In all the fanfare surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, my thoughts will be about just one person. He was a teenaged lad from a cottage in a country lane in Hampshire – a red brick cottage with a well in the garden, backing onto the beautiful heathland of the New Forest. He was born in 1894 into a family which ran back through many generations in the same tiny village of Bramshaw and had lived in the same red brick cottage since the 1700s.
This teenaged lad was called William Dibden, and as a child I remember meeting his sisters. We were distant cousins.
William Dibden was one of 1514 people who died on the Titanic. His body was never found or, if it was, was never identified.
He had already lost his father by the time he decided to set sail for a new life in Canada at the age of 18. It was only 11 years after the death of Queen Victoria. I imagine his life in Victorian rural England would have been tough and hungry: his father, a pork dealer, had died when William was just seven years old, and his youngest sister Hester was a baby less than a year old. I have no idea how their mother, Eliza, would have coped emotionally or financially with the loss of a husband and breadwinner, and later the death of one young daughter Mary to cancer and her oldest son William on the Titanic.
What seems particularly cruel for the teenaged William Dibden is that he wasn’t taking a rash gamble on a new life that may or may not have existed in reality. He had listened to the advice of another local man, Leonard Hickman, who had emigrated to Manitoba five years earlier, and had found such a good new life that he returned to the New Forest to recruit other young men to join him.
So seven of them set sail: William, two friends from his village Charles Davies and Ambrose Hood, Leonard with his brothers Lewis and Stanley, and Percy Deacon. All were from the same parish. Some were teenagers, some in their 30s, some were newly married; all had been convinced by Leonard Hickman to join him in a new life in Canada.
More cruelties exist in the story: they weren’t even supposed to be on the Titanic. They’d booked their passage – steerage class – on another ship due to sail on 6 April 1912, but that sailing was cancelled because the Titanic had bought up all the available coal. So the party of seven was transferred onto the Titanic, upgraded to second class, all travelling on one ticket priced at £73 10s. I can imagine they were thrilled at their good fortune – going from steerage to second class, and getting to sail on the brand new liner that must have been the talk of the town.
The final cruelty: the place they were heading for was called Eden.
I have been wondering many things since learning a little more this week about William Dibden’s story. Had he even seen the sea before he set sail on the Titanic? Southampton was only 13 miles away, but in those days people travelled only short distances in their rural areas. Did his mother and sisters and brother wave him off down the lane or did they travel with him to the docks.
And how did he travel to Southampton? The three Hickman brothers, whose loss must have brought unimaginable pain to their parents, were apparently taken to the docks by horse and cart. So maybe that’s how William got there too.
Was he living in such poverty that he thought the new life in Canada had to be worth a shot? Or did he have the pioneer spirit that meant he would have loved to go and start a new life, and didn’t need a hugely strong “push” factor to get him on the ship?
Either way, I hope he loved the start of the voyage – he would have seen France for the first time, as the ship sailed into Cherbourg, and then Ireland. I’m glad he was with his friends, and I hope they had the time of their lives on the first four days of the voyage.
If he’d chosen a different path and stayed behind in Bramshaw: well the horrors of World War I were only two years away, and he would have been 20 by then – a prime age for being sent to the front line. So perhaps all those village lads would have endured far greater misery if they hadn’t tried to get to Canada.
In every generation there are those that stay and those that go. Even today, people are dying every week in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe to start their own new lives – I know there are no direct comparisons because of the illegality of what they are doing, but the young men who are dying now share the dream of a better life which lay in front of William and his six companions.
So as the world remembers the Titanic with an extraordinary extravaganza of TV programmes, films, and memorial services, the tragedy for me will be brought home most poignantly by two thoughts. One is the memorial to William and the six others in their local church, under the wording from the book of Revelation in the Bible: “And there shall be no more sea.”
The other, personal to me, is the thought of his two sisters, Bess and Hester, waving off their big brother and never seeing him again. By the time I met them they were wizened and elderly, but living in the same red brick cottage in the same lane in the New Forest , with the same well in the garden.
To us as children, visiting them was like something out of a fairytale. But they had lived through their own nightmare, and it’s them and William I’ll be thinking about today, on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. William: I’m sorry you didn’t make it to Eden, but I salute your courage in trying to get there.