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The Globe and Mail

My grandfather was aboard the Titanic. He didn't survive

katy lemay The Globe and Mail

My grandfather died on the Titanic. MacKie, G. was a third-class cabin steward listed as crew in the Victualing Department and assumed lost at sea. George left behind his wife, Mary, and three children – Elsie, 11, Jessie, 9, and three-year-old George, who was to be my father. My grandfather had been hand-picked to work on the Titanic because of a good reference from his earlier position as steward on the White Star Line's RMS Olympic. He doubtless felt excited and privileged to be selected to work on the fabulous new ship.

The Mackie family lived in a small row house in Southampton, which I remember mainly because of the toilet in the back garden – scary to visit at night. And the pristine front room, which as children we were forbidden to enter except at Christmas or when the very occasional visitor called. My parents moved away from Southampton, so we saw Granny Mackie seldom: My sister and I remember her as a rather remote figure from whom there were few grandmotherly hugs. But the loss of her husband must have been a bitter blow – not only did she lose a partner, but she also had to raise three children on the small allowance the crew's survivors were awarded.

There was a charity Relief Fund generated to help the families, but it was a meagre amount. The fund was loath to pay out lump sums, as it was generally assumed that its lower-class recipients would use the money to drink and gamble. At one point my grandmother received free sailor suits for the children, which they hated to wear as it marked them at school as charity cases.

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My father never talked about his father. He may not have remembered him. But we understood that he had had an unhappy childhood. He won a place at grammar school but could not take it, as he was the family breadwinner from an early age. There were no photographs of his family in our house. The loss of his sister Jessie, who died in her 30s from rheumatic fever, and then, after marriage, the loss of his firstborn daughter to flu, were hard blows.

He did have a great love of the sea, however, and when he retired from working for 50 years as a civil servant he and my mother moved to the Sussex coast. It was in the historic city of Chichester that my father continued to enjoy a life-long love of the sea and of sailing small boats. After his death, my sister and I took his ashes to the shore and spread them on the water. The calm surface of the Chichester estuary was a world away from the North Atlantic sea where his father had perished.

I emigrated to Canada in 1967. After my father died, I returned to England and researched the archives in a Southampton library and the reports of the sinking in the local newspaper. I found mention of my grandfather and of his widow and children. It seemed likely that the tragedy could have been avoided. The captain played down iceberg warnings, in a hurry to break the record for crossing time.

It was the following year that I felt as though I had finally got a sense of what happened on the night of April 15, 1912. My sister travelled from England to meet me in Halifax, a city rightly proud of its speedy and untiring response to the disaster off its coast. We learned about the Mackay-Bennett, soon to be called the Death Ship, one of the cable ships sent out from Halifax with a cargo of ice, coffins and canvas bags to start recovering the bodies, bobbing up and down in their life jackets in the rough and frigid waters. Although 306 bodies were recovered, the embalming fluid ran out and 116 of them had to be buried at sea.

My grandfather's accommodation was in the cramped stewards' quarters on Deck F, near the engine rooms, and five or six decks below the first-class passengers. It's possible that he drowned before he had a chance to put on a life jacket. If his body had reached the shore, he would have been treated according to the dictates of the rigidly enforced class system: Coffins were supplied for the first-class passengers and canvas bags for the second and third class. Bodies of the crew were laid out on open stretchers. I prefer to think of my grandfather's drowned body remaining in the sea rather than being subjected to this humiliating treatment.

We visited a Halifax museum to see its Titanic exhibit, and later made the journey to the nearby Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Hundreds of simple white granite tombstones mark the graves of those lost, and while it's possible my grandfather is among them (134 and 216, for example, may be the graves of stewards), 864 male crew members perished and the majority were never found. Not surprisingly, a much higher percentage of third-class passengers and crew perished compared to those in first class.

It was a bittersweet trip to Halifax, but it gave me an important connection to my grandfather. Titanic has captured the public imagination for years, but for my family it is not a symbol of privileged luxury and industrial progress as much as a terrifying event that caused the deaths of hard-working people whose families never recovered.

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Janet Mackie lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Editor's note: The Titanic sank on April 15 after hitting an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date.

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