109 years on, remembering a hero of the Titanic disaster

By The Editor

24th Apr 2022 | Local News

The Phillips family memorial in Nightingale Cemetery.
The Phillips family memorial in Nightingale Cemetery.

One hundred and nine years ago this week one of the world's greatest maritime tragedies unfolded in the north Atlantic, taking the lives of more than 1,500 people, including Farncombe lad John 'Jack' Phillips.

RMS Titanic, dubbed the 'unsinkable', foundered after hitting an iceberg. The story of the horror that unfolded in the aftermath of that collision is one of great tragedy - and great heroism. It sent shockwaves around the world - and no more so than in the village of Farncombe.

This is Jack's story, which began above a draper's shop in Farncombe in April 11th, 1887 and ended in the early hours of April 15th, 1912.

Jack was born to George and Ann Phillips at 11 Farncombe Street, above the shop where his father was the manager. He had twin older sisters, Elsie and Ethel.

He attended the church school in St John's Street - in the building which now houses Farncombe Day Centre - and Godalming Grammar School, which was then operating in part of what is now the Red Lion pub at the top of the High Street.

Opportunity.

The turning point in young Jack's life came with his first job: on leaving school at the age of 15 he secured himself a post at the Post Office in the High Street (in the building now occupied by HSBC Bank). Here he learnt Morse Code, a skill which was to open up the world to him, and ultimately to lead to his untimely demise. In 1906, keen to hone his skills and progress in life, he enrolled at the Marconi Company Wireless Telegraphy Training School in Liverpool. On graduating he took up his first post onboard ship, as junior wireless officer on the White Star Line ship Teutonic. Over the next three years he travelled the globe, serving on liners including the Lusitania, Oceanic, Mauritania and Campania. He came back to shore for three years from 1908, working as an operator at the Marconi Transatlantic Station at Clifden on the west coast of Ireland. Promotion.

In 1911, Jack returned to sea on the Adriatic, and in March of the following year was sent to Belfast to become Chief Wireless Telegraphist on the new White Star liner, Titanic. This was a big promotion for Jack and a prestigious and responsible position. No doubt he was looking forward to the maiden voyage of the enormous, glamorous, 'unsinkable' ship.

After taking on passengers, Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York on April 10th 1912, with Jack and his junior telegraph officer Harold Bride working hard in their little office on the boat deck sending and receiving personal messages for the passengers. Part of their job was also to monitor messages from other vessels warning of icebergs.

The day after departing Southampton, Jack and Harold celebrated Jack's 25th birthday with pastries brought from the first class dining room.

The two young men shared responsibility for manning the radio 24 hours a day, and operated on a rota system. The evening before the sinking, April 14th, Jack was busy: the wireless had not been working earlier and he had a backlog of passengers' messages to send to Cape Race, Newfoundland.

Iceberg.

The Titanic hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm that night, and began taking on water. A few minutes later the ship's captain, Edward Smith, went into the wireless room and told Jack and Harold, who had been woken by the impact, that the ship had hit an iceberg: he instructed them to be ready to send out a distress signal. Shortly after midnight he returned, told them to request help and gave them the ship's position. Jack sent out the CQD distress message to ships in the area. Tragically, the Titanic's reputation for being 'unsinkable' proved disastrous as other captains did not immediately rush to her aid. Captain Edwards then told Jack to switch to the new SOS distress signal. As the ship began to shift in the water Jack urged Harold to save himself: Harold didn't leave until he had forced Jack to put on a life vest. Jack stayed at his post, updating the Titanic's position and urging other ships to come to the rescue. This was even after Captain Smith had given the order of 'Every man for himself'. Harold was washed from the deck but managed to cling to a lifeboat and was rescued by the RMS Carpathia. In all the chaos, confusion and panic, Jack remained at his post until almost the last minute. He sent his last message at 2.17am: Titanic sank at 2.20am. Harold Bride survived the disaster, and went on to marry and have a family. For Jack, and around 1,516 others, sadly, that was not to be. His parents and sisters, bereft at his death at such a young age, were overwhelmed at the outpouring of affection and support they received from the townsfolk of Godalming. Commemorations.

In 1912 the town rallied to honour its hero, and still treasures his selfless devotion and heroic deeds today.

In April 2002, to mark the 90th anniversary of the sinking, Godalming Town Council refurbished the Phillips family grave of Jack's father, George, and his mother, Ann, and sisters Elsie and Ethel, in Nightingale Cemetery. In the centre of a six-foot-square kerb of white marble is an obelisk in the shape of an iceberg. In 2012 Godalming Museum held an exhibition to mark the centenary of the disaster. The museum has a wealth of information about Jack and his family. In 2017 a blue plaque was unveiled by The Godalming Trust at the building that now stands on the site of number 11 Farncombe Street, Jack's birthplace.

     

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