“I Can Look Back and See Every Detail”: Lawrence Beesley

Lawrence Beesley was an accomplished science teacher, having graduated from Cambridge with honors in 1902. And while doing his post-grad at his first assignment at a grammar school, he discovered a rare algae that was named after him, called Ulvella Beesleyi.

Lawrence then went on to take a job at Dulwich College in London, where one of his students was future novelist Raymond Chandler.

Lawrence's wife passed away at only 37 years old. They had one child, Alec, who would grow up to marry Dodie Smith, the author of "101 Dalmatians".

So in 1912, after two years of grief and personal upheaval, Lawrence decided to take a long-overdue holiday to see his brother in Toronto.

Second-Class entrance on R.M.S. Olympic, circa 1911. Courtesy of Bedford Lemere & Co.

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Beesley boarded the Titanic as a second-class passenger on April 10, 1912, in Southampton.

His accommodations were ideally suited to his tastes. He wrote, “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."

Like any true academic would, Beesley mused extensively in his memoir of the disaster--the very first published--about the Second-Class library, which he visited on the afternoon of April 14, 1912.

I can look back and see every detail...the beautifully furnished room, with lounges, armchairs, and small writing or card tables scattered about, writing bureaus round the walls of the room, and the library in glass-cased shelves flanking one side—the whole finished in mahogany relieved with white fluted wooden columns that supported the deck above.

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley, published in 1912.

Beesley was reading in his room when the collision happened. Being on D Deck and above the point of impact, and with Titanic being so large, he felt it as nothing more than "an extra heave of the engines" and thought maybe the ship has sped up.

It wasn't until the incessant white noise of the engines stopped entirely, and Beesley noticed that the top of his mattress was no longer vibrating with their churning, that he knew something was wrong.

The Second-Class Library on R.M.S. Olympic, which was identical to Titanic's.

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Beesley stopped a steward in the hall and was assured that there was no cause for concern. Beesley dressed and went up to the boat deck, and was summarily dismissed.

On his way downstairs, Lawrence noted that even though the stairs appeared level, his footfall was out of balance, and he knew the ship was sinking. So he went to his room, dressed warmly, stuffed some books in his pockets, and returned to the boat deck.

This time, with no women and children in the vicinity, Lawrence Beesley was instructed by an officer to jump into Lifeboat 13.

Beesley not only survived the sinking itself, but also had a near miss when Lifeboat 13 drifted under Lifeboat 15 as it was being lowered, threatening to crush the occupants of Lifeboat 13. It was thanks to Lead Fireman Frederick Barrett that no one was harmed. Barrett managed to cut the ropes in time under great duress, saving seventy lives.

"Leaving the Sinking Liner" by Charles Dixon for The Graphic, published April 27, 1912, depicting lifeboats 13 & 15's near-calamity.

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BeeLawrence sley later described the sinking in poignant detail, making note of the ship's unnerving stillness and "the slow, insensible way she sank lower and lower into the sea, like a stricken animal" whose will to live had been lost.

In the dark after the sinking, he tried to calm a crying baby in the lifeboat by tucking a blanket about its toes, and in the course of conversation with the woman holding the baby, found out they had some mutual friends back in Ireland.

Lawrence Beesley went on to write his memoir, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, while he was in America; it was published less than eight months after the disaster.

Its contents have proved invaluable to researchers seeking answers to questions about weather conditions, life and accommodations on board, and the last moments of the dead. For instance, Lawrence Beesley was adamant upon the issue of giving special recognition to the doomed bandmembers for their valor.

Many brave things were done that night, but no more brave than by those few men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea.

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley.

Lawrence returned to England on a Cunard liner--reportedly because the White Star Line was the competitor--and never traveled or went to sea again.

He eventually remarried and had three more children. His daughter recalled a single family outing to the beach, and said that her father kept his back to the ocean the whole time.

He also became a notable writer and golfer, and he notoriously crashed the set of the 1958 film "A Night to Remember," in hopes of having a renewed chance to go down with the ship. The director ultimately had him removed.

Lawrence Beesley died in 1967 when he was almost 90 years old.

SOURCE MATERIAL

Beesley, Lawrence. "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic." Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. Rpt. by Mariner Books, 2000.

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