Titanic Hero Hugh McElroy: 'Sand For Breakfast Tomorrow'

It was a little after 2 am on April 15, 1912. The deck of the R.M.S. Titanic was now tilted over 6 degrees toward the sinking bow. As 17-year-old Jack Thayer and 30-year-old Milton Long moved toward one of the last remaining lifeboats on the boat deck, they were moving downhill, toward the rising water. Ahead of them the A and B decks had now disappeared beneath the waves.

(Above: Engraving by Willy Stöwer (1864 – 31 May 1931): Der Untergang der Titanic)

Suddenly they saw a mob of now desperate male passengers charging toward the “Collapsible C” lifeboat as crew members loaded women and children into the canvas sided lifeboat. As the mob approached the boat, Jack saw a tall, broad-shouldered, white-uniformed man rise up near the boat. Jack recognized him as the genial chief purser, Hugh McElroy, but geniality was not what he was projecting to the crowd now. Lifting a pistol, McElroy fired two shots into the air and followed that with a booming order to “STOP!”

(Left: The iconic photo by Fr. Francis Browne of Hugh McElroy, on the left, and Captain Edward Smith on the deck of the Titanic.)

Whether it was the shock of the gunshots, the imposing physical presence of such a well-built man in his uniform, or the thunderous quality of his voice, the mob stopped in their tracks. Had he not stopped them, they might have damaged or destroyed the next-to-last lifeboat to successfully launch from the famous, tragic ocean liner, dooming the 45 people who were saved by it. The Titanic would be headed to the bottom of the ocean in less than 15 minutes. In spite of never making it into a lifeboat before it sank, Thayer would miraculously survive to tell the tale of those final moments on the Titanic.

In the 1911 Irish census, Hugh McElroy and his wife Barbara were living with her father in Tullacanna, County Wexford, but the McElroy family had been living in Great Britain for several generations. Hugh was born in Liverpool on October 28th, 1874. He had two older sisters, Charlotte and Mary, and one younger brother, Richard. All the McElroy children attended Catholic schools, with Hugh attending Cotton Hall Ecclesiastical College in Staffordshire, as did his brother, Richard.

The family went through some hard times when Hugh’s father, Richard, suddenly died in 1888 at just 44 years of age. In 1890, just 16, Hugh began to study for the priesthood in the order called “Canons Regular of the Lateran” at St. Mary’s Priory in Bodmin, Cornwall. Hugh soon found he was not cut out of the clergy, however, and left, though his brother, Richard would follow through and enter the priesthood. Hugh then took the advice of family friend John Ennis, from County Wexford, who was the passenger manager of the Allen Line passenger ship company and was hired by them, beginning his life’s work on ocean liners in 1892. 

(Right: Hugh at 12 years old.)

Ennis got Hugh a job as a purser for the Allen Line, and put the line’s most experienced purser on his first trip on the R.M.S. Numidian to break him into the job. It turned out that Hugh had the perfect temperament for that very difficult job. The happiness of the passengers and crew of an ocean liner often depended on the purser doing this job well. He would be the face of the crew for many passengers. He was the one they came to for everything from handing in messages for the wireless after the Marconi system came into use, to locking up and retrieving money and valuables in the ship's safe, and paying for any of the “extra” things that might be available on the ship, like access to the Turkish baths, deck chairs, swimming pool, and electric baths. They would also come to him with any requests or complaints about their rooms. Whatever question a passenger might have, the purser was the man they depended on for answers.

In addition to all that passenger hand-holding, the purser supervised the paying of the crew and was the head of the Victualling Department, which was usually the biggest department on an ocean liner. He also had a personal table in the dining salon, along with the captain and ship’s surgeon. In 1899, after seven years with the Allen Line, Hugh moved on to the White Star Line. Once again it was with the help of John Ennis, who was a friend of Bruce Ismay, son of Thomas Ismay, the chairman of the line.

