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The Titanic's South African connections

Turtle Bunbury

A century after the vessel sank, historian Turtle Bunbury has scoured the historical archives for a local link. Here is what he found.

Southampton, 10th April 1912

Austin van Billiard discreetly felt the lining of his suit jacket and counted. All good. A dozen uncut diamonds, thank you very much. By his side were his two sons, 11-year-old James and nine-year-old Walter. The boys were already used to adventure. Austin and his petite London-born wife, Maude, had raised them against the rough-and-tumble backdrop of the Congo Free State and Central Africa, where Austin had been operating as a prospector since 1906.

Five years on the Van Billiards had had their fill of that unpredictable life. Armed with a haul of diamonds, they left Africa in early 1912. The French steamer they travelled on to Europe prohibited children, but Austin and Maude sneaked their four kids on board when nobody was looking. Austin had since had some diamonds cut in Amsterdam. Now the audacious, mustachioed 35-year-old was bound for New York, where he would perhaps cut the rest. 


Maude and their other two children would follow the next week. And then it would be time to head home to Pennsylvania and surprise his parents, whom he had not seen in more than a decade. Eager that his name was not listed among the first and second class passengers that would appear in American newspapers, Austin booked himself and his sons into a third-class cabin for the voyage.

Back on the quays, Harry Sutehall lit another cigarette, glanced up at the clock and sighed again. Still no sign of Howard, damn him. The 25-year-old London-born violinist ran his fingers over the two third-class tickets he had purchased earlier in the week, one for himself and one for his buddy, Howard Irwin, the fiery-tempered New Yorker with whom he had been travelling the world for the past two years.

They had funded much of their adventures through music; Harry with his violin and Howard with the clarinet. But winning a talent contest in Durban was a major highlight and provided enough cash to fund their journey home. This Atlantic trip was supposed to be the final leg and what a ship to voyage upon—the largest vessel afloat on the whole darned globe! Only now Howard had vanished, leaving Harry holding on to his trunk and clarinet, as well as his own luggage and violin. Where the hell was he?

A few hundred metres away, Thomas Brown squeezed his wife’s hand as the dockers winched up 1 000 rolls of fresh bed linen into the Titanic‘s hold. For the Browns and their 15-year-old daughter, Edith, this was part of a long journey from South Africa to Seattle, where they intended to open a new hotel. The 60-year-old from Worcester already had plenty of experience in running a hotel in the Western Cape, but business had been in decline and he wanted to start anew in the United States. Thomas liked to plan ahead. Hence all the linen.


Passengers Charlotte and Tom Cardenza both survived . (Photo courtesy of Scott Memorial Library, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, US)

The Browns were in second class. So was Sidney Jacobsohn, a 42-year-old lawyer, bound for Montreal, Canada, with his young wife Amy. Jacobsohn had formerly been part of a Cape Town legal practice called Walker & Jacobsohn, based at 16 Wale Street, operating as ‘agents in Transvaal, Free State, Natal and throughout South Africa generally”.

Also in second class was 52-year-old Cape Town-born publisher Charles Henry Chapman, who was making his way home to his wife in Manhattan after visiting his mother in Port Elizabeth and relatives in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Chapman’s childhood was spent shuttling between South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia), where his father, James Chapman, operated as a hunter and trader. The elder Chapman, an easygoing man, was also an explorer of considerable skill. In 1853, aged just 21, he explored the Zambesi River to within 110km of the Victoria Falls, nearly pipping Livingstone’s discovery. But he was destined to die aged just 40 at Du Toit’s Pan near Kimberley in 1871.

Bound for the Bronx was a 52-year-old balding, grey-haired, mustachioed Russian Jewish businessman by the name of Samuel Greenberg. He was the South African representative of a New York firm and returning from a business trip to Johannesburg.

William Ware had also lately been in South Africa, visiting his father. The 23-year-old blacksmith from Cornwall was a married man without children and clearly restless. His travelling companion was 19-year-old Fred Pengelly, a Cornish miner, who was headed for Butte, Montana, where his stepfather is believed to have been prospering in the copper mines. It is assumed Ware was going to Montana with Pengelly.

Henry Forbes Julian claimed he was not excited about the impending trip, in spite of his first-class ticket.

‘I do not care at all for palm court and gymnasium and such extra attractions,” he told his sister-in-law. ‘I shall keep to the smoking room and library and only just look over the vessel before starting.” The 51-year-old Irishman knew a good deal about ships like the Titanic and said he recognised many of the crew from his previous voyages.

His career had begun more than 35 years earlier when, aged 24, he voyaged to Natal and began a seven-year stint as a metallurgical engineer. In 1889, a journey he made to the Victoria Falls prompted him to draft a report on the possibilities of developing ‘the Barotse Empire”, as he called it, but the colonial office ignored it. He went on to become a consulting engineer and goldmine manager in Natal, Barberton, Johannesburg and Kimberley and made a fortune with a patent for separating gold and silver from quartz. Although he later settled in England, he regularly returned to South Africa with his wife.

Julian managed to post a letter to his wife while the Titanic was in Ireland. He conceded that the ship was a cut above. The Parisian Café and gymnasium were ‘full of the most wonderful machines”. His cabin was on E deck, towards the stern of the ship on the starboard side, and he described it as ‘more like a small bedroom than a ship’s cabin”.

