by Bronwen Welsh
It was the ship striking the iceberg that woke me up. It was not so much a jolt as a shiver passing through the metal decks and bulkheads. I opened my eyes and stared at the metal ceiling above my upper bunk. I was alone. Toby, who shared the cabin with me was doubtless still in one of the salons, drinking and flirting with any woman who was receptive to his advances. However I had felt a cold coming on and had retired to my bunk early. I lay there for a while wondering what had woken me, and thinking of how I had come to be taking passage on this amazing new ship 'Titanic' to America.
I didn't have a very distinguished academic career at school. I was more interested in the arts, and I had participated in several school plays with some success. It therefore seemed perfectly logical to me when I left school to seek employment in a small theatre company which toured the smaller country towns and cities. My parents urged me to get a 'proper job' but I was perfectly happy despite the meagre salary. As a novice, I was given small parts, and I also helped out in other areas. I was good with my hands and helped to build scenery and also to paint it.
The company moved from town to town, putting on popular plays, for it was important to fill the auditorium for each performance if we were to be paid enough to live on. I loved watching from the wings and learning the craft of acting. As time passed, so I was given slightly bigger parts, but my big chance came in a most unexpected manner.
The company was performing Oscar Wilde's “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Wilde's plays had been shunned after his private life had been revealed in the famous court case which lead to his imprisonment and early death, but in 1911, eleven years after he died, there were some tentative revivals of his work, and their wit and humour was again appreciated. After several weeks of performances in various towns, we had arrived in Reading, ironically where Wilde had spent some time in gaol. Several rehearsals had taken place and all was ready for opening night the following day which would be playing to a full house. I did not have a part in the production, but had watched it night after night in the wings, acting as prompter, and I knew all the parts by heart. I claim no distinction for this, I just happened to have a remarkably good memory for dialogue.
As a small company we could not afford the luxury of understudies, so we walked a knife-edge with each play, and sometimes actors appeared when they were far from well, in order that a performance not be canceled. This particular afternoon I was attending to some minor repairs to the scenery which we took with us from theatre to theatre, when the director Thomas Bird arrived. From the look on his face it was obvious that something was wrong.
“I'm sorry to tell you that Emily has been taken to hospital with appendicitis and therefore there will be no performance tonight unless by some miracle we can find a replacement for her.”
Emily was playing the part of Miss Cecily Cardew, a major character in the play which could obviously not be performed in her absence. On hearing this a shiver of excitement went through my body. Did I dare to speak up? Would Thomas laugh at me? I drew a deep breath and went over to where he was standing alone, a picture of dejection.
“Mr Bird, (this is how I always respectfully addressed him) while I was at school I played several female roles in school plays and was quite well received. I know Emily's part by heart and in this emergency, perhaps I could step in to save cancelling the performance.”
He stared at me with a look of incredulity “Are you serious boy?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
He stood there for a moment looking at me and then said “I know you have a good memory for dialogue, but as for appearing as a convincing young woman....” He paused for what seemed like an age, and then finally made up his mind. “Very well, desperate times require desperate measures. We will have a rehearsal and see how you go. In the circumstances I think you should be dressed as a young woman so that I can see how convincing you are. If I am not convinced, then the performance is cancelled. Jenny our wardrobe mistress is here, so go and see her and ask her to find you something suitable to wear.”
I did as I was told. Jenny was most surprised, but even she knew the importance of opening night, so she told me to step out of my shirt and britches while she found a dress for me to wear. Jenny also doubled as assistant make-up artist, so once I was wearing the dress, she set about making up my face and finding a suitable wig for me to wear.
Once she had finished, she stood back and said “Well I never! Not bad, not bad at all. Now let's see if you can act a woman's part young Edwin, or should it be 'Edwina' now?”
I smiled. None of the company knew of course, but I was perfectly comfortable in woman’s clothes, having dressed up secretly in my elder sister Elizabeth's garments from a young age. I was a slim youth with very little bodily hair and a high tenor voice, and indeed had wished for a long time that I had been born a girl. I walked from the dressing room to the stage, and was very satisfied at the look of Thomas's face when he saw me.
Getting over his surprise he bellowed “On stage everyone, let's begin the rehearsal.”
