12 Famous People Who Didn't Board the Titanic
12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic

Natasha sheldon - December 20, 2017

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic
The Grapes, Southampton. Google Images.

The Slade Brothers

On April 6th, 1912, brothers Alfred, Tom and Bertram Slade all signed on as firemen on the Titanic. All were seasoned sailors. 25 years old Alfred had just finished a tour of duty on The Highland Glen and Bertram, 26 and Thomas, 27 had transferred from the Titanic’s sister ship the Olympic. However, despite signing on and reporting for muster on the morning of April 10th, they missed the ship’s departure.

After reporting on board at 8 am on April 10th, the brothers, like many of the crew, decided to pass the time before boarding in one of Southampton’s many pubs. The Slades settled themselves down in The Grapes, a public house that was a short walk from the docks. At 11.15 they were joined by crewmates John Podesta and William Nutbean, who had been drinking elsewhere but decided to chance one last drink with the Slades.

At about ten minutes to twelve, the group left The Grapes to make their way to the Titanic. However, they were delayed when a passenger train heading to the docks drew up and blocked their way. It was a long train and if the crewmates waited for it to stop, going around it would severely hamper their journey. The Slades, however, were quite relaxed. “Oh let the train go by,” Podesta later said he heard one of the brothers say. However, Podesta, Nutbean and a fireman from the ship decided not to chance the wait and dashed across the train lines just in front of the train, leaving the Slade brothers behind.

By the time the brothers reached the White Star dock, it was 11.59, and the gangplank was just being drawn up. Despite the fact he could have let the brothers on, the officer in charge of the gangway refused to lower it. Southampton docks were packed with sailors desperate for the work, and when the brothers did not board, he had taken new men on to replace them.

John Podesta and William Nutbean managed to survive the sinking. However, the men who replaced the Slade brothers did not return. Indeed, out of the 724 ordinary Titanic crewmembers listed with Southampton addresses, 549 died in the sinking. The Slade brothers might have lost their jobs that day. But they had saved their lives.

As they had turned up for muster but did not board the ship when it sailed, the Slade brothers were listed as deserters- however unintentionally. However, another of their crewmates saved his life by deliberately jumping ship.

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic
Queenstown, Ireland. Google Images

John Coffey

Unlike the Slades, twenty-three-year-old Irish fireman John Coffey managed to board Titanic at Southampton. However, once the ship reached Ireland, he deserted- thus avoiding the final, doomed leg of the voyage and joining the “Just Missed it” club.

Like two of the Slade brothers, Coffey had previously served as a fireman on the Olympic. Again, like the brothers, he signed up for Titanic at Southampton on April 6th. However, unlike the Slades, Coffey managed to make it safely aboard the ship at Southampton to begin its maiden voyage.

However, when the ship docked at Queenstown in Ireland, Coffey deserted. The reasons why he jumped ship are open to speculation. Some say Coffey had a foreboding of the impending disaster, but it is perhaps more likely that he never intended to sail on with Titanic past Ireland. He could merely have wanted passage back home. In any case, Coffey did not remain in Queenstown for long. Shortly after his desertion of Titanic, Coffey signed on with the Mauretania, according to a report in The Courier on Monday, April 29.

Coffey continued with his career at sea as a ship’s fireman. However, the next time he made the news was in 1941, when The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, described how he was rescued after falling into the river At Hull! The newspaper recorded how Coffey’s rescuer, a Mr. James Bielby, a fellow fireman, was given a royal humane society award for rescuing Coffey one November night in 1940 when he was in “imminent danger of drowning.” It seems Coffey was a non-swimmer, making his desertion of the liner doubly lucky because, as a non-swimmer, he would have stood no chance of survival on Titanic.

Crew aside, the last student of Escoffier had a narrow escape when he was booked to travel on Titanic to a new life in America.

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic
The Carlton Hotel, London. Google Images.

Joseph Donon

Joseph Donon decided to become a chef because he was so fussy about his food. So when he was 13, he began his apprenticeship as a kitchen hand. He showed such an aptitude for cooking that he advanced quickly and by the age of seventeen, Joseph was the assistant chef to the Marquis de Panisse Passis at Villeneuve-Loubert. In 1905, the famed French chef, Auguste Escoffier happened to be visiting the Marquis and was impressed by the young chef’s work. “If you are ever in London, come and see me,” he told Donan. Taking Escoffier at his word, Donan left France and six weeks later was working for Escoffier at London’s Carlton Hotel.

In 1912, Donan impressed another diner so much that he poached him. Wealthy American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, an associate of JP Morgan was dining with his wife at the Carlton. So impressed was he by his meal that he asked to meet the chef who had cooked it. Frick then presented Donon with a tip-in 20 gold dollar pieces- and offered him the job as his personal chef in America. The twenty-four-year-old Donan readily agreed.

And so, Donan found himself booked for passage to America on the same ship as his new employers: Titanic. However, Mrs. Frick sprained her ankle, and so the Fricks and Joseph Donan delayed their passage by two days, thus saving their lives. Once in America, Donon, worked for the Fricks until the First World War when he returned to France to fight.

