Walter Perkis of Ryde, Titanic Survivor
Walter John Perkis was born in Swanmore Road, Ryde in August 1874, the seventh of twelve children by James and Emily Perkis. Walter went to sea at the age of 16 and he was employed as a quartermaster on RMS Titanic, having previously carried out the same role on the sister ship Olympic. At the time of Titanic’s sinking he resided in Bitterne with his wife Phoebe and son Robert.
Walter Perkis was off duty in his cabin at the time of the fateful collision with the iceberg. He did not hear or feel a thing. He had been due on duty at the wheel of Titanic at midnight, 20 minutes after the collision, but instead was involved with the launching of the port forward lifeboats under the command of second officer Charles Lightoller. Starting with boat no. 4, it was Lightoller’s intention to lower the boats as far as the deck below (A deck) and load the passengers through the windows there, but the windows were locked. So, he left boat 4 hanging for the time being and proceeded to load and launch no. 6, then no. 8 and, perhaps, no.10 from the boat deck. By now the windows on A deck were unlocked and he loaded no.4 as originally planned, but he only put 31 passengers and one crewman in the boat. The crewman would have been John Foley, a store keeper. When Foley called out that there was only one crewman in the boat, two more were sent shimmying down the falls; one was Walter Perkis, the other was able seaman William McCarthy. At the subsequent American inquiry, the affidavit of Emily Ryerson, a first class passenger in boat 4, estimated the deck was only 20 feet above the sea when boat 4 was launched. It had been 70 feet when the ship was fully afloat!
Walter Perkis took command of boat no.4. Just what happened next is not entirely certain, but the boat probably started to row away from Titanic and then quickly returned to near the ship’s stern. Charles Lightoller claimed to have been concerned that the boats could buckle if fully loaded and suspended from the falls and it appears the intention was for the boats to take on more passengers through gangway doors once they were afloat. This could have been the reason for the boat’s return. Passenger Emily Ryerson commented “there was a confusion of orders; we rowed toward the stern, someone shouted something about a gangway, and no one seemed to know what to do”. Clearly it was a confusing situation. It seems there were no open gangways doors and no passengers waiting, only two crewmembers who were standing near the empty davits of boat no.16, the aft lifeboat on the port side. These were Thomas Ranger and Fredrick Scott (both greasers) and the pair of them shimmied down the falls from the boat 16 davits. Ranger made it directly into the boat but Scott fell in the water and was hauled in after two or three minutes. At another time, lamp trimmer Thomas Hemming said he shimmied down a rope after all the boats had gone and swam 200 yards to boat 4 where he was hauled in by Foley. It appears that Walter’s boat was the closest lifeboat to Titanic when she foundered and straight afterwards he took the boat back to the site of the sinking. Bedroom steward Andrew Cunningham said that he and a mate left Titanic after the lights went out. After Titanic went under they saw boat no.4 and swam towards it. They were both hauled in but Cunningham’s mate (Sidney Seibert, another steward) died soon afterwards. Another crewmember, trimmer Thomas Dillon, said he went down with Titanic and then swam. He was picked up unconscious by boat 4 after about 20 minutes.
After Fred Scott was hauled from the water a further seven people were picked up from the sea. Four of them are accounted for above. The others (clearly not amongst the original complement of 31 passengers and three crew), who were counted out of boat 4 on Carpathia (the first ship on the scene), were Frank Prentice (a store keeper), Alfred White (a greaser) and William Lyons (an able seaman). The latter unfortunately died. According to Encyclopaedia Titanica Frank Prentice jumped from the poop deck with his colleagues, Cyril Ricks and M. Kieran, when it became too crowded, He found Ricks was injured and floating nearby and he stayed until Ricks died. Prentice began swimming and he found Lifeboat 4. The crew and women in the boat pulled him in.
Although Walter’s boat hauled eight people from the water, this was not the boat famously portrayed in the Titanic films as going back to rescue people from the sea. That was boat number 14, commanded by fifth officer Geoffrey Lowe, which returned to the scene after about 20 minutes and rescued four people, one of whom died.
When the sea fell silent Walter tied up his boat with four other lifeboats. As it began to get light the occupants of these boats spotted a number of men (there turned out to be 30 of them), standing on the upturned hull of a collapsible boat, some distance away. Walter’s boat and boat no. 12 rowed over to rescue the men. Emily Ryerson said the men “were nearly gone and could not have held out much longer” One of the men was Charles Lightoller who went down with Titanic whilst still trying to launch the collapsible boat. Twice he had been sucked against ventilation ducts and been blown off again and he was lucky not to have been struck by a funnel when it fell next to the upturned collapsible boat that he and many others were trying to get on.
Soon after daybreak the liner Carpathia arrived and the rescue was complete. Walter Perkis gave brief evidence at the American inquiry but not at the later British inquiry. In June 1912 he rejoined his old ship, Olympic. Walter died in Southampton in August 1954, shortly before his 80th birthday.
References & further reading:
Titanic Inquiry Project http://www.titanicinquiry.org/
Cunningham, Andrew (American Inquiry)
Hemming, Samuel S (American Inquiry)
Perkis, Walter John (American Inquiry)
Dillon, Thomas Patrick (British Inquiry)
Lightoller, Charles Fredrick (British Inquiry)
Lowe, Harold Godfrey (British Inquiry)
Ranger, Thomas G (British Inquiry)
Scott, Frederick (British Inquiry)
Ryerson, Mrs Emily Borie (American Inquiry)
Titanic Lifeboat Lowering Sequence http://www.titanic-titanic.com/lifeboat_lowering_times.shtml
Wikipedia, List of crew members on board RMS Titanic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_crew_members_on_board_RMS_Titanic
Encyclopaedia Titanica http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/frank-winnold-prentice.html
Written by John Faulkner
Great nephew of Walter Perkis