Very soon after he started his new job, he was involved in transporting British troops to South Africa on the S.S. Britannic during the Boer War. While spending time in Cape Town during that duty, he was walking along the docks when he suddenly heard a squawk, followed by "Landlubber off the starboard!" Looking for its source, he saw a beautiful white parrot. McElroy immediately felt he needed to own it. When the owner, who worked on a tramp steamer, was reluctant to sell, Hugh turned on the Irish charm and talked about how the parrot would be great for the moral of the troops coming from home on the Britannic. It worked, but the sale was contingent on the parrot being renamed from “Petroleum Pete” to “Baden-Powell,” after Robert Baden-Powell, a well-known British army officer in South Africa and later founder of the Scouting movement. For several years, the white-feathered, loquacious parrot would be seen on McEloy’s shoulder as he strode the deck.

(Left: This grainy old newspaper photo is not of "Baden-Powell. This is McElroy with "Jack Binns." )

In 1904, when McElroy and Baden-Powell had transferred to the S.S. Cedric, an article in The New York Times celebrated McElroy and his unusual partner. Quoting the Times:

Not since the days of Funston, the famous Mexican parrot of Castle William on Governors Island, has there been seen in these parts a bird so wonderfully intelligent as is Baden-Powell, the big white or Australian parrot whose home is on the White Star liner Cedric.

The big, sociable McElroy and his parrot would become well-known among frequent travelers across the Atlantic, as he moved on from the Cedric, to the R.M.S. Republic, the R.M.S Baltic, the R.M.S. Majestic, the R.M.S. Adriatic, and the R.M.S. Olympic. After Baden-Powell was gone, McElroy actually had another encounter with a parrot. He was the “bird minder” on a trip to New York for a parrot named “Jack Binns” that belonged to a man from Brooklyn.

(Right: The confident young purser, Hugh McElroy.)

As his career with White Star continued, his reputation was burnished among both the sailing public and employees and management of the White Star Line. It was said that some people would alter their plans to sail on a ship on which he was the purser. After the sinking of the Titanic, a New York world traveler who knew him well described him as, “famous among all who go down to the sea in ships as a first-class raconteur … big, jolly, courteous, human to the last inch, McElroy was the ideal man for the position he held.” In Liverpool, he was well-known and considered by some the “Commodore Purser” of the White Star Line.

On July 9, 1910, Hugh married Barbara Mary Ennis, who had been his long-time sweetheart and the daughter of John Ennis, who got him into the business. They were married at St. Peter’s Catholic church in Ballymitty, County Wexford. Hugh’s brother, Father Richard McElroy, performed the ceremony. The two of them lived with her father at the family estate in Tullycanna, Ballymitty, for a while, before moving back to Liverpool.

(Left: McElory with his wife, Barbara Ennis, and their nephew, John, son of her brother John. Taken in Waterford, Ireland.)

McElroy’s last post before the Titanic was aboard the Titanic’s sister ship, the R.M.S. Olympic, which was built shortly before the Titanic. The captain of the Olympic was Edward Smith, the same man who would captain the Titanic. Bruce Ismay, who had succeeded his deceased father as chairman of the line, announced in April 1912 that they were putting their best crew in Titanic. Many of Captain Smith’s crew from the Olympic followed Smith to the newer ship, including McElroy; Henry Wilde, Chief Officer; Dr. William O'Loughlin, the ships surgeon; and First Officer William Murdoch. O’Loughlin, from Tralee, County Kerry, was 62-years-old and a very good friend of McElroy, as was Captain Smith. O’Loughlin told Smith that he was tired and ready to retire, and thus reluctant to switch ships, but Smith convinced him to do so.

Dr. Beaumont, who also served on the Olympic, later said, “Purser McElroy had been woken on several occasions on the R.M.S. Olympic due to suffocating nightmares, which gave way to him having some premonitions about sailing on the R.M.S. Titanic. ... He would have nightmares of being in a dark tunnel or cave with no means of escape.” There was no indication that McElroy needed any cajoling from Smith or Ismay. So perhaps the doctor was exaggerating McElroy’s possible premonition.

