Memories of the Titanic sinking from P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

This past week marked the sinking of the Titanic luxury liner off Canadian shores as it was travelling from Britain to New York. More than 1,500 people died on that fateful night after the ship hit an iceberg.

It was the talk of Prince Edward Island for weeks

The luxury liner Titanic was lauded in 1912 as unsinkable.

This past Thursday marked the sinking of the Titanic luxury liner off Canadian shores in 1912 as it made its maiden voyage from Britain to New York.

More than 1,500 people died on that fateful night after the ship, which was was said to be unsinkable, hit an iceberg. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

Adelaide Hamm was born in 1902 and raised on a farm in Bunbury (now part of Stratford), at a time when there were only six farms in Bunbury. She remembers the Titanic going down, and said the sinking was big news all around the world for weeks. 

"I remember I'd hear my parents reading about it in the paper, about it going down and all the people that were lost," Hamm said. 

My mother's sister was living in London, and she was one of the sewing maids for the old Queen Victoria.— Gwen Powell Edwards

Enid Birch of Birchill and Summerside was 11 and said she "clearly" remembered the news of what happened. 

"Word of mouth first," is where Birch said she heard it, followed by newspaper reports. "Oh it was the talk of everyone, people were shocked, It was supposed to be unsinkable." 

Kathleen Cameron of Summerside was born in 1897, and was 15 when the Titanic sank. "Terrible disaster, just awful," she recalled. 

Jennie MacLean of Port Hill and Summerside remembers a narrow escape by one of her neighbours, a Scottish woman who had married a local man named Hugh Ellis. She was scheduled to cross on the Titanic, MacLean said, but changed her mind. 

'It was dreadful'

Gwen Powell was born in 1903, so she was 10 when her sister Annie Powell sailed on the Titanic. 

One of Gwen Powell Edwards's sisters survived the sinking of the Titanic. Another sister settled in P.E.I. (Dutch Thompson)

She said she doesn't remember a lot about it, except that information about the incident was scarce. 

"I was about 10, and of course we weren't allowed to read the papers or listen to any talk, mother and father never allowed us to do that," she said.

"It was dreadful. And on a Sunday! We hadn't got to do a blooming thing. Not clean our shoes or do nothing!… All we were allowed to do was look after the animals. Father would do the milking on a Sunday, the only day of the week he did it." 

Gwen and Annie were two of 10 siblings — Gwen was the baby and lived the longest. Her eldest sister Edith was 26 years older than she was.  

Here's the P.E.I. connection: one of the Powell sisters, Alice, became a church missionary, and met her husband Archie Birtwhistle in Western Canada where he was a North-West Mounted Police officer. They fell in love, married and moved to Prince Edward Island. Archie became well-known around Charlottetown as a colourful character, later nicknamed "The Chief" since he was chief of police for many years. 

Wealthy employers aboard the Titanic

The Powells were not well-to-do. Mr. Powell worked in a quarry and also farmed. Like so many rural British families, finding work was hard, so the children often went into service — boys in the army, girls as domestic servants such as butlers, gardeners and house maids for the upper classes. 

The Titanic remains on the ocean floor off Newfoundland and Labrador, where it sank after striking an iceberg in 1912. (NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island )

Once one family member was established in a well-to-do family's household, they often created opportunities for other family members. And that's what happened with the Powells.

"Oh there was no jobs 'round here, they all had to go away. My mother's sister was living in London, and she was one of the sewing maids for the old Queen Victoria," Gwen said. Her sister Edith was recruited, but didn't enjoy sewing, so Annie tried it, and liked it. 

"And that's how she came to be a ladies' maid" for a wealthy family travelling on the Titanic, Gwen said. 

Child sent ahead on lifeboat

Annie survived the sinking but didn't talk much about it, Gwen said. 

Gwen later married, and became Gwen Edwards and lived in Kington, in Herefordshire, England.  

Adelaide Hamm grew up in Bunbury, which was then a very rural community, where Stratford is now. She remembered her parents reading aloud from the newspaper about the Titanic sinking. (Dutch Thompson)

Annie did say the lord and lady who employed her put her and their little girl in a lifeboat, but the couple themselves drowned. 

Annie continued transatlantic travel in service to various employers after the sinking, making the crossing 14 more times, Edwards said.

The eldest Powell child, Jack, fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Another sibling fought in both world wars, and was awarded a medal for being the first British soldier to set foot in France in the First World War.  

Another brother went to the gold rush in Yukon and was killed in a gold mine, and another went to New Zealand and made his fortune in sheep farming.

Halifax is 1,100 kilometres west of the spot where the ocean liner sank, and ships were sent from Nova Scotia to recover bodies.

Families came to claim the remains of their loved ones, and funerals and memorial services followed for weeks. Altogether, 150 of the Titanic's dead are buried in three Halifax cemeteries, and many artifacts from the ship can be seen today at the Maritime Museum on the waterfront. 

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