‘Heroine of the wreck’: examples of Victorian and Twentieth century courage

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Henry Thoreau once wrote that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. He meant, I presume, that inside most of us there is something greater wishing to escape but which is normally denied this opportunity by the conventions that society imposes, or perhaps by the fears and doubts that we impose on ourselves. I want to continue my theme of comparing Victorians with those born in my own lifetime by describing two women who, in the most terrifying circumstances, found themselves to be the possessors of something very much greater.

Finding examples of great courage is not difficult. On this occasion I wanted to avoid warriors, but rather examine individuals whose fights were solely with nature and circumstance. I also wanted to consider those who, having already done enough, found it within themselves to do something more. Finally there seemed no point in recounting the stories of those, like Grace Darling, whose exploits have become part of our everyday stock of knowledge. The two women I have selected are publicly commemorated, and have never been exactly forgotten, yet their names are not constantly on our lips.

Close to the Museum of London is a small, quiet, backwater called Postmans Park. I believe it was opened in 1880 and was created from the graveyard of St Botolph’s Aldersgate church. Certainly some tombstones are still visible propped against its walls. There is a pleasant garden, a fountain, and seats, but twenty years after it came into existence the pre-Raphaelite painter George Frederick Watts selected it as the site of his memorial to the ‘heroic deeds of ordinary people’. Under an awning the names and deeds of the heroic are recorded on glazed tiles. The first tiles were designed by William De Morgan and are the central row in the illustration. Later examples were produced by the Royal Doulton Company. Here you will read accounts of those who died in burning buildings or doctors who contracted diphtheria from infant patients. The stability of glazed ceramic tile should ensure that the names remain legible for several centuries yet.

One of those commemorated was a ship’s stewardess, Mary Rogers. The steamship Stella was owned by the London & South West Railway Company and operated as a passenger ferry to the Channel Islands. Once you could take a seat on a boat train at Waterloo Station, switch to the ferry ship at Southampton docks, and wake up in St Peter Port. On 30th March 1899 the Stella was commanded by Captain Reeks but his ship had its bottom torn out by a granite reef close to the Casquet Rocks, north-west of Alderney, and sank in less than ten minutes. The ship was in a fog bank at the time and although the Casquet lighthouse was giving fog warnings this was noticed too late to save the ship from grounding. Captain Reeks was on the bridge at the time and later went down with his ship.

Following the catastrophe several life-boats were launched, the rule of ‘women and children first’ was followed, and there was no panic among the crew who seemed to have behaved extremely well. Despite this there were over 100 fatalities. After the event there were those who said that the speed of the Stella was too great, given the weather, and blamed the rivalry between the LGWR service and that of its competitor the GWR. The insurers seem to have gone to considerable lengths to avoid paying out on the company’s policy.

Mary Ann Rogers was 44 year old seaman’s widow, with two grown-up children, who lived in Southampton. On the fatal day she was employed as a stewardess on the Stella. Her main duty in the circumstances was to assist those passengers under her care into the life-boats, which she did. She went further by giving her own life-belt to a passenger without one and, once in the water, she refused to clamber into a boat for fear of capsizing it. She was last observed waving cheerfully at the boats, but her body was never recovered. It took some time for the story of Mary Roger’s heroism to emerge. When William McGonagall told the story of the Stella, in his famously execrable verse, it was soprano Greta Williams who was celebrated because of her singing to encourage those in the life-boats; McGonagall’s words gave me my title. When Mary Roger’s bravery became widely known public donations in her memory were solicited. No less than £250 were raised for her family and a larger sum was used to construct a memorial dedicated to her in Southampton. Within a short time a decorated tile also appeared in Postmans Park.

Nearly 70 years later, in April 1968, a very different type of ship took off from London’s Heathrow airport. BOAC flight 712 was en route to Sydney but within a few seconds of take-off there was a catastrophic engine failure, the consequence of metal fatigue in a compressor blade. The Boeing 707’s engine burst into flames prior to falling off the wing. The subsequent enquiry was told of confusion in the cockpit, problems with the evacuation procedure in the cabin, and delayed response by emergency vehicles. Be that as it may the pilot, Captain Taylor, managed successfully to land his crippled plane less that three minutes after initial take-off. Despite the difficulties only five people did not escape from the burning aircraft with its atmosphere of toxic fumes. One of those who died was another stewardess, Barbara Jane Harrison.

Barbara Harrison had been born in Bradford and later lived in Scarborough and Doncaster; she was only 22 years old at the time of her death. When flight 712 landed her first responsibility was to assist passengers down the emergency landing chutes, which she did. Witnesses reported that she was seen preparing to jump herself but then turned back into the burning fuselage. She must have been aware that four passengers had not yet emerged and that this number included a disabled women and an eight year old child. Barbara Harrison made a valiant effort to assist them, dying in the attempt. Their bodies were later recovered together.

In 1940 the George Cross had been instituted as the highest award for civilian bravery. It takes precedence over all other honours and awards, excepting only the Victoria Cross. Since it was instituted it has been directly awarded to only four women, three of whom served during the last war in the Special Operations Executive. Barbara Harrison was the only other woman, and was the youngest of all, to receive a posthumous award of this decoration. Her life was also marked by a memorial in Bradford City Hall and an annual prize in aviation medicine. She is buried in York.

Sadly very few Watts tablets appeared after 1908 although there are occasional exceptions. A 54th tablet was added in 2009. In nineteenth century language all the people honoured in this way were ‘faithful unto death’ or, in more contemporary speech, they were not prepared to compromise what they saw as their duty in any way whatever, even if this resolution cost their lives. If you happen to be passing Postmans Park please visit this pleasant place to recall their actions.

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