However, after the war, he returned to America, becoming the household chef of Mrs. Hamilton Twombly, the daughter of William H Vanderbilt. He worked for the Twombly’s until his retirement aged 67. In his time, Joseph Donan became something of a celebrity as he became the most famous private chef in America.

However, Joseph Donan was not the only future artistic talent America nearly lost to Titanic.

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic
Edgar Selwyn. Google Images

Edgar Selwyn

Edgar Selwyn was to become an important figure in American entertainment during the first half of the twentieth century. He co-founded and built the Selwyn theatre on Broadway in 1918. However, he was perhaps most famous as the founder of Goldwyn Pictures, which later went on to become MGM studios. At the age of 17, Selwyn had tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Chicago River. Instead, he landed on the ice, which saved him. Twenty years later, he was rescued from a similar icy death at sea- this time all for the sake of reading a book.

According to the diary of Arnold Bennett, the famous English novelist, and playwright, he and Selwyn met in April 1912- a meeting that saved Selwyn’s life. Selwyn was due to travel back to America in the company of American producer H B Harris and his wife, Irene. However, he was eager to read an early draft of Bennett’s new novel The Reagent. The problem was, by April 10th, the novel wasn’t ready to read. So both Selwyn made his excuses to the Harris’ and stayed in England.

The Harris’ departed on Titanic. Although Mrs. Harris made it safely onto a lifeboat, HB Harris went down with the ship. Meanwhile, on April 19th, Selwyn was still safe in England and had finally read The Reagent- the novel that saved his life. He returned to America to enjoy the greatest success of his career to date, the musical “The Wall Street Girl” which ran for 56 performances from June 1912. In the same year, he produced “Within the Law” which accrued a net profit of a million dollars just days before the introduction of federal income tax. 1912 was indeed Selwyn’s lucky year.

A misunderstanding and overzealous newspaper reporting made one person who was never due to sail on Titanic into a member of the “Just Missed It” club.

12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic
James Hart-the man registered to serve on Titanic. Google Images

Thomas Hart

“Thought to be lost – Alive,” declared the New York Times, in May 1912. The headline was referring to Thomas Hart, a ship’s fireman on the Titanic who was believed to have drowned when the liner went down. Instead, according to the paper’s sub-headline: “Another man signed on the Titanic Under Thomas Hart’s name.” In England, The Times had also taken up the story, reporting that ” Thomas Hart, a fireman who was supposed to have been drowned in the Titanic, has, according to his mother’s statement, turned up alive.”

The story was a sensation. It told how Thomas Hart signed up to the ship, and sometime in between then and Titanic’s departure, drank himself unconscious. He came to only to find his discharge papers and the Titanic gone. Hart was so ashamed of his behavior that he did not return home until he learned that he had been reported lost with the ship.

However, this sensational story of survival was also a complete work of fiction. It was seeded by an announcement in The Merseyside Daily Newspaper in May 1912 which read: “Messrs. Quilliam, of Liverpool, solicitors, acting on behalf of relatives of Thomas Hart, marine fireman, of Liverpool, supposed to have been lost in the disaster, have been informed by his mother that her son has turned up. He told her that he had had his discharge book stolen from him.”

The reality was, Thomas Hart was indeed a ship’s fireman- but from Liverpool, not Southampton. His mother, Jane, who had already lost her husband- also a fireman- at sea, panicked. Seeing the Titanic had been lost, she jumped to conclusions and contacted solicitors to try and find out more information. When Thomas turned up safe and well, she attempted to rectify her mistake. However, Chinese whispers and the newspaper’s hopes for a good Titanic-related story blew the real facts out of all proportion.

The crew’s manifests confirm that Thomas Hart was not signed up to Titanic. However, a James Hart was. This man, lost with the ship, was assumed by some to have stolen Thomas Hart’s identity. To rectify matters, on May 18, 1912, James Harts family were forced to place an announcement in The Southampton Times, and The Hampshire Express to clear his name, because of “the inference was that he had sailed under false pretenses.”

The announcement proclaimed James Hart had used his own discharge book which was “a good one” so he had no need to “hide behind another man’s character.” If he had used “the name of the Liverpool man, he must also have given the Liverpool address of that fireman.”

J. Hart was a member of the British Seafarers’ Union,” finished the announcement “and we have been asked by the members of his family to publish the facts in order that the dead might be vindicated.”


Sources For Further Reading:

Reuters – J.P. Morgan Did Not Sink The Titanic To Push Forward Plans For The U.S. Federal Reserve

ThoughtCo – A Timeline of the Sinking of the Titanic

Smithsonian Magazine – Seven Famous People Who Missed the Titanic

Vintage News – Strokes of Luck – 5 Famous Passengers who Nearly Boarded the Titanic

NBC News – How Marconi’s Wireless Tech Helped Save Titanic Passengers

SCMP – 12 Famous People Who Went Down with The Titanic – And 11 Who Survived

History Collection – Haunting Photographs and Quotes from Titanic Survivors