HE WAS the quiet hero of the Titanic tragedy, a Southampton master mariner whose expertise saved more than 700 lives from almost certain death.
Sir Arthur Rostron was in command of Carpathia, a no-nonsense Cunard ship, which was one of the workhorses of the transatlantic trade.
Carpathia was not one of the glamorous express liners built to compete for the prized Blue Riband, and designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles, but rather she was a reliable vessel which plodded backwards and forwards, year in, year out, without incident, carrying emigrants westbound at a fare of £5.10s (£5.50) and American tourists or returning émigrés eastbound.
On April 11, 1912, Carpathia left New York almost unnoticed just after noon, bound for Trieste as usual on a journey which, for momentous reasons, she would never complete. But a journey which would take her from insignificance to celebrity.
At about the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, a hugely celebrated ocean greyhound was leaving Queenstown in Ireland and heading west on her maiden voyage to New York.
This was Titanic, the brand-new pride of the White Star fleet, commanded by Captain Edward Smith, on his last voyage before retirement.
Titanic had on board many rich and famous socialites, the celebrities of the day, and her departure from Southampton had been as feted as Carpathia’s had been unnoticed.
In command of little Carpathia was 42-year-old Arthur Rostron, an officer with Cunard since 1895, and who lived near Chalk Hill, West End.
He had been master of Carpathia for just three months, and with him on board were 700 passengers.
At 12.15am on the morning of April 15, Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam was in the process of preparing for bed, when he received the first SOS from Titanic.
Immediately Cottam woke the master. In the hours that followed, Captain Rostron rose to the challenge of his first maritime emergency with impeccable, practical thoroughness.
After a brief moment of disbelief in which he quizzed Cottam about the certainty of his seemingly preposterous claim that Titanic was in distress, Rostron immediately ordered a change of course.
Carpathia was 58 miles from Titanic; at 14 knots it would take her over four hours to get there.
The Chief Engineer was ordered to turn off all the heat and hot water so that every ounce of steam could be used to drive the engines. All off duty stokers were raised from their beds to shovel coal into the furnaces as fast as they were able.
Next, Rostron ordered his First Officer to begin specific preparations – the lifeboats were to be slung out, lighting rigged along the ship’s sides, all shell doors were opened in readiness, and slings made to haul up the children and the infirm, ladders and rigging lowered, and the ship’s forward cargo cranes made ready to lift aboard luggage, belongings and lifeboats.
Meanwhile, all remaining crew were summoned to duty and preparations were made to receive Titanic passengers in the public rooms; blankets and warm clothing were gathered to distribute and tea, coffee and soup prepared.
The ship, meanwhile, strained and shuddered as she edged past her maximum speed as every stoker shovelled coal into the furnaces; 15, 16 and finally 17 knots was achieved as the vessel surged through the dark, without radar, past glistening icebergs visible to the lookouts only by the reflection of the stars.
At 4am, on reaching Titanic’s position, Carpathia’s engines were stopped as the crew, together with many passengers now on deck having been alerted both by the hustle of preparations and the increasing cold in their quarters, strained to see some sign of the ship.
Suddenly, they saw a green flare fired by Titanic lifeboat number two, and the first survivors came aboard at 4.10am; by 8.30am Charles Lightoller, the final person to be rescued stepped aboard Carpathia.
Now carrying double her original complement of passengers, Carpathia steamed slowly among wreckage and icebergs seeking more survivors, but none were found.
Carpathia was besieged by calls from the press, which Rostron ordered were to be ignored, and when she finally arrived in New York on the morning of April 18, she was accompanied up river by reporters in hired tugboats shouting questions through megaphones; never had the little Cunarder been the centre of so much attention.
Though much praised and decorated for his calm and exemplary actions, Rostron was reluctant to speak publicly about the disaster.
Many years later he was asked how the little ship could have been coerced to travel at such speed, and how she had progressed safely through ice in the dark, the deeply religious Rostron simply replied; “A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night.’’ Commodore Rostron died in 1940 and is buried in the graveyard of West End Church.