Titanic revelation had me thunderstruck

Former Titanic lifeboat? No, the Upton-based Girl Madge II was just another Broadland boat after som

Former Titanic lifeboat? No, the Upton-based Girl Madge II was just another Broadland boat after some initial excitement.Picture: GEOFFREY GOREHAM - Credit: Archant

As Britain’s prize curmudgeon - television’s irascible Victor Meldrew - would have exclaimed: “I don’t believe it!”

Retired liner captain "Iceberg Charlie" Bartlett on Gorleston beach pre-war with his Yarmouth-born w

Retired liner captain "Iceberg Charlie" Bartlett on Gorleston beach pre-war with his Yarmouth-born wife, Edie. Picture: ALASDAIR FAIRBAIRN - Credit: Archant

I certainly didn’t believe it. But I was wrong.

Down the decades in this column, there have been various mentions of the sinking of the liner Titanic after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1912. The death toll was 1,513 of her 2,224 passengers and crew, and the tragedy has been scrutinised by experts and featured in films and books.

I have recalled that the Titanic’s cargo included two cases of black silk mourning crape produced by Great Yarmouth miller Grouts and being exported to the United States. Insurers recompensed Grouts for its £108 loss.

Also, there was the short-lived excitement when it was thought that the Upton-based Broads craft Girl Madge II was one of the doomed Titanic’s lifeboats. It wasn’t.

A photograph c1912 of the "unsinkable" four-funnelled ship the RMS Titanic. Part of the White Star L

A photograph c1912 of the "unsinkable" four-funnelled ship the RMS Titanic. Part of the White Star Line, Titanic sank off Newfoundland on her maiden voyage to the USA after striking an iceberg (14-15/4/1912). 1513 people lost their lives. *02/04/02The SS Titanic. The City of Belfast will pay tribute to the man who designed its most famous ship, the Titanic, Tuesday April 02, 2002. Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers will unveil a plaque at the former home of Thomas Andrews, 90 years to the day that the ship left Belfast for Southampton to begin its ill-fated maiden voyage. Commissioned by the Ulster History Circle, the plaque will be unveiled at the house now occupied by the Irish Football Association at Windsor Avenue in south Belfast. A series of events have been taking place in Belfast as part of a festival to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the launch of the Titanic. 02/12/03: A manuscript which describes the final hours of the Titanic by the most senior officer to survive the sinking was today, being auctioned - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

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Then there was a bizarre twist. I learned that the White Star Line’s senior captain, Charles Bartlett - husband of Yarmouthian Edie (née Ellis, a relative of renowned Norfolk naturalist Ted Ellis) - was dubbed “Iceberg Charlie” because of his knack of “sniffing out” their presence.

He was expected to command the Titanic on her maiden voyage, but boardroom politics resulted in Captain Edward Smith being at the helm for her never-to-be-forgotten sailing.

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So when ex-Yarmouthian Graham Gosling contacted me recently about the possibility of a local man being among the victims, I thanked him politely but was unconvinced.

Graham, now resident in Bury St Edmunds, wrote: “My wife and I recently visited the Sea City Museum in Southampton and saw a very interesting exhibition about the Titanic disaster. Most of the Titanic’s crew had homes in Southampton, but of the others, one was listed as being from Great Yarmouth.

“His name was Thomas King , aged 43 when listed as ‘lost at sea’ in the 1912 disaster. His role on board was master-at-arms. We would be interested to know if you have come across him before, or if Mercury readers may be able to turn up any more information about him.”

An on-line site confirmed that Thomas Walter King (master-at-arms) was born in Yarmouth in 1869, son of local residents Daniel King and Harriet Topps who wed two years before his birth. The family appears to have resided with grandparents in “Market Road”, Yarmouth.

Thomas was a painter but enlisted in the Royal Navy, aged 18, rising from stoker to master-at-arms with an excellent record before being pensioned off. He and his wife had five children at their Kent home, but she died about 1911, and Thomas moved his family to East Ham in London.

He joined Cunard’s Olympic crew, later transferring to the Titanic as one of two masters-at-arms for her maiden voyage, using his mother’s address at North Market Road in Yarmouth. There is no record that his body was recovered after the Titanic struck the iceberg and foundered.

A Yarmouthian who perished in the Titanic disaster? I don’t believe it, I told myself in that Meldrew moment. I am positive that I had never read nor written about it because if I had, I would have remembered.

So I instigated a search of 1912 Yarmouth newspapers to resolve the issue. The result? It revealed a full-page feature in the Mercury as recently as 2001 (published on Friday the 13th - of April)!

I was thunderstruck, as my old Granny would have exclaimed.

Our feature concerned 57-year-old retired gas fitter and former seaman Russell Smith, of Nile Road, Gorleston, embarking on his research after receiving a book about the Titanic as a present.

His inquiries revealed that not only was Thomas King a victim, but that there was another local man who perished on the Titanic: William Alexander, son of John Alexander, of Belvidere Place, Yarmouth, travelling as a third-class passenger and almost assuredly a victim of the iceberg calamity.

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