Rome before being ordained in 1904 under his Catholic name Thomas. He became a parish priest in Essex and a professor in Colchester.

He boarded Titanic at Southampton in order to attend the wedding of younger brother William in New York. At Cork he posted a letter to a Miss Field telling her he had lost his brolly, and met two other priests. He expressed the hope she would reply by the time he arrived in New York.

Father Byles performed Mass for second and third-class passengers in their lounges. Twelve hours after he prophetically alluded in sermons, in French and English, to prayers as “spiritual lifebelts”, Titanic was torn apart by an iceberg.

Father Byles, on the upper deck, saw the iceberg pass by and immediately headed down to the third-class deck to calm passengers, bless them and hear confessions.

Survivors recalled the priest “with hand uplifted” urging people to stay calm and reassuring those agitated. Another said he had twice refused to get into a lifeboat despite the pleas of crew.

Survivor Helen Mary Mocklare gave the measure of the man: “Fr Byles could have been saved but wouldn’t leave while one person was left on board. As I left in the last lifeboat I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses to his prayers.”

In the dying moments of the ship, Fr Byles, 42, prayed with 100 passengers trapped at the stern.

Protestants, Catholics and Jews knelt in the rising waters as the former Fylde schoolboy gave absolution to all.

For many, his was the definitive story of courage beyond all call of duty. Pope Pius X hailed him a “martyr for the church.” His body was never found.

And on May 2 – long after the centenary commemorations have ended – Rossall’s staff and pupils and, hopefully, some of Fr Byles’ relatives, will gather in the school’s chapel to see a memorial unveiled by RC Bishop of Lancaster, Rt Rev Michael Campbell, at 11.30am, followed by a memorial service at noon.