The grandfather of a Tonbridge woman was saved from almost certain death on board the Titanic when his ticket failed to arrive in the post.
Sue Reeves was passing by an exhibition in Royal Victoria Place in Tunbridge Wells commemorating the tragedy when she told one of the organisers her family’s remarkable story.
Her great aunt, Bertha Moran, who was 32 in 1912, and her brother Daniel, then 27, had returned to their native Ireland to settle the family estate.
Travelling in steerage, they were returning to the United States from Queenstown on the doomed vessel, which was making its maiden voyage as the world’s largest ship, described as ‘unsinkable’.
Bertha, who was christened Bridget, survived but Daniel was one of more than 1,500 who died when the ship sank after hitting an iceberg.
“They were living in New York at the time,” Mrs Reeves related. “He was a mounted police officer while Bertha worked in a large garment factory.
“They had come back to Ireland after the death of my great grandfather in Askeaton, Co Limerick where the family lived, in order to settle the estate.”
She added: “They also came back to collect their brother Patrick, my grandfather, a wildfowler.
“But his ticket had not come in time for the return journey so he was miraculously saved. He lived well into his nineties and still hunted birds.”
Mrs Reeves met her grandfather a couple of times but doesn’t remember him because she was very young. However, her uncle Roger wrote a book about Patrick called Wildfowler.
Mrs Reeves, 52, was born and raised in Tunbridge Wells after her mother Alice came over from Ireland in 1948 as one of the first nurses in the National Health Service – she was trained at Pembury Hospital.
“I never knew Bertha but I’m told she was quite a formidable person,” she said.
“She was interviewed on television in the 1950’s and at the end of the programme the presenter turned to her and said it was normal for guests to donate their appearance fee to charity.
“She apparently told him, ‘I am my own charity’, and put the cheque down her vest. That shows you her character.”
Bertha was transported to St Vincent Hospital in New York, where she complained that steerage passengers had not been allowed on deck until almost all the lifeboats had been lowered.
The 20 lifeboats were only able to accommodate 1,178 people, though there were 2,224 passengers on board, so there was an enormous shortfall for the sole means of escape.
There were only four lifeboats left by the time the Morans reached the deck. Bertha was hoisted into lifeboat 15, but Daniel did not make it because of the ‘women and children first’ instructions.
The circumstances of Bertha’s escape featured in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
In the rush to get away, lifeboat No 15 was lowered just a minute after No 13 had been sent down. The latter became tangled in ropes underneath 15.
As the film portrayed, the tangled ties had to be severed to get the lifeboat out of the way of the one above it above as fast as possible.
Bertha’s was the most heavily laden rescue craft, with around 65 people aboard when it was cast adrift in the sea at 1.41am.
It was the last lifeboat to be rescued by another liner, RMS Carpathia, some six hours later. Daniel’s body was never recovered.
All three siblings might have been spared. They had been booked on the liner Cymric but because of a British coal strike, it was taken out of service and they were transferred to the Titanic instead.
The money they inherited was lost along with Daniel. Bertha moved to Detroit, was widowed twice and had four children. She died aged 77 – on the 49th anniversary of her brother’s death.
Mrs Reeves, a mother of two daughters, remembers that the family were not traumatised by the remarkable tale.
But she admits her grandfather may have born his share of grief and guilt after dodging his fate. “The way the story has been passed down in the family, it was obviously vigorously talked about because it was always so fresh for me,” she says.
“But people didn’t feel sorry for themselves. Life wasn’t like that back then, you just got on with it.
“There was tragedy all around, there was poverty and hunger – especially in Ireland. You just had to live every day and survive.
“However, my grandfather was emotionally well-rounded and he was a kind man, so he must have been affected by it.”
Mrs Reeves herself has been deeply affected by the family saga. “A friend took me to a Titanic exhibition at the O2 in London a couple of years ago and it was a very emotional experience.
“There were two boards with the names of the dead and the survivors. It was the first time I could show someone the names of Bertha and Daniel.”
They never found Daniel’s body. “I thought he might be at the special graveyard site in Nova Scotia, I tried to find out if he was there. But his body was never recovered.”
Interview with exhibition curator can be viewed here