Titanic Valour: The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe

Titanic Valour: The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe

by Inger Sheil

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The first biography of Welsh hero Harold Lowe, the only officer to return in a lifeboat for Titanic survivors

I have never prided myself upon being a prophet, but of this I am positive: When the Titanic disaster has become a matter of history, Harold G. Lowe will occupy the hero's place.

– Sheriff Joseph E Bayliss,


The first biography of Welsh hero Harold Lowe, the only officer to return in a lifeboat for Titanic survivors

I have never prided myself upon being a prophet, but of this I am positive: When the Titanic disaster has become a matter of history, Harold G. Lowe will occupy the hero's place.

– Sheriff Joseph E Bayliss, Sergeant at Arms to the United States Senate

20 May 1912


Harold Lowe, Fifth Officer of RMS Titanic, was described by another survivor as "the real hero of the Titanic." After taking an active role in the evacuation, Lowe took command of a raft of lifeboats, distributing passengers among them so he could return to the wreckage and look for survivors—the only officer to do so. He succeeded in raising a sail, rescued the drenched inhabitants of a sinking lifeboat, and towed another boat to safety. Lowe had a long and fascinating life at sea. The tragic sinking of the Titanic was only the most notorious incident in a career that took him as a 15-year-old runaway to the coast of West Africa and into action in Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Titanic historian Inger Sheil has worked closely with Lowe's family to compile a gripping biography of this heroic Welshman.

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The History Press
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Titanic Valour

The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe

By Inger Sheil

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Inger Sheil
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7770-1


'Where Are You Bound?'

Composed and apparently fearless in the face of loud and threatening voices, Hannah Lowe rode into the crowd that surrounded John Wesley. The mob had every intention of stoning the preacher for the crime of delivering a sermon out of doors. This practice faced bitter opposition in these early days of Methodism, and encounters between the evangelicals and their opponents often led to more than a clash of words. Hannah, distant great-aunt of a Titanic officer, was no stranger to this threat of mob violence; her father, George Lowe, was one of Wesley's staunchest supporters and had helped him establish chapels in Chester. Now Hannah stood as the only obstacle between the angry local men and the target of their wrath. An accomplished equestrienne, she placed her horse and herself between Wesley and the riotous throng and surveyed them coolly.

'The first stone at the preacher will come through me,' she announced.

The crowd, nonplussed at first, distracted, lost its purpose. It gradually dispersed under Hannah's watchful eye, leaving Wesley unharmed. Or so ran the legend.

Nestled in the shadow of the Welsh mountain Cader Idris, by the mouth of the river Mawddach, Barmouth remains today much as it was in previous centuries. The picturesque community is one of the towns and hamlets girdling a stretch of the coast in the thin border between the hills and the sea. Said to be the seat of Idris the Giant, legend has it that anyone sleeping overnight on the mountain will awake either a madman or a poet. The town's buildings extend in tiers up the lower slopes, the natural barrier to the inland emphasising the sea alone as the sustainer of Barmouth's people, from the once-thriving shipwrights and fishermen, to the bed-and-breakfast trade today.

Barmouth had been home to a busy shipbuilding industry. In the mid-eighteenth century it was counted asone of the major ports of Wales, but by the 1840s two major factors converged to ensure its decline. The development of Porthmadoc to the north as a shipping centre, and the emergence of the railway in coastal transport and trade combined to radically alter the town's economic base.

The railway worked both ways. Although the town's history as a sea bathing resort dated to 1766, for the first time holidaymakers from industrial centres inland could avail themselves of easy access to the coast. The Barmouth of the second half of the nineteenth century adapted to a seasonal influx of holidaymakers.

The small resort town's natural beauty, where even the buildings seem hewn out of the grey stone of the hills, may be what drew George Lowe. His artist's eye must have seen the bare-canvass potential of ocean, estuary and clouded mountain peaks. He would paint these scenes many times in the years to come. George Lowe, from the line of fearless Hannah Lowe, selected a site on the southern approach to the town, a patch of land halfway up the hill with views far inland along the Mawddach estuary. The land dropped away sharply where he would build a house for his family, straight down to the estuary, with ready access to the river and tidal flats that fringed the Irish Sea. With walls several feet thick in places to withstand the Welsh winters, the house was substantial inside, being some three storeys over a basement. It was named Penrallt, Welsh for 'House on the Slope'.

