A century on from the tragic sinking of the Titanic, we explore the incredible life of one survivor who was born right here in Tunbridge Wells.
The time was April 1912 and an historic event was about to unfold. Preparing for her maiden voyage, the Titanic was presented as ‘the largest vessel in the world’ – such luxury had never before been seen on a ship and some of the wealthiest people on earth waited to board for that fateful Atlantic crossing, from Southampton to New York City.
On Wednesday April 10, a 22-year-old woman called Elsie Edith Bowerman was among those heading up the gangplank of the vessel, which had been declared ‘unsinkable’ by its creators. She had been born in Tunbridge Wells in 1889 to Edith and William Bowerman, who owned a chain of shops and were considered extremely wealthy, but had then moved down the road to St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex. Together with her mother, Elsie was travelling to America to visit relatives of her late father. Their first class tickets cost £55 (the equivalent of about £5,000 today), entitling them to occupy Cabin 33 on Deck E.
It was just over a week later that the ship collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, killing more than 1,500 people and becoming one of the worst maritime accidents in peacetime.
Miss Bowerman was among the 700 survivors and later wrote of the ordeal: “The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck.”
The ‘women and children first’ policy, along with the privileges enjoyed by first class passengers, permitted Elsie and her mother a spot in Lifeboat Six, the third to be lowered at 0055hrs.
“We were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction,” she recalled. “This we did, and to pull and oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with icebergs floating about is a strange experience.”
Among their 22 fellow lifeboat passengers were Frederick Fleet, the lookout who had first spotted the iceberg, and ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown, a character immortalised in the 1997 film Titanic. She demanded the ladies in the boat be permitted to row to keep warm and threatened to throw the men overboard if they refused.
The survivors were eventually rescued by the Carpathia and taken to New York, where they were greeted by some 40,000 people. The Bowermans returned home as minor celebrities although both women were already well known for their active involvement in the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) founded by Mrs Pankhurst in 1903. They used militant methods and faced arrest in their pursuit of women’s rights.
After her traumatic experience at sea, Elsie Bowerman became an orderly in a women’s hospital unit, serving Serbian and Russian armies in Rumania. When her unit retreated to St Petersburg in 1917, she witnessed firsthand the Russian Revolution.
On her return Miss Bowerman continued her suffragette work, travelling nationwide with the Pankhursts as an events organiser. After the armistice in 1918 she became secretary of the Women’s Guild of Empire, yet her principal interest lay in the law, in which she gained an MA. She was admitted to the bar in 1924, becoming one of the first female barristers at the Old Bailey. Then in 1938 she joined forces with the Marchioness of Reading to establish the Women’s Voluntary Service.
Elsie Bowerman, who never married, was a fierce advocate of women’s rights throughout her life, as well as being a highly accomplished individual. In 1947 she headed for America to help set up the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, later returning to join her mother in St Leonards-on-Sea. She died in 1972 at the age of 83 following a stroke and is now buried in Hastings Cemetery. Her estate totalled £143,000 – which today would be the equivalent of around £2milllion. A blue plaque in St Leonards-on-Sea remembers her as: ‘Suffragette, Barrister and Survivor of the Titanic disaster’.
Written by Philippa Park