(Right: 1st Officer William Murdoch, Captain John Smith, Purser Hugh McElroy and Dr. William O’Loughlin, left to right, on the Olympic in 1911. All would move on to the Titanic in 1912.)

Barbara came to Southampton to spend a few days with Hugh before the Titanic sailed in April. They enjoyed a few pleasant days staying at the venerable Polygon Hotel. They spent time with the Danish dancer Adeline Genee, who had become a friend of theirs after Hugh met her on a transatlantic trip. She was doing a show at the Hippodrome. The Titanic wasn’t leaving until Wednesday, the 10th, but Hugh had so much prep work to do that he wanted to sleep on the ship Tuesday night. And so they kissed goodbye as he left, as they had so many times in the last few years, always to return to her. He was leaving on the “unsinkable,” brand new liner that was then the largest moving object ever made by man. Surely there was little danger involved.

McElroy apparently had a reputation as a “bird minder” now and once again had a feathered friend on this voyage, at least the first part of it. It was a prize canary that, luckily for the canary, was delivered to a Mr. Meanwell at their first stop in Cherbourg.

McElroy had a visitor to the Purser’s Office on C Deck before departing Southampton. It was Father Francis Browne, nephew of Bishop Robert Browne of Cobh (then called Queenstown), an old friend of McElroy’s. The Father had a brand-new camera and asked Hugh to give him the run of the ship to take photos. It’s fortunate that he did, as Father Browne would be departing the ship in Cobh, their last European stop, and the photos he took would one day be some of the last photographic records of the Titanic. That included the last known photo of it, steaming out of Cobh harbor. Browne would go on to serve as a chaplain during World War 1 and was wounded five times. Field Marshal Douglas Haig described him as “the bravest man I ever met."

(Left: Father Francis Browne.)

Mrs. Eleanor Cassebeer, from New York, recalled asking McElroy for an upgrade from 2nd Class and being accommodated with one of the few open 1st Class cabins. This may have saved her life, as all but four women from 1st Class survived the sinking, while 13 from 2nd Class perished. Mrs. Cassebeer then pushed her luck and asked for a place at the Captain’s table. McElroy knew he couldn’t pull that off for her, but he turned on the Irish charm and cheerily told her, “I’ll do better than that. I’ll have you seated at my table.” This satisfied her, but in truth it was said that McElroy often invited people who were traveling without any companions to dine at his table.

(Right: Mrs. Eleanor Cassebeer.)

As busy as McElroy was with supervising the day-to-day running of the huge Victualling Department, he still had time to play the convivial host at his table that fateful night of Sunday, April 14th. Mrs. Cassebeer later described that night’s dinner as “perfect,” with McElroy presiding over the gathering at his table, looking impressive in his white uniform jacket. The conversation was lively, as she and Harry Anderson, another New Yorker on her right, talked about their travels in Europe, and journalist William Stead, on her left, regaled her with “fantastic stories from ancient fairy tales.” And it had been a fairy tale trip on the most magnificent ocean liner in history … to that point.

(Below: Purser McElroy's dinner table on April 14th.)

 "let us drink to the mighty Titanic."

Dr. O'Loughlin rose after the meal and offered the toast: “Let us drink to the mighty Titanic.” Everyone rose and drank and a cheer went up for the majestic, and some thought “unsinkable,” vessel that was speeding them across the wide Atlantic. Many who were toasting must have been thinking that they would remember having made the maiden voyage on this man-made wonder for their entire lives. They were certainly correct, but not for the reason they thought, and for about 70 percent of the male 1st Class passengers and male crew in the room, their “entire lives” did not include seeing the sun rise Monday.

