"A First-Class Raconteur": Chief Purser Hugh McElroy

Hugh McElroy was Titanic's Chief Purser--that is, the man in charge of the ship's business affairs, especially as it pertained to passenger expenses and needs.

Tickets for additional luxuries, like the Turkish baths and extra deck chairs. Wireless messages to friends and family. Drinks. Valuables locked in the ship's safe for secure storage. Cabin complaints and exchange. A seat at the Captain's dinner table. The so-called face of the entire crew. All the job of the Purser.

In short, Hugh was The Guy.

Everyone knew him; everyone loved him. He had previously served both the Adriatic, the Majestic, and Titanic's elder sister Olympic, all under Captain E.J. Smith. Hugh was beloved for his robust humor, his geniality, and his ability to "hold his own" without causing offense. He was a "first-class raconteur" and often called the "Commodore Purser" of White Star.

Hugh McElroy (standing far right) with the rest of the crew of R.M.S. Olympic, taken in 1911. Note that he is standing next to William McMaster Murdoch, First Officer on Titanic.

PUBLIC DOMAIN (photo taken prior to 1923)

Hugh was one of three White Star representatives documented to have dined with the passengers, the others being Captain Smith and White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay.

And since Hugh was such a delight, many set their dining schedules around when Hugh had seats available at his table. In particular, Purser McElroy was known to invite solo passengers to his table; for instance, one of Hugh's regular entertainees was Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley.

In summary: Hugh was jolly and amenable, with a booming brogue, hearty laugh, and a whole lotta charm that came in handy often, particularly when dealing with the demands of high-maintenance passengers... or you know, when impulse-buying exotic pets.

By the time Hugh sailed on Titanic, he had a well-established reputation as a Bird Man. During his stint on the troopship Britannic during the Boer War, Hugh was strolling the docks at Cape Town, South Africa, when he heard "Landlover off the starboard!" squawked nearby.

The source was a stunning and boisterous white Australian parrot. Hugh bartered for him with his reluctant owner, reasoning that he would be a great source of morale on board. The owner relented, but he had a single condition: that the parrot, named "Petroleum Pete" to his chagrin, would be rechristened Baden-Powell.

The deal was struck, and the newly named Baden-Powell the Parrot became quite famous as Hugh's talkative shoulder accessory on board for years thereafter. "The Cedric's Parrot Mascot" was even so popular as to merit an article in the New York Times in 1903.

An acquaintance of McElroy knocked at the door.  "Keep out No lobsters wanted", was what the knocker on the outside heard from within, 'Shut up Baden, Come in it's alright" answered McElroy; and the friend opened the door. McElroy greeted his friend warmly while Baden-Powell with a look of disdain on his pealed countenance eyed him critically.

'Bum looker, don't eat much ice" piped the parrot.

Some time later, Hugh's affinity for avians preceded him, and he was asked to mind another parrot en route home to Brooklyn named Jack Binns (the parrot, that is; not the passenger.)

So it makes sense that when a prized canary owned by a Mr. Meanwell boarded Titanic, Hugh was asked to mind it. The canary is often erroneously cited as one of the non-canine pets to go down with the ship, but in fact, it disembarked at Cherbourg to be reunited with its owner--but only after paying its ticket of 25c.

All in all, Hugh had been with White Star about thirteen years by 1912, though he had previously studied to join the clergy. Which is quite interesting, since it was actually Hugh who befriended Father Francis Browne and escorted him about the Titanic while it made port in Queenstown on April 11, 1912. As a result, Father Browne took what would become the last known photos of the Titanic, as well as some of her passengers and crew.

Shortly before Titanic set sail, Hugh wrote to one of his friends, a priest named Phillip Corr, on a postcard.

Many thanks for your letter and good wishes which I reciprocate, the “Titanic” is in many ways an improved Olympic and will I trust be a success, I am sorry I could not get down to Swanage this time but I was tied to Southampton and the train service too erratic to take chances, all kind of messages to you both.

This message, though wholly confident, belies Hugh's premonitory anxiety about the voyage according to his colleague, Dr. Beaumont.

Purser McElroy had been woken on several occasions on the R.M.S. Olympic due to suffocating nightmares, which gave way to him having some premonitions about sailing on the R.M.S. Titanic, he would have nightmares of being in a dark tunnel or cave with no means of escape.

When Titanic struck the iceberg, Hugh was reportedly on C Deck, just completing his nightly rounds of collecting receipts from bars and visiting the Marconi wireless room.

It is said that, considering eyewitness testimony and his long-standing relationship with Captain Smith, Hugh was one of the first crewmembers to bear witness to Titanic's death sentence. After the collision, Hugh was seen with Captain Smith inspecting the mailroom.

He was then found at the Purser's office, trying to appease the throng of people to retrieve their valuables and claim receipts. After Captain Smith gave the order to abandon ship, Hugh went on deck and used his famous ease with passengers--as well as his imposing stature--to help speed along the filling of the lifeboats.

Hugh labored alongside his longtime colleague and friend, First Officer William Murdoch, in helping launch the lifeboats on the starboard side. And trying without reprieve to assist them was none other than the most shamed man on Titanic: J. Bruce Ismay, who was savaged by the entire world for saving himself.

White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay.


Titanic was secured with a total of twenty lifeboats--which was four more than was required by contemporary maritime law. There were sixteen wooden boats, and four so-called collapsibles, labeled A through D. The latter, for reference, were flimsier but fully functional boats with canvas sides.

Collapsible D with canvas sides up, as taken by a passenger on the rescue ship Carpathia.


As Hugh and First Officer Murdoch attempted to launch Collapsible C, a desperate and terrified mob swarmed the area. Jack Thayer, a survivor age 17, stated the mob was made entirely of men, and that two jumped down into the boat from the upper deck.

In one motion, Hugh McElroy's famously jovial voice bellowed over the bedlam, and he drew his pistol, firing it twice into the air. The two leapers were quickly removed and Hugh somehow brought the mob under control. He thereby saved 21 women and 10 children who would have otherwise been overturned--all third-class passengers.

There are multiple reports of gunshots that night, including the supposed suicide of an officer rumored initially to be Captain Smith, and most often to be First Officer Murdoch. But it would seem that at least two of those shots, fired by Purser McElroy, actually saved lives.

Hugh McElroy was last seen standing on deck near the gym with his colleagues.

There is no testimony as to how Hugh McElroy died. His body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett and listed as follows.

CLOTHING - Ship's uniform; white jacket; ship's keys; 10 pence; 50 cents; fountain pen.

Hugh was buried at sea on April 22 because his body was in very bad shape. This has led some to conclude that, since Hugh was in the immediate vicinity and the advanced decomposition of his corpse, that he was, in fact, crushed by the falling first funnel.

Hugh’s last known words were preserved by a number of sources—including a letter received by his friend, Charles Brown, which was reported in the Chicago Examiner dated June 12, 1912.

A small group of the Titanic's staff were waiting for the final plunge.  The water was lapping the deck at their very feet, and the end was merely a question of a few minutes.  McElroy turned to his companions with a smile and shook hands with them, saying:

"Well, good-by, fellows. It looks like sand for breakfast to-morrow."

"That was typical of McElroy," says Brown.  "He was one of the merriest, bravest men who ever lived.  It was like him to have his little joke in the face of death."

Hugh McElroy was 37 years old.

He had been married less than two years.

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