“I could see the lights of the ship starting to go under water, then soundlessly, perhaps a mile away, it just went down. It was gone. Oh yes, the sky was very black and the stars were very bright. They told me the people in the water were singing, but I knew they were screaming.”
Madeleine Mellinger in a Toronto Star interview, April 15, 1974|
On April 10, 1912, 13-year-old Madeleine Violet Mellinger boarded RMS Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York. Along with her mother Elizabeth, she was on her way to a new life in North America. Decades later, after settling in Toronto and raising four sons in the Beach, Madeleine would tell her story to historian Walter Lord, author of A Night To Remember. Each of the 705 survivors had a compelling personal tale to relive. Some chose to remember and some just wanted to forget that night and the cries of over 1500 doomed souls.
The name Madeleine means ‘magnificent’, which is how a young girl must have felt about the Titanic. She was excited to be on the greatest ship ever built, a symbol of progress, a sign of new beginnings, especially for her family which had already suffered enough heartache. The father had deserted Elizabeth and her 5 children after a financial scandal. His last letter arrived from New Zealand in 1909, then silence. The formerly well-to-do family lost everything, including their home. Near penniless, Elizabeth became a maid to wealthy families. The children were divided among relatives and Madeleine was packed off to boarding school outside London.
Life had already gone seriously wrong for Madeleine, but the year 1912 brought the promise of new adventure. Her mom had taken a position as housekeeper to a relative of the ‘new money’ Colgate family and hoped to reunite with her children in Vermont. Mother and daughter set off on their voyage together, sure their luck had changed for the better.
Onboard the luxury liner, Madeleine was enchanted by the intricate woodwork and the elegantly dressed people. The ladies’ long, heavy skirts swept the decks as they strolled. Even their second-class cabin was beautiful. On Sunday, April 14, their new employer, the dashing C.C. Jones, visited and showed them pictures of Bennington, Vermont. She’d never seen a man wearing a fur coat. Madeleine hoped that somehow the wealthy Mr. Jones would become her stepfather. A shipboard romance was not to be: “We never saw him alive again.”
Late that Sunday night, at 11:40 p.m., the unthinkable happened. The Titanic collided with an iceberg which passed directly outside the Mellingers’ porthole on the starboard side. The bump awoke Elizabeth, but she told her daughter to go back to sleep. Around midnight, Madeleine woke again to the sound of a deck steward banging on doors, “Get up! Put on warm clothes and hurry up on deck with life jackets.” In their haste, the girl didn’t notice that her mother wasn’t wearing any shoes. For years to come, Madeleine would feel guilty about her mother’s frozen feet. Even in her seventies, she was also haunted by the image of her beloved doll sitting alone forever in the dark ocean.
Madeleine and Elizabeth rushed up on deck and were “hurled into a half-empty lifeboat.” The girl clung to her mother’s coat, shivering in the open boat, praying to be rescued, the cries of the dying all around them in the dark, icy water. After the great ship sank, the Mellingers were told to climb from boat 14 to number 12 so that Fifth Officer Lowe could go back for a search and rescue mission. (It was Lowe who found the fictional Rose played by Kate Winslet in the 1997 film Titanic.) Around 6 a.m., in response to Second Officer Charles Lightoller’s shrill whistle, boats 4 and 12 saved the thirty exhausted men who had balanced precariously all night long atop the overturned collapsible lifeboat B. Elizabeth helped to revive a freezing Lightoller by giving him her cape and rubbing his arms and hands to restore circulation. Around 8:30 am, Lightoller was the last to board the Carpathia, the most senior officer to survive the sinking.
Onboard the Carpathia, Madeleine frantically rushed around the decks trying to find her mother who had been taken to the ship’s hospital unconscious with hypothermia and frostbite on her feet. Madeleine would write that her mother suffered a nervous reaction all her life and “lost her hearing due to the shock.”
Lightoller wanted to thank Mrs. Mellinger, but all he had was the tin whistle he had blown to attract the rescue boats. Elizabeth cherished the silver whistle until the day she died in 1961. Madeleine donated the whistle to Walter Lord, the historian who had kept the memories of that night alive by collecting firsthand accounts from the survivors. The prized whistle and Elizabeth’s hooded woolen cape are now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
Around 1913, the Mellingers emigrated to Canada. Madeleine married David D. Mann, a Welland banker, in 1923 and later lived in the Beach (Glenmount Park Road, Kingswood Road) raising four sons – Alex, Bill, Don and Carl. Whole generations of family are alive today because a girl answered that banging on the cabin door. Her granddaughter, Laura Mann, has written that she likes to think Madeleine “imparted some of her survivor’s spirit to me.”
On April 15, 1939 four Toronto-area survivors met for a Titanic reunion dinner. Elizabeth and Madeleine attended along with stewardess Emma Bliss who also lived in the Beach for many years with her three adult children (Mrs. Amy Armstrong on Balmy Avenue, Ernest on Hubbard Boulevard, Henry). The man who arranged the reunion was John Collins, who at 17 had been swept off the deck of the sinking ship while trying to rescue a woman and her two infant children. Collins pulled himself aboard collapsible B and was saved by that same tin whistle, the only teenage crew member to survive, though “the child was washed out of my arms.” It was a memory that would haunt the young man’s mind for the rest of his life. John Collins died in a Belfast psychiatric hospital in 1941. The young assistant cook was fondly remembered by Emma Bliss, who lived to the ripe old age of 93. She died at Nevers Nursing Home on Beech Avenue in 1959; her funeral was held at the long-gone Wear Funeral Home at 2114 Queen St East.