Other members of the cast who had already been advised that 'Young Edwin' was trying out for the part, smiled encouragingly at me. I knew it wasn't enough to look the part, I had to act it too. The rehearsal began and I was pleased that I remembered the text perfectly. There were some minor issues of where I should move about the stage, but apart from that I felt the rehearsal went very well, but of course it was Thomas who would make the final decision.
He stood there for a moment with a rather grim look on his face, then it broke into a smile and he said “Welcome to the company Cecily.” Everyone cheered and rushed up to congratulate me. Even Thomas gave me a hug and kissed my cheek. I felt a quiver of excitement as he did that.
To cut a long story short, the following day the performance went off without a hitch. Thomas had announced before 'curtain up' that owning to the illness of the original 'Cecily', the part would be played by 'Edwina Stroud'. It seemed that no-one in the audience guessed the true gender of the person playing Cecily, and I received some especially loud cheers as I curtseyed after the performance.
Emily was confined to the hospital for over a week, so it was decided that I would continue to play the part for the two week season in Reading, thus giving her more time to recover. I was extremely sad when I played my last performance of the fortnight. There was a surprise in store for me though. While in hospital it was discovered that Emily, who was married to one of the other actors in the company, was pregnant, and she was advised not to return to the stage before having her baby.
The play was to be performed in Bath next, and as I were packing up the scenery ready for the train trip, Thomas came into the theatre and beckoned me over. We were alone in the auditorium at that moment.
'Oh oh' I thought 'he's found an actress to take over Cecily's role'. To my surprise though he said “I did consider looking for another actress, but then I thought that you are doing the part to well, why bother? That is of course if you wish to continue with the part?”
“Oh yes!” I cried with enthusiasm, and to my total surprise he hugged me and gave me a brief kiss on the lips. I knew I was blushing as he laughed and said “I'm sorry. For a moment there I forgot that you are not a young woman!” This only made me blush the more, but I managed a nervous laugh, and the moment passed.
Early the next year we were concluding our season of 'Ernest' in Edinburgh when at rehearsal on day, Thomas called for silence and said.”I have an exciting announcement to make. An important American producer has attended our performance for two nights in a row, and today he approached me with a proposal. He would like us to tour 'Ernest' through the eastern states of America.”
There was a buzz of excited chatter at this and everyone was in favour of going, myself included. Thomas set about organising our passage, and when he announced that we would be travelling on a new ship the 'Titanic' there was even more excitement. Everyone had heard of this mammoth new ship which had only just been completed, and to be travelling on her, even in second class cabins was something we could never have contemplated even a year previously, but thanks to 'Ernest' the company was now financially sound, and besides, Mr Harms, the American producer was subsidising our fares.
Thomas had approached him with some trepidation on the subject of me playing a a female part , but he laughed and said “You British! I might have known you'd pull a stunt like that. All I suggest is that your lad dresses as a woman full-time while he's in America. Some of the folk there are quite conservative, and they might not get the joke.” I had no idea what 'joke' he was referring to, but did not pursue the matter. I would be dressed as a male while on the ship anyway.
I was thinking about all that had happened as I lay awake after that strange sensation that had awoken me, and was gradually drifting off to sleep again when I heard running footsteps outside the cabin, and raised excited voices. Then the door burst open and Toby rushed in with a wild look in his eyes.
“Get up Edwin! We've struck an iceberg and I overheard some of the crew say we are sinking!”
“Sinking? Surely not! This is a new ship, a big ship, an unsinkable ship. Everybody said so.”
“Unsinkable you may say, but can't you feel she is listing?”
I suddenly realised he was right — the deck was definitely tilted towards the bow.
“Hurry up and get dressed” Toby urged. “Bring a thick coat and your life jacket. Remember it's women and children first and there might not be much room in the lifeboats for men. Oh that's another thing — they reckon there aren't enough lifeboats for everyone.”
Now I really was alarmed. Throwing aside the blankets, I jumped to the cabin floor and hurriedly started dressing. I grabbed my coat and leaving the cabin hurried up to the deck. All around me it was chaos. I stopped one sailor and asked where I could find a lifeboat but he stopped only to say “It's women and children first matey. The likes of us may not get a berth.”
