In the summer of 1912, weeks after the Titanic sank with her furnace-stoker husband, William, on board, his impoverished widow, Emily Bessant, heard a knock at the door of her tiny row house in Southampton, England.
As family lore goes, it was a rich gentleman offering to send Emily’s eldest daughter, Gladys, to private school. He explained that William had helped him to a lifeboat amid the chaos on the fated ship.
“It was a story handed down to us younger generations,” William’s great-granddaughter Julie Cook told The Post. “We can’t prove that it was true because Gladys supposedly declined, but it helped everyone believe, in their grief, that William died a hero.”
While the bulk of the narratives surrounding the Titanic focus on the wealthy passengers who lost their lives, such as Benjamin Guggenheim and John Jacob Astor, Cook wanted to pay tribute to the deceased lowly crew members. The British journalist, 42, wrote “The Titanic and the City of Widows It Left Behind” (Pen & Sword), out now, to honor the likes of William, Emily and other working-class people affected by the disaster.
In the book, she details how 529 residents of the coastal English city of Southampton were among the more than 1,500 dead. Like her 40-year-old great-grandfather, many were stokers, known as firemen, employed in the bowels of the ship where they tended the furnaces for the equivalent of $7 a month.
“They had the nickname ‘The Black Gang’ because they were always covered in soot and did their backbreaking jobs in 104 degree heat,” said Cook.
She discovered that, since the Titanic collided with the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 13, 1912, her ancestor would likely have been preparing for his four-hour boiler-room stint between midnight and 4 a.m.
“Was he on his way to his shift or still in his mess, perhaps dressing?” she writes. “Had William died because he had helped another passenger to a lifeboat?”
Whatever the case, Emily suffered greatly from the loss of her spouse. The proud mother of five, who learned by letter that her husband was “lost at sea” in the sinking, took in other people’s laundry to survive after the tragedy.
“She was never a shrinking little woman and, like other wives in Southampton, had always been the head of the household when her husband was away at sea,” said Cook. “But according to my father and aunt, who heard it firsthand from their mother, times were hard.”
Help eventually came in the form of compensation from the Titanic Relief Fund, which by early 1913 had amassed a total of $515,000 — the equivalent of $48 million today — in donations from across the world.
The payments given to widows were allocated in tiers according to the job of their crewmen husbands. Since the work of a fireman was considered the lowest rank, Emily received six pence a week, the equivalent of $74 today.
The cash came with strings attached. Emily and the other recipients were checked upon regularly by a so-called “Lady Visitor.” Her role was to inspect the wives and their children to ensure the cash was spent correctly.
Cook found records of a woman named Mrs. Biggs, the mother of a drowned fireman, whose allowance was suspended because of drunkenness.
In another case, it was decided that a Mrs. Worthman had to enroll in a “home for inebriates” — essentially, a rehab facility — before her payments were reestablished.
“The money was taken away completely if the woman found a new husband,” said Cook. “As a result, relationships were often kept secret.”
Emily never remarried, forging on alone for the sake of her children. As she reached middle age, she opened a candy shop and even saved enough money to buy a car for her eldest son, Charles, to drive tourists on day trips out of Southampton.
All the while, despite the grief and hardship, it seems she rarely complained. As Cook quoted her grandmother, Florence, in her book: “She [my mother] just got on with it. She had to.”
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