Fred Olliver, Titanic quartermaster
It is well documented that there were a number of Channel Islanders on board Titanic on the night of 14 April 1912. Guernsey can lay claim to a high profile passenger in the shape of Rosalie Bidois, who was the lady’s maid of Madeleine Astor, wife of the wealthiest man on the ship (and indeed one of the wealthiest men in America at the time) John Jacob Astor.
However, it was a Jerseyman who had a ringside seat at one of the most famous maritime disasters in history. There was a St Ouennais on the bridge of the Titanic when she hit the iceberg.
Alfred John Olliver was born in St Ouen, on 2 June 1884. He was the son of French-born Pierre Ollivier (1859-1914), a farmer, and Jersey-born Eliza Le Cornu (1859-1934). His parents had married around 1879 and would have a total of 11 children, losing three in infancy. Alfred's known siblings were Peter (1880- ), Eliza Jane (1882- ), Henry (1886- ), Hilda (1888- ), Mary Ann (1890- ), Eliza Jane (1896- ), William (1898- ), John (1899- ) and Francis John (1901- ).
In the 1891 Channel Island census Alfred and his family were living at Green Vales, St Aubin. The family would later relocate to St Nicholas, where they were listed in the 1901 census; Alfred was absent, having gone to sea aged 16. He was listed inn the 1901 census as a Royal Navy sailor stationed at the Royal Marine Barrack in Alverstoke, Hampshie. He served with the Royal Navy for seven years before joining the Merchant service.
He married Amelia Gertrude Perkins (1883- ) in Southampton in 910 and the couple appeared on the 1911 census living at Olympic, Victoria Road, Bitterne, Alfred was described as a seaman in the merchant service. They would later have three children: Alfred (1911- ), William (1914- ) and Hilda (1916- ).
When he signed on to the Titanic on 6 April 1912, Alfred gave his address as 38 Anderson's Road, Southampton. He had transferred from the Olympic and as a quartermaster he could expect to earn monthly wages of £5. Also serving aboard was his brother-in-law Walter Perkis who was married to his wife's sister Phoebe Lavinia.
As a quartermaster, he would spend shifts at the ship’s wheel, under the command of the officer of the watch.
Titanic sailed from Southampton on 10 April 1912 and stopped to collect further passengers at both Cherbourg and Queenstown, Ireland, before heading for New York, where she was due to dock at White Star Pier 59 early on Wednesday 17 April. What happened next is known because of the detailed evidence that Olliver was later to give to the US Senate enquiry into disaster.
On Sunday 14 April, the night of the collision, Fred Olliver was on duty and was at the helm until 10pm, just under two hours before the impact, when he handed over to Robert Hitchens. He then took over the role of standby quartermaster, running errands for the officer of the watch, and had just returned to the bridge, having checked the lights on the standing compass, when he heard three bells from the Crows Nest which indicated that the lookouts had spotted something.
Olliver heard First Officer Will Murdoch give the orders for the watertight doors to be closed and attempt to ‘port around’ the iceberg, and later recalled recording the closing of the doors in the ships log. Moments later he felt the shudder of the impact and saw the iceberg go past on the starboard side level with the bridge.
"I happened to be looking at the lights on the standing compass and was trimming them so that they would burn properly - then I heard the report...and was just entering the bridge when the shock came,"he later testified. He heard a 'grinding sound and then saw the berg, which he later described as "...about the height of the boat deck; if anything, just a little higher. It was almost alongside the boat. "
Crucially, at the US inquiry, when asked what colour the berg was, he said that it was not white as one would expect, but blue. This indicated that the berg had recently turned over and was still full of water. This could explain why the lookouts, Fred Fleet and Reg Lee, did not see it until it was too late.
By this time the Captain, Edward John Smith, had arrived on the bridge (he had been on a break and had been taking a nap on a couch in the Chart Room) and ordered Fred Olliver to locate the carpenter, John Maxwell, and tell him to ‘sound’ the ship. When he found Maxwell, he was already in the process of doing this and so Olliver returned to the bridge where the Captain gave him a folded message for the Chief Engineer Joseph Bell. Bell, who did not survive, told him to inform the Captain that his order would be carried out. Olliver did not open the folded note and never found out what the order was, as all of the engineers died.
Having delivered the note, Olliver was sent to the starboard side of the boat deck to uncover and swing out the lifeboats. He loaded Boat 5 with 45 people, mainly 1st Class ladies, before being ordered to assist 3rd Officer Herbert Pitman and leave the ship in this boat. As the boat was being lowered, Olliver realized that the bung was not in and there was a danger it would be swamped. He crawled under the legs of the ladies and eventually had to resort to manhandling some of them out of the way when they would not move, in order to get the bung in and save them and the boat.
Boat 5 finally cast off and rowed away to a safe distance where its passengers watched in horror as Titanic went down. At the inquiry, Olliver gave evidence that 3rd Officer Pitman wanted to go back to retrieve survivors from the water but the 1st Class ladies over-ruled him, even though there was space for at least another 20 people in the lifeboat.
After the sinking, the survivors were sitting in tiny open boats, in the middle of a freezing April night in the North Atlantic, unaware if a rescue was on its way or if they were doomed to die of exposure or hunger. ‘’Titanic’’ had no tannoy system and only a small number of her officers (many of whom had been lost) knew that her Marconi wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, had bravely stayed at their posts sending out distress calls and summoning assistance until just minutes before the sinking, when the power failed. Bride survived but Phillips was lost.
In Lifeboat 5, Fred Olliver noticed that first class passenger Ruth Dodge was not fully dressed and was freezing. He took off his socks and offered them to her. She turned up her nose at the offer until he assured her that the socks were clean on that morning.
Titanic's lifeboats were adrift for around five hours until the Cunard liner Carpathia, captained by Arthur Rostron, arrived, having travelled at full steam for 58 miles through an ice field. Carpathia saved 705 people, taking them to Cunard Pier 54 in New York. 1523 were lost.
The US Senate inquiry initially opened in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, on the site of which the Empire State Building now stands. A few days later, the Senate Committee returned to Washington to conclude the hearings and it was here, on 28 April 1912, that Alfred Olliver gave his evidence. He continued to work for the White Star Line, but never went back to sea after the disaster.
Alfred’s last home was at 38 Andersons Road, Southampton, before his death on 18 June 1934. He is buried in St Saviour’s Churchyard with his wife Amelia Gertrude who died, aged 91, in 1975.
After 78 years in an unmarked grave, Alfred Olliver was finally honoured. A granite headstone featuring the White Star pennant was placed on the grave of Alfred and his wife in 2012, 1 century after the tragedy.