Harold Lowe was born, raised and died in Wales. His family origins, however, were neither Welsh nor Celtic, although his ancestors came from just over the Marches in Cheshire, England. The legend was that they could trace their ancestry to one of William the Conqueror's men, Hugh D'Avranches, better known to history as Hugh Lupus, Hugh the Wolf.

He had been made Earl of Chester in 1069 for his part in suppressing the rebellious Welsh. To the Welsh he was Hugh Vras – 'Hugh the fat' – whose gluttony made him so obese that he could hardly walk. Yet it was also said that, fat or no, he also fathered a number of illegitimate children.

Harold Lowe's faith in the family's connection with the waddling, swaddling Earl of Chester would be demonstrated through his use of a heraldic device – the snarling wolf – that signified Hugh Lupus. But the first firm foundations for his line can be traced to 1589 when the Lowes were simple farmers at Guilden Sutton, Cheshire. Their connection with farming continued until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when George Lowe (1738–1814), father of Hannah Lowe, became a successful miller and flour dealer. A Freeman of Chester, his sons George and Edward became a silversmith and clockmaker respectively. The thread of these occupations passed down through generations, and for over a century the Lowes found their calling as skilled artisans.

George Edward Lowe was born in Chester on 20 April 1848. It was the year of revolutionary upheaval in Europe; appropriate for the boy who would grow up to be somewhat unconventional. It had seemed that he would follow in the footsteps of his father, his earliest described profession being that of goldsmith or jeweller and watchmaker. There is some suggestion that the family cultivated artistic connections; the 1881 census listed a young artist, Walter Deken, as a visitor to the Lowe household. George Lowe was of a somewhat flamboyant, even bohemian character, and rather than continue the family tradition of metalwork and clockmaking, he was drawn to painting, and oils in particular. Yet for many years he would continue to list his occupation as 'jeweller and watchmaker', being a member of the family firm of Lowe & Sons, with shops in Chester, Llandudno and Liverpool.

George met Emma Harriet Quick when he was working in the Liverpool shop. Harriet, as she preferred to be known, was a local girl, born in Liverpool on 24 March 1856, the youngest of Anne Theresa and Thomas Lethbridge Quick's four children. Thomas Quick was a district police superintendent, a comparatively new occupation. The 'New Police' had only been formed in 1836 as a result of Robert Peel's Municipal Corporations Act (1835), which also gave rise to the popular colloquialism 'peelers'. Thomas, originally from Merton in Devonshire, had served with the Metropolitan force before being reassigned to the Liverpool dock force. He saw lively service in the early days of the Liverpool police, when rows and riots were almost a daily occurrence on the docks. The dock force was later amalgamated into the town force, and he was appointed a borough superintendent. He was a man of considerable personal courage, in keeping with his occupation, and it is recorded that he once imperilled his life to save men trapped in a burning building. His wife Anne, whose parents were of some means, was a Liverpool girl. A brief, elusive description of her 'loving heart and constant tenderness' is virtually all that survives of her reputation; she predeceased her husband.

Hannah grew up with her siblings Thomas, Elizabeth and Robert at the police station in Olive Street where they lived with the Bridewell keeper, his family and several servants. The children could not help but be aware of the cast of characters that came and went in the station: the innocent, the unfortunate, and the denizens of Liverpool's underworld. There was early tragedy in Hannah's life; her mother had already passed away when her father, who had suffered from heart disease for years, suffered a stroke in mid-1867 resulting in partial paralysis. On 4 December 1867 he suffered another stroke and passed away at their home in Everton, where the family had moved following his retirement. There was more sorrow to come when Thomas' oldest child and namesake, banker's clerk Thomas Lethbridge Quick Junior – fifteen years older than Harriet – began exhibiting what were diagnosed as the symptoms of insanity. The younger Thomas died of phthisis on 7 August 1872, barely a month after his admission to the Ashton Street Lunatic Asylum.

