A Titanic Connection
It is unknown if Londoners in Canada, at the time, knew that there was a connection to the Harris family, Eldon House and to the sinking of this ship. Now, it wasn’t a conventional connection: no one from the family was on board. Although, it must be added that the Harris family saw their share of sea fairing tragedy, one of them being a shipwreck in the mid 1800s. But the Titanic connection here is related to the Eldon House Ghost story.
When W.T. Stead published the tale entitled ‘A ghost in the ballroom’ in 1891 in The Review of Reviews, anonymously featuring Sarah Harris and Wenman Wynniatt, he forever etched himself to Eldon House’s history. The Harris family appeared to be aware of the published tale. If not the local citizens of London, I imagine at least a few Harrises may have been affected by the news of W.T. Stead’s Titanic connection once it was confirmed that he had been aboard the ship on his way Chicago.
His fate sealed with his passage on the doomed ship, Stead’s publishing of the tragedy of the British officer who drowned here in London in early May of 1841 is eerily charged with new meaning in that Stead too drowned in the early months of spring. It is haunting to read how he also published two other stories that could be interpreted as a warning of his watery demise.
Years earlier, on March 22, 1886 Stead published an article entitled ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor’. In it, an unnamed steamer collides with another ship; due to a lack of lifeboats there is a significant loss of life. About this article, Stead wrote, “This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats.”
A year after he published the ghost story connected to Eldon House, Stead also published in the 1892 Review of Reviews, a fictional story about an accident involving a White Star Line vessel, the Magestic. In the story – entitled ‘From the Old World to the New’ – the Majestic carried a clairvoyant who senses a looming disaster to another ship that collided with an iceberg. The survivors were rescued and the Majestic managed to avoid the ice.
When reading over the news stories from 1912 involving Stead’s fate during this monumental disaster, I wonder how Sarah Harris (at that point known as Sarah Dalzell), was affected by the news. For it was her story that W.T. Stead then pared down and removed surnames before publishing in The Review of Reviews in 1891. Her tale of mystery, tragedy and romance was brought to life by the famous journalist himself. I’d be surprised if she hadn’t taken notice and been affected in some way. It would be perfectly understandable for her to reflect on the ghost story and the sad coincidence of Stead and Wynniatt sharing a similar fate.
In some ways it is a fitting end for Stead, a man so involved in metaphysical research and tales of the supernatural. Once he realized that the ship itself was doomed, maybe he concluded that the stories he had published were in a very real sense foreshadowing his untimely end. Perhaps he took full responsibility for the risks in living his life to the utmost, or at least resigned himself to the hands of fate, because the stories told of his final moments aboard the HMS Titanic are not those of a panicked or fearful soul. Perhaps though, his calm demeanor was due to his belief in the words of a clairvoyant that his expected end was to die by assault in the streets of London England, and not by drowning.
Whatever his mental state at the time, it does seem he had the attitude of a survivor. Sometime between 11:40 PM when the ship struck an iceberg and 2:20 AM when the ship sank, it is said that Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats, in an act “typical of his generosity, courage, and humanity“. After all the boats had gone, as he predicted could happen in such a type of disaster, he is said to have went into the First Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen by some survivors, sitting in a leather chair and reading a book. The report of Stead in the smoking room has been questioned, but given his disposition and eccentricities I don’t think this is a stretch, especially if what awaited him above deck was chaos amongst the remaining passengers. I think I too would just rather curl up with a good book and enjoy an aromatic cigar or pipe.
An account of his last moments by Phillip Mock (a survivor) indicated that, “Many men were hanging on to rafts in the sea. William T. Stead, the author, and Col. John Jacob Astor clung to a raft. Their feet became frozen and they were compelled to release their hold. Both were drowned.”
Despite his calmness and ability to help others during the disaster, Stead, like any other individual, may have put his final thoughts to his wife and children whom he loved dearly and appeared to have some regrets over his divided loyalties between his professional work and his home life. In particular, this diary entry from January 1879 moved me:
“And yet looking at the misery I have occasioned my wife, it would seem blasphemous to attribute anything to the Lord, for it seems wicked almost to have permitted me to live. I have had some terrible moments, when death, but for the poor children, seemed the only solution…Sometimes, I felt as if I had done Emma a cruel wrong by persuading her to marry me. I have seen no woman who would have been acceptable as a wife but her, but she might have found many a more suitable husband. More like herself, I mean, living on the same plane, and not absorbed by work with a passion for seclusion. I have treated her cruelly, not willfully, but because my whole soul was charged, to the exclusion of everything else, with political subjects with which she sympathised but languidly, and at the crisis of these three years I had not time nor patience nor strength to interest her…How dark the future looks. This new year must see a change. Either it restores my wife to me, or it consummates the shipwreck of what I had fondly, passionately hoped would be a Christian home.”
W.T. Stead and his wife Emma appear to have made an effort to work on their marriage and succeeded in having another child only a few years after this was written. When Stead died he left his estate to his wife, and his papers and writings to his daughter Estelle, who would later republish some of his works as a tribute, called ‘Borderlands’.
While William Thomas Stead’s body was never recovered, his death affected many and it was said that he was due to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later in 1912. As a consequence of dying aboard the Titanic, he has become immortalized on a scale larger than he had likely ever imagined. He’ll be forever remembered as a pioneer journalist, futurist, and ghost hunter. And by those interested in the Eldon House ghost story, he’ll be remembered as the man who published the first version of the story, leaving researchers like MisstoricalFiction to follow the breadcrumbs of a historical mystery and inspire me to write passionately in his stead.
For more on W.T. Stead visit this amazing resource site
For more on Titanic survivors visit here
For more on the Titanic visit here
Posted on April 14, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged Astor, Canadian history, Eldon House ghost, Estelle Stead, London Ontario ghost, MisstoricalFiction, Philllip Mock, Roxanne Lutz, Sarah Dalzell, Sarah Harris, Stead, Titanic, Titanic drowning, Titanic history, Titanic victims, W.T. Stead, Wenman Wynniatt, William Thomas Stead. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.