Shared by ship survivor Charlotte Collyer, it explains that she and her family — like many others on board — were coming to America to make a new life. Instead of a fresh start, they played a role in a tragedy that shook the world.
After you read this harrowing tale, take a look at the sad follow-up from Mrs Collyer and her 8-year-old daughter Marjorie, explaining what happened after they finally made it to the United States.
How I was saved from the Titanic: A Titanic survivor’s story
by Charlotte Collyer, Survivor of the Titanic
A survivor of the most dramatic marine disaster in the world’s history — told exclusively to readers of the San Francisco Call’s semi-monthly Magazine Section
Of the many shocking things that I remember in connection with the lost Titanic, there is one impression that will never leave me. It is the irony of the faith that I had in the big ship. “She is unsinkable,” I had been told, “she is the safest boat afloat.”
I had never been on an ocean voyage, and I was afraid of the sea. But I listened to the people who said: “Take the new Titanic. She can not come to any harm. New inventions have made her safe; and then, the officers will be extra careful on her first trip.”
That sounded as if it must be true; and so Harvey, my husband, and our eight-year-old daughter, Marjorie, and I decided to go to America that way. Marjorie and I are here, safe, but we are alone. For my husband was drowned, and with the Titanic there went to the bottom of the Atlantic all that we had in the world.
A Titanic survivor tells: Our story before the Titanic
I must first tell how we came to leave England. We lived in Bishopstoke, a little village near Southampton, Hampshire. My husband kept a grocery store; in fact, although only thirty-five years old, he was the principal grocer in the village and was liked by all the neighbors.
He was clerk of the parish, by which I mean that he was that member of the church vestry who helped the vicar to keep his accounts, to fill on marriage licenses, birth certificates, and so forth. He was also in charge of our chime of bells, which are more than one hundred years old, and are thought to be among the best in England.
Some friends had gone a few years before to the Payette Valley, in Idaho. They had bought a fruit farm, and had made a success of it. They wrote us wonderful accounts of the climate, and advised us to join them.
We did not think that we would go; but last year my health began to get very poor — my lungs are weak — and in the end, we made up our minds to sell our business, and to buy a farm in the same valley where our friends had settled. I can never forget that it was for my sake, and for the sake of Marjorie, that my dead husband decided to do this. He would have been better off in England.
The day before we were to sail, our neighbors in Bishopstoke made much of us. It seems as if there must have been hundreds who called to bid us goodbye; and in the afternoon, the members of the church arranged a surprise for my husband. They led him to a seat under an old tree in the church that they knew.
It took more than an hour, and he was very pleased. But, somehow, it made me a little sad. They gave the solemn old tunes, as well as the gay ones, and to me it was too much of a farewell ceremony. Why cannot people help those who are going away to forget that they are leaving behind the things that they hold dear? It is a question that I often ask myself.
The next morning, we went to Southampton; and there my husband draw from the bank all his money, including the sum we had received for our store.
It came to several thousand dollars in American money, and he took all it all in banknotes. The clerk asked him if he did not want a draft [check]; but he shook his head and put the notes in a wallet which he kept, to the end, in the inside breast pocket of his coat.
We had already sent forward the few personal treasures that we had kept from our old home so that, when we went on board the Titanic, our every earthly possession was with us.
We were traveling second cabin, and from our deck, which was situated well forward, we saw the great send-off that was given to the boat. I do not think there had ever been so large a crowd in Southampton, and I am not surprised that it should have come together.
The grand ship Titanic
The Titanic was wonderful, far more splendid and huge than I had dreamed of. The other craft in the harbor were like cockle-shells beside her, and they, mind you, were the boats of the American and other lines that a few years ago were thought enormous.
I remember a friend said to me, just before visitors were ordered ashore: “Aren’t you afraid to venture on the sea?” But now it was I who was confident. “What, on this boat!” I answered. “Even the worst storm couldn’t harm her.”