(Left: Dr. William O’Loughlin)

After the delightful meal Mrs. Cassebeer recalled that the Titanic’s orchestra gave a concert which, “like every other night, was divine.” Those musicians would later continue to play until the last moment of the sinking and the entire orchestra perished in the frigid Atlantic. She and the other passengers were enjoying an idyllic trip across the north Atlantic, but as she retired to her room at 11 p.m., the massive ship had less than three and a half hours of life left. As she was brushing her hair around 11:40, she said she felt a slight vibration and a sound like a long howl, as if “the R.M.S. Titanic was crying in pain.” McElroy, after doing his rounds to pick up the day’s receipt from the various bars and the Marconi room, was in his cabin on C Deck when they struck the iceberg, but shortly sought Captain Smith to discover what was happening.

Around midnight, Captain Smith shut down the Titanic’s engines. Thomas Andrews, one of the designers of the ship, had done his inspection of the ship and found six of the forward compartments had flooded. He gave the captain the incredible verdict: The Titanic would sink in about two hours.

(Right: Fr. Browne's photo of the Harold Bride in the wireless room of the Titanic.)

Around 12:15 a.m., Smith had wireless operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips send the "CQD" distress signal. "CQD" is a general call to all vessels, which indicates the vessel sending is in distress and requires immediate assistance. Wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride also sent out a newer call, “SOS,” which had been adopted in 1908, but most operators still didn’t use. Titanic was the fourth vessel known to have used the SOS call. Phillips made the fatalistic joke that they should use it, “because they might never get a chance to use it again.” The SS California was possibly less than 10 miles away, but their wireless operator had gone to bed. Had they gotten the message, they could have arrived before the ship sank. They might have saved everyone, but at the very least, the death toll would have surely been much lower.

Shortly before that, around 12:10, stewardess Annie Robinson saw McElroy with Captain Smith going to inspect the mailroom, which they found flooded almost to the E deck. So McElroy was one of the first members of the crew to know the ship was going to sink. For he and the other members of the crew, their only job now was to try to save as many passengers as possible. The men of the engineering department would remain at their posts to keep the electricity on, which was vital for keeping the pumps working to slow down the rate of sinking, and to keep the wireless working, until minutes before the ship went down. None of them survived. 

(Left: Annie Robinson)

Shortly after speaking with Smith, McElroy told Second Steward Joseph Wheat to start getting lifebelts on the passengers and get them on the deck. He then hurried to the Purser’s Office, where he knew a throng of passengers would soon appear demanding money and valuables from the safe.

(Below: The Purser's Office, against the back wall on on the C Deck landing of the Grand Staircase.)

McElroy must have had to use all his experience of two decades as a purser to keep the crowd from becoming a mob. In the end, there was no time to get it all done. Around 12:35, for the first time in nearly 40 years at sea, and the last time, Captain Smith gave the order to abandon ship. The passengers had claim receipts for their cash and valuables, which McElroy would have assured them would be honored by the White Star Line. He closed the office urging people to get on their life belts and get to the boats. When Noël Leslie, the Countess of Rothes, hesitated, McElroy urged her to go saying, “Hurry, little lady, there is not much time.” McElroy would have the remaining valuables put in leather “Gladstone” bags, but those bags would end up on the Atlantic floor.

(Right: Noël Leslie, the Countess of Rothes.)

His official duties were thus fulfilled. A lesser man might have made a plan to get into one of the lifeboats. McElroy did not. He went up to the boat deck and he used his commanding presence and communication skills to help calm the passengers while aiding First Officer Murdoch load and launch the starboard boats. Somewhere along the line someone passed him a pistol, or perhaps he brought one on board with him. Also assisting them was the chairman of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay. It was said by some survivors that McElroy was in a boat several times assisting passengers, but then stepped out.

