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Titanic Tales: The Collyer family

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

(Nov 26 1880 West Horsley, Surrey, England - Apr 15 1912 The Atlantic Ocean)

(Oct 1 1881 Cobham, Surrey, England - Nov 28 1916 Hampshire, England)

(Jan 28 1904 Leatherhead, Surrey, England - Feb 26 1965 Alverstoke, Hampshire, England)

Harvey Collyer was one of eight siblings and suffered from epilepsy. His role as a sexton at his local church is almost certainly how he met Charlotte, who was a cook in the employ of the minister, Reverend Sydney Sedgwick. They were married in 1903.

Marjorie was born in 1904. They had been active in their church in Leatherhead but moved to Hampshire when their minister moved there. Harvey was a bell ringer as well as the sexton at the new church, St. Mary's, and also ran a grocery store. Charlotte had developed tuberculosis and so the family made a decision to follow in the footsteps of several friends and relocate to Payette, Idaho to take up a new life as peach farmers in the hope a more welcoming climate would prolong Charlotte's life.

The family liquidated their assets, arranging to have all their furniture stowed in the hold and Harvey withdrew all their savings, which amounted to around $5,000, which he requested in cash rather than a bankers draft and kept in his breast pocket.

Charlotte reported an emotional farewell at their church:

"The day before we were due to sail (our neighbours) made much of us, it seemed as if there must have been hundreds who called to bid us goodbye and in the afternoon members of the church arranged a surprise for my husband. They led him to a seat under the old tree in the churchyard and then some went up into the belfry and, in his honour, they rang all the chimes that they knew. It took more than an hour and he was very pleased. Somehow it makes me a little sad. They rang the old chimes as well as the gay ones and to me it was too much of a farewell ceremony."

The family boarded Titanic as Second Class passengers at Southampton the next day.

The Voyage

Harvey wrote a letter to his parents which was mailed from Queenstown. It told of the wonderful time they were having on the ship:

Titanic April 11th

My dear Mum and Dad

It don't seem possible we are out on the briny writing to you. Well dears so far we are having a delightful trip the weather is beautiful and the ship magnificent. We can't describe the tables it's like a floating town. I can tell you we do swank we shall miss it on the trains as we go third on them. You would not imagine you were on a ship. There is hardly any motion she is so large we have not felt sick yet we expect to get to Queenstown today so thought I would drop this with the mails. We had a fine send off from Southampton and Mrs S and the boys with others saw us off. We will post again at new York then when we get to Payette.

Lots of love don't worry about us. Ever your loving children Harvey, Lot & Madge

The Collision

Marjorie had been asleep at the time of the collision but her parents were awake talking. Harvey went out to find out what had happened. He returned with the news of the iceberg collision but said any concerns were dismissed by a ship's officer. Charlotte asked if there was any indication of concern and Harvey responded that on his return to the cabin he had seen the gentlemen playing cards in the saloon and their cards had fallen on the floor and they had simply picked them up and continued playing. Charlotte seemed content not to have to rise, her food that night had been too rich and made her feel full and nauseous. They remained in their cabin unconcerned until they heard the commotion outside. The relentless sound of footsteps of people leaving their cabins. They still felt it was just a brief precaution and were confident they would return to their cabin so proceeded top side with Marjorie and Charlotte still in their night gowns with Cabin blankets over their shoulders. Marjorie left her doll in the cabin.

On deck

The family stood on the boat deck, unsure what to do when a stoker emerged onto the deck. All the fingers on one of his hands had been sliced clean off and he made quite a sight covered in blood, sweat, grim and soot. He staggered about exclaiming the ship was doomed. Things started to get more frantic from that point on.

The call for Women and children went out but Charlotte did not want to be separated from her husband. The first lifeboat they saw had filled rapidly with people who were prepared to leave but the second took longer as the women were more reticent about leaving their husbands behind. As the second departed, the deck started to list and now it was obvious to all that things were getting very serious. Despite this, Charlotte still could not bring herself to consider departing without her husband. They were looking at lifeboat 14 when a sailor simply threw Marjorie into the lifeboat. Charlotte gripped Harvey but the sailor grabbed her by the waist and threw her in as well. Harvey called "Be brave, be brave! I'll find another boat!" He turned back into the crowd and they never saw him again.

