The Portrush Letter

My grandfather, John Smith worked as the chief steward at the International Mercantile Marine Company’s (IMM) Officer’s Club at Pier 60 on the North River in New York City from 1910-1934. He was known as Jack Smith to all his friends. He got to know many of the officers who worked onboard the great ships that came to the city, including the men who served on The Titanic, which was owned by the White Star Line, a part of the IMM. My grandfather was their friend. After the sinking of the Titanic, the surviving officers came to the club and told their stories of the disaster. The following is part of a letter my grandfather wrote to his brother Hugh, who lived in Portrush, Ireland. In it, he recounts some of the events as told to him by those survivors. It has become known as “The Portrush Letter.”

(John, Kate & Hugh Smith, Portrush, Ireland)

My Dear Hugh,

“I intended writing to you earlier in the week, but the awful disaster to the Titanic has put everything else out of my mind, and even yet I am waking up and thinking it is all a bad dream.

People here who didn’t know a soul on board have gone crazy, and as each of our ships come in it is pitiful to see some of the many who have lost shipmates of many years standing. It is a loss to me in many ways. I had known every officer and engineer on the Titanic for over fourteen months, and on the whole they were the finest type of men imaginable.

“The papers here contain nothing but the Titanic tragedy, but I am disgusted reading their versions. They are only concerned about the amount of jewels Madam So-and-so lost, and seem indignantly (sic) that any of the crew should have been rescued at all. But not a single member of the crew took a place in the boats unless those who were required to man them.

“The officers who were saved jumped into the water after the last boat had left, and some of them actually waited until the ship sank under their feet. I think two hundred saved out of almost nine hundred of a crew speaks well for the way in which they stuck to their duty.

“The account I got from the surviving officers, I am sure, is as near the truth as will ever be known. Mr Lightroller, the second officer, comes in for very high commendation from the papers and deserves it all. Mr Hardy, the Chief second class steward, who is a close friend of mine, told me how Mr Lightoller filled his boat, and then put someone in the place he himself should have occupied, saying he’d stick by the ship. He went down with her, but was picked up later.

It is impossible for me to send you all the papers, but I send you a ‘Sun‘, which is as just a paper as there is in New York. I wish you to read Mr Lightoller’s testimony, as it will give you an idea of his modesty and of the way he keeps his wits about him.

“Mr Wilde, the Chief Officer, and Mr Murdock, the first mate, were splendid types of men, and old Captain Smith was beloved by everyone. I knew all the engineers personally and their case is the most pitiful of all, for they must have known first that the ship was doomed, yet not one of them left his post.

“There were thirty-three regular engineers, six electricians, and probably forty engineers from Harland and Wolff’s. Poor Dr O’Loughlin. He used to ask me to telephone for him as he said people couldn’t understand his “French” accent .

“I can only say that the Titanic crew were the pick of the White Star Line.

“The last seen of Mr Wilde he was smoking a cigarette on the bridge. I expect he was hoping the water wouldn’t put it out before he finished it. His wife died about sixteen months ago, and I have heard him say he didn’t care particularly how he went or how soon he joined her. He leaves three children.

“He would have been Captain of the Cymric two trips ago, only the coal strike and the tying up of some of the ships altered the company’s plans.

“Mrs Slocum (sic), the Turkish bath attendant, told me that when the survivors were coming here on the Carpathia she repeatedly heard some of the ‘ladies’ express disgust that ‘these common women of the crew’ were taken off and their men left.

“One woman, while the boat was being loaded, was loud in her demand that a
steward should find her little dog for her. The steward picked the dog off the deck, and dropping it over the side, said: ‘To blazes with your dog. Wouldn’t you rather find your husband?’

“Mr McIlroy, the purser, had quite a sum of money for me, but I’d give a great deal more to see his genial smile again. He was a fine big-hearted Galway man, and a prince to boot. Mr Lightoller told me that the last time he spoke to Mac, he said: ‘Well, it looks as if we will have sand for supper tonight.’”

“I don’t think hegot down so far, for he was a clean big fellow.”


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