Faces of the Titanic: Chief Purser Hugh Walter McElroy lost his life - Irishman was "larger than life"

Chief Purser Hugh Walter McElroy photographed with Captain of the Titanic Edward John Smith

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PHOTOS - photographs of some of the Irish on board

Profile taken from Senan Molony's book "The Irish Aboard the Titanic"

Chief Purser
From: Tullacanna, County Wexford.
Polygon House, Southampton.

Chief Purser on the Titanic was a huge responsibility – and it was filled by an Irishman who was larger than life and the last word in gallantry.

Hugh McElroy occupied a critical shipboard position for the White Star Line. As Purser, he was the company’s main interface with the bulk of passengers. They came to his office on C deck for everything – to lodge and retrieve valuables for safe keeping, to hand in wireless messages to pass on to the Marconi room, to report a leaky tap in a stateroom wash-hand basin, to organise a games of quoits on deck, right down to buying a ticket to the Turkish bath on F deck, and yes, renting the deckchairs ($1 per voyage).

McElroy was the perfect man for the job, because he clearly was an effortless arranger even during his short stays on shore. On 9 April, while still in Southampton, McElroy and his Wexford-born wife, Barbara, sent flowers in the Danish national colours of red and white to Miss Adeline Genée, a famous dancer. Perhaps she had been an important passenger in the past, but the gesture was particularly polished given the fact that Miss Genée was due to perform a special ‘flying’ matinee at the Southampton Hippodrome two days later – the afternoon after the Titanic sailed.

McElroy was still oozing charm and goodwill at Southampton when Francis Browne, the clerical novice soon to become famous for his photographs on board the Titanic, called to his office on C deck, ‘where a letter of introduction served as a passport to the genial friendship of Mr McElroy’.

The soul of urbanity, McElroy was also a favourite of Captain E. J. Smith, and the two men were photographed together on deck, the Purser appearing with his hands joined behind his back, an image of strength at the master’s right hand, and ever ready to do his bidding.

The Cork Examiner, which took the famous shot, noted in its issue of 15 April, while
unaware of the unfolding tragedy:

On the right of the picture is Commander E. J. Smith, R.D., R.N.R., to whose skill and watchfulness is committed the care of the great ship and her freight of close on four thousand souls. He is one of the heads of his profession, and he has a long and extensive connection with the White Star Line. The Captain may be the best, but unless the Purser knows everybody and everything, and combines the perfection of urbanity, tact, prompt appreciation of circumstances – in fact, is the best of fellows – his passenger list does not fill all the time, but on any ship on which Chief Purser McElroy has filled that position, the booking has always been complete well in advance of the sailings.

In fact the Titanic was by no means full. But that simply allowed McElroy to indulge his special charm with the ladies. Mrs Henry B. Cassebeer recalled visiting the Titanic’s Purser soon after boarding to ask for an upgrade from Second Class. It was done at once and Mrs Cassebeer ended up with one of the finest First-Class staterooms ever created for ocean-going luxury, the bulk of which were on this vessel. She remembered running into the Purser a little later and, pushing her luck, asked that it be arranged that she should dine at the Captain’s table. McElroy’s reply, quoted in Walter Lord’s The Night Lives On, was: ‘I’ll do better than that. I’ll have you seated at my table.’

On that fatal Sunday, just after midnight, when the Titanic engines had stopped after impact with the iceberg, bathroom steward Samuel Rule was investigating the oddity when he saw Purser McElroy on A deck ‘in deep conversation’ with Second Steward George Dodd. He expected to receive orders, but  none were given.

At ten past midnight, stewardess Annie Robinson saw McElroy accompany Captain Smith in the direction of the mailroom, where water was within six steps of coming up onto E deck. ‘About a quarter past twelve, or round about that time’ Second Steward Joseph Wheat was going up to C deck when he met McElroy looking over the banisters. ‘He saw me coming and told me to get the men up and get … lifebelts on the passengers and get them on deck.’ The Purser had been talking urgently to two or three officers, including Chief Steward Andrew Latimer. At ten minutes or a quarter to one, Wheat was again given orders by McElroy, to get all the men to their stations at the boats.