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“A Trip to See the Stars”: The Spedden Family

"A Trip to See the Stars": The Spedden Family

Frederic Oakley Spedden and his wife Daisy boarded Titanic as First-Class passengers with their six-year-old son Robert Douglas, who was called by his middle name. Along with them was their maid, Miss Helen Wilson, and Douglas’s private nurse, Elizabeth Burns.

Douglas was precious to his very doting parents, as he was an only child. And he loved Elizabeth dearly, and called her “Muddie Boons” because he couldn’t pronounce her name properly. They were practically inseparable.

Mr. and Mrs. Spedden were from New York, and both of them were the heirs of extremely affluent families. The family had been traveling abroad since 1911, beginning in Algiers, and going on to Monte Carlo, then Paris. They had also spent some time in northern Africa, including Egypt.

They elected to sail on Titanic for the return home.

Young Douglas Spedden is one of Titanic’s most recognizable characters. If you’ve seen enough Titanic-related photos—or recall the moment in the 1997 film, when that Jack Dawson casually steals a First-Class passenger’s coat—then you’ll recall Douglas.

He’s the little boy playing with a spinning top on deck.

He stands on his toes in the bright sun, as his father, who has a camera strapped to his shoulder, coaches him. Two unnamed men, standing still in their greatcoats, watch with their back to the camera; one smokes a cigar, the other holds a cigarette behind his back.

The photo was taken on April 11, 1912, by Fr. Francis Browne, who labeled it thusly in his personal photo album.

“The children’s playground” Taken about midday on the Saloon deck.

As reproduced in "Father Browne's Titanic Album: A Passenger's Photographs & Personal Memoir" by E.E. O'Donnell. Messenger Publications, 2011.

We know a bit about how the Speddens spent their time thanks to Daisy’s diary. For instance, Daisy, along with Douglas's nurse, took to the Turkish baths on Saturday, April 13, 1912. Turkish baths were a very popular luxury in the Edwardian period, so Daisy had every reason to believe that it would be delightful.

It was not.

She wrote in her diary, “It was my first and will be my last, I hope, as I’ve never disliked anything so much in my life.”

Daisy did, however, enjoy the dip in the heated swimming pool that followed. She also wrote that she spent Saturday afternoon playing cards.

The Speddens responded very quickly once they learned of the collision with the iceberg. Frederic and Daisy had woken up by the sound of the iceberg scraping the ship, and went up on deck in their nightclothes. When they noticed the listing deck, they dashed downstairs to wake their servants. Muddie Boons immediately roused Douglas.

When he asked why, she told him they were going to take “a trip to see the stars.”

Luckily for the entire family--but especially Frederic Spedden--they found their way to the starboard side of the ship and Lifeboat 3. With no other women in plain view, First Officer William Murdoch permitted Mr. Spedden to join his wife and son in the lifeboat.

Helen Wilson's recounting dated April 22, 1912, described it in detail.

Mr. Spedden was saved by what might be really called a leap for life. He had put his family into the boat which was lowered at once, and there were no more women in the immediate vicinity, so one of the officers seeing room for one more said to Mr. Spedden. 'You may as well jump and save yourself.' He did so and landed in the boat, thus joining his family.

And in all of this, Douglas had a stowaway.

He'd taken with him was his favorite stuffed toy: a Steiff polar bear that his Auntie Nan had purchased from F.A.O. Schwartz, perhaps as a Christmas gift, in 1911.

Fittingly, its name was Polar.

Douglas slept through the night in the arms of Elizabeth Burns, and awoke at dawn. When he looked around him, he was in awe. “Oh, Muddie," he said. "Look at the beautiful North Pole with no Santa Claus on it.”

Douglas was still sleepy when he was brought on board Carpathia. Like all the children rescued from Titanic, he was hoisted aboard in a burlap bag or net, because crewmen feared they would fall from the ladder climbing up the side of the ship.

And Douglas, quite accidentally, left Polar behind. When he realized his beloved toy had gone missing, he was nearly inconsolable. Daisy and Frederic may have sought a replacement in Carpathia's souvenir shop. But for Douglas, only Polar would do.

It was procedural, for rescue ships to haul in a lost vessel’s lifeboats—typically, by hoisting it up via a hook on one end. And when they drew up lifeboat 3, a waterlogged white toy rolled onto the deck.

The crewman who found him wrung him of his water and kept him, hoping to bring it home as a gift for his child. But when he encountered the Speddens and a still-upset Douglas, he connected the dots and presented the little boy with his stuffed bear.

By the grace of fate, all five of the Spedden party were saved—six, actually, if one includes Polar.

In 1913, Daisy wrote and illustrated a little book, which she titled “My Story.” It was, she hoped, a way to explain to young Douglas what they’d all been through, and gave it to her son as a gift for Christmas.

The story was written from the perspective of Polar, from his "birth" in Germany and his life in the toy store, to his happy adoption by Douglas and all his extraordinary adventures since, including the sinking of Titanic.

Sadly, though, the Spedden family's miraculous escape from Titanic did not inoculate them against heartbreak.

In the summer of 1915, while at his family summer home in Maine, Douglas ran out from within some shrubbery to catch a tennis ball and was hit by a car.

The frantic driver, a 27-year-old man named Foster Harrington, carried Douglas back to his home. Douglas briefly regained consciousness in the day following the accident, but declined rapidly and died from “concussion of the brain.” He was one of the first deaths by automobile in the state.

He was only 9 years old.

Bereft, Frederic and Daisy left their son’s room entirely untouched. So there Polar lived, at the bottom of a basket of toys, alone for decades without his boy. And as Douglas's parents died, poor Polar was lost to time.

Until Daisy Spedden’s diaries, along with Polar's original storybook, was discovered in a steamer trunk  in an attic.

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