THE hands on Robert Norman’s gold pocket watch nudged towards noon and the fair-haired young Scot prepared to take a last, lingering look at the bustling Southampton dockside before embarking on an adventure to a new life in a new land.
Robert, 27, had left home days earlier on the first leg of what was to be the start of a whole new chapter in his life. His brother Stanley was already living abroad. Now, with their father dead and buried, there was little to keep him home in Scotland.
His time here was over. No doubt as the gold watch in his jacket pocket ticked away the final minutes towards his ship’s departure, Robert would have joined his fellow passengers in momentary reflection, thoughts turned to what they were leaving behind – and forward to the thrill and excitement of the voyage ahead.
After all, this was the finest ship ever built. Glittering and high-tech, she was a fascinating example of modern engineering – her mod cons and new-fangled electrical systems particularly thrilling for Robert, an electrical engineer.
This was her maiden voyage, a chance for her excited passengers like Robert to be among the first to experience the fastest Atlantic crossing ever.
And, for all the wrong reasons, this ship was about to become the best known vessel in the world.
Robert was, of course, on board RMS Titanic. Sadly this clever and amiable, calm and brave Scot would become one of the many tragic souls who would perish with her in the icy waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
His lifeless body – dressed in dark trousers, vest, green-striped flannel shirt and missing his boots – was among many recovered from the freezing water. On him was found his gold pocket watch, the hands poignantly stopped at the moment the Atlantic waters flooded inside the case.
It all happened 100 years ago this month, yet the hands of time have clearly not eroded the sheer scale and horror of events that claimed 1514 lives that April night in 1912, when the ship that couldn’t be sunk slid beneath the waves.
Yet for Robert, throughout many of those years he’d be Edinburgh’s forgotten Titanic victim – named on most passenger lists of the dead and missing as being, not a proud son of Scotland’s capital city, but from Glasgow.
It was a simple mix-up. He had been working in the west of Scotland for electrical company AEG, based in Wellington Street in Glasgow and living for a spell in the city’s Sauchiehall Street.
But Robert, a former pupil of Merchiston School, was most certainly of Edinburgh stock, one of six local men now known to have been on board the vessel when disaster struck.
Home for Robert had been at Nordcroft, South Oswald Road, in Newington with his father, also Robert, a partner in a London-based legal firm, and brother Stanley, who’d already left Scotland, bound for Vancouver. As he prepared for his journey across the Atlantic, picking up his second- class ticket for £13.10s, Robert quit his Glasgow job and moved to his uncle Walter Hick’s home in Dalrymple Crescent in the Grange.
According to Titanic enthusiast Susan Morrison, the vessel would have fascinated Robert, with its up-to- the-minute electrical fixtures and devices. “He was an electrical engineer – and they were the dotcom boys of the day,” she explains.
“Electricity was still very much a novelty, it was like computers were in the Nineties. I would not be surprised if Robert didn’t get a tour of the turbine rooms that powered the ship because they would have been of huge interest to an electrical engineer.
“They were cutting-edge and I think the ship itself would have interested him greatly – perhaps the reason why he was on board the Titanic in the first place.”
The electrics powering the ship would, of course, become remarkably significant in its dying moments, she adds.
“Everyone mentions how the lights stayed on right up to the moment she sank,” adds Susan. “What happened was that the electrical engineers in the turbine rooms knew the only way to keep the radio running was to keep the turbines going. They sealed the water-tight doors to the turbine rooms – effectively sealing themselves in to certain death.
“So there’s this famous moment when the stern of the ship rises in the air and the lights flicker . . . the moment when the water bursts through the doors and floods the turbine room.”
By that time Robert and hundreds of other passengers and crew were already fighting for survival in the cold waters around the stricken vessel.
Earlier that evening Robert had settled down to play the piano at a hymn service presided over by the Rev Ernest Carter and attended by around 100 passengers in the second class dining salon.
Many passengers had already retired to their bunks when the iceberg was struck, at around 11.40pm on the evening of April 14.
One woman who would go on to survive the tragedy, Kate Buss, later recalled meeting the helpful young Scot, who guided her and a companion back to their cabins for warm clothes.
When they reached lifeboat No.9, Robert helped Kate to board only to be told that there was space only for women and children – despite Kate’s protests, he would have to stay on the Titanic.
Later he is said to have handed over his own lifebelt to a woman and a child, helping save their lives. Confident of his ability to swim to safety, Robert jumped into the water, perishing, like many others that night, in the freezing ocean.
Robert’s lifeless body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay- Bennett which had been sent to the scene to help only to discover a sea covered in bodies.
He was buried at Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 6, 1912.
Today his pocket watch survives – on show at the Royal Museum Greenwich, a poignant reminder of one tragic moment in time.
It was just another job
ROBERT Douglas was not the Titanic’s only Edinburgh victim.
Andrew Cunningham was in his mid-30s. For him the journey across the Atlantic on board the most thrilling vessel ever to sail was just another job, one that he would continue to do even when confronted with the horrific realisation that the ship was fatally wounded.
Born in Edinburgh, he’d been living in Southampton, like many earning a living from the many vessels that came and went from the English dock.
He joined the Titanic in Belfast, to begin work as a bedroom steward, serving the moneyed on the first -lass deck.
He was on his way to D deck – where the first-class dining room and reception room was located – to “answer bells” and respond to passengers’ needs when the collision occurred.
According to the online Encyclopaedia Titanica, he recalled looking down from E deck to see the rising water below and then helping passengers to safety until just three remained.
He told how one passenger, perhaps unaware of the dangers or simply determined to take precautions to aid his survival – nipped back to collect a coat, another wrestled with his lifebelt while Andrew dutifully helped the third strap up his life belt. “I helped him put it on and that was the last of my passengers.”
At around 2am, with all the lifeboats gone and nothing else for it, Andrew plunged from the sinking boat into the water. “I had a mate [Sidney Conrad Siebert] with me,” he said. “We both left the ship together.”
He swam as hard as he could clear of the ship. 30 minutes later, it was gone. Andrew was picked up by lifeboat four. He took an oar and rowed.
He was rescued by the Carpathia – his friend, Sidney, however, perished – and three days later was delivered to a dockside in New York City where, according to TSusan Morrison, many of the surviving crew were simply left to their own devices.
“The Titanic was just another job to them. And as soon as the ship sank, they stopped getting paid.”
Also rescued was John Steward, a 27-year-old married man whose home was Earls Road in Southampton, but Edinburgh was where he was born.
Like Andrew, he joined the Titanic in Belfast for her delivery trip to Southampton. As a first-class steward, he would have been paid £3.15s a month.
As the Titanic sank, he was hauled on to a lifeboat and eventually given safe passage to New York on board the Carpathia.
On board the Carpathia was another Edinburgh survivor, a 34-year-old waiter known as only Mr AM Govern.
And it would be a thankfully safe ending for Able Seaman Thomas Cheyne, 29, also from Edinburgh, and also hauled to safety on board the Carpathia.
But for third-class passenger Simon Kutscher or Lithman, his dreams of a new life in America, would end that night.
The 26-year-old baker had been making his living in Edinburgh, perhaps saving until he had the £7 11s required for a passenger ticket, number 251.
He died in the sinking. His body was never recovered.