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

McElroy’s communication skills were at the fore when disaster struck and the Captain needed trusted men about him. There is evidence he played a major role in harnessing the passengers to their task of putting on lifebelts and preparing to abandon ship. Quietly, too, it seems he was passed a loaded revolver. Although not strictly one of Smith’s officers, McElroy had assumed a position of veiled yet real power.

He was next seen outside his office on C deck, where a queue for valuables had begun and was being quickly processed by assistant pursers who emptied the safe. He later addressed the crowd, who were standing around in confusion, urging them to go up top. The Countess of Rothes moved close by and McElroy declared: ‘Hurry, little lady, there is not much time. I’m glad you didn’t ask me for your jewels as other ladies have.’

McElroy followed his clucking flock, then returned to his duties. He was later seen in the company of his fellow Irishman, Dr W. F. N. O’Loughlin, the senior ship’s surgeon. Soon, however, he made his way to the boat deck, where chaos reigned and where every man of authority was desperately needed. McElroy answered the call.

Saloon steward William Ward witnessed Mr McElroy with First Officer Murdoch and J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, at boat No. 9 on the starboard side. ‘Either Purser McElroy or Officer Murdoch said: “Pass the women and children that are here into that boat”,’ said Ward. McElroy next ordered himself and bathroom steward James Widgery into the boat ‘to assist the women’. They went.

Before anyone left on board could draw breath, it was nearly 2 a.m. Just two boats remained on the starboard side, with a collapsible hanging in the davits perilously close to the slowly submerging superstructure. A crowd had surged down to it, milling about the restraining officers and crew.

Elsewhere McElroy was bestriding a boat half-lowered to A deck, one hand clutching a fall rope, another wielding a gun. But his voice was his major weapon. At least that’s the image conjured by the dramatic account of a First-Class passenger who was present at the last gasp. Seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer saw an armed McElroy attempting to quell panic at the last. His account was written privately for friends and family in 1940, more than a quarter of a century after the disaster. Then a mature 45, but with imperfect recall, Thayer wrote:

There was some disturbance in loading the last two forward starboard boats. A large crowd of men was pressing to get into them. No women were around as far as I could see. I saw Ismay, who had been assisting in the loading of the last boat, push his way into it. It was really every man for himself …

Purser H. W. McElroy, as brave and as fine a man as ever lived, was standing up in the next to last boat, loading it. Two men, I think they were dining room stewards, dropped into the boat from the deck above. As they jumped, he fired twice in the air. I do not believe they were hit, but they were quickly thrown out.

At some time there had been a lull in all this frenetic activity on the Titanic’s boat deck. McElroy found himself with Dr O’Loughlin and other senior colleagues near the First-Class entrance. They shook hands, and then McElroy turned for a final handshake with others – Assistant Purser Reginald Barker was certainly there, and probably Assistant Purser Ernest Waldron King, a third Irishman in the group. Junior Surgeon John Simpson, yet another Hibernian, shook hands with the senior medic and the rest. They were saying to one another, ‘Goodbye, old man.’

Second Officer Charles Lightoller broke off his duties for a moment to also come over. He too, grasped hands with everyone and wished them all the best. They were, after all, all in the same boat. And it was sinking beneath them. Within minutes, the waves came.

McELROY – April 14th, on board R.M.S. Titanic, Hugh, beloved husband of Barbara
McElroy, Springwood, Wexford.

(Wicklow People, 25 May 1912)

Hugh McElroy’s family were originally from County Wexford and were staunchly Catholic. His parents had emigrated to Liverpool, where Hugh was born, like so many other Irish who went in search of work during the late nineteenth century when Merseyside was an engine of empire and the colonial trade. McElroy opted for a life at sea, and served three years on the troopship Britannic during the Boer War at the beginning of the new century. He had thirteen years with the White Star Line, serving on the Majestic and Olympic before transferring to the Titanic. In 1910 he married his long-time sweetheart, Barbara Mary Ennis, whom he had known growing up in Liverpool. She was the daughter of John J. Ennis, the passenger manager of the Allan Line of steamships in that city. The couple made their home in Tullacanna, Harperstown, County Wexford, when J. J. Ennis retired to his extensive family farm there. Barbara and Hugh were less than two years married when the Titanic sank, and had no children.