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19th June, 1955
Sir: I have received your letter of 12 June. I am not a very good writer, but I will try to tell you what few incidents I remember as regard the wreck of the Titanic. It happened so long ago, it certainly could not be a thing easily forgotten. But at my age – now 65 ½ years – my memory is not too good, but I will try to give you a few truths of the Disaster.
The Titanic was a brand new ship, and a grand ship too in those days. She was a sister ship to the S.S. Olympic… She was a ship within a ship – with a distance of about three feet between the two shells, and she was believed to be unsinkable. In those days the White Star Line ran a weekly service to New York from Southampton. The plan was to have at least one homeward bound and one outbound, and one in So'ton- one in New York. Being such a fine new ship, all the best (“cream") of Southampton seamen and Engine Room Department men were anxious to join her. Yes, the pick of Southampton went in her.
We sailed from here on the 9th of April, 1912, for N.Y.
We had six boiler rooms (stokeholds). Each boiler room had its own pump room for bilge pumping and boiler feed, etc. 53 firemen, 22 coal trimmers, and five leading firemen on each watch. I forget how many greasers. I guess there were 12 or 14 on each watch. I was on the 8-12 watch.
Being a new ship on her maiden voyage (everything clean) she was a good job in the stokeholds. (Not what we were accustomed to in other old ships – slogging our guts out and nearly roasted with the heat.) Even so, the Titanic would have burned over three thousand tons of coal on each trip. Well, being what I have called a good job, we just had to keep the furnaces full and not keep on working the fires with slice bars, jacker bars, and rakes. We were sitting around on buckets – trimmers’ iron wheel barrows, and such. I had just sent a trimmer up to call the 12 AM to 4 AM watch. It was 11:25 PM , 14th of April, when there was a heavy thud and grinding tearing sound. The telegraph in each section signaled down stop. We had a full head of steam and were doing about 23 knots per hour. We could have given much more steam pressure had it been required.
[Separately to Walter Lord, in conversation, Kemish said that the order to bring Titanic up to 23 knots had come down sometime during the final hours before impact. He was uncertain whether or not this order came down from the bridge specifically on his shift, but he “thought it might have." He also said that in the stokeholds, as far forward as Boiler Room 5, the collision with the iceberg felt more like a running aground or rolling over something, instead of being a mere side-swipe. This note is from Charles Pellegrino's website.]
We had orders to “box up" all boilers and put on dampers to stop steam rising and lifting safety valves (steam). Well, the trimmer came back from calling the 12 – 4 AM watch and he said, “Blimmie, we’ve struck an ice-berg."
We thought that a joke, because we firmly believed she had gone aground off the Banks of Newfoundland. Well, then some of them went up on deck and came down again, and told us Yes, the trimmer is right. She has struck a berg.
Now, counting Boiler Room sections, Number 1 started forward, Number 2 next, and so on untill you cam to number 6 and then came the engine room. From No.1 there was a long tunnel which took us to a winding (spiral) stairway that led up to our quarters and rooms etc. infirmary. After climbing about 60 steps we came to the 12 – 4 room another 30 steps up, the 4 – 8 room; another flight up, the 8 – 12. Leading Firemen and Greasers. You then came out on the forward Well Deck and the Rec room for the crew. Engineers came up and ordered all Firemen down below to draw all fires, because excessive steam pressure was blowing joints etc.
All bulkhead watertight doors were closed, so we had to go along what they called the working alleyway and down over the tops of the boilers and escape ladders. We certainly had a Hell of a time pulling those fires out. When we went to our quarters again, the 12 – 4 men were packing their bags and dragging their beds up to the Recreation Deck because their rooms were flooded. Oh, we thought this a huge joke and had a good laugh.
we went down below again to see everything was all right. Engineers were very busy with valves etc. I saw one engineer slip and break his leg (for obvious reasons I wont give you his name). We placed him in a pump room and did anything we could to help the other Engineers. Ship’s Carpenters were constantly taking soundings. They may have known, but no one else (except Skipper Smith), that things were going to happen.
About 12:45 AM, 15th April, we got news: “Captain has ordered all hands [to] Boat Stations. The ship was as steady as if she had been in dry-dock, going down very steadily forward. But even at that time it was hardly noticeable. The Boat Deck was thronged with people. Many women and children had to be forcibly put into the boats. They felt much more safe on the decks of the big liner than in the small boats – about 90 feet above the water-line. Therefore the boats that got away first did not take half the number of people they could have, and then later when we realized things were really serious, the boats getting away were very much overloaded.
