A tale of Titanic survivor Elsie Bowerman
Published: 21:23 9 October 2019 Updated: 09:50 10 October 2019
On that night of 14th April 1912, the famous ship Titanic sank and crashed into an iceberg on its maiden voyage. The largest and most luxurious ocean liner of its time was thought "unsinkable" ship when it was made. But the ship sank on the first expedition in ruthless luck and among the 2206 passengers, only 705 survived. One of the lucky ones among the 705 was a 22-year-old British woman, Elsie Bowerman. After surviving the disaster, Bowerman described the historic event.
Some of the survivors that managed to live through the world’s most horrible disaster at sea actually went on to change the world. One such pioneer was Elsie Bowerman, who went on to have quite an extraordinary life.
Born on 18th December 1889 in Tunbridge Wells, she lost her father at the age of 5 but her Mother, Edith Barber, and Elsie survived comfortably on rent income from numerous properties her Father had purchased during his lifetime.
In 1901, aged 11, Elsie was sent to a relatively new boarding school called Wycombe Abbey, still with its founder, [Dame] Frances Dove, as headmistress. It was a liaison she kept up all her life.
Leaving school in April 1907, Elsie travelled to Paris before studying Mediaeval and Modern Languages at Girton College, Cambridge.
Travel and the Titanic
In 1911 Elsie, aged 21, passed the Tripos examination Class II and came into her inheritance from her father. This included a number of rental properties to which she added by further purchases. In 1918 Elsie's unearned amounted to over £700 p.a., the equivalent of about £70,000 today.
On Wednesday 10th April 1912, Elsie and Edith, aged 22 and 48, travelled to Southampton for their voyage to America. They were to visit relatives in Ohio, then travel across the USA and Canada.
They occupied Cabin 33 on Deck E of the RMS Titanic. The story of its sinking two days later is well-known. Over 1,000 drowned, but the famous 'women and children first' tradition, supplemented by the lesser-quoted 'first-class passengers take priority' maxim ensured that Elsie and Edith were among the 700 saved. Elsie wrote:
“The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into life-boats, where we were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with ice-bergs floating about, is a strange experience.”
The two women were in Lifeboat 6 with about 22 others including Frederick Fleet, the lookout who had first spotted the iceberg. (The 1997 film 'Titanic' featured several scenes in this lifeboat because it accommodated two of the main characters, Molly Brown, and the fictional Mrs. Ruth Dewit Bukater, mother of the heroine Rose.) The boat was the third to be lowered, at 0055hrs. Much about their time in the lifeboat was recorded:
“Molly demanded that the women be allowed to row to keep warm. Hitchens tried to stop her, but Molly told him he would be thrown overboard if he attempted to stop her. Both men eventually gave in and Molly took control. She had the women rowing and distributed her furs and other clothing to the freezing passengers.”
Elsie and Edith would have heard the desperate cries of people drowning in the sea around them, as they floated in the middle of the Atlantic all night before being rescued and taken to New York by the Carpathia. A small item in the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer announced that they were safe. Undeterred, they continued with their itinerary, staying at a ranch in British Columbia and visiting the Klondyke and Alaska.
First World War
When the war broke out, the suffrage movement had placed its demands on the back-burner. The WSPU became 'The Women's Party' and encouraged women to volunteer for war work and men to sign up; it opposed pacifism and socialism, and tried to halt strikes. Elsie became a paid organizer, and for months she toured nation-wide with WSPU leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. At each town, Elsie took lodgings and set about organizing and advertising mass-meetings: one at Manchester drew 10,000 people. She is mentioned as sharing the platform with Christabel Pankhurst at a meeting in Bath.
In July 1916 the Honourable Mrs. Haverfield, now a leading light in the pro-war movement, invited Elsie to go to Serbia as a motor driver. This all-female unit had to travel a most circuitous route, via Scandinavia, Archangel, Moscow and Odessa, to serve the Serbian and Russian armies in Romania. Unfortunately, it arrived just as the allies had been defeated. English newspapers carried reports about the women's units, which, Elsie wrote to her mother, 'make us afraid you will all think we are starving or dead or something whereas we are really having the time of our lives.'
In November 1916 they set up a hospital near the Danube, then had to dismantle it and join the retreat to the Russian frontier. It was bitterly cold and Elsie asked in her almost-daily letters home for gloves, scarves and thick stockings, as well as a dozen Kodak Brownie films, Suchard chocolate, and a book of Robert Louis Stevenson's stories.
Elsie found the whole experience wonderful. In her detailed pencil-written diary she described pitching tents for the field hospital, and serving meals to 250 people with the help of only one Russian, who could not speak English. She described sleeping in the open air just twenty miles from the firing line, having singing parties with soldiers around camp fires and going on a cross-country ride with Russian officers. She was in charge of wagon-loads of equipment which frequently got lost and had to be recovered, and this in the midst of a war.
She was in St Petersburg in 1917 and her diary contains not only eye-witness testimony of living in the midst of the Russian Revolution, but it reveals something of her personality, her language, and her interests and priorities.
By March 24th, Elsie was on her way home by train through Scandanavia, arriving back in Highgate at midnight on 4th April, 1917.
On February 6, 1918, women finally won not only the vote, but also the right to stand for election to Parliament, and Elsie acted as Christabel Pankhurst's Election Agent.
Christabel stood as a Women's Party candidate, in alliance with the Lloyd George/Conservative Coalition in the Smethwick constituency. She was narrowly defeated, losing by only 775 votes to the Labour Party candidate John Davison.
A successful lawyer
Having been so involved in political campaigning and war work, and with her large private income obviating the need to earn a wage, it was not until the late age of 31 that Elsie turned her sights to a profession. She decided to become a lawyer. She could not have done this very much earlier, in any case, because until the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act women were barred from entering the legal profession. It took a lot of cash, too: initially, a £ 50 deposit and over £50 in fees was demanded. Elsie was accepted as a student by the Middle Temple in 1921 and was called to the Bar in 1924.
She became the first woman barrister to appear at the Old Bailey when she won a libel action brought by the National Union of Seamen against a communist. This was perhaps ironic, given her anti-union beliefs. In the mid-20s Elsie published a book, The Law of Child Protection and in 1928 the London Evening Standard printed her essay, why women do not write Utopias.
The Second World War and UN
In 1938 Elsie gave up law and enrolled in the brand-new and, later, famous Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). For two years she was organizer in the Information and Public Meetings department. She then worked briefly for the Ministry of Information before spending three years in the USA as a liaison officer in the BBC Overseas Services. She resigned around 1943-45 and became Chief of General Services to the London office, responsible for conferences.
In 1946 she went back to the USA to help set up the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Elsie was the representative of the Secretary-General and was Acting Chief of the Section on the Status of Women.
Elsie Edith Bowerman will always be known for her work as a woman in a time when women were not that active in things like politics and the law. Thanks to this pioneering woman, Elsie Bowerman, women everywhere were inspired to study law and enter the world of politics.
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