As a seasoned first-class passenger, Julian probably recognised a few of those who glided into the magnificent first-class saloon, like New York millionaire John Astor and mining tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim. Perhaps he exchanged some words with fellow Irishman Eddie Colley, whose uncle, General Sir George Colley, had led the British at their disastrous battle of Majuba Hill 30 years earlier. Or maybe he tipped his hat at the well-known British journalist WT Stead, once among Cecil Rhodes’s key advisers, but later a major opponent of British interests during the Anglo-Boer War.

In third class was Nathan Goldsmith, a 41-year-old Russian boot-maker who had abandoned his business in Cape Town on account of the Anglo-Boer War. He had since relocated to Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and two children. Another was Einar Windeløv, a 21-year-old Danish dairy worker who gave his address as Cape Town. He appears to have been on the run after impregnating a 16-year-old neighbour in Denmark and had previously resided in Argentina.

The news of the Titanic as it was reported in the Pretoria News in 1912. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In another third-class cabin was Sam Risien, a 69-year-old American Civil War veteran and his wife Emma, making their way home to Texas after a 14-month stay in Durban with Emma’s relatives, who were connected to diamond mines.

On April 10 the Titanic sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg, France, where a further 274 passengers boarded. Among them was the bespectacled 36-year-old Philadelphia millionaire Tom Cardeza, who had taken one of the most luxurious suites on board, valued at £512, for himself, his mother, Charlotte, and their valet. They had just returned from a big game safari in Southern Africa. Charlotte, the daughter of a British textile magnate, lived a life of extreme luxury. She had circumnavigated the globe several times in her private yacht.

Onwards, the Titanic sailed to Queenstown (now Cobh) on the south coast of Ireland, where she collected the last of her 1317 passengers.

Three and a half days later, just before midnight on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland with such force that it ripped a 300-foot long series of punctures along her hull.

The hotelier’s daughter, Edith Brown, was asleep in her cabin with her mother when the ship struck the iceberg. Her father appeared in the room a few minutes later.

‘You’d better put on your life jackets and something warm,” he said. ‘It’s cold on deck. It’s just a precaution. The steward in the corridor says it’s nothing to worry about.”

The Philadelphia millionaire Cardeza was among the first on the upper deck and recalled how, amid people shouting and ‘confusion ­everywhere”, it was already apparent that they were in ‘terrible danger”.

‘We waited for ages on the boat deck for someone to tell us what to do,” recalled Edith Brown. ‘The ship’s band was playing ragtime. They played to keep our spirits up. Everybody kept saying: ‘She’s unsinkable. She won’t go down.’ Father kissed us and saw us into lifeboat 14.”

Nearly 50 were crammed into the lifeboat, including a man dressed as a woman. As the boat rowed away, Edith could still hear the band; only now it was playing hymns instead of ragtime. She spent six hours without food and water before the two big green lights of rescue ship Carpathia broke through the morning mist. All she could think of was her father, last seen smoking a cigar and sipping brandy on deck, dressed in his Edwardian best. At 2.27 am, the Titanic split and sank.

The Irish-born gold-mine manager, Julian, was last seen as one of a group of first-class passengers helping women and children into lifeboats. W T Stead was last seen in the first-class smoking room, sitting in a leather chair, reading a book. 

When the body of Greenberg, the Russian Jewish businessman returning from a trip to Johannesburg, was found, he was clad in a dressing gown and two coats, with two watches and $11 in his pocket. Cape Town publisher Chapman was wearing a dark suit when they found him.

The Western Cape hotelier Brown’s body, if recovered, was never identified. Nor were the bodies of 21-year old Windeløv; Ware, the young blacksmith and his travelling companion Pengelly; Goldsmith, the boot-maker who had abandoned his Cape Town business; British journalist W T Stead; Cape Town attorney Jacobsohn; the pioneering metallurgist Julian; Colley, the Irishman whose uncle had led the British in the battle at Majuba Hill; or Sam and Emma Risien, returning to the US after a holiday in Durban with Emma’s relatives.

Family lore holds that the couple was, like diamond prospector Van Billiard, bringing back diamonds and travelling third class so no one would guess what they had in their suitcases.

Sutehall, the violinist, either sank to the ocean floor with the stern, or was one of the hundreds washed off the rear deck as it plunged into the water. Eight decades later, divers found the trunk of his no-show of a travelling companion, Irwin, and cracked it open to discover his diary, which revealed the details of their trip. As for Irwin’s failure to make the Titanic, he was knocked out during a scuffle with some English sailors in Southampton the night before. When he came to, he had been shanghaied on to a ship bound for Turkey.

Elizabeth and her daughter, Edith Brown, later returned to South Africa where Edith married Frederick Thankful Haisman, an architectural engineer, with whom she had 10 children. She was an honorary member of the Titanic Society of South Africa and the oldest Titanic survivor until her death in 1997 at the age of 100 at a nursing home in Southampton. As for Austin van Billiard, he was wearing a grey suit, green flannel shirt and brown boots when the cable ship MacKay Bennett recovered his body. In his possession they found a pipe, a purse containing £3 and five shillings, a gold watch, a pair of cufflinks and a dozen loose uncut diamonds sewn into his suit. The body of his son, Walter, was floating nearby, his small frame well wrapped in three coats and a woolly jumper. The body of his eldest son, James, was never found.

Turtle Bunbury is a historian and writer based in Ireland. His books include the best-selling Vanishing Ireland series and Living in Sri Lanka. His grandmother’s uncle, Eddie Colley, was celebrating his 37th birthday on the Titanic when the ship sank. His body was never found
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