Before we left the harbor, I saw the accident to the New York, the liner that was dragged from her moorings and swept against us in the channel. It did not frighten anyone, as it only seemed to prove how powerful the Titanic was.
I don’t remember very much about the first few days of the voyage. I was a bit seasick, and kept to my cabin most of the time.
But on Sunday, April 14, I was up and about. At dinnertime, I was at my place in the saloon, and enjoyed the meal, though I thought it too heavy and rich. No effort had been spared to serve even to the second cabin passengers on that Sunday the best dinner that money could buy.
After I had eaten, I listened to the orchestra for a while; then, at perhaps nine o’clock, or half-past nine, I went to my cabin.
I had just climbed into my berth when a stewardess came in. She was a sweet woman, who had been very kind to me. I take this opportunity to thank her; for I shall never see her again. She went down with the Titanic.
“Do you know where we are?” she said pleasantly. “We are in what is called The Devil’s Hole.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“That it is a dangerous part of the ocean,” she answered. “Many accidents have happened near here. They say that icebergs drift down as far as this. It’s getting to be very cold on deck, so perhaps there’s ice around us now!”
She left the cabin, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Her talk about icebergs had not frightened me; but it shows that the crew were awake to the danger. As far as I can tell, we had not slackened our speed in the least.
It must have been a little after ten o’clock when my husband came in and woke me up. He sat about and talked to me, for how long I do not know, before he began to make ready to go to bed.
And then, the crash!
Titanic survivor tells of striking the iceberg
The sensation, to me, was as if the ship had been seized by a giant hand and shaken once, twice; then stopped dead in its course. That is to say, there was a long backward jerk, followed by a shorter forward one. I was not thrown out of my berth, and my husband staggered on his feet only slightly.
We heard no strange sounds, no rending of plates and woodwork; but we noticed that the engines had ceased running. They tried to start the engines a few minutes later; but, after some coughing and rumbling, there was silence once more. Our cabin was so situated that we could follow this clearly.
My husband and I were not alarmed. He said that there must have been some slight accident in the engine room, and at first, he did not intend to go on deck. Then he changed his mind, put on his coat and left me. I lay quietly in my berth with my little girl, and almost fell asleep again.
In what seemed a very few moments, my husband returned. He was a bit excited then. “What do you think!” he exclaimed. “We have struck an iceberg, a big one; but there is no danger. An officer just told me so.”
I could hear the footsteps of people on the deck above my head. There was some stamping, and queer noises as if ship’s tackle was being pulled about.
“Are the people frightened?” I asked quietly. “No,” he replied. “I don’t think the shock waked up many in the second cabin, and few of those in the saloons have troubled to go on deck. I saw five professional gamblers playing with some of the passengers as I went by. Their cards had been jerked off the table when the boat struck; but they were gathering them up, and had started their game again before I left the saloon.”
This story reassured me. If those people at their cards were not worried, why should I be? I think my husband would have retired to his berth without asking any more questions about the accident, but suddenly we heard hundreds of people running along the passageway in front of our door. They did not cry out; but the pattering of their feet reminded me of rats scurrying through an empty room.
I could see my face in a mirror opposite, and it had grown very white. My husband, too, was pale; and he stammered when he spoke to me. “We had all better go on deck, and see what’s wrong,” he said.
How a Titanic survivor escaped the ship
I jumped out of bed, and put over my nightdres, a dressing gown and then an ulster. My hair was down; but I hurriedly tied it back with a ribbon. By this time, although the boat had not made any progress, it seemed to have tilted forward a little.
I caught up my daughter, Marjorie, just as she was, in her nightgown, wrapped a White Star cabin blanket around her, and started out of the door. My husband followed immediately behind. Neither of us took any of our belongings from the cabin; and I remember that we even left his watch lying on his pillow. We did not doubt for an instant that we would return.
When we reached the second-cabin promenade deck, we found a great many people there. Some officers were walking up and down, and shouting: “There is no danger, no danger whatever!”
