TORONTO – They survived the sinking of the Titanic but once they came ashore, some Canadians found themselves in a new kind of trouble.
In the recently published book “RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage,” Toronto author and historian Hugh Brewster focuses on first-class passengers, including several high-profile Canucks, who were on the doomed maiden voyage of the White Star steamer that sank 100 years ago this April 15.
Among them was famed Guelph, Ont.-raised fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon, who escaped on a lifeboat that had only 11 people in it and â€” like most of the emergency crafts â€” failed to go to the aid of those in the water. Gordon’s husband was also with her in what was later dubbed “the millionaire’s boat” and was wrongfully accused of bribing crewmen so they would keep quiet about what had happened.
“It ruined her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon â€” ruined his life. He was hounded as a coward forever,” Brewster, an editor and publisher, said in a recent interview at his Toronto home.
“Class antagonisms in England were running high after the disaster, and the fact that the lord and lady had escaped when all these other people had drowned, it became a real scandal.”
Toronto industrialist Arthur Peuchen was also among the many male survivors who were vilified for getting into a lifeboat and escaping the sinking ship.
“In Toronto there are stories of people calling out on the street, ‘Peuchen, you bastard,’ for having survived the Titanic,” said Brewster, 61, who grew up near Duff Gordon’s home in Guelph.
“I remember meeting an older gentleman years ago who knew Jessie, Peuchen’s daughter, and he said the family was always under a cloud because he’d survived the Titanic, which was very unfair.”
A champion yachtsman, Peuchen offered to get into the lifeboat because he felt his expertise on the water would be helpful, not because he was trying to make a sneaky getaway, noted Brewster.
“Also at that time, people didn’t really think the ship was going to sink. They thought the rescue would come by morning, so it wasn’t like he was skedaddling. It was quite a brave act.”
Brewster has edited and compiled material for several books on the liner, including “The Discovery of the Titanic” and “Titanic: An Illustrated History,” which James Cameron referenced while making his epic film on the ship. He also co-wrote the books “Inside the Titanic” and “882Â½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions About the Titanic,” and his Toronto Life article on Peuchen won a National Magazine Award.
In “Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage,” Brewster includes an astounding amount of detail as he outlines the first-class passengers’ lives before, during and after the tragedy. He also runs down the socio-economic and political issues surrounding the wreck.
According to Brewster, about 100 Canada-bound passengers were onboard all three classes of the Titanic. In first class there were 34 Canadians and in second class there were 10.
Because most women in first class boarded lifeboats, only two Canadian men from that section survived â€” Peuchen and real-estate businessman Albert Dick of Calgary.
Canadian men in first class who didn’t survive included Harry Markland Molson, a member of the famous brewing family and director of the Molson’s bank in Montreal; Winnipeg real estate tycoon Mark Fortune; and Ottawa railway president Charles Hays.
Other Canuck victims include a trio of bachelors known as the “Three Musketeers”: John Hugo Ross of Winnipeg, Vancouver’s Thomas McCaffry, and Thomson Beattie of Fergus, Ont., who wrote to his mother that they were “coming home in a new, unsinkable boat.”
“Interestingly enough, Thomson Beattie from Fergus was the last body ever recovered from the Titanic,” said Brewster, whose other books include “The Other Mozart” and “On Juno Beach.”
“He floated off in a half-submerged lifeboat and it was discovered about a month later and his hair was all white from salt.”
Brewster said part of the fascination with the Titanic lies in the notion that its demise could have been avoided.
“All the ‘If onlys,'” he said. “If only they’d slowed down, if only they’d seen the iceberg, even minutes ahead of time. They almost missed it, just by seconds. Maybe if it had hit the iceberg straight on, as many people theorize, … the ship would have survived because the first four watertight compartments actually could be sealed off.”
And if only ego and arrogance hadn’t been involved.
“That’s one of the reasons it haunts us to this day, but then you look at the Costa Concordia and it was the same thing, really,” said Brewster, referring to the luxury cruise ship that hit a rocky reef off the Tuscan coast in January, killing 32 people.
“It’s probably our most cited metaphor for human folly.”