Open post

“Let Go the After Fall”: Lead Stoker Frederick Barrett

"Let Go the After Fall": Lead Stoker Frederick Barrett

There isn’t too much information available about Frederick William Barrett’s early years. He was born and baptized in 1883, near Liverpool, England; in 1891, he was noted on the census as a wheelwright, also known as a carman.

It is unknown when exactly Frederick Barrett turned to the sea, although rumor has it that he did so after discovering that his wife was having an affair with another man while he was at work. 

Regardless, he is first discoverable on a crew manifest in 1903, as a fireman aboard the Campania.

The RMS Campania, Fred Barrett's first known vessel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Fred signed onto Titanic on April 6, 1912, as a lead stoker. Curiously, he was one of two men named “Frederick William Barrett” who were hired onto Titanic as firemen.

Immediately following departure on Wednesday, April 10, Fred received orders alongside about a dozen other firemen to empty out the coal bunker in Boiler Room 6 because of a fire. It took three full days, until Saturday, to get it done.

Fred reported that he noted warping and fire damage in the bulkhead.

When Titanic struck the iceberg on Sunday night, Fred was once again in Boiler Room 6. He was speaking to an engineer named James Helsketh when a bell rang and a red light flashed on; Fred immediately called for the dampers to be shut.

Almost simultaneously, there was an enormous crash and water shot into the boiler room from the ship’s side. Fred and James managed to get into Boiler Room 5 just in time, as the watertight door was descending and about to lock. Then they saw it.

The water was flooding into that room, too.

Fred went back into Boiler Room 6 with another engineer, Jonathan Shepherd, within 15 minutes of the collision, and testified later that the water was already 8 feet high.

All firemen were then ordered to go up top on deck. But Fred was ordered to stay behind.

While he waited with Jonathan and another engineer, the lights extinguished, and Fred was sent to retrieve lamps. 

Shortly thereafter, Fred was ordered by Junior Assistant Engineer Herbert Harvey to lift the manhole cover in order to get at some valves. As this was happening, Jonathan Shepherd ran past, and in the thick steam, did not notice the hole. And he fell in and broke his leg.

Fred and Herbert carried Jonathan away to the pump room to care for him as best they could. 

Soon, the bulkhead between Rooms 5 and 6 buckled, and sea water rushed in. Herbert Harvey screamed an order to Fred: to go up top immediately.

That was the last time Fred, or anyone else, saw Herbert Harvey or Jonathan Shepherd.

Fred climbed a hatchway all the way up to A Deck, and found that there were only two wooden lifeboats still aboard: Lifeboat 13, and Lifeboat 15, both on the starboard side and under the supervision of First Officer William Murdoch.

Fred chose Lifeboat 13.

He later testified that the boat was close to capacity when he literally jumped in, and that a handful of people followed his example. From up above, he heard one of the officers shout that no more should be let in the lifeboat, because the falls would break. Next door, so to speak, Lifeboat 15 also began lowering.

When 13 reached the water, it began drifting due to the water discharged from Titanic’s side.

And it drifted directly underneath Lifeboat 15.

Everyone in Lifeboat 13 shrieked and hollered for those above to stop lowering Lifeboat 15, but they couldn’t be heard. Fred began screaming to the officers up top to “Let go the after fall.”

Lifeboat 15 was bearing down on them and closing the distance fast. Fred scrambled over everyone and dashed to cut through the falls with his knife.

Fred push the boat away within seconds of Lifeboat 15 splashing down beside them.

Lawrence Beesley, who was one of the few men from Second Class to survive, was an occupant of Lifeboat 13 and described the near-disaster as follows. (It should be noted that he mistakes the other lifeboat as No. 14, when it was in fact Lifeboat 15.)

'Stop lowering 14,' our crew shouted, and the crew of No. 14, now only twenty feet above, shouted the same. But the distance to the top was some seventy feet and the creaking pulleys must have deadened all sound to those above, for down she came- 15 feet, 10 feet, 5 feet, and a stoker and I reached up and touched her swinging above our heads, but just before she dropped another stoker sprang to the ropes with his knife.

'One," I heard him say. 'Two,' as his knife cut through the pulley ropes, and the next moment the exhaust steam has carried us clear while boat no. 14 dropped into the water into the space we had the moment before occupied, our gunwales almost touching.

Written by survivor Lawrence Beesley, as cited in "On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage" by George Behe.

And that is how Fred Barrett saved himself and the approximate 70 other people in Lifeboat 13.

There were so many people in Lifeboat 13 that the gunwale was maybe 6 inches above the water.

Once the lifeboat was clear of Titanic, Fred realized that there was no officer in the boat. And so he took command, despite the fact that he was wearing nothing more on his shoulders than the thin shirt he’d been wearing on duty when the collision occurred.

Q. What officer was in charge?

A. No officer in it. Because I had no clothes I felt myself giving out and gave it to someone else. I do not know who it was.

But after enduring for an hour in the raw chill, Fred became too cold to carry on, and forfeited the tiller to another man.

A woman wrapped Fred Barrett in a cloak, and he fell asleep. Hours later, when the Carpathia was in sight of the lifeboats, those occupants of Lifeboat 13 rowed toward it, all while singing the hymn "Pull for the Shore."

Fred was called before the Senate Inquiry. And in May of 1912, when Senator William Alden Smith, the head of the Inquiry, toured RMS Olympic, he was informed by the captain that “one of [his] stokers” had been on board Titanic. So Fred Barrett was joined by Senator Smith in the boiler rooms to discuss Fred’s firsthand experience.

Fred Barrett went on to marry in 1915, and stayed at sea until the early 1920s. He was widowed after only 7 years of marriage, in 1923.