It was a clear starlight night, but very cold. There was not a ripple on the sea. A few of the passengers were standing by the rail, and looking down; but I want to say that, at that time, no one was frightened.
My husband stepped over to an officer — it was either Fifth Officer Harold Lowe or First Officer Murdoch — and asked him a question. I heard him shout back:
“No, we have no searchlight; but we have a few rockets on board. Keep calm! There is no danger!”
Our party of three stood close together. I did not recognize any of the other faces about me, probably because of the excitement. I never went near the first-cabin promenade deck, so did not see any of the prominent people on board.
Danger aboard the Titanic
Suddenly there was a commotion near one of the gangways, and we saw a stoker come climbing up from below. He stopped a few feet away from us. All the fingers of one hand had been cut off. Blood was running from the stumps, and blood was spattered over his face and over his clothes. The red marks showed very clearly against the coal dust with which he was covered.
I started over and spoke to him. I asked him if there was any danger.
“Dynger!” he screamed, at the top of his voice. “I should just sye so! It’s ‘ell down below. Look at me! This boat’ll sink like a log in ten minutes.” [Sic, in a supposed Irish dialect.]
He staggered away, and lay down, fainting, with his head on a coil of rope. And at that moment I got my first grip of fear — awful, sickening fear. That poor man with his bleeding hand and his speckled face, brought up a picture of smashed engines and mangled human bodies.
I hung on to my husband’s arm, and although he was very brave and was not trembling, I saw that his face was as white as paper. We realized that the accident was much worse than we had supposed; but even then I, and all the others about me of whom I have any knowledge, did not believe that the Titanic could go down.
The officers now were running to and fro, and shouting orders. I have no clear idea of what happened during the next quarter of an hour. The time seemed much shorter; but it must have been between ten and fifteen minutes, I saw First Officer Murdoch place guards by the gangways, to prevent others like the wounded stoker from coming on deck.
How many unhappy men were shut off in that way from their one chance of safety I do not know; but Mr Murdoch was probably right. He was a masterful man, astoundingly brave and cool. I had met him the day before, when he was inspecting the second cabin quarters, and thought him a bulldog of a man who would not be afraid of anything.
This proved to be true; he kept order to the last, and died at his post. They say he shot himself. I do not know.
Confusion and clamoring
Those in charge must have herded us toward the nearest boat deck; for that is where I presently found myself, still clinging to my husband’s arm, and with little Marjorie beside me. Many women were standing with their husbands, and there was no confusion.
Then, above the clamor of people asking questions of each other, there came the terrible cry: “Lower the boats. Women and children first!” Someone was shouting those last four words over and over again: “Women and children first! Women and children first!”
They struck utter terror into my heart, and now they will ring in my cars until I die. They meant my own safety; but they also meant the greatest loss I have ever suffered — the life of my husband.
The first lifeboat was quickly filled and lowered away. Very few men went in her, only five or six members of the crew, I should say. The male passengers made no attempt to save themselves. I never saw such courage, or believed it possible. How the people in the first cabin and the steerage may have acted, I do not know; but our second-cabin men were heroes. I want to tell that to every reader of this article.
The lowering of the second boat took more time. I think all those women who were really afraid and eager to go had got into the first. Those who remained were wives who did not want to leave their husbands, or daughters who would not leave their parents. The officer in charge was Harold Lowe. First Officer Murdoch had moved to the other end of the deck. I was never close to him again.
Mr Lowe was very young and boyish-looking; but, somehow, he compelled people to obey him. He rushed among the passengers and ordered the women into the boat. Many of them followed him in a dazed kind of way; but others stayed by their men. I could have had a seat in that second boat; but I refused to go. It was filled at last, and disappeared over the side with a rush.
There were two more lifeboats at that part of the deck. A man in plain clothes was fussing about them and screaming out instructions. I saw Fifth Officer Lowe order him away. I did not recognize him; but from what I have read in the newspapers, it must have been Mr J Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the line.
