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Today's date: Sunday April 21, 2019 Vol 52 Issue 16

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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

A little known local survivor of the 1912 Titanic disaster

The name of Thomson Beattie is a familiar one to many of those who have an interest in Wellington County history.

Born in 1875, he was a son of John Beattie, the Fergus banker who became the clerk of Wellington County in 1871. As a young man, Thomson Beattie moved to Winnipeg and with his share of his father’s estate, he embarked in the real estate business during the big boom period of Winnipeg.

In 1912, with a couple of pals, Beattie embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe. He booked his return on the new steamship, The Titanic. When the doomed vessel struck the iceberg he was one of about 20 who managed to scramble into the last inflatable raft launched before the ship slipped beneath the waves.

Beattie had to swim to the raft through the icy North Atlantic water, and other survivors pulled him aboard. The raft was filled almost to overflowing with freezing seawater. It drifted aimlessly for about four hours. At daybreak it was spotted by those aboard one of the large lifeboats, which manoeuvred to rescue those in the raft. By then three in the raft had died of exposure. Thomson Beattie was one of them.

Another passenger with Wellington County links on that voyage was a fellow named Harry Romaine.

His father, Charles E. Romaine, has been mentioned more than a dozen times in this column. The elder Romaine (also spelled Romain in some sources) was born in Quebec City in 1821, to mysterious but apparently aristocratic parents of Italian origin. He attended good private schools, and as an adult found employment with Gooderham & Worts in Toronto. His employer was then the largest industrial firm in the province, with a huge distillery, flour milling facilities and a controlling interest in the Bank of Toronto.

In 1856, when the Grand Trunk railway opened westward from Toronto, the firm sent Romaine to Guelph to open a grain buying office. An astute businessman, Romaine did well, but a few years later he took employment with the government as a revenue agent.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Romaine waged war on illegal distilleries in Wellington and beyond, leading a life of high adventure and danger. Though in his 50s, he could outrun and outshoot men half his age. He raised a family in Guelph, and taught his children the good manners and aristocratic ways he had learned in his childhood.

One of his children, Harry Romaine, took after his father, leading a life filled with escapades and mystery. The elder Romaine retired to Toronto, but young Harry retained connections with childhood friends in Guelph and as well as Toronto.

Harry was not content to lead a quiet life. He seems to have roamed the continent in pursuit of adventure, as well as engaging in more routine business ventures. His travels took him on excursions to the Yukon, California, New York City and probably elsewhere.

A major part of the problem in tracing his activities and movements was his fondness for using assumed names. Some were variants on his own, such as “Charles Rolmane.” Others were not, and it is therefore impossible to put together a complete picture of his life.

Charles Romaine had earned a reputation in Guelph as a host at card parties, playing whist drinking imported wine with friends through the night and into the morning. Harry learned much at his father’s elbow, and acquired his fondness for card games.

One of Harry’s favourite activities as an adult was to occupy himself as a professional card player and gambler. In 1911 and 1912 he was in Europe, and he chose, as a novelty, to return to North America aboard the newest wonder of the seas, The Titanic, in April 1912.

Professional card players were one of the hazards of travel in the early 20th century. Experts on the subject of the Titanic claim there were at least a dozen on its maiden and only voyage. On that trip Harry was travelling with two other card sharps, who were travelling as Harry Homer and “Boy” Bradley.

On the fateful night there were two card games underway in the first class smoking lounge. Romaine and Homer were sitting at a game of eight-handed poker, while Bradley was recruiting new players. There were 11 men in the lounge when the ship struck the iceberg, but they merely shrugged and continued their games.

After a time the steward announced to the gamblers the accident looked very serious, and the lifeboats, with women and children aboard, had been lowered. Romaine and the other players interrupted their game and went out on the deck to see for themselves. There they found a bunch of men ineptly trying to untie and lower the lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship.

Romaine and his two associates attempted to help load women and children aboard the lifeboats and launch them successfully. While at those tasks they noticed a rough group of men attempting to launch a boat on the port side. Romaine rushed to the group, yelling, “Don’t launch that boat, there are women and children still aboard!”

A giant fireman advanced on Romaine, grunting “keep your face closed,” and threatening him with his fists. Romaine quickly realized the lifeboat was being launched by about a dozen stokers and labourers who had worked their way up from the boiler rooms.

By then Romaine’s two companions were at his side. The firemen soon had the lifeboat swung outward, and were lowering it as quickly as they could. Romaine, Homer and Bradley looked at one another, dashed down to a lower deck, and then dove overboard into the lifeboat. By then it was at least 15 feet below them.

They all landed, with only a few scrapes, in the lifeboat amongst the firemen, who were not pleased at their arrival. Their nominal leader, who was at the rudder, growled, “lie down, you curs, and don’t make a move, or we’ll brain you!”

The firemen, trying to make no noise, managed to row about a half mile from the ship, and then watched it go down. They remained nervous.

“If they see us they will shoot us for sure,” muttered the leader. Romaine and his colleagues remained motionless at the bottom of the lifeboat, fearing the firemen as much as the icy North Atlantic.

With daylight the firemen stayed far away from the other lifeboats, but within sight of them. At about 8am they were spotted by one of the rescue ships, the Cunard liner Carpathia, whose crew pulled aboard the dozen firemen and the three gamblers.

An experienced traveller and fastidious dresser, Romaine headed to the Carpathia’s barber shop for a shave and to freshen up. He was aware that ship’s barbers had custody of extra clothing. He talked the man into giving him and his two associates some bulky sweaters and caps to hide their soiled and torn evening clothes.

Restored to some semblance of respectability, Romaine began to canvas the Carpathia’s passengers for donations to a rescue fund to assist those who were being plucked up from the water. Many were near frozen, and unsuitably clad for the wintery conditions on the Atlantic. Romaine emptied his own pockets into his cap to begin the fund. In a few minutes they raised more than $700 in cash, and almost $9,000 in cheques that Romaine presented to the ship’s bursar.

They used the proceeds to purchase the barber’s entire stock of clothing, and for other items to ease the suffering of those who were rescued.

Romaine’s adventure and near escape generated some stories in the newspapers in Toronto and Guelph, but to him it was just another episode in a life of adventures, one blessed with good luck and the guiding hand of fortune, much in contrast to that of his shipmate, Thomson Beattie.


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