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There has been a lot of debate as to the reasons why the Titanic failed to evade the iceberg. But what happened to the man who spotted the iceberg?
It is widely known that Fleet was despondent over the death of his wife in late 1964; his brother in law was threatening to evict him from his lodgings and Fleet, in a fit of depression, hung himself. This is the story we have been told, and it has been accepted as fact. But the lack of access to the coroner's records has hampered researcher's attempts to write a coda to the life of this sad man; until now, that is. Thanks to newly released records, 50 years on we can now ascertain the events leading up to his tragic end. They make for depressingly grim, desperately sad reading. But at least we now know the truth.
Fleet's comments on the disaster post-1912 are rare. He seems to have slipped into the oblivion of obscurity for five decades. No doubt spurred on by "A Night To Remember" in the 1950s, there was an impetus to learn new aspects of the disaster, and Fleet eventually had his say.
Edward Kamuda of the "Titanic Enthusiasts of America" (TEA, now the "Titanic Historical Society", or THS) had been in contact with Fleet since March 1964, and had even been given his replacement discharge book, issued after the Titanic disaster. In their correspondence, Fleet had revealed that he was an orphan, and that his mother had left him when he was a baby. She had moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and he never knew his parents. He had been brought up in a Dr.Barnado's orphanage till he was twelve and then went into training till he was an Able Seaman. Starting in his profession in 1903, Fleet's last ship was the Olympic, the Titanic's sister, in 1936 [sic].
Another contemporaneous recollection of the disaster is printed in "Titanic Voices". In an interview for the Southampton Echo dated 19th June 1961, Fleet says that April 14th, 1912 was "a beautiful night," screwing up his eyes as he remembered that evening, and stating that there wasn't a ripple in the water. When he saw what lay before the ship he phoned the bridge and said "We're in danger here - iceberg right ahead...I was ordered into number six lifeboat by Mr.Lightoller, the second officer...there were about 40 of us altogether...We got into the boat at one o'clock in the morning, and were told to 'pull for that light' [the Californian]..." The full newspaper interview can be found here. Fleet also gave some recollections to the Southern Evening Echo (April 14th, 1962), where he mainly talks about the efforts to clear the name of Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian (see below); the resultant petition didn't make much sense to Fleet. (The newspaper interview can be found here and here, split into two parts because of the size of the original file.)
Reade related that the memory of the encounter had haunted Fleet for many years after the wreck. He could not sleep at night, remembering the slow advance of that "black thing." Eventually, Fleet had gone to a doctor for help, and the former look-out man thought that his companion, Reginald Lee, had also been shocked by the experience. Fleet said that Lee "died of drink many years ago." [It should be noted that Encyclopedia-Titanica lists the cause of death as pneumonia. Lee died on 6th August 1913. ]
The only other piece of information imparted by Reade was regarding the lights of the mysterious ship seen off the Titanic's bows after the collision, when Fleet affirmed his 1912 testimony that "there was no light" at the time of the collision. Reade noted that Fleet repeated this "more than once, and pleadingly, as if begging to be believed" and also said that when the strange ship, the "one bright light" was finally noticed, "it didn't move. It never moved." When asked if he had seen the Californian, the ex-lookout stated promptly, "She was there all right. She seen us."
Before Reade's interview, there had been no mention of the delay before signalling the bridge; indeed, there is no suggestion of any gap between seeing the iceberg and ringing the bell - and for obvious good reason. If the story Fleet told was true, then he no doubt feared that he would be blamed for not being more prompt in his warning, which could have saved the ship if given in time. 2nd Officer Lightoller himself said at the British Inquiry, "When it comes to derelict wrecks or icebergs, the [lookout] man must not hesitate a moment, and on the first suspicion, before he has time to put his hand to the glasses or anything, one, two, or three bells must be immediately struck, and then he can go ahead with his glasses and do what he likes, but he must report first on suspicion." Soon after, Lightoller said, "[The lookout] knows that if he is trying to keep a good look-out, particularly amongst ice, and he suspects he sees anything, he will strike the bell; if it turns out to be nothing he may come on the bridge and say, "I am sorry that I struck the bell when there was nothing;" but he is invariably told, "Never you mind; if you suspect that you see anything strike the bell, no matter how often." In such cases, the lookout is "in every case commended" for this 'better safe than sorry' mentality. How rigidly had Fleet adhered to this?
Certainly, as author George Behe says in "Titanic: Speed, Safety and Sacrifice," stories that Fleet told in 1912 that he was the only one in the crow's nest at the time of the iceberg were borne out to some extent by his 1964 statements to Reade.