The third boat was about half full when a sailor caught Marjorie, my daughter, in his arms, tore her away from me and threw her into the boat. She was not even given a chance to tell her father good-bye!
“You, too!” a man yelled close to my ear. “You’re a woman. Take a seat in that boat, or it will be too late.”
The deck seemed to be slipping under my feet. It was leaning at a sharp angle; for the ship was then sinking fast, bows down. I clung desperately to my husband. I do not know what I said; but I shall always be glad to think that I did not want to leave him.
A man seized me by the arm. Then, another threw both his arms about my waist and dragged me away by main strength. I heard my husband say: “Go, Lotty! For God’s sake, be brave, and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat.”
The men who held me rushed me across the deck, and hurled me bodily into the lifeboat. I landed on one shoulder and bruised it badly. Other women were crowding behind me; but I stumbled to my feet and saw over their heads my husband’s back, as he walked steadily down the deck and disappeared among the men. His face was turned away, so that I never saw it again; but I know that he went unafraid to his death.
His last words, when he said that he would get a seat in another boat, buoyed me up until every vestige of hope was gone. Many women were strengthened by the same promise, or they must have gone mad and leaped into the sea.
I let myself be saved, because I believed that he, too, would escape; but I sometimes envy those whom no earthly power could tear from their husbands’ arms. There were several such among those brave second cabin passengers. I saw them standing beside their loved ones to the last; and when the roll was called the next day on board the Carpathia, they did not answer.
Lowering the lifeboats full of Titanic survivors
The boat was practically full, and no more women were anywhere near it when Fifth Officer Lowe jumped in and ordered it lowered. The sailors on deck had started to obey him, when a very sad thing happened.
A young lad, hardly more than a schoolboy, a pink-cheeked lad, almost small enough to be counted as a child, was standing close to the rail. He had made no attempt to force his way into the boat, though his eyes had been fixed piteously on the officer.
Now, when he realized that he was really to be left behind, his courage failed him. With a cry, he climbed upon the rail and leaped down into the boat. He fell among us women, and crawled under a seat. I and another woman covered him up with our skirts. We wanted to give the poor lad a chance; but the officer dragged him to his feet and ordered him back upon the ship.
He begged for his life. I remember him saying that he would not take up much room; but the officer drew his revolver, and thrust it into his face. “I give you just ten seconds to get back on to that I ship before I blow your brains out!” he shouted. The lad only begged the harder, and I thought I should see him shot as he stood.
But the officer suddenly changed his tone. He lowered his revolver, and looked the boy squarely in the eyes. “For God’s sake, be a man!” he said gently. “We’ve got women and children to save. We must stop at the decks lower down and take on women and children.”
The little lad turned round and climbed back over the rail, without a word. He took a few uncertain steps, then lay face down upon the deck, his head beside a coil of rope. He was not saved.
All the women about me were sobbing; and I saw my little Marjorie take the officer’s hand. “Oh. Mr Man, don’t shoot — please don’t shoot the poor man!” she was saying; and he spared the time to shake his head and smile.
He screamed another order for the boat to he lowered; but just as we were getting away, a steerage passenger, an Italian, I think, came running the whole length of the deck and hurled himself into the boat. He fell upon a young child, I found out afterward, and injured her internally.
The officer seized him by the collar, and by sheer brute strength pushed him back on to the Titanic. As we shot down toward the sea, I caught a last glimpse of this coward. He was in the hands of about a dozen men of the second cabin. They were driving their fists into his face, and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth.
As a matter of fact, we did not stop at any other deck to take on other women and children. It would have been impossible, I suppose. The bottom of our boat slapped the ocean, as we came down with a force that I thought must shock us all overboard. We were drenched with ice-cold spray; but we hung on, and the men at the oars rowed us rapidly away from the wreck.
A view of the iceberg and the damage
It was then that I saw for the first time the iceberg that had done such terrible damage. It loomed up in the clear starlight, a bluish-white mountain quite near to us.
