[Reproduced By permission of the Toronto Star]
Margaret Peuchen must have been delighted when the telegram arrived at 599 Jarvis St., near the top of what was then a millionaires’ row of mansions.
Its message was simple enough — “Sailing on Titanic – Arthur” — but it meant that her husband would arrive home just in time for his 53rd birthday on April 18.
There was certainly no cause for worry.
As president of Standard Chemical Co., Maj. Arthur Godfrey Peuchen was often abroad visiting the firm’s factories in Europe.
Even among his wealthy peers, few were better acquainted with sailing than Peuchen. His 65-foot yacht, Vreda, had won more races in its class than any other launch in Canada, and he was vice-commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.
This latest trip, on board the world’s newest, largest and most opulent ocean liner, would be Peuchen’s 40th transatlantic crossing.
He had much to be chuffed about.
Standard Chemical had been among the first companies on the planet to make acetone from wood, and business was brisk. Acetone is used to make explosives, hence Peuchen’s visit to the War Office in London amid an arms race with Germany.
The barrel-chested Peuchen also had social cachet as a major with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, at a time when army regiments formed the backbone of society life in Toronto. It’s no small point that the regiment’s commanding officer was his friend Col. Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, of Casa Loma fame.
What Peuchen could never have imagined was that his very achievements — the wealth, the military rank and bearing, his fame as a yachtsman — would conspire to make him, not just Toronto’s central link with Titanic, but one of the most controversial and tragic figures in a maritime disaster that still resonates today.
R.M.S. Titanic would sink on April 15, 1912, and with the hindsight of a century, it all seems so fated, so prophesied, and for that we have to acknowledge an otherwise obscure and struggling author, Morgan Robertson.
In 1898, Robertson penned Futility, his novel about a magnificent ocean liner stuffed with the world’s richest people. “Titan” is the largest ship ever built, but one April evening it strikes an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic.
Fourteen years later, Britain’s White Star Line would unveil Titanic, a ship almost identical in scale and attributes to Robertson’s fictional concoction. Fashioned in the shipyards of Belfast, Titanic measured 882.5 feet long, and its nine decks were as tall as an 11-storey building, a vessel so vast it took three years to construct.
She could carry up to 3,000 people, including crew and those in steerage, but for the wealthiest in first class, nothing was too opulent.
After descending the grand staircase, for instance, guests would enter the first-class dining saloon through a reception area that was home to a specially commissioned Aubusson tapestry (a medieval hunting scene) and a grand piano, around which played a small orchestra.
The dining saloon itself was massive, said to be the largest room afloat — 92 feet by 114 feet — yet the oak furniture, stained glass windows and many alcoves had a way of making each table seem almost intimate.
Such rich comforts were married to the very latest technology. With three, massive screws propelling her, Titanic could travel at up to 25 knots, equivalent to roughly 45 kilometres per hour.
But what really set her apart below decks were a double-hull and 16 watertight compartments. In theory, she could remain afloat after a collision that left only two of the middle compartments intact.
The trade magazine Shipbuilder had marvelled at the watertight compartments as early as 1911: “The Captain, by simply moving an electric switch, can instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”
So even before her maiden voyage in 1912, Titanic had a reputation to match her name. Hubris lingered about her hull, as if daring the fates.
No wonder the basic Titanic narrative has proven such an agreeable stage on which a century of subsequent humanity has been able to project its own changing obsessions, its own twists.
“Each generation discovers it and makes the story their own,” notes Alan Hustak, author of Titanic: The Canadian Story.
In the normal course of things, the world’s wealthiest and well-travelled wouldn’t have been on any ship’s maiden voyage. They usually waited to hear reports about how skilled the captain was, how agreeable the on-board suites and food.
But such was Titanic’s notoriety that some of the planet’s best-known humans booked passage from Southampton, England, to New York, among them John Jacob Astor, one of the richest anywhere, with his Airedale “Kitty” in tow.
Throw in a Guggenheim, a Rothschild and a Harper of publishing fame, and the voyage was quickly becoming the kind of reunion in which no one needs to consult a passenger list. They knew who they were.
Arthur Peuchen fits right in. He was not only wealthy but a major in a storied regiment at a time when the British Empire and its dominions still looked on the world as being all about them. And he had connections.
Peuchen had persuaded his friend Harry Markland Molson of the brewing dynasty to linger in England longer than planned so the two could travel together on Titanic.
They’d be joined on board by the likes of Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway (forerunner of Canadian National), Montreal stock promoter Hudson “Hud” Allison and John Hugo Ross, who’d inherited his father’s Winnipeg real estate business and often crewed on Peuchen’s yacht.
There was also Mary and Mark Fortune, who’d taken their four youngest children — Ethel, Mabel, Alice and Charles — on a grand tour of Europe. Born in Carluke, Ont., Mark Fortune had first ventured to California in search of wealth, and eventually found it in Winnipeg, where he’d snapped up 1,000 acres along what would later be downtown Portage Ave.
His daughter Ethel was by then engaged to Toronto banker Crawford Gordon, but she’d made the trip to look after her younger siblings and shop for a trousseau.
But if Peuchen was looking forward to several days with some of his closest friends, he had one grave misgiving: the ship’s captain, Edward John Smith.
A skilled courtier, Smith was popular with the White Star Line’s wealthy regulars, even though his career had been marred by mishaps over the years. He’d run three ships aground and been in one major collision, while a fifth ship had caught fire.
Now 62, Smith was set to retire after guiding Titanic on her first trip, a task for which Peuchen thought Smith too old.
Peuchen would later recall: “The Titanic was a good boat, luxuriously fitted up — I was pleased with her. But when I heard that our captain was Capt. Smith, I said, “Surely we are not going to have that man in command.”
By permission of the Toronto Star