Born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, in 1869, Arthur Henry Rostron went to sea in 1887 after two years as a cadet aboard the school ship HMS Conway at Liverpool.
He spent eight years roaming the planet under sail before joining the Cunard Steamship Company as a junior officer in January 1895. He sailed for the next twelve years in his company’s Atlantic and Mediterranean services, achieving his first command, the cargo steamer Brescia, in 1907.
In February 1912 he assumed command of the medium-sized passenger-cargo steamer Carpathia working Cunard’s Mediterranean-New York immigrant service. The competence and compassion he demonstrated during the Titanic rescue two months later won Rostron international honors.
He spent his subsequent career sailing Cunard’s Canadian routes, serving with distinction in the Mediterranean and Atlantic during the First World War, then commanding Cunard’s most prestigious ships between Southampton and New York during the 1920s. Rostron retired in Southampton at the end of 1930 and died ten years later, aged 71.
How did a boy who lived in Bolton, England, almost 30 miles inland, develop a longing to go to sea? His family was in the cotton-bleaching business. Bolton was known for its bleach works and had little connection with the sea. Yet, Arthur Rostron knew by the age of six that he wanted to go to sea. We can only guess because Rostron did not mention how his interest developed when he wrote his memoires.
Non-Fictional Sea Stories
For over 300 years before Rostron’s birth, English ships had been embarking voyages of discovery and emigration. England still held Canada and other colonies in the Americas. Captain James Cook, had made several voyages to discover the eastern coast of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. HMS Beagle had carried the young Charles Darwin on a voyage that gave him world-changing ideas.
All of these stories appeared in newspapers and books and general conversation. Young Arthur would probably have heard of or even read many of these stories of the sea.
Fictional Sea Stories
There is always the Odyssey and the adventures of Odysseus to inspire a young boy learning Latin. Swift’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. By Lemuel Gulliver, better known as Gulliver’s Travels, was published in 1726 and was popular from the start. Arthur probably did not read any of the stories of Sinbad the Sailor because they did not reach a wide English-reading audience until the late nineteenth century.
To really inspire a young man in the mid-nineteenth century there were the books of Frederick Marryat who invented the nautical fiction genre. Marryat was born in London in 1792. He tried to run off to join the Navy several times and finally, at fourteen, did so. His father, a member of Parliament, obtained a place for Frederick as a midshipman on board HMS Imperieuse.
Marryat had a distinguished naval career. Promoted to commander in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was assigned to take news of Napoleon’s death to England in 1821. Marryat also developed a flag signaling system known as Marryat’s Code.
He began writing novels while still in the navy, and the modest success of his first, The Naval Officer, lead him to resign his commission in November 1830. Marryat eventually published 26 books, most of them novels involving seafaring.
His novels were very successful and influenced writers such as C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and Earnest Hemingway also admired his books. Set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars Marryat’s fiction involved young men working their way up into command.
We don’t know which stories inspired Rostron, but many possibilities could have inspired a land-bound boy to want a career at sea.
Eric is scheduled to talk about Sir Arthur Henry Rostron at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 19 at 7:30. The talk is titled, One Hundred Percent Sailorman: The Life of “Titanic Hero” Sir Arthur Henry Rostron.
If you are in Halifax at that time, drop on by!
This tobacco card shows Sir Arthur Rostron. It is #28 in a series of 32 famous English ships and officers. While the card mentions that Rostron was captain of the Carpathia, there is no reference to the rescue of Titanic survivors.
Before People magazine, before cereal boxes, even before moving pictures, there were tobacco, cigarette, and trade cards. These cards provided people a way to see the world outside their own neighborhoods. Nineteenth-century newspapers carried few pictures and picture magazines were unknown.
These little cards carried images of the well-known beauties of the day, military heros, business magnates, baseball and cricket players. They also had pictures of places, animals, and plants from around the world. The cards provided a window to the world for people who would see very little during their lifetimes.
The cigarette cards (tobacco cards in the UK) were used as stiffeners in cigarette packs. In 1850s some enterprising soul figured out that they could be used for advertising. By issuing a series of cards on one topic and encouraging people to collect the whole set, cigarette companies could encourage people to buy their brand. Companies in other trades also issued cards. One side would carry a picture and the reverse would have some explanation of the picture and an advertisement for a company or brand.
The cards were issued up until World War II created a shortage of paper. By the end of the war, there were movies, newspapers carried pictures and there were magazines with lavish pictures of movie stars. There was no place for the cards except for collectors. The largest cigarette card collection in the world contains over two million cards. It was bequeathed to British Museum in 1995.