Tracing your ancestors… on the RMS Titanic

The RMS Titanic, just a few days before she sank.

100 years ago today, the RMS Titanic set sail from the English port of Southampton, completing the first leg of a journey which would never be completed. Less than five days later, the largest ship in the world at the time went down in the icy waters of the Atlantic, causing the death of over 1,500 men, women and children, the largest maritime disaster up till then. Only a handful of shivering survivors were left bobbing in their lifeboats, awaiting the all-too-late arrival of help.

John Jacob Astor and his second, pregnant wife Madeline were the richest people on the ship. He perished; she survived, and ultimately remarried.

The Titanic was carrying mostly British and American citizens, but there were many other nationalities to be found among the ship’s exclusive settings -for even the 3rd class passengers enjoyed the latest craze in creature comforts, like running water, freshly pressed bedsheets and electricity, which would not available in their households. There were Irishmen, Spaniards, Scandinavians, East Europeans, Lebanese, Frenchmen and even Chinese and Argentines on board, among many others. To their attending crew, it must have seen like a true tower of Babel.

But have you ever wondered whether you had an ancestor on the Titanic? Are there any stories in your family about anyone related to you who may have been on the ill-fated ship? Perhaps you need to start digging…

A rather sensationalist and inaccurate portrayal of the sinking shortly after the sinking, depicting the ship directly ramming an iceberg. Note that the exact death toll was still unknown.

Theoretically, it should be easy to find a complete and definite list of all those who were on board the Titanic during her maiden voyage. The truth, however, is far less pleasing. Confusion exists over the real number of people on the Titanic during her maiden voyage,  fact reflected on the contradictory numbers of those who perished. This is explained by the fact that the US Senate enquiry used the white Star passenger list which recorded the names of those who bought tickets, but not of those who necessarily boarded the ship at Belfast, Southampton, Cherbourg or Queenstown (Cobh). On the other hand, the British Board of Trade lists were based on the list signed by Captain E.J. Smith himself. The trouble is that Captain Smith signed the list on April 9th 1912, before the passengers had even got on the ship, and besides, it only recorded the names of those who boarded at Southampton and Queenstown; no official lists exist of the people who actually boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg or Belfast. These small yet important details make stories like that Elias Johannesen Engesaeter possible. Ensegaeter was a Norwegian who bought a ticket to travel to New York, but had to cancel his crossing due to a case of appendicitis. White Star Line was unaware of why he had missed his ship, and consequently assumed he had drowned on April 15th, as he was not among the survivors picked up by the Carpathia. Engesaeter’s bewildered family were astonished to receive the news that their son had drowned, while he was actually recovering from his operation. But anyway, the differences in sources might lead you down the wrong trail, so make sure you double check your sources before making any definite statements.

The Goodwins from Wiltshire were among those families whose members all perished in the sinking.

Shockingly, there isn’t even a definite figure as to how many people died on that terrible night, one century ago, but you can always turn to other sources to check whether your relative was among the dead. Thus far, the list (and annexed biographies, photos and sources) available on Encyclopedia Titanica has proven the best unique source of definite passengers who boarded Titanic on her maiden voyage, but you may wish to consult the book Who sailed on the Titanic? The definitive Passenger List, by Debbie Beavis (2002), for more information.

A handful of Titanic survivors remained on little lifeboats for several hours, until they were picked up by the Carpathia.

If checking a list does not help, you might want to check the Titanic relief fund, which granted weekly stipends to dependants of victims of the disaster. You may also consult the Minute Book of the Titanic Disaster Fund Committee, which are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. If your relative was a crew member, he probably resided in Southampton at the time of the sinking; it may be worth checking the local Relief Fund Committee documents, guarded at the Southampton City Archives.

Memorials are also a way of confirming if someone in your family died on the Titanic. Ironically, until very recently there was no single memorial which was dedicated to all those who perished. Instead, most memorials at the time across the world and particularly on both sides of the Atlantic were put up in memory of a small group of the deceased, whether they were the band players, or members of a particular village, for example. It wasn’t until 1993 that the British Titanic Society unveiled a memorial to all Titanic passengers and crew who perished. It is located at Dock Gate 4, only feet away from the spot where Titanic sailed, one hundred years ago today.

For more details, I recommend the very interesting article published this month on Family Tree magazine, The disaster that shook the world, by Catherine Green. Happy reading!

The Titanic, as it looks today.

This entry was posted in Argentina, Death, Emigration, England, Famous Genealogy, France, Genealogy, Ships, Spain, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Tracing your ancestors… on the RMS Titanic

  1. Charlotte huey says:

    I have fox, blaney , Stanley and painter in my family tree. I often dream of the titanic …I’m 26 yes old… Often wonder were they my ancestors

  2. Robert Jones says:

    Born 1949 Liverpool. Male members have a long connection woth the ses. Now live in Soutb Wales UK.

  3. Details required re Hugh Walter McElroy says:

    Hugh Walter McElroy – a relative – can you please give me any details of where he came from etc

  4. Don Nix says:

    My great grandfather worked for white star line as an able body seaman. He worked on the Olympic and was later sent over to the titanic for its maiden voyage. He was in charge of one of the sixteen lifeboats. His name was Albert Horswill.

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