This website is accessible to all versions of every browser. However, you are seeing this message because your browser does not support basic Web standards, and does not properly display the site's design details. Please consider upgrading to a more modern browser. (Learn More).

Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
You are here: home > derbyshire folk

Lawrence Beesley - the Wirksworth man who survived the Titanic Disaster!

Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007

e-mail E-mail this page   print Printer-friendly page

Lawrence Beesley

The Wirksworth Man who Survived the Sinking of theTitanic!

Amongst any historical list of remarkable Derbyshire characters, destiny or fate can hardly have played a more significant role in an individuals life than in that of Wirksworth-born Lawrence Beesley.

He was born on New Year’s Eve in 1877, and died aged 89 on Valentine’s Day in 1967. In between, he led a noteable life, becoming a Science Master, a preacher, an expert golfer, and a very successful writer.

In the scientific field he discovered a rare fountain algae which was named after him (Ulvella Beesleyi); and his sporting endeavours during the early years of the twentieth century saw him play in the British Open Golf Championships several years running.

But his greatest claim to fame lies in the fact that he was a passenger aboard the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic on it’s ill-fated maiden voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912, when the ship struck a massive iceberg and sank with the loss of over 1500 lives. Lawrence Beesley, then a 34 –year old widower, famously survived the tragedy and went on to write a best-selling book about his amazing escape.

The Loss of the SS Titanic

The book, `The Loss of the SS Titanic – Its Story and Its Lessons’ was published within months of the disaster in 1912 and was received with acclaim throughout the world.

Fate, it seemed, had decreed that Lawrence Beesley should become both saved and saviour - for his criticisms and recommendations led to a change in the Maritime Laws governing both the structural design of future shipping and navigational standards, and led to wholesale changes in safety provision, thus assuring safe passage through the North Atlantic for all ships – and all passengers in the future.

Ninety years after the worst maritime tragedy in peacetime history, and in the wake of the interest and hype following the recent award-winning epic film, `Titanic’, starring Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet, Beesley’s eye-witness account dispels much of the myth surrounding the Titanic tragedy – and exposes both the film version, and contemporary newspaper reports at the time, as pure fiction.

Potted Biography

Lawrence Beesley was born at Steeple Grange, Wirksworth on December 31st 1877, the third of eight children born to Henry and Annie Maria Beesley (nee James). At the time of Lawrence’s birth, his father Henry was a clerk at Moore & Robinson’s Bank in Wirksworth Market Place, and was promoted to Bank Manager in 1881.

Lawrence Beesley was educated at the Anthony Gell Grammar School in Wirksworth, and earned a scholarship to Caius College, Cambridge from where he graduated with a BA honours degree in science in 1902.

Prior to this, on June 17th 1901, Lawrence, a handsome young man almost six feet tall and still an under-graduate, had married Gertrude Cecily Macbeth at St. Margaret’s Church in Lancaster. They later had one son, Alec, who went on to marry Dodie Smith, author of many children’s books, including `One Hundred and One Dalmatians’.

The following year, in September 1902 following his graduation, Lawrence took a teaching post as Science Master at Wirksworth Grammar School, and it was during his post-graduate work that he discovered a rare algae in the hills around the town which was named after him,`Ulvella Beesleyi’. In 1903 he took a First-Class in the National Science Tripos, and the following year he took up the post as Science Master at Dulwich College, London, where amongst his pupils was American future detective mystery writer, Raymond Chandler.

In 1905 Lawrence became interested in Christian Science and the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. Such was his passion for the subject that within a couple of years he was writing religious tracts and had begun instructing others in the religion from his rooms on Marylebone Road. In 1909 his `The Passing Away of Human Theories’ was published in the Christian Science Journal, but his faith was tested the following year by the death of his wife at the young age of only 37.

In 1911 Lawrence, now a widower, and living alone in a property at Regent’s Park where he wrote another article for the Journal entitled, `Constancy’, resigned his position at Dulwich, and following two years of family trauma and upheaval, decided that he needed a holiday.