Fleet's interview with Reade and other survivors is of obvious great interest to the research community, but it is not known with any certainty what happened to Reade's papers after he died in 1989. Some of his Titanic collection was put up for auction, as a listing is stored in the collection of his nemesis, Leslie Harrison. Reade's close friend, Edward de Groot, tried to help me to trace the wayward papers; de Groot told me that Reade had an in-law by the name of Dr.Bernstock but when he died in 1990, his wife took over the estate with her son David Silk. Silk relocated to America in that decade and attempts by de Groot and myself to contact him in 2007/8 failed.
Dr.Goodbody's report described a body in quite good health and good nutrition considering Fleet's age. There is nothing to suggest alcoholism, as many have suspected. All that could be said of the liver was a mention of an acutely congested parenchyma. There was "hypertensive left heart disease of a moderate degree together with coronay atheroma to be expected of this age."
Fleet's daughter described herself as a housewife, 46 years old. Her middle names were derived from her parent's Christian names - Frederica and Eva. She said that Fred was 77 years old, being born on 15th October 1887 and that as far as she knew, he never had a birth certificate: at any rate, she had never seen it. Dorothy reported that Fred's wife had died on December 29th and they were legally separated, but about five years previously, Fred started having serious mental blackouts and he spent some time in the Royal South Hampshire Hospital. Doctors advised his ex-wfie that she was legally responsible for him and it was then that he went back to live at 8 Norman Road, her brother's house.
Dorothy reported that Fred and Philip LeGros understood and agreed that after her mother died, Fred would have to find alternative lodgings. Fleet had been trying to find somewhere and had been to the Welfare department. Apart from blackouts, for which he had to take tablets, Dorothy reported that her father's health was good. Since his wife died he did not seem unduly upset. Police came to her on January 4th and told her that Fred had been found in a distressed condition and that he had threatened to commit suicide but she didn't think he would ever do anything like that. During the last week he had appeared his usual self, she told the Coroner. But, on Saturday, 9th January at 11.30am, her father paid her one last visit. He seemed very depressed and he was crying. The initial transcript of her testimony mentions that she had reported that Fleet had told her that he "could not go on any longer and that he had no where to go" : but, strangely, this was crossed out and was replaced with the mention that he "was depressed". Fleet stayed about 3/4s hour and was upset all the time; just before he left he told her to say goodbye to everybody for him. He gave her a wallet with £5 in it and asked her to look after it for him. He also said, "Don't be surprised if I get run down or anything, because I don't know what I am doing." She didn't think a lot about this but it did worry her when he said to say goodbye to everyone. He said she would be getting a letter and she thought this was to do with the Welfare Department. Before he left she made him agree not to do anything silly, meaning "to be careful on the roads." She did not think he would commit suicide she claimed; if she had she would not have let him go. Dorothy didn't know where he went after this but did testify that he spent most of his time roaming the Hampshire and Dorset bus shelter.
With respect to the domestic situation, Mrs Shanley stated that her father and mother did not get on well. Mrs Eva Fleet was very close to her brother Philip and although there was domestic trouble he made Fred welcome in the house. After Fred's death, PC Beasley had shown her a handwritten letter addressed to her which was apparently found in Fred's belongings. She also saw a letter to Philip (see later), also identified as being in Fred's handwriting. Fred's handwritten letter to his daughter read;
My Dear Dorrie
I am sorry what I am going to do I cant stick it any longer, tonight I am hanging myself. Now the stuff in the bedroom is yours two cases, clock, carpet, the carrier by the clothes post outside, the lamp on the floor and wiring I don't know weather it belongs to me or Phil you must ask him the bed clothes you please yourself if you want them dont forget the small case also the chamber I dont know about the bed I am not interresting my self about it I hope to be dead.
Well my dear this is goodbye love to all from your broken hearted father what an end another Titanic man gone. I have left the Photos in the small case dont forget the basin under the sink, now Dorrie I am giving you a big thing to do I have always worried about being buried alive do you know anybody that would help you to have my body taken to the hospital to do what they like with it. I know its not nice to ask a thing like this to be done. Dear Dorrie a new pair of shoes upstairs if you know anybody would like them well this is all I have to say goodbye to all my friends
Police Constable Beasley's evidence was fairly brief: he went to LeGros's address at 9.47am where Fleet was found in the garden. The end of a rope had been spliced into a loop with the other end threaded to form a noose. The rope was not part of the garden's clothes line, and was brand new, appearing to have been purchased specifically for the purpose of suicide. The splicing seemed to have been done in an experienced seaman-like fashion. The rope was wound around a clothes post about 4 times and looped over over a hook 7 feet from the ground. It somehow became the 'property' of Beasley and upon his death in 2019, the rope was bequeathed to the Hampshire Constabulary History Society
A handkerchief was tied loosely around Fred's mouth, and his feet were almost touching the ground. Nearby were some small wooden steps about 2 feet high, which Fleet had evidently used to jump from. Next to the body was a shopping bag in which Beasley found a sealed envelope addressed to Mr P Shanley. He opened it and found a letter written to the daughter (see above).
