Around 2.20 am on 15th April 2012 two crew members of Leyland Liner Californian unknowingly witnessed the sinking of the Titanic. Standing on the ice-cold deck, some 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, they wondered why the unidentified vessel in the distance was firing white flares into the night sky when it was standard practice for a ship in distress to fire red. There was something troubling about the appearance of the unknown vessel and the way it listed strangely in the water. Despite their disquiet, they were not sufficiently concerned to react that night and by daybreak, it was too late. The odd-looking ship was RMS Titanic and she had subsequently sunk taking 1517 people to a tragic and untimely death.
Titanic left Southampton bound for New York City on her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912 amid excitement and celebration. With her watertight compartments and electronic watertight doors, she was widely believed to be unsinkable. Confidence was so high there was no concern that she only carried 20 lifeboats, enough to accommodate just 52% of her passengers. Indeed, the Board of Trade regulations only required her to carry 16 lifeboats to fulfil their safety requirements.
At the turn of the century, travel was still largely segregated by class and RMS Titanic catered for three divisions of travel. Steerage or third class contained very basic accommodation, second class was more comfortable, but first class was an extravaganza of luxury, from the opulence of the sweeping grand staircase to the charm of the Café Parisien with its wide, open windows looking out to sea. Along with the glamorous furnishings, Titanic also contained the latest in technology. She was equipped with a Marconi wireless set with a nominal range of 250 miles and, after the iceberg hit, the radio was used to transmit one of the first ever SOS calls.
The passenger list was no less impressive than the ship. First class was populated with many well-known, wealthy Edwardians including John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim. But, there were people from all walks of life on board and on that fateful day in April, there were three men on Titanic who had connections to the Cotswolds, each travelling in a different accommodation class and each united by the events of that night.
Sitting in the splendour of the first-class dining room on 14th April 1912, Mr Frank Millett would have had no conception that it would be the last night of his life. Born in Massachusetts on 3 November 1844, he was a talented artist best known for his painting “between two fires”, a detailed depiction of a family of Puritans, now hanging in the Tate gallery. Millett created the work at Abbots Grange in Broadway where he led an American art colony which settled in England in the early 1880’s. Millett is believed to have rescued Abbots Grange from falling into a state of disrepair through his programme of restoration.
Millett ordinarily visited the Cotswolds with his wife and family but this time he travelled alone and would have been looking forward to their impending reunion as he dined from the ten-course menu containing, amongst other items, poached salmon, oysters and peaches in Chartreuse jelly.
When the iceberg hit the ship, Frank Millett probably approached the ensuing drama with dignity and calm. He was familiar with crises having served in the Civil War and was also a war correspondent in the Russian Turkish war of 1877 – 1878. He was last sighted helping women and children into lifeboats with little thought for his own safety.
Meanwhile, in the second-class restaurant, Henry Price Hodges dined on a less sumptuous menu choosing between baked haddock, curried chicken, spring lamb or roast turkey. At 50 years old, Hodges was a wealthy music shop owner who lived in Southampton with his wife and five of his eight children at the time of his death.
Like Frank Millett, he was travelling without his family and had purchased his ticket for just £13. Ironically, he had been due to travel to America several weeks earlier but his voyage had been delayed by the coal strike.
Born in 1862, Henry, a former pupil of Tewkesbury Grammar school was raised in Gloucestershire. He was also the elder brother of Robert Hodges (born 1874), a teacher at Hatherley Road Council School.
Another former resident of Hatherley, Mr Francis William Somerton of Greatfield, Up Hatherley, was travelling back from Cheltenham to his home in Canastota, New York state, having returned to Gloucestershire to visit relatives. Travelling in third class, it is only possible to speculate on how he would have dined as no third-class menus survive from the night of 14th April 1912. We know that he was born in Cheltenham and census records from 1891 show him living at 108 Gloucester Road with his father William, (a weigh clerk at the gas works), mother Hannah and three siblings.
National probate records show that Francis William Somerton of Greatfield, Up Hatherley, Cheltenham died 15 Apr 1912 at sea. Poignantly, he left effects of just £5 which went to Mae Fryer Somerton, widow.
All three of these men had one sad fate in common. None of them survived. They all lost their lives on that terrible night.
The body of Frank Millett was recovered, and he was buried at East Bridgwater Central Cemetery in Boston. He was 65-years old when he died. His pocket watch and chain were found with him. Henry Price Hodges was also located and laid to rest at Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He too was found with a pocket watch and money amounting to £45 7s on his person. He was 50 when he died. Francis William Somerton died aged 30. His body was never found.