By Doug Draper, with information and photos courtesy of Linda McKellar
For the rich and famous, it was a ticket to a joyride on “the ship of dreams.”
For many others, it was a chance to begin what they hoped would be a new and better life in America. Then there were those who worked aboard this most luxurious of liners, many of them at the sweatiest and dirtiest of jobs.
Among those who made up these latter two groups were Elizabeth Mellenger and her 13-year-old daughter Madeleine, both second class passengers from London, England and on their way to work for the wealthy Colgate family in New York, and Albert Ervine, an 18-year-old crew member from Belfast, Ireland who worked in the engine room – all of whom have links, either directly or indirectly, to Niagara, Ontario, and all whose names would become etched in history, 100 years ago this April aboard the RMS Titanic.
Elizabeth and Madeleine were among the 713 survivors when the Titanic, on its maiden voyage, sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. They are both now buried where they lived some of their later years in the Fort Erie, Ontario community of Ridgeway. Albert was among the 1,503 men, women and children who did not, and members of his family, including some living in and in the same community of Ridgeway, have helped breath life into his name on the lists of Titanic victims.
Thanks to Linda McKellar, a Ridgeway resident and a Titanic history buff who has, over the years, collected some information and images of Elizabeth, Madeleine and Albert, Niagara At Large is able to share the following brief accounts of their stories.
McKellar crossed paths with Madeleine, who had married David Mann, a banker from nearby Welland, Ontario, some four decades ago when she was about the same age Madeleine was when she boarded the Titanic on April 10, 1912 in Southampton, England. Madeleine, or “Mrs. Mann” as McKellar called her, had stopped to listen to her play the bag pipes and they spoke for a few minutes, but McKellar says she “did not have the sense” at the time to ask her any questions about her harrowing experience over what remains one of the world’s most famous ships.
Yet it was that encounter that later inspired McKellar’s fascination in the Titanic story which she first read about in “A Night To Remember,” Walter Lord’s 1950s best seller about the sinking of the ship which was based on accounts by Madeleine and numerous other survivors. McKellar also talked to the owners of a store Madeleine frequented in Ridgeway and where she shared stories with the owners about how huge the ship was and about the how “everything was new – the sheets, the china and even the paint smell.”
In an account Madeleine later shared with reporters in Toronto, where she lived for a time with her family, she was “enchanted by the intricate woodwork and the elegantly dressed people. The ladies long, heavy skirts swept the decks as they strolled. Even their second-class cabin was beautiful”
Then 20 minutes before midnight on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg, awakening Madeleine and her mother in that cabin and a short time later they heard knocks on their door from a steward. “Get up! Put on warm clothes and hurry up on deck with life jackets,” the steward said. They boarded a half empty lifeboat that was rowed away as the Titanic’s bow slipped slowly beneath the ice-cold water.
“I could see the lights of the ship starting to go under water,” Madeleine recalled in a 1974 Toronto Star interview of what she witnessed from the life boat. “Then soundlessly, perhaps a mile away, it just went down. It was gone (and) oh yes, the sky was very dark and the stars were very bright. They told me the people in the water were singing, but I knew they were screaming.”
After the ship went down, and with the sound of people who did not manage to get on one of the Titanic’s too few lifeboats, Madeleine and her mother were transferred from their partially filed boat to another so that one of the ship’s officers could go back and search for anyone who might still be alive in the water. He found Titanic’s second officer, Charles Lightoller blowing a whistle on an overturned lifeboat with several others clinging to it. A freezing Lightoller was hauled aboard the boat Madeleine and Elizabeth were on and, according to The Star story, Elizabeth gave him her cape to help keep him warm.
Lightoller later gave Elizabeth his silver whistle as a momento which she kept until she died in 1962. Madeleine later passed the whistle on to Walter Lord as a gift for his years of chronicling the stories of those who lived and died, and it is now on exhibi, along with Elizabeth”s cape< in a maritime museum in Greenwich, England. While her mother reportedly said little about the Titanic during her lifetime, Madeleine continued to share her recollections until she died in 1976.
The lights that Madeleine and her mother continued to see shining from the Titanic, even as it began sinking were kept lit by those on the crew, including assistant electrician Albert Ervine, who volunteered to stay at their posts to keep the power going for as long as possible for the lights, the pumps and wireless system used to send distress signals to other ships that might be close enough to make a rescue. The story of Albert and his comrades, who are believed to have bought enough time before the ship disappeared at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912 to save hundreds of the 713 who made it onto lifeboats, has been dramatized in a documentary broadcast on CBC television called ‘Saving The Titanic’.
McKellar found out about Albert’s story years ago after going to the same school in Ridgeway with Debbie and Linda Ervine, the daughters of Albert’s nephew Clement, who kept what records he could get on it during his lifetime. Among those records is one last letter Albert wrote to his mother on April 11, 1912 before the Titanic left the British shores for the journey across the ocean to New York.
“We have had everything working nicely so far, except when leaving Southampton,” said Albert in the letter. “As soon as the Titanic began to move out of the dock, the suction caused the Oceanic, which was alongside her berth, to swing outwards, while another liner brock loose altogether and bumped into the Oceanic. The gangway of the Oceanic simply dissolved.”
Albert went on to say this about the ship that was being billed in the media of the day as “unsinkable” – “This morning we had a full dress rehearsal of an emergency. The alarm bells all rang for ten seconds, then about 50 doors, all steel, gradually slid down into their places, so that water could not escape from any one section into the next. … So you see, it would be impossible for the ship to be sunk. …”
Five days later, the Titanic was history and Albert’s body was never recovered. Whether he and the others who volunteered to stay behind, none of whom survived, still wanted to believe the ship would somehow stay afloat or that, at the very least, a rescue ship like the Carpathia (which eventually picked up Madeleine and Elizabeth) would get to the Titanic on time to save them, remains a question. It was far more clear several decks above them, where the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews had done his own assessment that the collision with the iceberg had allows the flooding of too many of the Titanic’s watertight compartments to keep the ship afloat.
The documentary ‘Saving The Titanic’ is well worth viewing if or when CBC airs it again in the days ahead because this film, unlike so many others that tend to focus on the upper class passengers, finally gives crew members working with the boilers, engines and generators down in the bottom of the ship their just due. You may wish to continue checking the listings for repeat dates and times for this moving documentary.
Niagara At Large also wishes to remind readers of this post that this past April 5 we posted a story about another Titanic survivor Neshan Krekorian, who went on to settle in the Niagara, Ontario city of St. Catharines. If you are interested in the Titanic tragedy and you have not yet seen that story, scroll down the posts on Niagara At Large’s main page at www.niagaraatlarge.com until you reach the headline ‘The Story Of One Of Niagara’s Titanic’s Survivors’.
(Niagara At Large welcomes our readers to share their comments on this post below, remembering that we only posts comments by individuals who also share their first and last names. If you have any Titanic stories with a link to the greater Niagara area, including communities across the border in Erie and Niagara counties, New York, we also welcome you to share them here or to email us the story to email@example.com.)