Godalming's Jack Phillips and the Surrey Titanic story
PUBLISHED: 20:51 12 April 2012 | UPDATED: 12:21 29 April 2014
There has always been a certain fascination with the story of the Titanic, immortalised in the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, but one tale the film didn't tell was that of chief wireless operator, Jack Phillips from Godalming
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2008
Words by Elizabeth Ive. Photos by Pete Gardner
The iceberg struck at 11.40pm on April 14, 1912, and less than three hours later the unthinkable had happened - the largest vessel afloat, the 'unsinkable' Titanic, had gone nose down to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The luxury liner was equipped with barely half the lifeboats needed for the 2,228 people aboard for her maiden voyage from Southampton, and only 705 had survived when the nearest ship, the Carpathia, steamed to the rescue at 4am on April 15.
Manning his vital post on the Titanic to the last was a Surrey man who sacrificed his life to try and save the ship's passengers and crew, and who is now regarded as an international hero.
Twenty-five year-old John George Phillips - better known as 'Jack' - was the chief wireless operator, and he continued to send distress signals until the ship's power faded and he was plunged to an icy death.
Born in Farncombe on April 11, 1887, he first worked as a telegraphist at Godalming Post Office - and, fittingly, it is thanks to many years of loyal championing and dedicated research by a Godalming historian, John Young, that we have a fuller picture of Phillips' life and times.
Now a sprightly 81-year-old, Mr Young's interest in Jack Phillips was first sparked 20 years ago when he joined Godalming Museum as a volunteer.
"So many people came in and asked about Jack Phillips, I thought I should find out some more about him," he says. "So I started collecting postcards."
Godalming Museum's collection
The many albums he has lovingly assembled over the past two decades are packed with postcards, news cuttings, photographs and notes, and paint a vivid picture of a local hero, a bygone age and the rise and fall of a great ship.
Not surprisingly, they have also become a treasure trove for the growing number of people around the world fascinated by the ill-fated liner, many of whom have made a special trip to Godalming Museum to meet Mr Young and view his unique collection.
Easily his most special fan, however, is Titanic survivor Millvina Dean, who was just nine weeks old when she was lowered in a mailbag to the safety of a lifeboat. Her mother and her brother Bertie were also rescued but her father went down with the ship.
"I am so lucky to have met the youngest person to survive," says Mr Young. "She came to the 90th anniversary and I invited her to Godalming to see my exhibition."
He also gave her a guided tour of the town's memorials to its most famous son, which include the Jack Phillips pub in the High Street.
Memorial headstone in Godalming
The body of Jack Phillips was never recovered, but there is a memorial headstone in the family grave at Godalming Old Cemetery carved in the shape of an iceberg. The headstone had fallen into disrepair when Mr Young began his research and he successfully campaigned recently to have it restored and created a 'sea' of white chippings to surround it.
Jack Phillips is also commemorated with the world's largest memorial to a single Titanic victim, a cloister and gardens by the River Wey designed by Hugh Thackeray Turner, which was opened exactly two years to the day after the sinking and underwent a major restoration in 1993.
The cloister contains a pond, a wall of remembrance and a painting of the liner with the words 'Faithful to his duty' to commemorate Phillips' bravery as he continued to transmit SOS calls from the ship as she sank.
"My albums are also about the other ships he sailed in," continues Mr Young. "He served on so many ships for a young man. The 13th ship he sailed on was the Titanic.
"He was Marconi's top wireless operator and he was so good at it. Princess Electra Marconi came to England in 2001. She had lunch with the Queen at Ascot and then she came to have tea with me in Godalming to find out more about him."
No immediate descendents
Jack Phillips never married but Mr Young discovered that, coincidentally, his grandparents had lived next door to Jack's girlfriend, Kitty Bex, in Farncombe. Phillips' own Farncombe home, above the drapers shop his father managed, was near the level crossing and was demolished in 1969. His twin sisters never married and there are no immediate descendants.
Mr Young had hoped Godalming Museum could acquire the collection of postcards Jack sent to his family between 1906 and 1912 when they came up for auction recently with an estimate of £1,500. The museum could afford to spend £2,000 and Mr Young had pledged an additional £500, but after fierce bidding among Titanic fans, the collection was snapped up by an American bidder for £9,000 and then split up and resold.
Ever eager to track down more entries for his albums, Mr Young visits postcard fairs up and down the country every weekend. He found his most prized possession, a photograph of Phillips' father with a local policeman at the Godalming memorial cloister, a year ago in the nearby Surrey village of Elstead.
Titanic sinking anniversary in 2012
In addition to opening up his albums for interested visitors, Mr Young has dedicated a corner of Godalming Museum to his hero where a fine 1912 portrait donated by the town's grammar school is among the exhibits.
He has also mounted a series of memorial exhibitions at the museum, and even joined forces with local amateur radio enthusiasts to hold two marathon radio link-ups with the rest of the world from Godalming, to mark the 90th and 95th anniversaries of the sinking.
"I want Godalming to celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2012 in style," he continues. "It will also be the London Olympics, so we could have literally thousands of visitors.
"No one knows what happened to Jack Phillips at the very end. The captain relieved him of his duty just before the ship went down and his last SOS message was 2.17am.
"The ship went under at 2.20am and so he only had three minutes to do whatever he had to do. I believe he never left the wireless room. He was that sort of man."
- Godalming Museum, 109a High Street, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1AQ. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm (5pm in the summer). Entry to the museum's exhibitions is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, call 01483 426510, send an e-mail to email@example.com or visit: www.godalming-museum.org.uk
Surrey's Titanic links
- One Surrey man who narrowly avoided the Titanic disaster was Esher resident James Parton. Fortunately, he had only booked a cross-channel passage to Cherbourg, so was safely on shore when the liner sank. Incredibly, Mr Parton also narrowly escaped drowning in an earlier shipwreck. On March 30, 1899, he was one of the few survivors of the SS Stella, which was en route from Southampton bound for Guernsey when she hit a reef in thick fog. The ship sank in just 10 minutes and only 77 passengers and crew of the 190 aboard were saved.
- Another Surrey man with a close link to the Titanic was Lord Pirrie, who lived in Witley, near Godalming. He was the managing director of Harland and Wolff where the ill-fated luxury liner was built.
- Surrey passenger, George H. Hunt, was one of the many who lost their lives in the tragedy. A former head-gardener at Ashtead Park, he had been working for four years as head-gardener on a large estate in Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and two children. He had been visiting England to see his father, and intended to return on the Oceanic. However, when she smashed her propellers, his berth was transferred to the Titanic. A couple of days before he left, he spoke to Harry Johnson, of the Post Office in Ashtead, and in a curious twist of fate said: "It's just as safe as crossing on dry land, so long as she doesn't strike an iceberg."
Get in touch...
Do you know anyone who was on board the Titanic when she sank? Perhaps you have a relative who survived that fateful night or maybe you lost a loved one? We'd love to hear from you with your stories. Get in touch by sending us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.