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Titanic Anniversary: Stories of Tragedy and Survival

From a rich philanthropist to ‘The Unknown Child,’ explore the lives of those who are eternally bound by one of the most famous oceanic disasters in modern history.

Titanic Sinking Photo

An artist rendering of the April 15, 1912 sinking of the British luxury passenger liner, the RMS Titanic. (Photo: OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Take a stroll around the scenic waterfront in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and you’ll find cozy restaurants offering local Digby scallops, coffee shops like Canada’s beloved and ubiquitous Tim Hortons, boat tours where you can ignite your own mini canons, and scruffy-looking craftsman adhering to the province’s longstanding tradition of glassblowing.

But 102 years ago, Halifax’s beautiful bustling seaport was turned into a maritime mortuary. On April 17, 1912, two days after the RMS Titanic sunk into the icy-cold abyss of the Atlantic, the cable ship CS Mackay-Bennett left Halifax harbor on a somber journey to start recovering the bodies of those who lost their lives on that fateful night. Along with three other Canadian ships, the CS Mackay-Bennett pulled 328 souls out of the ocean. In total 333 victims were eventually found out of the 1,500 who had died.

Titanic Iceberg Photo

The infamous iceberg that took the Titanic down. (Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Many don’t know that Halifax has an intimate history with the Titanic, as it was the closest major port 700 miles west of the wreckage site. A 10-15 minute cab ride from the harbor sits Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where you’ll discover the final resting place of many of the victims of the Titanic. And then there’s the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which houses a permanent exhibition of the catastrophic event, including personal belongings of those whose lives were lost—most poignantly, two-year-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin’s pair of crumpled up shoes. (Goodwin’s story can be read below.)

Richard MacMichael, Coordinator of Visitor Services and Interpretive Programming at the Maritime Museum, offered us a glimpse of five passengers on the Titanic whose lives are forever bound by one of the most famous and deadliest oceanic disasters in modern history.

SIDNEY LESLIE GOODWIN

Titanic Unknown Child Photo

The gravesite of the ‘Unknown Child,’ who was later to be discovered as Sidney Leslie Goodwin. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

One of the first bodies recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett on Sunday, April 21, 1912 was that of a boy that was estimated to be about two years old. For almost 100 years after his death, he was simply known as the “Unknown Child” and his sad fate has touched people in ways that they cannot fully explain. The crew of the cable ship were so moved by the boy’s death that they not only paid for his memorial out of their own pay, but they also had struck a copper medallion inscribed “Our Babe” that was placed in his coffin. He was buried on May 4, 1912.

Over the years, many people had speculated on the boy’s identity, with other young victims like Gosta Palsson, Eugene Rice, and Eino Panula all being considered. In 2002, an initial though faulty DNA analysis indicated that the boy was in fact, Eino Panula. Subsequent testing, using newer technology has since identified the Unknown Child as Sidney Leslie Goodwin. A formal announcement was made on July 30, 2007, ending almost a century of speculation into one of RMS Titanic’s most enduring mysteries.

Sidney Leslie Goodwin was born on September 9, 1910, the youngest of the six children of Frederick and Augusta Goodwin of Melksham, England. In early 1912, Frederick’s brother, who lived in Niagara Falls, New York alerted Goodwin to positions which were opening at a new power station and the family decided to take the chance. The vessel they had originally planned to sail in was the SS New York but due to a coal strike, she was not ready for her scheduled voyage. They were accordingly transferred to RMS Titanic on a third class ticket. The entire family perished in the disaster, and today Sidney’s grave is a memorial to all of the children who lost their lives in the tragedy. Toys and teddy bears are often left there as a sign of respect. 

Titanic Victims Photo

A boat crew from the Cable Ship Minia retrieving a victim from the ocean. Along with rough waters and dangerous ice, recovery was arduous. (Photo: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

Thanks to the kind generosity of the Northover family, Sidney’s shoes are now on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The shoes were kept by Clarence Northover, a Halifax police officer charged with the disposal of the personal effects of Titanic’s victims. He was never able to fully explain why he kept the shoes, another example of the little boy’s ability to move people who never knew him.

JOHN LAW HUME

One of the most frequently cited stories in any film about the sinking of RMS Titanic is that of the heroic bandsmen who played on as the ship sank. All of the eight musicians in Wallace Hartley’s band lost their lives and two—John Law Hume and John Clarke—are buried in Halifax. John Law Hume, who was better known as Jock was born on August 9, 1890 in Dumfries, Scotland. He had a reputation as a reliable and responsible musician and had played in a number of bands before Hartley hired him to play in the ship’s band for Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The band’s cabins were in second class and all eight were represented by a single ticket number, 250654, which was in keeping with usual shipboard practice. Hume was only 21 when he died. Originally one of the many unidentified dead brought to Halifax, Hume was buried in grave 193 in Fairview Lawn Cemetery. His death is doubly tragic in that his fiancé was pregnant at the time of the sinking and the company which employed the musicians had sent Hume’s father an invoice to pay for his son’s uniform despite the fact that he was dead.