'Not get a berth?'. Now I was really worried. I was only young and I didn't want my life to end in a watery grave. Then I had an idea. Doubtless many people will criticise me and call me a coward or worse, but I turned and hurried back down to my cabin. In view of Mr Harms' suggestion that I should play the part of a female full-time when I arrived in America, I had packed a complete set of female clothes to wear when I disembarked from the ship. Now it appeared that disembarking was to take place much sooner than I thought, so I hurriedly stripped off all my male clothes and started to dress as 'Edwina', first underclothes, a corset and stockings, and then a woollen dress, which I was thankful for since on deck it had been very cold. I slipped on my shoes and set about applying my make-up. I had grown my hair long already since I had been playing Cecily so long and wearing a wig was uncomfortable. I hurriedly styled it and then I was ready. The only thing I lacked was a thick woman's coat.
I grabbed a life jacket and hurried out of my cabin and walked along the corridor which now had a distinct tilt, trying other cabin doors as I did so. The first couple were locked which seemed a pointless exercise in the circumstances, but I found one unlocked and empty. I hurried to the wardrobe but there wasn't a woman's coat there, so I left that cabin and tried the next one. I was finally rewarded on my third try. The lady who had occupied it was obviously of some means, judging by the gowns still hanging up, but it was a thick red woollen coat that was of most interest, and thank goodness it fitted me really well. I put it on and then tied the life-jacket around me and hurried up on deck.
A young sailor saw me, and his response could not have been more different than the sailor I had seen previously.
“Why aren't you already in a lifeboat miss?” he cried. “Here, I'll take you. There aren't too many left.”
With that he grabbed my hand and hurried me along the deck. There was chaos everywhere, and I noticed it was mainly men who were standing there, most of the women and children having been placed in the lifeboats. We arrived at one just as it was about to be lowered into the water, and the sailor called out “Wait! There's one more here.” and I was 'manhandled' I suppose is the right word, into the boat and then it was lowered down the ship's side. There were two sailors in it managing the ropes, and after what seemed an age, we hit the water with a splash. They released the ropes, pulled out some oars and started to pull away from the ship, explaining as they did so that when she finally sank she would create a whirlpool that might drag us down. The lifeboat wasn't full, which troubled me, but I thought that we could pick up some of those in the water.
The sea was quite calm and it seemed surreal to watch a great ship founder in these circumstances but she was well down in the bow by now although the lights were still blazing. Then as we watched she started to list even more until the stern was high in the air and the great propellers were exposed. Then without warning all the lights went out and she plunged downwards and was gone. It was twenty past two in the morning.
We all sat there stunned at what we had seen, and then coming to my senses I said to the sailors “There are people in the water. We must go back and see who we can rescue.”
To my surprise they didn't move.
“What are you waiting for?” I cried.
Finally one of them spoke “If we go back they may overload the lifeboat and we'll all drown.”
“That's ridiculous.” I said — there is plenty of room still.”
Fortunately, others supported me, and reluctantly the sailors got out the oars and started to row back to where the ship had sunk, although still too slowly for my liking. After a while we saw people in the water, but they were not moving and it was obvious they were dead, whether from drowning or hypothermia I didn't know.
“See? They're all dead” said one of the sailors, but then we heard some cries for help.
“Over there!” I cried “They're still alive.”
We reached a group of about six people and the sailors dragged them aboard. There was only a faint light from the lantern, but I gasped when I realised the identity of one of the men.
“Thomas!” I cried. He stared wild-eyed in my direction and slowly made his way over to me, dripping wet and shivering uncontrollably.
“Edwin....a” he said slowly.
I took off my coat and said “Come here — wrap this around you.”
“No” he demurred “You'll catch cold.”
“No I won't — I'm dry and you're soaking wet. I can hear your teeth chattering.”
Reluctantly he accepted my coat and pulled it around him. I was thankful he didn't ask why I was in the lifeboat dressed in woman's clothing — I suppose the reason was obvious, and I was afraid he would have nothing but contempt for me.
Everyone was quiet. What we had seen still seemed like a dream, or perhaps a nightmare.
