This month is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, so it seems like a good time to focus on the disaster and in particular, on what happened to some of the children who were on board the doomed ship.
The main characters in my historical novel, The Titanic Detective Agency, were both real-life passengers aboard the doomed ship. 12-year-old Bertha Watt was travelling in 2nd Class with her mother and 14-year-old Johan Cervin Svensson was voyaging alone in 3rd Class. Researching Bertha and Johan’s experiences on Titanic was fascinating, but there were so many incredible stories to tell, and I couldn’t fit them all in the book!
Here’s what happened to four young Titanic survivors.
One of the 3rd Class passengers who survived on that terrible night was Jamilah Niqula Yarid, aged 14. She and her younger brother Ilyas had to use their own initiative and courage to survive the disaster.
Jamilah Niqula Yarid
Jamilah and Ilyas had boarded the ship at Cherbourg. Their father wasn’t allowed to travel as he had an eye infection, so the children were unaccompanied by an adult. On the night of the disaster, the two children were struggling to find a way to access the lifeboats and bravely decided to climb an external iron ladder all the way from the lower decks to the Boat Deck.
Ilyas Niqula Yarid
By the time the children completed their terrifying ascent, most of the lifeboats had gone, but thankfully, they were grabbed by a gentleman on deck, reputedly John Jacob Astor, and thrown into Collapsible Lifeboat C (both Bruce Ismay and Billy Carter’s father were in this lifeboat). Once they reached New York on board RMS Carpathia, Ilyas and Jamilah were looked after by their older brother Isaac until their father was able to travel to the USA.
Another child survivor, William Thornton Carter, was travelling in very different circumstances but had his own challenges on the night of the disaster. Billy, aged 11, was a 1st Class passenger aboard Titanic and was travelling in the height of luxury with his parents, older sister Lucile, three servants and his dog, an Airedale terrier.
On the night of the sinking, the boy was devastated when he was informed he’d have to leave his dog behind, and never got over the loss of his beloved pet. Then, while Billy and his mother were waiting to get into a lifeboat, a steward announced “No more boys!” Immediately, Billy’s mother took off her large hat and placed it on her son’s head. After the disaster, Billy’s mother filed for divorce, claiming unfairly that her husband had got on a lifeboat before ensuring his family was safe.
While Billy’s mother was determined to save her son during Titanic’s sinking, Ruth Becker’s mother was a little careless with her daughter’s safety! Ruth, whose father worked as a missionary in India, was travelling in 2nd Class with her mother and two younger siblings, Marion and Richard. While the family waited on deck for a lifeboat, Ruth’s mother Nellie became worried when she saw that the younger two children were shivering in the cold. She told Ruth to go back down to their cabin and get some blankets. While Ruth was doing as she was told, an officer on deck noticed little Marion and Richard and threw them into a lifeboat. Nellie got into the lifeboat with the children and it was beginning its descent down the side of the ship when Ruth arrived back on deck with the blankets. Luckily, Ruth was able to get on to another lifeboat and was reunited with her mother and siblings on RMS Carpathia.
Albion House, Liverpool - when news of the disaster reached the offices of the White Star building, officials were too afraid to leave the building and instead they read the names of the
dead from the balcony
Of course, tragically, not all the children on Titanic survived the disaster. On the night of the sinking, being a 3rd Class passenger was a real disadvantage. The 3rd Class cabins were situated on the lower decks and all the lifeboats were on the upper decks, closer to the 1st and 2nd Class cabins. Also, there were gates on the ship designed to separate areas meant for different classes, and while the evidence is unclear, it’s possible that some of these gates stayed closed during the sinking. Many of the 3rd Class passengers didn’t speak English, but no efforts were made by the White Star Line to ensure that all their passengers knew what to do in the event of an emergency: there were no written instructions in other languages and no lifeboat drills. On that terrible night, events were so chaotic it must have been almost impossible for 3rd Class passengers to work out what they should do and where they should go - I expect many hoped that the lifeboats, several of which were lowered half-empty, would stop at the lower decks to enable 3rd Class passengers to board, but that didn’t happen.
Altogether, there were 128 children aged 14 and under aboard RMS Titanic, including two young members of crew, plate steward Frederic Hopkins and bellboy William Watson, both of whom died in the disaster. 59 child passengers died, and almost all of those children were travelling in 3rd Class.
Thankfully, changes were made to maritime law after RMS Titanic’s sinking to prevent a similar tragedy ever happening again. Both the British and American Boards of Inquiry ruled that ships should carry sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board, that lifeboat drills should be mandatory and that 24-hour radio contact must be maintained.
The Titanic memorial in honour of all the heroes of the marine engine room, Liverpool
Imagine you are one of the four child survivors whose Titanic experiences are described in this blog. Write a short account, from their point of view, of what happened to them on the night of the sinking.
I was fast asleep in the cabin when ….
Lindsay Littleson is a qualified primary teacher and lives in the village of Uplawmoor, near Glasgow.
In 2014 she began writing for children and won the Kelpies Prize for her first children’s novel The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean. The sequel, The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean, was published by Floris Books in 2017 and Guardians of the Wild Unicorns came out two years later.
Guardians of the Wild Unicorns was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for both the Stockton Children’s Book Prize and East Sussex Children’s Book Prize.
Her latest novel with Floris Books, Secrets of the Last Merfolk, came out in 2021.
Littleson has also written two historical books for children, A Pattern of Secrets, set in Victorian Paisley, and The Titanic Detective Agency, both published by Cranachan Books. Her latest novel with Cranachan, The Rewilders, was published in March 2022.