Titanic Halifax Nova Scotia Photo

Bodies recovered from the cable ship Minia land at the Halifax naval dockyard. (Photo: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

In March 2011, Hume’s great niece, Yvonne Hume, published a biography detailing Jock’s life and his fateful voyage aboard RMS Titanic. The book, with a forward by Titanic survivor Millvina Dean, is a memorial to Hume and his fellow bandsmen, as is the memorial erected to his memory in Dumfries. He shares the memorial with Thomas Mullin, a steward who also called Dumfries his home. Despite years of conjecture as to the last tune played by Titanic’s band, the fact remains that these men all stayed to the end, trying to raise the spirits of those aboard the sinking ship.

MICHEL NAVRATIL

If Michel Navratil’s story reads like a cross between a spy thriller and an adventure novel, there is just cause. His is one of the most intriguing of all of the tales told by RMS Titanic and one that reached its finale in a most unusual and unexpected place.

Michel Navratil was born on August 13, 1880 in what is now Slovakia. He moved to France in 1902 and eventually settled in Nice, where he married Marcelle Carreto in 1907. They had two children, Michel and Edmond before their marriage ended in a messy separation in early 1912. Despite Michel Sr.’s endeavors, the boys were awarded to their mother’s keeping. Granted visitation rights for the Easter weekend, he promptly took the boys to Monte Carlo, where they sailed to London. Navratil’s plan was simple: a trip to New York on RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage and a new life in America for him and his sons. He bought three second class tickets and told fellow passengers that he was a widower.

Titanic Survivors Photo

Small survivors: Michel, 4, and Edmond Navratil, 2, were eventually reunited with their mother. (Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

On the night of the sinking, Navratil entrusted his sons to collapsible boat D, but perished when the great liner sank. His was the 15th body recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett. Because Michel was using the alias Louis Hoffman, it was assumed that he was Jewish and was therefore buried in the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Halifax.

Michel and Edmond were cared for by another Titanic survivor, Margaret Hays, a French-speaking first class passenger until their mother Marcelle could make her way to New York. She and her sons were reunited on May 16, 1912. Edmond became an architect and was a prisoner of war in World War II. He passed away in 1953 after years of ill health. Michel Navratil Jr. was a professor of philosophy, and on August 27, 1996, he visited his father’s grave for the first time. On January 3, 2001, Michel, the last of Titanic’s male survivors, passed away at the age of 92.

GEORGE WRIGHT

One of two Haligonians aboard RMS Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage, George Wright was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on or around October 26, 1849. Seizing upon the potential provided by the new medium of telegraphy, Wright used the new technology and his passion for travel to compile a directory of international businesses for use by companies around the world. Wright’s keen business sense resulted in him amassing a huge fortune, but one that he was happy to give away. A noted and much loved philanthropist, he eagerly sought new causes to support, especially those that would improve the lives of those far less fortunate than himself.

His beautiful home on the corner of Young Avenue and Inglis Street was left in his will to the Local Council of Women. Today, the Wright House is still the headquarters for the Halifax Council. He also donated great sums of money to the local YMCA building fund and to many local churches. Two of the buildings he erected on Barrington Street still stand today. The Marble Building and the Saint Paul Building are two of the finest buildings of their era and stand as a testament to George Wright’s vision for Halifax.

Titanic Survivors Photo

Titanic survivors board a tug boat from the liner that rescued them, April 1912. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There is a sense of irony in that the vessel that Wright sailed on to start his European trip in 1911 was the Empress of Ireland, which was to sink in 1914 and which became Canada’s worst maritime tragedy. Wright had learned of the impending maiden voyage of RMS Titanic and booked passage on the new liner to return to Halifax. Wright was known to be a heavy sleeper and likely never awoke during the sinking. His body was never recovered, but today a memorial to the man and his good works stands in a corner of Christ Church cemetery in Dartmouth. Newspapers around the world mourned his loss and celebrated the life of a man for whom a great personal fortune was meant to be shared.

HILDA MARY SLATER

Hilda has the unique distinction of being the only Titanic survivor buried in Halifax. She was born in the city on April 5, 1882 and grew up in one of the fashionable homes on Argyle Street. Her brother also had a unique distinction in that he was the captain of Queen Victoria’s private yacht. Hilda was well travelled and 1912 traveled to Europe to visit friends in both England and France. She was also using the trip to pull together an impressive trousseau prior to her wedding to the Honorable Harry Reginald Dunbar Lacon of Ottley, the son of a British Member of Parliament. Lacon lived on Denman Island off the coast of British Columbia.

Hilda boarded Titanic in Queenstown, Ireland on a second class ticket, sharing cabin with Florence Kelly. For a second class passenger, she was perhaps the one with the most impressive luggage, containing as it did a pretty expensive collection of dresses, including her satin opal and pearl wedding dress, which cost $4,000 dollars.

Titanic Survivors Photo

Relatives eagerly wait to see their loved ones, 167 Titanic crew members, arrive at Plymouth, England on April 29, 1912. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Both Hilda and Florence survived the sinking, but all of Hilda’s luggage was lost in the disaster. There is some discrepancy as to whether she was saved in lifeboat number nine or number 13.

After the sinking, the wedding went ahead as planned on June 1st on Denman Island. Hilda and Lacon had a son, Reginald, who served with distinction in the Royal Navy in World War II. After Lacon’s death, Hilda spent the last years of her life with her son, who lived in Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight. Hilda Mary Lacon died on April 12, 1965, and her body was returned to Halifax to rest in the Slater family plot in Camp Hill Cemetery. While local guides get some odd looks when they start to describe a survivor’s grave, the remarkable story of Hilda’s life is ample compensation for the initial confusion.