Two other icebergs lay close together, like twin peaks. Later, I thought, I saw three or four more; but I cannot be sure. Loose ice was floating in the water. It was very cold.
We had gone perhaps half a mile when the officer ordered the men to cease rowing. No other boats were in sight, and we did not even have a lantern to signal with. We lay there in silence and darkness on that utterly calm sea.
I shall never forget the terrible beauty of the Titanic at that moment. She was tilted forward, head down, with her first funnel partly underwater.
To me, she looked like an enormous glow-worm; for she was alight from the rising water line, clear to her stern — electric lights blazing in every cabin, lights on all the decks and lights at her mast heads. No sound reached us except the music of the band, which I seemed, strange to say, to be aware of for the first time.
Oh, those brave musicians! How wonderful they were! They were playing lively tunes, ragtime, and they kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence.
At that distance, it was impossible to recognize anyone on board, but I could make out groups of men on every deck. They were standing with arms crossed upon their chests, and with lowered heads. I am sure that they were in prayer.
On the boat deck that I had just left, perhaps fifty men had come together. In the midst of them was a tall figure. This man had climbed upon a chair, or a coil of rope, so that he was raised far above the rest. His hands were stretched out, as if he were pronouncing a blessing.
During the day, a priest, a certain Father Byles, had held services in the second-cabin saloon; and I think it must have been he who stood there, leading those doomed men in prayer. The band was playing “Nearer My God to Thee” — I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.
The very end
It came with a deafening roar that stunned me. Something in the very bowels of the Titanic exploded, and millions of sparks shot up to the sky, like rockets in a park on the night of a summer holiday. This red spurt was fan-shaped as it went up; but the sparks descended in every direction, in the shape of a fountain of fire. Two other explosions followed, dull and heavy, as if below the surface.
The Titanic broke in two before my eyes. The fore part was already partly under the water. It wallowed over and disappeared instantly. The stern reared straight on end, and stood poised on the ocean for many seconds — they seemed minutes to me.
It was only then that the electric lights on board went out. Before the darkness came, I saw hundreds of human bodies clinging to the wreck or leaping into the water. The Titanic was like a swarming bee-hive, but the bees were men, and they had broken their silence now. Cries more terrible than I had ever heard rang in my ears.
I turned my face away, but looked ’round the next instant, and saw the second half of the great boat slip below the surface as easily as a pebble in a pond. I shall always remember that last moment as the most hideous of the whole disaster.
Many calls for help came from the floating wreckage, but Fifth Officer Lowe told some women who asked him to go back that it would certainly result in our being swamped.
I believe that some of the boats picked up survivors at this time; and I was told afterward by more than one trustworthy person that Captain E J Smith of the Titanic was washed against a collapsible boat and held on to it for a few moments.
A member of the crew assured me that he tried to pull the Captain on board, but that he shook his head, cast himself off, and sunk out of sight.
For our part, we went in search of other lifeboats that had escaped. We found four or five, and Mr Lowe took command of the little fleet. He ordered that the boats should be linked together with ropes, so as to prevent any one of them from drifting away and losing itself in the darkness. This proved to be a very good plan, and made our rescue all the more certain when the Carpathia came.
He then, with great difficulty, distributed most of the women in our boat among the other craft. This took perhaps half an hour. It gave him an almost empty boat, and as soon as possible he cut loose, and we went in search of survivors.
I have no idea of the passage of time during the balance of that awful night. Someone gave me a ship’s blanket, which served to protect me from the bitter cold; and Marjorie had the cabin blanket that I had wrapped around her. But we were sitting with our feet in several inches of icy water.
The salt spray had made us terribly thirsty, and there was no fresh water and certainly no food of any kind onboard the boat. The sufferings of most of the women, from these various causes, was beyond belief.
The worst thing that happened to me was when I fell over, half fainting, against one of the men at the oars. My loose hair was caught in the rowlock, and half of it was torn out by the roots.
I know that we rescued a large number of men from the wreckage; but I can recall clearly only two incidents.