The last boat fully launched on the starboard side was Collapsible C. Waiting to board this boat were a large group of 3rd Class passengers. Many of those were women and children. When Jack Thayer saw McElroy rise up and fire two warning shots to stop the rushing of that fragile, canvas-sided boat, it was an act that probably saved 21 women from 3rd Class, 28% of the total that were saved, and 10 children, which was 37% of the 3rd Class children who lived. One of the last people who jumped into that boat was Bruce Ismay. He had helped women and children into the boats up until then, but as he saw what he believed was the last boat launching, the urge of self preservation was too strong. He would be vilified for that decision for the rest of his life. Perhaps McElroy encouraged his old benefactor to save himself, though Ismay never claimed it, but McElroy apparently had no thought of saving himself.

(Left: Bruce Ismay)

McElroy and the rest of the crew tried desperately to launch the final two boats, Collapsible A & B, which were stored on top of the officer's quarters, but the water washed over the forward part of the boat deck before they could do it. They managed to tie A into the launching davits where it was swamped as the boat deck started to go under, but it was cut loose. B landed upside down as they got it off the roof, then floated away upside down as the bow sank deeper. Still, the two lifeboats would end up saving 44 people, including 25 crew members. The men in A picked up 3rd Class passenger Rhoda Mary Abbott, the only female survivor who was on the ship when it went down.

 "Well, it looks as if we will have sand for breakfast tomorrow."

Some time close to the end, McElroy was near the gymnasium, together with his friends, Dr. O’Loughlin, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, Assistant Purser Reginald Baker, and Junior Surgeon John Simpson. Lightoller described the group as, "perfectly calm in the knowledge that they'd done their duty." And certainly the survival rate of the crew would back that up the idea that the crew did its job to the end. Of the 885 men on Titanic’s crew, 693 of them were lost, and a number of those who lived were among the very few survivors who were in the water at the end.

Dr. O’Loughlin had a lifejacket in his hands. He tossed it aside and said to the others, "I don't think I'll need to put this on." He had once told his friend, Dr. Edward Titus, that the only way he wanted to be buried was, “to be placed in a sack and buried at sea.” He was about to get his wish, minus the sack. The men shook hands all around, knowing the odds of any of them living were very slim. The last words Lightoller heard from McElroy were, “Good-bye, I wish you luck. Well, it looks as if we will have sand for breakfast tomorrow.” Shortly after that the waves swept them off the tilted deck. Perhaps as the frigid water enveloped him, Hugh's thoughts were about Barbara, and how short their married life together had been, and how hard this news would be for her.

(Right: Second Officer Charles Lightoller.)

The water temperature was around 30 degrees. How long you might survive in that might vary, but it’s less than an hour; considerably less for most people. And you would be unconscious before that. With no ships lights on the horizon, McElroy would have known it was find a boat or die. No one who remained in the water for very long survived. It took the Carpathia an 100 minutes to reach them.

(Below: From the movie, "Titanic," the moment when the forward part of the boat deck flooded. The partially swamped Collapsible A can be seen floating near the first smokestack.)

Jake Thayer survived on the overturned Collapsible B lifeboat, as did 2nd Officer, Charles Lightoller. They were two of less than 50 who survived out of over 1,500 who were still on the ship when it went down. All of those survivors were either picked up by other lifeboats, or managed to find Collapsible A or B or some other substantial floating debris. Also reaching Collapsible B were wireless operators Bride and Phillips. But Phillips would still die of hypothermia before they were rescued, leaving Bride to tell the tale of the wireless room.

(Left: Harold Bride)

Lightoller was probably very near McElroy when the ship went down, so one could surmise that McElroy must have also had a fighting chance of finding either Collapsible A or B and surviving as well, but it was not to be. Around this time, Titanic 's first funnel broke free and came crashing down to the water, washing the collapsibles further away from the sinking ship. It might have swept the boats away from McElroy, or even landed on him.