“Does anyone know if there are ships coming to our rescue?” I asked of no-one in particular.
One of the two sailors said “Distress calls must have been made. We'll be rescued — you'll see.”
We sat there in the cold and I confess I was starting to shiver too, despite the woollen dress I had put on. Thomas put his arm around me and we clung together under the coat.
At about four o'clock someone exclaimed “Look! There's a ship.” It was the Carpathia which had steamed at maximum speed to our location despite the risk of further icebergs after receiving distress calls. It slowed as it approached the lifeboats, all of whom were waving their lanterns to attract attention. Afraid that we would be separated when taken on board I said to Thomas “Can we stay together? You are the only person I know.”
He actually managed a smile and said “Well, if we say you are my wife, we will stay together.”
“Yes please.” I said.
Carpathia lowered rope ladders and we all clambered aboard, the more exhausted survivors being helped by others. More and more of us assembled on deck, and I was later to find out that seven hundred and five of us were rescued while over fifteen hundred were lost.
It took some time to organise, but eventually Thomas and I were allocated a twin berth cabin. We took off our outer garments and climbed into the bunks, totally exhausted. Thomas was asleep in minutes, but I lay awake, wondering what would happen when we arrived in New York. We had no idea if any other members of the company had survived, or even Mr Harms, our American sponsor.
I drifted off to sleep, but some time later I heard Thomas cry out in his sleep. I climbed down from the top bunk. He was apparently asleep, but shivering violently, so while it was a tight squeeze, I slipped into the bunk beside him and wrapped him in my arms. He half woke up and then slowly relaxed and was quiet. Soon I fell asleep too.
I awoke at dawn, and concerned he might be embarrassed, I slipped out of the bunk and climbed back into my own bunk. A couple of hours later I heard his voice “Edwina?”
“I'm here.” I replied.
“I had the strangest dream that you were in the bunk beside me.”
“Well I was.” I replied “But I left a short while ago in case you were embarrassed.”
“After what we went through last night, that would be the least of my worries.” he replied, and I was pleased to see he had not lost his sense of humour.
It took us three days to arrive in New York, for there was still much ice and fog around and then the weather deteriorated with rough seas and some thunder storms. Thomas and I had discussed what we should do, and it was agreed that I should remain being 'Edwina', at least for the time being. The people of New York were very generous, offering to put us up in their homes, but in our circumstances we felt that a hotel might be better, and fortunately Thomas had wired some money from England ahead of our departure for expenses, and he was now able to access it.
We went to the office of Mr Harms company, but they had no news of him, or indeed any other members of our company. It appeared we were the sole survivors. We then went to the hotel that Thomas had booked. When we entered our room, he stopped, embarrassed and said “I asked them for twin beds and they have given me a double. I'm so sorry, I'll ask for another room.”
I knew I was blushing deeply, when I said “It doesn't matter to me if it is alright by you.”
He turned and looked at me “Of course not. It's what I would prefer, but I did not dare to ask you. You must know my feelings for you, I surely have not been able to hide them.”
I took his hand and said “And in turn you must know how I feel about you, but I was too afraid to say anything.” And with that we kissed properly for the first time.
That night was our first real night in bed together, and it was a night I'll never forget. At one point as we lay in each others arms, Thomas said to me “I found out by talking to others in the lifeboat that I owe my life to you. You were the one who insisted the sailors row back to look for survivors.”
“Others insisted too” I protested.
“Maybe they did, but you were the one who spoke up first and encouraged them. I don't think I could have survived many more minutes in that freezing water.”
“Well you are here now and alive, and that's all that matters.” I hesitated and then said “When you saw me in the lifeboat and how I was dressed, did you feel contempt that I had deceived the crew in order to get a place?”
“But you didn't deceive the crew at all,” he answered. “From that moment when I saw you dressed as a woman to audition for the Cecily part in 'Ernest' I knew that you were no youth acting the part of a woman, but that you were a woman. I realised at that moment too that I loved you.”