Not far from where the Titanic went down, we found a lifeboat floating bottom up. Along its keel were lying about twenty men. They were packed closely together, and were hanging on desperately; but even the strongest were so badly frozen that, in a few moments more, they must have slipped into the ocean.
We took them on board, one by one, and found that of the number, four were already corpses. The dead men were cast into the sea. The living groveled in the bottom of our boat, some of them babbling like maniacs.
A little farther on, we saw a floating door that must have been torn loose when the ship went down. Lying upon it, face downward, was a small Japanese. He had lashed himself with a rope to his frail raft, using the broken hinges to make the knots secure.
As far as we could see, he was dead. The sea washed over him every time the door bobbed up and down, and he was frozen stiff. He did not answer when he was hailed, and the officer hesitated about trying to save him.
OLD NEWS STORY: Liner Titanic strikes iceberg, sinking head down (1912)
“What’s the use?” said Mr Lowe. “He’s dead, likely, and if he isn’t there’s others better worth saving than a Jap!”
He had actually turned our boat around; but he changed his mind and went back. The Japanese was hauled on board, and one of the women rubbed his chest, while others chafed his hands and feet. In less time than it takes to tell, he opened his eyes.
He spoke to us in his own tongue; then, seeing that we did not understand, he struggled to his feet, stretched his arms above his head, stamped his feet, and in five minutes or so had almost recovered his strength. One of the sailors near to him was so tired that he could hardly pull his oar.
The Japanese bustled over, pushed him from his seat, took the oar, and worked like a hero until we were finally picked up. I saw Mr Lowe watching him in open-mouthed surprise.
“By jove!” muttered the officer. “I’m ashamed of what I said about the little blighter. I’d save the likes o’ him six times over, if I got the chance.”
The Carpathia saves survivors
After this rescue, all my memories are hazy until the Carpathia arrived at dawn. She stopped maybe four miles away from us, and the task of rowing over to her was one of the hardest that our poor frozen men, and women, too, had had to face.
Many women helped at the oars; and one by one the boats crawled over the ocean to the side of the waiting liner. They let down rope ladders to us; but the women were so weak that it is a marvel that some of them did not lose their hold and drop back into the water.
When it came to saving the babies and young children, the difficulty was even greater, as no one was strong enough to risk carrying a living burden. One of the mail clerks on the Carpathia solved the problem. He let down empty United States mail bags. The little mites were tumbled in, the bags locked, and so they were hauled up to safety.
We all stood at last upon the deck of the Carpathia, more than six hundred and seventy of us; and the tragedy of the scene that followed is too deep for words.
There was scarcely anyone who had not been separated from husband, child or friend. Was the lost one among this handful of saved? We could only rush frantically from group to group, searching the haggard faces, crying out names and endless questions.
No survivor knows better than I the bitter cruelty of disappointment and despair. I had a husband to search for, a husband whom, in the greatness of my faith, I had believed would be found in one of the boats.
He was not there; and it is with these words that I can best end my story of the Titanic. There are hundreds of others who can tell, and have already told, of that sad journey on the Carpathia to New York.
Friends in America have been good to us, and I intend to follow our original plan. I shall go to Idaho, and make a home in the new world of the West. For awhile I thought of returning to England, but I can never face the sea again. And besides that, I must take my little Marjorie to the place where her father would have taken us both. That is all I care about — to do what he would have had me do.
* * *
After Charlotte and Marjorie Collyer both survived the sinking of the Titanic, they completed their journey to Idaho. However, it was soon apparent that the heart had gone out of their move, and the mother and daughter soon returned to England.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of their woes. In 1914, Charlotte succumbed to tuberculosis. Marjorie grew up and married, but before she died in 1965 at age 61, she had been widowed, and her only child died young.
In 1955, she wrote of life post-Titanic, “Since that time I have been blessed with bad luck and often wonder if it will ever give me a break, but it just seems to be my lot…”
READ THIS NEXT: Follow-up: Titanic survivor Charlotte Collyer (1912)