April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot
Take a walk through St. John’s Norway Cemetery at Kingston Road and Woodbine Avenue and you will pass the grave sites of prominent Beach citizens like Ted Reeve, R.C. Harris, Dr. William Young and the Ashbridge family.
There are no buildings or memorials named after Victor Francis Sunderland, who lived quietly in the Beach for more than 50 years before his death in 1973. Sunderland survived two of the great tragedies of the early 20th century: the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic and the First World War.
Sunderland’s first-hand account of the great ocean liner’s last moments became part of the narrative of James Cameron’s 1997 hit movie Titanic. Like the fictional Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), Sunderland was a young lad sailing as a third-class passenger on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated ship.
April is a time of hope and new beginnings. At 20 years old, Sunderland was leaving England for a fresh start in North America. As fate would have it, he became one of the few men among the third-class passengers to survive in the early hours of April 15, 1912. There were no places in the lifeboats that night for third-class men and chances of survival were slim.
Some of the incidents in Cameron’s film were taken from the accounts of survivors like Sunderland. In a 1912 newspaper story Sunderland described the scene:
“The boat deck was crowded on the starboard side. The crew was filling the boats with women and children and lowering them away. An old lady and an old man with a white beard stood together. An officer told the woman to get in the boat. She put her arm around her husband’s shoulder and said, ‘Let me have my husband.’ When she was told she must go alone, she said, ‘Then I will die with him.’ That was the last I saw of them.”
This couple was Isador and Ida Straus, last seen sitting on deck chairs, not lying in bed as in the movie, which took liberties with the truth. British critics were especially upset at the unfair depiction of officers. Sunderland believed that an officer did shoot a man in a lifeboat and then shot himself, but there is no proof it was First Officer William Murdoch.
Second Officer Lightoller and Sunderland were two of the last men off the doomed ship. While trying to launch collapsible lifeboat “B” they were swamped by water rushing on the deck. Lightoller shouted, “Here she goes” and jumped over the port side. Sunderland followed into the cold Atlantic seas.
The two men were among the 29 lucky souls able to climb onto the overturned lifeboat B which had washed overboard. Sunderland saw the forward funnel come crashing down into the ocean, then the great ship broke in two “and the stern stood straight in the air” – two events that were only confirmed by the wreck’s discovery in 1985.
The survivors on the upside-down lifeboat stood for six hours balancing in waist-deep freezing water until they were rescued in the early morning daylight. Sunderland arrived penniless in New York City, made his way to Cleveland and then to Ontario. He served in the Canadian Army in the First World War and never fully recovered from the effects of being gassed.
After the war Sunderland settled in the Beach area near St. John’s Norway, first on Kingston Road, then on Duvernet Avenue and Kippendavie Avenue. He worked as a plumber and lived the rest of his life on Waverley Road backing onto Kew Gardens.
Over a century later we are still fascinated by the mystery of what happened in those last desperate hours when the Titanic sank. Countless books have described the tragic events.
Victor Francis Sunderland is not forgotten. He survived and his son became a doctor, saving others in the circle of life. His memories live on in the epic film Titanic.
Back at St. John’s Norway Cemetery, stone angels watch over the departed and April showers bring flowers up through the cold ground. Spring is here at last!
This post has been updated.