Saturday, 16 April 2016

45 Local casualties from the 'Titanic' disaster

45 Titanic (photos: RMS Titanic, Cadoxton Church) 16 April 2016

St Catwg’s Church in Cadoxton-juxta-Neath is well-known for having in the churchyard a murder stone, seeking to awaken the conscience of the person who killed 24-year-old Margaret Williams in 1823.  Less familiar and inside the church is a link with a famous maritime disaster, for yesterday morning was the 104th anniversary of the sinking of White Star liner RMS Titanic, and the church contains a plaque in memory of a man who perished in that major peacetime tragedy. 

Robert Leyson was born in Kensington, London, in 1887.  He was a 24-year-old qualified mining engineer, who played for Sketty cricket club when his family lived at Bloomfield in Gower Road.   He had joined the Freemasons in Neath, and planned to go to America in 1912 to set up in business with his younger brother Thomas.

Robert Leyson had a ten guinea (£10-10s-0d) second-class ticket from Southampton to New York.  After Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, his was one of 306 bodies recovered by the cable ship MacKay-Bennett.  He had been identified because his keys had his name on them, and he also had a silver case with his initials RWNL (for Robert William Norman Leyson) containing £4 - a considerable sum when the second-class ticket cost ten guineas. 

His father Robert Thomas Leyson was a Swansea solicitor, with offices in Swansea at various times in Walter Road, Wind Street and Salubrious Passage, as well as an office in Neath.  His family claimed descent from the last abbot of Neath Abbey who became Vicar of Cadoxton, which could be why his memorial was in that church.

A cable ship is a deep-sea vessel designed to lay underwater cables, though other ships have been adapted for such purposes, most notably I.K. Brunel’s colossal PSS Great Eastern, which after an unprofitable career as a passenger liner laid two transatlantic telegraph cables in 1866 to establish communication between Europe and North America.  With its double hull the Great Eastern could have struck an iceberg head-on and still remained afloat, but by the time RMS Titanic was built half a century later in the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff, many safety features of the Great Eastern had been discarded on the basis of economy.

The cable ship MacKay-Bennett was chartered by White Star Line to recover bodies after the Titanic shipwreck, and sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, having taken on board embalming supplies to handle 70 bodies, 100 coffins, ice in which to store the recovered bodies, as well as a minister from All Saints Cathedral, Halifax, and the chief embalmer of Nova Scotia's largest firm of undertakers.  Because of the limitations of space and the quantity of embalming fluid, even in death class distinctions applied.  All bodies recovered of first-class passengers were embalmed and placed in coffins – the decision being justified by the need to visually identify wealthy men to resolve any disputes over large estates.

For second-class passengers some bodies were embalmed and wrapped in canvas, while third-class passengers - and some of the second-class - were buried at sea.  Robert Leyson’s body was among the 116 buried at sea, of which only 56 were identified.  After seven days the CS MacKay-Bennett sailed for Halifax with 190 bodies on board.
Also from this area among the approximately 1,520 who drowned were miners William Rogers from Alltwen and Evan Davies from Bryncoch, who were travelling third-class.  Owen Samuel (related to the firm Astley Samuel Leeder) was a steward in the second-class saloon who had worked in Swansea’s large Ben Evans store; his body was recovered and he was buried in one of three cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which contain bodies from the Titanic.  But third-class steward William Foley, originally from Fisher Street (lower Princess Way), survived in lifeboat no. 13, and was rescued by RMS Carpathia.  He is numbered among the 705 survivors of that major peacetime maritime disaster. 

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