Hannah remains a rather elusive figure, beyond such shadowy details as her preference for her middle name. How she met and became enamoured of George Lowe remains obscure, but on 6 June 1877, when she had just passed her twenty-first birthday, Harriet married her charming beau. Initially they set up house in Llandudno, North Wales, with a single maidservant. Their son George Ernest Lowe, first of what was to be a large family, was born in 1878. A daughter, Ada Florence, followed in 1879. In 1882 George and Harriet – now pregnant with their third child – moved into George's father's home, 'Bryn Lupus', in Eglwysrhos, a stepping-stone to Barmouth.

It was in his grandfather's home that Harold Godfrey Lowe was born on 21 November 1882. The date and place of birth are established beyond doubt, but for a time in his life the future Titanic officer was either uncertain or dissembling these details. As late as 1910 some documents would record his year of birth as 1883, and the place as Liverpool.

Although they left Bryn Lupus while he was still a baby, the name of his grandfather's home struck a family chord. The name 'Bryn Lupus' translates as 'Wolf Hill'. Many years later, after his own retirement, Harold Lowe had stained-glass panels set into the door of his home with the slavering wolves of Hugh D'Avranches.

The young family moved more than once in these early years of Harold's life. By 1884, George, now describing himself as simply an 'artist', had set up residence with Harriet and brood at Bronwen Terrace, Harlech. Between Portmadoc in the north and Barmouth to the south, Harlech had prospered around a castle, built by England's Edward I as part of a ring of fortresses intended to subdue the rebellious Welsh.

The Lowe family continued to expand with rapidity. Another daughter, Annie May, was followed by Edgar Reginald, born on 20 September 1884. Harold and Edgar's proximity in age – just two years – was reflected in their closeness as they grew up. Both were fated to go to sea.

First there was Barmouth. By 1893 George Lowe took his family on their final move, to Penrallt, the House on the Slope, scene of an idyllic childhood on the edge of Tremadoc Bay.

Tremadoc had a fierce reputation. In March 1893 the SS Glendarroch, out of London for Liverpool, ran aground on St Patrick's Causeway. The Barmouth lifeboat successfully rescued all the crew, as it would again just five weeks later when the ketch Canterbury Bell was wrecked in identical circumstances.

In 1895 the causeway almost claimed the four-masted barge Andrada that was beached for several days. In August that year the Barmouth and Pwllheli lifeboats laid out anchors from the stranded barque Kragero when she ran aground in rough seas and a southwesterly gale.

The boy Harold Lowe, like other residents of Barmouth, would have been well aware of these dramatic incidents and rescues. He was learning the perils of seafaring, while also becoming fired and inspired by the actions of ordinary men in lifeboats facing grave personal danger to save the lives of others.

Although the heyday of Barmouth as a centre for shipping was over, coastal ships and tramps still arrived with regularity. Nautical themes entered George Lowe's work, and subjects such as the coaster SS Dora featured in his paintings. For the Lowe boys, the sea was both an educator and an entertainer. In time, it would become a livelihood. In years to come it would also take a cruel toll on the Lowe family and it never ceased to be an integral part of their lives.

Lessons in the crafts of the sea began early, with long hours spent along the river, the estuary and out to sea, fishing. The oldest boy, George Junior, used his punt to carry people across the river Mawddach. His younger brothers tagged along and would come to know his circle of friends, the other boatmen who worked the same trade.

Visitors who took to the boats or indulged in sea bathing were not always water wise, and the estuary and seafront were hazardous. Tuesday 7 August 1894 saw Barmouth in the full swing of the summer season. Visitors poured into the resort, took walks up in the hills to the Panorama lookout, and hired boats on the Mawddach. Pleasure-seekers and townsfolk alike were shocked out of the holiday mood when the estuary, living up to its dangerous reputation, claimed several lives in the worst accident in the collective memory. A party of visitors, members of the National Home Reading Unit, hired three local boats to take them up the estuary to Bontddu, and then planned to return with the outgoing tide.