We then discussed what we would do. With all the other cast members gone, the play was out of the question. It seemed likely too that our sponsor had not survived. Should we take the next ship back to England, or should we stay in America for a while? Staying had the advantage that no-one knew us here, and back in England it would be awkward if we wanted to stay together. We had both sent wireless telegrams to our families to let them know we had survived. Thomas had his mother as his only close relative, and I had my parents and two sisters, but now we had let them know we were alive there was no urgency in returning. Indeed there was every reason to stay where we were.
Thomas had enough funds for us to buy some new clothes, and the stores we went to were most generous when they learned we were survivors from the Titanic and either reduced their prices or refused our money altogether. But the money wouldn't last indefinitely, so we needed some source of income. We wanted to do something together,and in the end we rented a property in New Jersey and opened it as a boarding house. It was very successful and in time we had sufficient funds to buy our own larger property which we ran for many years. I delighted in being Thomas's wife. He was my world and my happiness was in being with him. In turn I knew that he adored me, and what woman doesn't want that?
The lure of the stage did not leave us, and in due course we joined a young and enthusiastic semi-professional company who were only too happy to accept us with open arms. We were always called upon to play English characters of course, and some years later Thomas finally directed "The Importance of Being Earnest" on American soil. This time I played the elderly Lady Bracknell, and uttered that classic line "A handbag??" in rising tones of outrage and incredulity - it always generated one of the biggest laughs of the night.
We did finally make a return trip to England but it was after my parents had died. We stayed with my sister Elizabeth and her husband. They had three adult children. After much thought and fearing her response, I had finally written to her and revealed how I had been living since arriving in America. To my surprise and relief she was very accepting, and admitted that she had always felt I was very feminine as a boy, so it was not a total surprise. Her children accepted me as 'Aunty Edwina', and that was such a joy to me.
Thomas was nearly twenty years older than me and he died five years ago. The boarding house seemed so empty after he was gone, despite the constant stream of boarders. Many was the night I cried myself to sleep in the empty bed. Eventually I sold up and decided to return to England. It's strange how we tend to think that when we leave a country behind it somehow becomes locked in time and will be the same when we return, and of course it never is. My family were warm and welcoming, but they had their own lives to lead and I felt it was unfair to make too many demands on their time. I had rented a small furnished cottage, but again the evenings and nights were so lonely. Eventually I realised that my home was really in America where I had many friends, so I explained this to my sister and her children, and once more I crossed the Atlantic — this time for good.
I have been very fortunate in my life and even gained a certain notoriety as have all the other Titanic survivors. It's strange that certain disasters capture the public imagination, such as the loss of the 'Hindenberg' airship where thirty five passengers died. Many more people have lost their lives in other disasters, yet for some reason they are not remembered. The Titanic's loss is never far from the public consciousness, perhaps partly because several films have been made about it.
When in England I developed a particularly close relationship to my niece Clare, and I have decided that I will post to her this account of my life with strict instructions that she not open it until after I have passed. She might get quite a surprise, but then I will not be around if she is displeased. I leave it to her whether she decides to make the contents more widely read.
Footnote: My name is Clare Wilson and the above memoir was sent to me by my Aunt Edwina then living in America. I abided by her instructions not to open it in her lifetime, and I put the envelope in a box with other papers and to be honest, in time I forgot about it.
She died in 1987, and it was only recently that while clearing out the attic, I checked through the contents of a box and rediscovered the envelope. As she predicted, I was indeed surprised at her story, but she will always be 'Aunt Edwina' to me, one of the nicest and kindest persons I have ever met. I hope I get a chance to visit her grave one day. I know she is buried with Thomas, the love of her life.
With the one hundredth anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, I looked around for somewhere to publish her reminiscences where they might find a sympathetic audience, and discovered this site which I think is most appropriate. I hope you find them interesting.
Author's note: Rumours persist that one or more men secured places in lifeboats by pretending to be women. On-line searches are contradictory on this point and it's probably too late for the truth to ever be known. As to whether Edwin/Edwina was entitled to a place as Thomas thought, or should have stayed on board and probably drowned, I leave to the reader to decide for themselves. What is known beyond doubt is that there were insufficient lifeboats on 'Titanic', and due to lack of training and drills, and the resulting general confusion, many lifeboats were only half-full when lowered into the sea. As a result, many were lost who could have been saved.
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