Philip LeGros described himself as a storekeeper, working at Boots Chemist store at 84 Shirley High Street. He was 69 years old. LeGros confirmed that Fleet had been living at his house for the last four years, and his ex-wife also lived there in a separate room, owing to their legal separation. LeGros only allowed Fleet to live at his house because of his sister and as soon as she died it was understood and agreed that he would have to leave his home. Fleet had remained at his house since then and he had been seeking other accommodation, and had also been to the Welfare department. Fleet's health was described as being physically "very good" but his mental state had been suspect for a number of years and he had been receiving advice from his doctor, Dr Ritchie.
LeGros last saw Fleet on Friday night, 8th January at about 9pm. In the summary of his testimony, the line "He [Fleet] told me that he was going to stay with friends, temporarily, whilst waiting for a room in Archers Road. I do not know the name and address of the persons he was supposed to be staying with" is crossed out. Fleet went to bed that night and seemed to be quite normal. LeGros did not see him on Saturday morning. LeGros returned home for lunch at about 1.45pm on 9th January 1965 and found a note on the kitchen table in Fleet's handwriting:
If I am not home between 9 pm or ten tonight please lock up I will be staying with those people I am staying with.
Legros looked in Fleet's room when he went to bed at 11.30pm on Saturday January 9th and found that the cases were packed, his bed stripped and the room unoccupied. He assumed he was staying with his friends he had mentioned. The next day, at about 9.30am LeGros went outside to the coal house and saw his brother-in-law leaning against the clothes post at the end of the garden. Fred "appeared" to be meditating and LeGros called out to him to come in for a cup of tea but Fleet did not reply. Going towards him, LeGros saw that he was hanging and apparently dead. Immediately, he went inside to telephone the police. LeGros saw his garden steps were behind the body and noted that they had been taken from the garden shed. Concluding his testimony, LeGros noted that, "Owing to the domestic situation between he and my sister, he and I were not on the best of terms and I only tolerated him in my house because of my sister."
Researcher Andrew Williams tells us that, as the date of the inquest grew closer, LeGros's opinion of Fleet changed and he became more compassionate whereas in the past he had labelled the ex-lookout as "****ing useless." One can only wonder if LeGros's testimony at the inquest was true or if he altered it to prevent any unfavourable opinions being made by others about himself.
Having heard all this, the coroner agreed in his report that, "It was known by the deceased that after her death he would have to find other accommodation and these two things may have played upon his mind." A verdict of suicide was entered. As a postscript, the afore mentioned Ed Kamuda had also written (on January 14th) to the Lord Mayor of Southampton about Fleet's death. Although Kamuda incorrectly states that Fleet has a middle initial ("F"), he felt duty bound to send a copy of the last letter from the former look-out to the authorities in Southampton. The letter had just arrived at 1pm on the 14th and Kamuda had been alerted to the sad news by the TEA's historian who had seen a death notice in late city edition of the New York Times of January 12th. Fleet's letter to his friend was as follows:
My Dear Friend
Just a few lines to let you know I am in deep trouble. I have just lost my wife, also I am leaving my house the place where I have been living their is only my brother in law and myself we cannot agree, so I think it is, to let you know not to write to me until I give you my new address I have to find myself somewhere reasonable as I only have my pension to live on so please dont send anything at all. So I will close with kindest regards to you
From yours Sincerely
It is interesting to note that as late as 2007, Fleet was considered to have no children; but this sadly shows how slipshod and lazy some researchers could be. The Southampton Reference Library with its rich array of data, open to anyone, could have told anyone in seconds of Fleet's child thanks to the newspapers of the era. Nevertheless, perhaps the relatives who threatened legal ructions in 1993 were indeed descendants of Fred?
In hindsight, and with the benefit of 21st century social values, it is easy to criticise Fleet's daughter and his brother-in-law. Surely, some may say, Dorothy Shanley must have absorbed some of the hints that he was suicidal? Or was she so intent on removing Fleet from LeGros's house that she wilfully ignored the warnings and then down-played her suspicions at the inquest? This seems heartless, even if Fleet was difficult to live with as the testimony suggests. Likewise Mr.LeGros: did he ignore Fleet's despondency after the loss of his sister because he was adamant that Fred should leave his abode? Fred's last letter to Kamuda hints that he was being heartlessly evicted; but we now know that this is not the truth. LeGros let Fleet stay on over a week after the death of his ex-wife.
Naturally, there is a lot more to learn about Fleet's life; appeals for his history have been found on genealogy forums (such as here, and here, with the added salacious suggestion that he was a bigamist) and one can only hope that more research will aim to do justice to the sad life of this pathetic individual.
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