RMS Titanic: Letters from a Lost Liner

A detail from the claim submitted by Florence Gwinn, the widow of William Gwinn.

Today’s guest post was written by William B. Roka, a longtime volunteer at the National Archives in New York City. You can follow them on Facebook as they launch “Titantic Tuesdays” in the weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Since I’m a total history nerd, I was ready to do a little dance when I was allowed to examine some of the Titanic documents in the National Archives as part of my work as a volunteer researcher. But I was disappointed when I saw that most of the documents looked very mundane.

This collection documents the court cases brought after the ship sank. The Titanic’s owner, the Ocean Steam Navigation Company (better known as White Star Line), did not want to pay in full the hundreds of claims for compensation filed by survivors and relatives of victims of the sinking. But as I trudged ahead with my work, I soon realized how wrong I was.

As I examined the claims, I saw that each one had a story to tell. One in particular stuck in my mind. William L. Gwinn was a sea postal clerk working for the U.S. Postal Service (see widow’s claim below). At first I thought he was a regular passenger and maybe worked at a post office by a port. Then I remembered Titanic’s full name included the designation of RMS, Royal Mail Steamer.

When I looked at deck plans of the RMS Titanic, I saw a mail room and a post office! William Gwinn had been assigned to work in that post office. I knew that the Titanic carried mail, but I hadn’t known there was a post office aboard. Later, as I was looking into some other documents, I found contracts between White Star and the British government to carry mail.

The story of the Titanic’s Sea Post Office is part of the larger history of the transatlantic mail transport. The era of mail-carrying steamships started in 1839, when White Star Line’s archrival Cunard was awarded a mail contract. By 1859, post offices were being put onto steamships, but it was only in 1877 that White Star ships could use the much-coveted acronym of RMS. These mail contracts were a badge of honor. To make sure that the companies met the stringent requirements, the contracts had to be renewed every few years.

Excess Luggage ARC 278329, ReD 05705, National Archives at New York City

By the terms of White Star’s 1899 agreement, their mail ships had to be the fastest, largest, and most efficient. They were required to make a weekly mail run and could go no slower than 17 knots. These mail contracts were very lucrative. The 1907 revised version of the 1899 contract gave White Star Line annual compensation of ?70,000 a year (worth tens of millions of dollars today) plus expenses. Well, White Star Line lived up to these requirements—they built what was at the time the world’s largest moving object with a respectable speed of 22 knots.

By the time Titanic left Queenstown, Ireland, its mail room was filled with 3,243 sacks of mail, which each held over 2,000 pieces of mail. Above the mail room on G Deck was the post office, where the five postal clerks worked 11-hour shifts sorting tens of thousands of letters a day.

The three Americans—John S. March, Oscar S. Woody, and William L. Gwinn—and the two British clerks—Jago Smith and J. B. Williamson—were sworn to protect the mail. They lost their lives fulfilling this duty. They were last seen dragging several sacks from the mail room up into the post office in a desperate bid to save the mail as the Titanic met its tragic fate.

Sadly, this fascinating history of transatlantic mails and the Titanic’s Sea Post Office remains an understudied subject. (The National Postal Museum does have an online exhibition dedicated to the Titanic’s mail and its clerks.)

I feel lucky that volunteering at the National Archives gave me a chance to look at the Titanic’s documents. I was able to learn something I had not known  before, but also realized that all documents—no matter how mundane-looking—have a story to tell.

Page from the claim filed against White Star Line by Florence Gwinn, widow of William Gwinn, Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21, National Archives at New York City.


Page 2 of claim, National Archives at New York City.
Page 5 of claim, National Archives at New York City.

4 thoughts on “RMS Titanic: Letters from a Lost Liner

  1. For those intrested in the Titanic History , the Main Post Office,Washington,DC has Postal Museum and has a display of the TITANIC memoribilia. It contains some interesting items.

    1. According to Christopher Zarr at the National Archives at New York:
      “It is part of Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States. More specifically, it (and all the documents that NARA-NYC has about the Titanic) is part of the court case ‘In the Matter of the Petition of the Oceanic Steam Ship Company, Limited, for Limitation of its Liability as owner of the steamship TITANIC.’ It is an Admiralty Case from the Southern District Court of New York. Its case number is A55-279. “

  2. The postal clerks on the Titanic were indeed brave, at least as brave as the engineers who stayed at their posts until the ship broke apart. I think it’s interesting that no registered mail was put onto lifeboats. The postal clerks must have thought that it would be off-loaded onto a rescue ship, but one never arrived before the Titanic sank. I think this is another illustration of how much faith the passengers and crew had in the “practically unsinkable ship” to stay afloat until help arrived and how important it was that the registered mail be delivered, despite whatever difficulties might be encountered.

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