The Sunderland Man Who Survived the Titanic: His Story and Testimony of the Sinking

By Elle Gray-Thynne

The RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean at 2:20 a.m on April 15th, 1912 after striking an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. More than 1,500 people perished. Its been 110 years since the tragedy but the memories of its passengers lives on. One of whom was a Sunderland man.

Mr Charles Whilems, born March 31. 1881. Was son to the French Joseph Whilems who was a glass flattener, and an English woman named Elizabeth Cornforth Hachet who were married in 1885.

Charles lived at 47 Hedley Street, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland (this is now Millfield) with his parents and siblings. Charles latet moved to London and was married in St Stephen’s Church on Tredegar Road, Tower Hamlets on August 4th 1900 to Eliza Eames (born 1878) who hailed from Barnstaple, Devon and was the daughter of a shoemaker. Charles described himself at the time as a glass bender.

In 1911 Charles and his wife were living at 4 Neville Road, Forest Gate, West Ham and they had two daughters together – Eileen Victoria, who later became Mrs Rowland Press, 1901-1983. And Leonie Adeline, who later became Mrs Marcus Charles Randall, 1909-2000. They later had another child together whom they named Charles, born 1911.

Charles, who was a foreman at Messrs Robinson Kings Glassworks, boarded the Titanic in Southampton on April 10th 1912 as a second-class passenger. He held ticket number 244270 and it cost him £13. He was travelling to 2270 Broadway in Manhattan to visit relatives and had intended to take the return trip to England aboard the same ship.

Whilem later described the night of the sinking:

“A party of four of us had been smoking and playing cards in the second cabin smoking room when the shock came… there was a man named Fox, a Texas ranchman, one other man and myself. We felt a slight jar, and hastened to the deck. Even as we did so we saw the iceberg, huge and white against the dark blue sea, go whizzing past on the starboard side of the ship just clear of the stern. We returned immediately to the smoking room and finished our game of cards. By that time we could hear voices on deck and again went out to learn what had happened… officers were telling everyone that there was no danger and no reason to worry in the least…”

Sometime later he was told to put on his lifejacket so he returned to his stateroom to fetch it, in the process waking two of his cabin mates. When they were told of the situation Whilem claimed they laughed at him and went back to sleep. He could not recall their names, but he recounted that he never saw them again.

He returned to the boat deck and assisted women and children into the lifeboats before stepping into one himself. He described his lifeboat as being filled with about 55 people.

There were only enough lifeboats on board to hold a third of the passengers, the ship was capable of holding 64 lifeboats which would have carried well over the ships maximum capacity of 3,547 people. 48 lifeboats were originally planned for Titanic by the chief designer Alexander Carlisle. However, this number was reduced for cosmetic reasons to make the decks look less cluttered. The Titanic ultimately only carried 20 lifeboats; two wooden cutters, 14 standard wooden lifeboats and four collapsible canvas lifeboats. Not nearly enough for the number on board. Each lifeboat was also tested for the maximum number of passengers and they could hold 70 men.

“We rowed about 400 yards from the ship before we saw her settling slowly by the head. Then there was an explosion. The lights went out and the ship seemed to break, her nose plunging down and her stern bucking almost straight up. I put my hands over my ears to shut out the wailing as the lights went out, and those on board began to realise that something dreadful was going to happen. The screams grew fainter and fainter very soon, however. Later in the morning when we were aboard the Carpathia, we saw many bodies floating by. Our boat remained apart from the rest. We had an electric torch in our boat. Most of the others were in darkness. We could see one batch of five boats tied together and passengers transferred to these from the boat commanded by Fifth Officer Lowe. Later we saw one of these boats, a collapsible, sinking, just as Lowe returned to rescue the passengers in his boat with others he had picked up at the scene of the wreck.”

Whilem returned to England following the tragedy and continued to work as a glass bender. He died on Febuary 15th 1940.

Recently, an Australian businessman, Clive Palmer, has undertaken a $500 million project, building a replica of the ill-fated Titanic cruise ship which is rumoured to be setting sail this year, making the same journey and will be named ‘Titanic 2.’ Would you buy a ticket?