Fascinating tale of the Titanic widows sent to West Sussex to recuperate

A new book tells heart-breaking tales of the Titanic widows who were sent to Worthing to recuperate.

Friday, 24th April 2020, 2:14 pm
Julie Cook
Julie Cook

The Titanic and the City of Widows it left Behind: The Forgotten Victims of the Fatal Voyage has been published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, researched and written by Julie Cook.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, many women and their families were left bereaved and in perilous situations financially. Julie’s social history explores the aftermath of the tragedy, looking at themes such as poverty, bereavement, grief and survival. Her own great-grandmother Emily lost her husband on the Titanic. He was a stoker at work when disaster struck. Her struggle to survive while raising five children forms the main line of the book, humanising the history of the tragedy.

But another point of interest is that the book reveals the part Worthing played in getting some of the Titanic widows back on their feet.

In the aftermath of the disaster, a number of Titanic widows were sent for rest and recuperation at the Dolling Memorial Home of Rest in Worthing. As Julie says, one such woman was a Mrs Fielder, the widowed sister of a deceased Titanic crewman. She was supplied nourishing food from the Titanic Relief Fund and sent to the Dolling Rest Home for one month.

Similarly, a Mrs Jones was given a compassionate grant from the Fund of £3 to enable her and her child to go the Dolling Home for one month.

“In fact, if you read through the Relief Fund minutes, you’ll find time and again it is written and decided that a widow or other dependant should be ‘sent to the Dolling home’ on account of needing nourishment or simply a rest.

“In some cases, children were sent or mothers and their children together. Referrals were so common that widows and mothers in all probability would have spent time at the Dolling Home at the same time as other widows of the Titanic tragedy. They might have already known each by other by sight or been near neighbours. Or they might have only now made acquaintance. They may well have sat together and talked, discussing what jobs their men had done on the Titanic.”

One of the saddest tales is that of Susan Woodford, the wife of Frederick Woodford who had died while working as a greaser on Titanic. She was told in a letter not long after the tragedy that he had been buried at sea.

“She was understandably devastated and became seriously ill soon after. Like many widows, she and her eldest daughter were sent to convalescent homes, the first spell being at the Dolling Home in Worthing.

“But then Susan’s daughter Annie Freda died in 1914. The cause was diphtheria, which is referred to often in school log books from the time. A year later, Susan succumbed to flu, leaving her other daughter May an orphan. The child was just eight years old. She was taken in by an aunt.

“It was later discovered that the authorities had made a mistake telling Susan her husband had been buried at sea. His body had actually been found and taken to Canada before being interred in a cemetery in Nova Scotia. But tragically, Susan died never knowing this, and even the surviving daughter May never knew there was a grave where her father lay.”

Julie came across the tales of the Dolling Home during her research for the book.

“I was completely looking at Southampton at one point, but I discovered that a number of the Titanic widows were sent to the Dolling Home in Worthing. It was opened in 1903 in memory of the Anglican minister Robert William Radclyffe Dolling (1851-1902).”

Often referred to as Father Dolling, he had been an English Anglo-Catholic priest, particularly associated with Portsmouth. He recorded his years there in the book Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum (1896).

In Worthing the Titanic widows enjoyed a strict but benevolent regime.

“There are some original pamphlets around about how to comport yourself in the house. You must not be seen to have liquor and you must go to church on a Sunday.

“People made donations to the home. They had books and magazines and people donated curtains and chairs. They made it very homely for the women who went there because they were exhausted. At first it would have been women who had been exhausted by agricultural work.” But then the home took on an expanded role in the wake of the Titantic disaster: “You see it mentioned in the minutes of the Titanic Relief Fund. First of all you had to be referred by a clergyman to go there, and the Titanic Relief Fund would get clergymen to make that referral.”

There the women were encouraged to rest, to sleep and also to walk along the Worthing seafront where the air had a reputation for being both pure and health-giving.

“The Titanic Relief Fund was actually very judgemental. If it was found that you were drinking away your grief, you would be cut off from the fund for a few weeks or they would strike you off if a neighbour snitched and said that you had a new man.”

But clearly, in all the circumstances to be sent to Dolling House would have been a breath of fresh air, Julie believes.

“The average stay would have been a couple of weeks and it would have felt like a holiday. They had to behave properly, but they were encouraged to rest and to walk along the promenade.”