Lightoller spotted Collapsible B with several swimmers hanging on to the gunwale ropes and swam over to it. Climbing on board the upside down boat, Lightoller took charge and had the men in the water climb on top of it, knowing they would not survive long in the water. At one point, sure that they would all die, Lightoller led the men on the upside down boat in the Lord's Prayer, but then they were picked up by lifeboats 4 and 12. When Carpathia arrived the next morning, Lightoller was the last survivor picked up. At the British inquiry he was asked when he left Titanic, his reply was "I didn't leave Titanic, sir. Titanic left me.”

(Right: Jack Thayer)

Eva Hart, Second Class survivor, recalled the time after the Titanic slipped below the waves. "The sounds of people drowning are something that I cannot describe to you, and neither can anyone else. It’s the most dreadful sound and there is a terrible silence that follows it.”

Because Hugh McElroy had a life jacket on, his body was among the 333 victims whose bodies were recovered from the sea a week later by the crew of the “MacKay-Bennett.” McElroy would be the most senior member of the crew to be recovered. Most of the crew didn’t put on life jackets. Perhaps McElroy had picked up the one Dr. O’Loughlin discarded.

At first, he was just body No. 157: male; estimated age 32; dark hair; clothing ship’s uniform; white jacket. The body was not immediately identified as Hugh McElroy. They had embalming equipment onboard, but McElroy’s body was either too decomposed or too damaged, which may have happened if the smoke stack fell on him. Captain F. H. Larder decided he should be buried at sea, as were 15 other recovered bodies that day. His body was committed to the Atlantic at 8 p.m. on the 22nd April 1912. Canon Kenneth C. Hind of All Saints Cathedral in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had been brought along and performed the services.

(Left: Hugh McElroy on the right in his white jacket, probably the same one he was recovered wearing, with First Officer William Murdoch, who also perished that night. This was taken on the Olympic.)

Charles Brown, an English comedian and good friend of McElroy, when told of his last words about “eating sand,” said: "That was typical of McElroy. He was one of the merriest, bravest men who ever lived. It was like him to have his little joke in the face of death." Jack Thayer, who got to know McElroy as a 1st Class passenger and had witnessed him protecting the numerous 3rd Class women and children boarding Collapsible C, called him, “as brave and fine a man as ever lived.”

Hugh McElroy did, indeed, end up having “sand for breakfast,” though it was a week later than he expected thanks to the lifejacket. But before he did, he helped make sure that some of the poorest passengers on the ship, at least 10 of them children and their mothers, were able to have their breakfast at a table on April 15th, and for many years after that. He gave the last full measure of devotion to his job, giving his life to safeguard the passengers he was pledged to protect, regardless of class. There were many selfless heroes during that tragic night on the Titanic; Hugh McElroy was one of them.

RELATED LINKS:

"Death of a Purser: Hugh Richard Walter McElroy" by Frankie McElroy

"The Irish Aboard Titanic" by Senan Molony

"Guide to the Crew of Titanic" by Günter Bäbler

Chrolology of Titanic Disaster

Diagram of Titanic Decks

Fr. Francis Browne: The Man Behind the Famous RMS Titanic Photographs

The Titanic Engineers’ Heroic Sacrifice

Dr. O’Loughlin

Jack Thayer

Titanic's Bruce Ismay: From Disaster to Irish Refuge (Video)

The final messages from a stricken ship

Sinking of the Titanic in real time (Video)

Letter from John Smith

McElroy and his parrot

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Assessing Titanic's Irish Connections: Part 1 -- 'From Titanic. Good Bye all.'

Crooning the Irish Experience: Q&A With ‘Titanic’ Songwriter Padraig Lalor

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Tags: Francis Browne, Hugh McElroy, Seafaring, Titanic, William O’Loughlin

Comment by Gerry Regan on May 10, 2018 at 10:10am

Beautifully told story, Joe! As a writer and storyteller, you seem to go from strength to strength! Thanks, Bill and Peter too for these additional insights. What happened to the Leinster? Perhaps one of you fellows might bring that story to WG readers.

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