One boatman refused to hire his boats to the party as he felt the tides were too dangerous. Another, William Jones, required considerable persuasion before agreeing to take out his boat out. One of the other vessels was in the charge of a local boatman, Lewis Edwards, while a third group was led by Oxford University student Percival Gray, who felt himself accustomed enough to rowing. Several of Gray's friends intended to accompany the group, but felt that the river was too rough and the wind too strong. More than one boatman on the quay advised them not to go.

The party arrived safely upriver in spite of a strong out-flowing tide. On the return, with the wind blowing fiercely enough to dislodge the hats on the heads of two of the men in Jones' boat, a wave caught the craft broadside on and instantly capsized her. Jones was able to swim ashore to commandeer another boat, the Pearl, for rescue work. On his return to the site, he managed to pull five of his seven passengers into the boat.

Of the other two boats, Lewis Edwards was able to safely land his passengers ashore. He then journeyed to the Pearl, where one of the women pulled from the water had already succumbed to hypothermia. Searching for the third boat, the men heard screams from the far off mid-river.

About a mile from the scene of the original mishap they found a woman, Miss Packer, clinging to a seat in the water. There were no other survivors from her vessel, that commanded by the student, Gray.

Robert Morris, one of the rescuers, described what they found:

I saw the body of a lady. She was dead. I lifted her up, and with help placed the body in the boat. We saw the body of another lady, dead, and in the river, and carried it to the boat. Ten yards further we saw a body of a gentleman. We fetched another boat and near this boat there was the body of another gentleman, and we put it in the boat.

We crossed the river to help Lewis Edwards to carry the bodies of another gentleman and a lady. Then William Jones saw the body of another lady in the water, and we placed it in the boat. We waited until the police came there. We had seven bodies.

The county coroner convened an inquest the following afternoon. George Lowe Senior, Harold's father, was appointed jury foreman. In his presence eight men were placed in one of the boats to test its seaworthiness and evidence was collected from the boatmen, survivors and those who had decided not to join the fatal expedition.

After 40 minutes' deliberation, George Lowe returned the jury's verdict. They found that each of the total of ten dead had been drowned though the swamping of a boat. They made several recommendations concerning the number of passengers to be carried in boats, the inclusion of a skilled boatman in each craft, and called for an inspector to warn people of the danger they incurred in boating on the estuary under conditions like those on the day of the accident.

The jury was unanimous in commending the actions of Jones after the accident, and of Edwards in landing his passengers and returning to assist. The details of the events that took place that summer day, the tragic deaths and the attempts of the boatmen to rescue the victims, would have a profound effect on the small community. Whether or not George Lowe discussed in any detail the evidence he had heard with his family, Harold was old enough to have heard for himself the mixture of facts and rumours surrounding what had happened out on the Mawddach.

The lives of George Lowe and his family were to be even more directly touched by a boating accident the following year. With Christmas just past and the New Year still to come, at teatime on Friday 27 December 1895, George Lowe Junior took his punt from where it was moored in Aberamffra Bay across the mouth of the estuary to Penrhyn Point, and then crossed back to Aberamffra. Later that evening, at about 5.30, he left the house to secure the punt, apparently in 'good health and good spirits'. What happened next is a matter of conjecture.

The evidence submitted at the coroner's inquest suggests that he missed his footing as he descended the quay to get into the punt and was pitched into the sea. Unlike his younger brother Harold, boatman George could not swim. His sister Ada raised the alarm between 9 and 10 p.m. The family first searched the grounds of Penrallt, and going down to Aberamffra could see the punt in what seemed its usual position. As the Lowes continued their late-night search through the town, one of George's friends had an eerie experience.


Excerpted from Titanic Valour by Inger Sheil. Copyright © 2012 Inger Sheil. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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