Fred Barrett died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1931, at the age of 48. His one surviving child, a son named Harold, was 10 years old.

The other Fred Barrett on board Titanic did not survive the sinking.


Behe, George. "On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage." The History Press, 1912.

Open post

Coal Strike & Engineering Crew

The Coal Strike & Titanic's Engineering Crew

Titanic is often taken as a singular event. It was so unusually and profoundly tragic that in some ways, it's become more myth than fact.

But its now-iconic status does not negate historical context. It had many influences and witnessed unique circumstances that led it from the docks at Southampton to the iceberg.

One of these circumstances was the National Coal Strike.

British coal miners, circa 1910. From the George Grantham Bain collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The Coal Strike & Titanic's Engineering Crew

From February 22 to April 6, 1912, coal miners in Britain went on strike to protest for a living minimum wage, which was unprecedented at the time.

In a steam-powered society, coal became scarce, fast.

Boiler being lifted into R.M.S. Olympic (Titanic's elder sister.) Taken November 9, 1910.


In response, the White Star Line announced that Titanic's speed would drop from 23 knots to 20.

In the wake of the strike, cabins on Titanic’s older sister, Olympic, reportedly housed all the coal that the White Star Line could manage to hoard.

By early April, the coal strikers at last received their demands and the strike was past.

Yet the coal shortage remained.

White Star, adamant to keep Titanic's scheduled maiden voyage of April 10, culled coal from every ship in the vicinity. The Oceanic, Adriatic, Philadelphia were all ported as a result.

By April 10, 1912, a representative of the British Board of Trade had declared that “the coal on board [the RMS Titanic] is certified to amount to 5,892 tons, which is sufficient to take the ship to her next coaling port.”

Passengers of ported vessels were forced to find a new ship to travel on.

Most elected to travel on Titanic.

Unfortunately, workers from these docked ships faced a dilemma of their own.

In particular, the so-called "black gangs"—ship firemen and stokers, so named because they were always caked in soot—were desperate for work, because so many having been recently laid off due to the strike.

To snare a job on Titanic as a fireman was, therefore, some fine luck.

All in all, there were approximately 250 firemen on board when Titanic set sail.

They worked in unbroken rotating shifts: 8-12, 12-4, and 4-8. Rotating meant that block was worked by the same men, A.M. and P.M.

Completely removed from the passengers and most of the crew, the firemen took their breaks to sleep, eat, smoke, and spend lots of time with their "52 friends"--otherwise known as a deck of cards.

R.M.S. Olympic's boilers, which were identical to Titanic's. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic made impact with the iceberg during the fireman’s 8-12 watch.

In general, despite their location in the depths of the ship, the firemen had advanced notice of the damage and made their way to the deck with haste, many carrying their kits with them.

Being able-bodied men, some were assigned to lifeboats to row. Others tried to save themselves regardless, and were ejected from the boats—except for a fair few who escaped when the last boats were launched less discriminately.

Lead Stoker Frederick Barrett was one of these.

Fred jumped into Lifeboat 13.

Then Lifeboat 13 drifted directly underneath Lifeboat 15, which was being lowered simultaneously.

Horrified screams from 13 to stop lowering 15 were unheard in the melee, and 15 pressed down, nearly crushing 13 and everyone in it.

Fred rushed forward through the other passengers with a knife in his teeth, to cut the falls and push Lifeboat 13 away.

He saved dozens of lives in a matter of moments.

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


Along with other firemen, Fred Barrett also experienced hypothermia, because he was only wearing a paper-thin shirt. This attire was typical for the boiler room, but not conducive to the mid-Atlantic ocean.

Fred, who had immediately set to rowing, eventually had to relinquish the tiller. A female passenger then draped a shawl over him, and he fell asleep.

Unlike Fred, most of the firemen were left to fend for themselves in the open sea, such as stoker Arthur John Priest, who was miraculously rescued from the water in what is most commonly identified as Lifeboat 15.

Of the 163 firemen on Titanic, 45 were reported to have survived. Three of the 13 Lead Stokers survived.

Titanic’s firemen worked tirelessly for hours without reprieve, shoveling heavy coal into the mouths of furnaces blazing with fire, consumed by bitter billows of smoke.

Because of this, they usually worked shirtless, or wearing only a vest or suspenders. Being submerged in frigid ocean water, mere degrees above freezing, with little or no clothes from the waist up, was a particularly loud death knell for many firemen.

Frederick Barrett, who was Lead Stoker in Boiler Room 6.


Additionally, there were 73 coal trimmers on board who handled the coal, from loading to maintenance to delivery. Twenty survived.

When Titanic sank, it is estimated that 2,500 tons of coal accompanied it.

To date, coal is found throughout the 15 square miles of ocean floor that constitutes the wreck site.

As it turned out, the initial wound and subsequent splitting of the ship scattered coal like a trail of breadcrumbs as Titanic slowed to a stop following impact with the iceberg.

More recent forensic studies suggest that its bow planed forward, and its stern spiraled like a helicopter blade as it descended.

And the coal trail certainly suggests as much.

On September 1, 1985, mastering an ROV-robot team named Argo and Jason, respectively, Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic.

Where previous expeditions to locate the shipwreck had used sonar, Ballard used his previous experiences and elected to search for, and follow, the debris field.

The first identifier during that expedition was a Titanic boiler, distinguished by its 3 doors—a type of boiler that only the White Star Olympic Class had.

It was this distinctive boiler and the aforementioned trail of coal that led the Ballard expedition to discover Titanic’s bow.

In 1994, coal from the wreck was curated and brought to the surface for sale, in order to fund further and more extensive expeditions to Titanic.

This was condoned by RMS Titanic, Inc., which was granted Salvor-in-Possession rights of the wreck site in that same year.

Scroll to top