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“Lead, Kindly Light”: Noel Leslie, the Countess of Rothes

"Lead, Kindly Light": Noel Leslie, The Countess of Rothes

The Countess of Rothes, whose name was Noel Lucy Martha Leslie, was reknowned for her beauty, her gracefulness on the dance floor, her lifelong philanthropy. But when it comes to Titanic, she is famed for her relentless optimism and being the fiercest woman on the sea.

Noel was 33 when she boarded Titanic with her parents, cousin-in-law Gladys Cherry, and maid Roberta Maioni, at Southampton. Before setting sail, she was interviewed and stated that she was going to America to see her husband, and that they hoped to purchase a pretty little orange grove.

When the reporters derisively asked her if she looking forward to leaving the glamour of London society for a "California fruit farm," she replied, "I am full of joyful expectation."

The Countess's parents disembarked at Cherbourg, and the others carried on.

On April 14, the crash woke the ladies in their suite, and they sought out Captain Smith, who insisted they immediately find lifevests and head for lifeboats. The three were put into Lifeboat 8 around 1am, which was launched off the port side.

Captain Smith put approximately 4 men with experience at sea in Lifeboat 8; unfortunately, they were experienced stewards and the like, not sailors. After they had lowered, and were attempting to push themselves out from Titanic, the ladies on board were critical of their ineptitude, and it certainly didn't help.

Doing their damnedest, stressed, scared, and frustrated, it was reported by a Mrs. White at the Senate Inquiry that one crewman said to another, "If you don’t stop talking through that hole in your face, there’ll be one less in this boat."

The person this vitriol was directly at was Thomas Jones, the lone seaman in Lifeboat 8, only 32 years old, who had been assigned to it by Captain Smith at the last minute. But it was the Countess who immediately took charge.

Jones famously said of the Countess that, because he had to row, "she had a lot to say, so I put her to steering the boat."

And she damn well did, stopping only briefly after an hour so she could take to comforting a fellow passenger, an almost-teenaged newlywed, who was distraught about leaving her husband.

The Countess said "the most awful thing was seeing the rows of portholes vanishing one by one" beneath the water, and later, the sounds of the dying, and the eventual absence of sound from the dead.

She, Tom Jones, and some others wanted to row back for more people, but were overruled for fear of the boat being overturned. Tom Jones is remembered as having said, "Ladies, if any of us are saved, remember, I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them than leave them."

Tom's comment about the Countess having "a lot to say" has been intepreted in recent memory as snide, or some sort of punishment for a woman daring to speak out of turn, but he meant it in earnest. He said, "I heard the quiet, determined way she spoke to the others, and I knew she was more of a man than any we had on board.”

According the the Countess herself, "We were lowered quietly to the water, and when we had pushed off from the Titanic's side I asked the seaman if he would care to have me take the tiller, as I knew something about boats. He said, 'Certainly, lady.'"

At the subsequent inquiries, the Countess also made sure to emphasize that Thomas had wanted to turn the boat back.

If that isn't sufficient to refute the impression that Jones was being vindictive, the Countess bestowed an engraved silver pocket watch upon Thomas Jones in gratitude for his saving their lives. In reciprocation, he sent her the plaque from Lifeboat 8. They remained friends for the rest of their lives, writing to one another every Christmas; the Countess's letter was always sent with a pound enclosed, according to Jones's daughter. The plaque and pocketwatch now both belong to the Countess's family.

The Countess of Badass rowed, alternating with other women, through the night. When the rescue vessel Carpathia was finally sighted, the boat began singing "Pull for the Shore" and "Lead, Kindly Light."

Once on board Carpathia, the Countess was intent on helping steerage survivors, in translating, acquiring medicine, and making clothes. The London periodical Daily Sketch reported, "Her Ladyship helped to make clothes for the babies and became known amongst the crew as the 'plucky little countess.'"

According to her great-granddaughter, Angela Young, The Countess wrote a letter to her own parents, detailing her many busy hours on board Carpathia. In that letter, Noel wrote that she worked closely with the doctors to help feed the children on board so their mothers might recuperate. She was also sought out by the doctors to aid in calming a "hysterical" French woman who they feared might commit suicide; in addition, the young widow Pepita Penasco, who the Countess had comforted in the lifeboat, clung to her "like a baby" as she spoke no English and knew not a soul but one in America.

It further reported that a stewardess had lauded the Countess, telling her, "You have made yourself famous by rowing the boat."

Noel Leslie, Countess of Rothes, replied, "I hope not. I have done nothing."

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