On the lifeboat

Charlotte recalls what happened next in vivid detail:

"The boat was practically full, and no more women were anywhere near it when Fifth Officer Lowe jumped in and ordered it lowered. The sailors on deck had started to obey him, when a very sad thing happened. A young lad, hardly more than a school boy, a pink-cheeked lad, almost small enough to be counted as a child, was standing close to the rail. He had made no attempt to force his way into the boat, though his eyes had been fixed piteously on the Officer. Now, when he realised that he was really to be left behind, his courage failed him. With a cry, he climbed upon the rail and leapt down into the boat. He fell among us women, and crawled under a seat. I and another woman covered him up with our skirts. We wanted to give the poor lad a chance; but the officer dragged him to his feet and ordered him back upon the ship.

He begged for his life...but the officer drew his revolver and thrust it into his face. "I give you just ten seconds to get back on that ship before I blow your brains out!" he shouted.

The lad only begged the harder, and I thought I should see him shot where he stood. But the officer suddenly changed his tone. He lowered his revolver, and looked the boy squarely in the eyes. "For God's sake, be a man!" he said gently. "We've got women and children to save. We must stop at the decks lower down and take on women and children."

"The little lad turned round and climbed back over the rail, without a word..."

"All the women about me were sobbing; and I saw my little Marjorie take the officer's hand. "Oh, Mr. Man, don't shoot, please don't shoot the poor man!" she was saying and he spared the time to shake his head and smile."

"He screamed another order for the boat to be lowered; but just as we were getting away, a steerage passenger, an Italian, I think, came running the whole length of the deck and hurled himself into the boat. He fell upon a young child, and injured her internally. The officer seized him by the collar, and by sheer brute strength pushed him back on to the Titanic." As we shot down toward the sea, I caught a glimpse of this coward. He was in the hands of about a dozen men of the second cabin. They were driving their fists into this face, and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth."

After that the lifeboat dropped rapidly and hit the sea with a big splash. The impact caused the boat to spring a leak and freezing water filled the bottom. They did not pick up any other passengers.

The boat rowed away and they saw a big explosion on the ship. Charlotte described it as a great big fan of sparks shot up and the ship broke in half and the sparks came down like a red fountain. The lights were still on and the front of the ship broke away and sank quickly. The lights then went out and the stern rose up. Charlotte could see people hanging on on the decks as it went into the water. Then the screaming started in the dark.

They begged Lowe to return to collect more people but he said if they went back they would be swamped. He managed to gather some lifeboats together and distribute passengers among them to create enough space on 14 to return to collect people. Marjorie and Charlotte were still on the boat as they rowed back to pick up survivors. It was about an hour later and they found William Hoyt, a first class passenger who sadly died in the boat, a steward, Harold Phillimore and Fang Lang, a Chinese third class passenger lashed to a door. They thought Fang Lang was dead but when they pulled him into the boat he sprang to life and took the place of a sailor and rowed all night without complaint or pause. They then encountered the swamped collapsible A and rescued about 13 people.

Marjorie and Charlotte were suffering from sever cold, in their nightgowns, ankle deep in freezing water. Charlotte feinted on more than one occasion. She had her hair untied and at one point it got snagged in the oar lock, yanking a chunk of her hair out of her skull. Marjorie described an exhausted, eerie silence. Marjorie cried as she had left her dolly and it was getting wet. She was sure her father would be on another boat. A women exclaimed she thought she could see a ship on the horizon but she thought it to be just another star, giving another indication of how clear and still the night was. The light turned out to be the Carpathia.

On the Carpathia

Boarding the Carpathia was a challenging experience. Women struggled up the rope ladders but the children were hoisted in emptied mail sacks. The pair waited for the procession of lifeboats to be recovered, hoping that Harvey would be on one of them but had to face the rough final part of the crossing sleeping on the floor with the certainty that Harvey had been lost.

Heartbroken and penniless in New York

Upon arrival at New York the Carpathia was made to unload the Titanic lifeboats at the White Star Line berth before the passengers were disembarked into the waiting press pack. Charlotte had a dress that had been made by a passenger on the Carpathia from the White Star Line cabin blanket, otherwise the pair were standing in everything they owned, their night gowns.