He decided to visit his younger brother Frank in Toronto, made arrangements for his son’s care, and purchased a second class ticket (number 248698) for £13, and passage to New York aboard the new 46,000 ton White Star liner, Titanic, who like Lawrence Beesley, was making her maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Beesley writes. “I went on board at Southampton at 10am, Wednesday, April 10th, after staying the night in the town…..soon after noon the whistles blew for friends to go ashore, the gangways were withdrawn and the Titanic moved slowly down the dock”. He notes a near collision with the steamship New York before they had even cleared the harbour, but dismisses a sailor’s remarks that it is a bad omen as “absurd and childish superstition”.

The Titanic picked up more passengers at Cherbourg and Queenstown, Ireland before setting sail across the Atlantic at noon on Thursday April 11th. Beesley writes, “I had been fortunate enough to secure a two-berth cabin to myself, - D56, quite close to the saloon and most convenient in every way for getting about the ship”.

He was in his cabin reading when Titanic struck the iceberg just before midnight on Sunday April 14th , but felt, “nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than usually obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that – no sound of a crash or of anything else: no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another. And presently the same thing repeated with about the same intensity. The thought came to me that they must have still further increased the speed. And all this time the Titanic was being cut open by the iceberg and water was pouring in her side, and yet no evidence that would indicate such a disaster had been presented to us”.

In fact the iceberg had cut a 248 foot long gash below the waterline along the starboard side of the Titanic’s one third of a mile length!

Lawrence resumed his reading, but when he felt the engines stop he went out in his dressing gown to see what was happening, and was assured by a steward that there was nothing amiss. He returned to his cabin and dressed, donning his heavy Norfolk jacket and went up on deck to find the ship’s officers and men readying the lifeboats. He found himself beside lifeboat 13, which was already being lowered toward the water a hundred feet below and managed to get the final berth before it was lowered away at 1-25am with 63 other people aboard. The occupants of lifeboat 13 were rescued by SS Carpathia at 4-45am, and were among the 705 who survived the wreck, but 1,314 people lost their lives.

When the Carpathia docked in New York four days later, Beesley had already written an account of the tragedy which he presented to a newspaper reporter upon embarkation, and it was published the following day in newspapers around the world. Initial wireless reports of the tragedy had listed him among those lost and friends and family in Wirksworth were stunned to hear of his death. It was only when they read his eye-witness account in the national newspapers in England two days later, that they realised with jubilation that he had survived!

Lawrence Beesley became quite a celebrity and stayed in America for four months writing his book, `The Loss of the SS Titanic’, which was published just seven months after his rescue.

After finishing the book, Lawrence returned home on the RMS Laconia, a Cunard liner!

He remarried in 1919 to Muriel Greenwood, whom he called `Molly’, and the couple had three children. He continued teaching, and played in the British Open Golf Championship again in 1921. He never left England or went to sea again, in fact years later, according to one daughter, the single time the family went to the beach, Lawrence sat with his back to the sea!

Lawrence Beesley has no biographer and little is known of his later years, although he enjoyed his celebrity, and was once pictured in the press standing on the deck of a model Titanic during the filming of `A Night to Remember'. As a celebrity survivor of the wreck he had been invited to watch the filming of the final scenes, and famously attempted to remain on deck as the sinking scenes were filmed!

In his later years he lived in Northwood, Middlesex, but as his health deteriorated and senility finally overtook him, his stepdaughter Dinah helped to nurse him at her home in Lincoln.

He died at South Park, Lincoln on February 14th 1967, aged 89.

Lawrence Beesley deserves a place on any list of Derbyshire’s remarkable characters.

He may well be an unsung hero these days, but every trans-atlantic passenger who, thanks to his astute observations and recommendations, has crossed the ocean safely since 1912, would most certainly agree that fate can hardly have played a more significant role in an individuals life, than in that of Wirksworth’s Lawrence Beesley.


e-mail E-mail this page
print Printer-friendly page

Weather Forecasts | Weather Maps | Weather Radar

Latest articles in Derbyshire Folk
The Eyres and Catholic Graces of Derbyshire
Celebrating Sarah Millward - Artist:
Roy McFarland (Ex) King of the Blues!
The Town of Clowne - and the Art of Stig!
Terry Gilbert - The Real Billy Elliott!
Sir Nigel Gresley
The Winster Guisers - Oh what a Pantomime!

Please visit About Derbyshire - my main web site

contact Tom

Derbyshire Folk