The Band had stopped playing by now. About the last person I took particular notice of was novelist William T. Stead, calmly reading in the first class Smoke Room. It looked as if he intended stopping where he was whatever happened.
One boat – I think it was either Number 9 or Number 11 – was being lowered; but about five or six feet from the water-line, it was on a very uneven keel. One end of the boat’s falls had caught up somehow. I imagined that they were trying to cut the entangled falls which I found out they eventually did do because They could not unhook the tackle they were shouting and screaming that there were no members of the crew aboard but they managed to free it.
I saw how desperate the situation was by now. all boats were away. We had been throwing deck chairs and anything movable overboard. I took a flying leap, intending to grab the dangling boat falls and slither down them to the water but I missed them (I reckon a parachute would have been handy in that drop.)
I swam until I got aboard that Number 9 or Number 11 boat. I don’t know to this day boat it was. A Deck hand named Paddy McGough took charge of her. She was overloaded dangerously. Picking up one or two more persons from the water would probably have meant drowning about 80 ; that was the number in her.
It was extremely cold now, and terrible for the women and kids. few boats that were in view, then, tried to keep together. We were rowing aimlessly our hands froze on the oars and we lost sight of the others. It had been fairly light (moon) untill now. But mercifully clouds covered the moon and it became very dark. When the Titanic took her final plunge there was a noise I shall never forget. Shouting – screaming, and explosions. A hundred thousand fans at a cup Final could not make more noise. Well, we drifted about until it started getting daylight. We could just see the Berg. It had drifted on to the skyline with the help of the bump we gave it. There was a low ice field practically all around us. Paddy McGough suddenly gave a great shout – “Let us pray to God, for there is a ship on the horizon and ‘tis making for us."
Some of our crowd had already passed out, but those who were able did pray and cry. But the old S.S. Carpathia picked us up about 7 AM on the 15th of April. She took us to New York (took about 4 days, I think). Quite a few survivors died on the Carpathia. The first night aboard, quite a few died from exposure and frostbite. An officer asked me to go to the ship’s mortuary. Four had died. He had an idea that one of them was a member of the Titanic’s crew, and that perhaps I could identify him. I jibbed it. It might have been one of my mates. I had had enough.
Reporters (newspapers etc.) were waiting right outside the Nantucket Light Ship. There were hundreds of River Boats. Nobody was allowed on board the Carpathia. We were even under guard when we got up to New York. West Street (11th Avenue) and 10th Avenue were packed with people – but we did not get the chance to make a few dollars. We members of the Titanic’s crew were escorted to Wrights Seaman’s Mission on West Street. We were measured up – got two suits of clothes, two pairs of boots, two shirts, two suits of underwear. Ties, socks, etc. Gee – I looked a tipical Yank when I got home. We came home in the Red Star Line ship Lapland. We landed at Plymouth. All kinds of officials took our depositions for the Board of Trade Inquiry in London. We were to remain in Southampton while the Inquiry was on – to receive five shillings a day. If called to London, another 3/0 per day.
I was home for three months and then went to sea again. – all we got out of it was what would have been the normal trip’s pay – 23 days. Our money then was only 5 pounds per month. Our Seaman’s Union gave us three pounds for [the] loss of our kits – a “promise" from the White Star Line of a job for life. I have never had anything from them. I have had long unemployment at times, and some very hard times at present. I work as a Fitter’s Mate – when I can get work. Nevermind. I suppose I am luckey to be here at all.
Yours faithfully George Kemish
P.S. Sir: I said at the start I am a very poor writer. Writing is not one of my strong points. But I trust you can understand the scribble. I could tell you a lot more, but I think I have written mostly what you wanted to know. There were supposed to be thirty millionaires amongst the passengers. There were also some stowaways that went down with the ship. Stowing away in those days was quite easy; it was very easy to walk ashore in New York. Restrictions then were not nearly so strict as now. There was then a shortage of labour in the U.S. Seamen very often, when ashore, were invited by strangers to have a drink in the Saloons by strangers who eventually turned out to be Employment Agents. They were doped – Shanghied – and came to their senses well on the way to Buffalo, the Great Lakes, and other places where labour was short.
“Jumping the freight" was another simple matter. No one knew who the stowaways were. Apparently they had no relations or friends. That type is to be seen in most big ports. Never missing, because they are never known – just world wanderers. They were always welcomed by us because they would keep our quarters clean etc.. - - G.K.
1. Spelling and punctuation have been preserved, where possible.
2. Kemish's dates and time of collision is wrong; also his numbering of the boiler rooms is incorrect.
3. Kemish's recollection of clouds and moon is also wrong.