A family friend had travelled from Idaho and found the pair a place to stay. Charlotte became very ill with pneumonia. She wrote to Harvey's mother in a heartbreaking letter:

Brooklyn, New York Sun April 21st My dear Mother and all, I don't know how to write to you or what to say, I feel I shall go mad sometimes but dear as much as my heart aches it aches for you too for he is your son and the best that ever lived. I had not given up hope till today that he might be found but I'm told all boats are accounted for. Oh mother how can I live without him. I wish I'd gone with him if they had not wrenched Madge from me I should have stayed and gone with him. But they threw her into the boat and pulled me in too but he was so calm and I know he would rather I lived for her little sake otherwise she would have been an orphan. The agony of that night can never be told. Poor mite was frozen. I have been ill but have been taken care of by a rich New York doctor and feel better now. They are giving us every comfort and have collected quite a few pounds for us and loaded us with clothes and a gentleman on monday is taking us to the White Star office and also to another office to get us some money from the funds that is being raised here. Oh mother there are some good hearts in New York, some want me to go back to England but I can't, I could never at least not yet go over the ground where my all is sleeping. Sometimes I feel we lived too much for each other that is why I've lost him. But mother we shall meet him in heaven. When that band played 'Nearer My God to Thee' I know he thought of you and me for we both loved that hymn and I feel that if I go to Payette I'm doing what he would wish me to, so I hope to do this at the end of next week where I shall have friends and work and I will work for his darling as long as she needs me. Oh she is a comfort but she don't realise yet that her daddy is in heaven. There are some dear children here who have loaded her with lovely toys but it's when I'm alone with her she will miss him. Oh mother I haven't a thing in the world that was his only his rings. Everything we had went down. Will you, dear mother, send me on a last photo of us, get it copied I will pay you later on. Mrs Hallets brother from Chicago is doing al he can for us in fact the night we landed in New York (in our nightgowns) he had engaged a room at a big hotel with food and every comfort waiting for us. He has been a father to us. I will send his address on a card (My Horder) perhaps you might like to write to him some time. God Bless you dear mother and help and comfort you in this awful sorrow. Your loving child Lot.

The pair gave an interview and were given much charity from the people of New York and amounts from the Mansion House Titanic Fund and the American Relief Fund. True to Charlotte's word they travelled on to Idaho, but they could not settle and returned to England.

Back to the old country

Three months after setting sail they returned to where they had begun, in England, but without anything to their name. Charlotte was staring death in the face and sought a new husband to provide some security for her daughter. She married James Ashbrook Holme, a native of Liverpool, licenced victuallar, much to the disappointment of Harvey's family. They lived at the Fox and Pelican in Haslemere, Surrey. Charlotte finally succumbed to her tuberculosis in 1916 before Holme then also passed away in 1919.

Marjorie, now an orphan, was taken in by her uncle, Walter Collyer, a gamekeeper in West Horsley, Surrey. Marjorie's time at the farm with her uncle and his family is believed to be an unhappy one.

She was married to Royden Bernard Bowman, London-born mechanic, son of a shipping clerk, on Christmas Day 1927. They had the service in the same Church her parents were married in. The couple settled in Chilworth, Surrey. It is believed that Marjorie had a child who died in infancy and then her husband died suddenly at the age of 41 in 1943.

In the 1950s Walter Lord interviewed her for his book A Night to Remember and was motivated to assist Marjorie in contacting the Titanic trustee board for financial assistance. The Board concluded that Charlotte had remarried and Marjorie was not eligible for support. She worked as a Doctor's receptionist and lived a lonely and simple existence. She attended the London gala screenings of A Night to Remember with other survivors but rarely spoke of the event. She once wrote that "that ship had dogged her life"

Frail final days

Marjorie moved into a nursing home in her latter years, in poor health and unable to care for herself. She died of a stroke in 1961, aged 61. She was cremated and her ashes sent on to someone in Guilford, London.

Charlotte was buried in the graveyard at St. Mary's Church, Bishopstoke.

A memorial to Harvey was erected in the same church in the form of a magnificent notice board and umbrella stand that is well used and looked after to this day, the inscription reads:

'Sacred to the memory of Harvey Collyer who fell asleep April 15th 1912 Age 31 years "Jesus said come."'


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