The Post Office Aboard The Titanic

How was the life of posties on board of the most famous ship of all?

On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sunk less than three hours later, killing more than 1,500 people. Amongst the dead were five postal workers, British citizens James Williamson and Jago Smith and US citizens William Gwinn, John March and Oscar Woody.

A very large ship with steam coming out of four columns, moving alongside two smaller boats.

Titanic leaving Southampton – a black and white photographic lantern slide (2012-0126/04)

Not many people know that RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship – at the time though it stood for ‘Royal Mail Steamer’ – indicating that the Titanic was contracted to carry mail. The Titanic had a Post Office and Mail Room deep in the ship on decks F and G, the blueprints below, held by the Postal Museum, shows their position.

A large map on blue paper, with very small details written and drawn on in white.

Blueprints showing the Post Office and Mail Room situated on the RMS Titanic

The five postal workers were tasked with sorting much of the mail which had been brought on board the ship, 3,364 bags in total, as well as dealing with any letters which were posted on the ship by passengers and crew.

Amongst other documents in our collection is a file with copies of letters about the ship inspection on 9th April 1912, the day before the ship sailed. The description sounds way too similar to the partying at lower decks in James Cameron’s film Titanic.

The [sleeping] Cabins are situated among a block of Third Class cabins, and it is stated the occupants of these latter, who are mostly low class Continentals, keep up noisy conversation sometimes throughout the silent hours and even indulge at times in singing and instrumental music…if their [the sorting clerks] work during the day is to be performed efficiently it is essential that they should enjoy a decent sleep at night.

The five postal workers were eventually granted alternative accommodation and permission to dine in a private area.

When the ship struck the iceberg, the postal workers were celebrating Oscar Woody’s 44th birthday. However, they soon realised that the Mail Room was flooding and so attempted to move 200 sacks of registered mail to the upper decks in the hope of saving them. They even forced several stewards to help them, one of whom later recalled:

I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued at their work. It might have been an inrush of water later that cut off their escape, or it may have been the explosion. I saw them no more.

In London, the Post Office had received word that the ship was in danger and became concerned for the wellbeing of the workers and the mails. Ismay Imrie & Co., owners of the White Star Line, sent three telegrams to the Secretary of the Post Office in relation to the matter. So soon after the disaster, the information on these telegrams would later turn out to be incorrect.

A piece of paper with the words: 'Post Office Telegraphs. Secretary General Post Office London. Underwriters have message from New York that Virginian is standing by Titanic and that there is no danger of loss of life. Ismay."

The first telegram sent from Ismay, owners of the Titanic to the Post Office, 1912

A piece of paper with the words: 'Post Office Telegraphs. Secretary Gen Post Office London. Latest word from press agency is titanic proceeding to cape race all passengers transferred presumably to Virginian. Ismay.'

The second telegram about the sinking of the Titanic (POST 29/1395B)

A piece of paper with the words: "Post Office Telegraphs. To Secretary GPO London. Referring telegram yesterday Titanic deeply grieved say that during night we received word steame foundered about 675 souls mostly women and children saved. Ismay.'

The third telegram about the sinking of the Titanic (POST 29/1395B)

A memorial to the five postal workers was built in Southampton, from where the Titanic departed. Part of it reads “Steadfast in peril”. Also, the newspaper St. Martin’s-Le-Grand praised the brave postmen later that year.

A page of a magazine with columnf of text and an illustration of two figures standing beside water. The headline says 'The Postal Clerks of the Titanic'.

Page from St. Martin’s-Le-Grand on the deaths of postmen on the Titanic, 1912

Find out how the mail has been carried by sailing boats, steam ships, ocean liners, rowing boats and even by hovercraft.

– The Postal Museum Team

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