The reluctant hero
Harold Cottam, the young telegraphist who picked up the Titanic’s distress call, has been honoured with a plaque in the Nottinghamshire village where he died.
The reluctant hero who took the Titanic’s distress call
By Neil Heath
BBC News, Nottingham
Harold Cottam, the young telegraphist who picked up the Titanic’s distress call, has been honoured with a plaque in the Nottinghamshire village where he died. His role is rarely featured in popular accounts of the disaster, but many believe he deserves greater recognition.
It was after midnight on 15 April 1912, and 21-year-old Harold Cottam was preparing to turn in for the night.
His duties as wireless operator aboard the passenger liner RMS Carpathia had finished for the day and he was using the transmitter to “take some general news” from Marconi’s wireless station at Cape Cod.
While doing this, he picked up a batch of messages intended for the Titanic and, having heard the famous ship’s own telegraphist had been overworked, he took them down and made contact.
It was a fateful decision. The reply came through, tapped out in Morse code: “We have struck ice, come at once.”
Speaking to the BBC in 1956, Cottam said he initially queried the message from Jack Phillips – the Titanic’s wireless operator.
“I said ‘was it serious?’ and [Phillips] said ‘Yes it’s a CQD [radio distress signal] old man. Here’s the position, report it, and get here as soon as you can’.”
He took the co-ordinates and rushed to the bridge where he spoke to the senior officer on watch. But – possibly because wireless was a new technology and the Titanic was reputedly unsinkable – the Carpathia crew on duty were sceptical.
“The information didn’t seem as though it had sunk in as fast as I thought it ought to,” said Cottam.
“So I rushed down the ladder and knocked on the captain’s cabin and as I saw a light I rushed in.”
“He said ‘Who the hell?’ Or words to that effect. So I said ‘Well, the Titanic’s struck ice, sir, and she’s in distress. I’ve got the position here’.
“So he said ‘Well, give it to me’, and he put a dressing gown on and went.”
Cottom said the Carpathia was about four hours away from the Titanic, her Captain, Arthur Rostron, having taken a number of measures to increase her speed.
In the meantime, the crew were ordered to prepare food, blankets and medical care for any survivors.
Cottam’s account of what happened next appeared in the New York Times on 19 April, 1912.
“We steamed with every ounce of speed in us in the direction given by the Titanic, and we reached the spot just before dawn.
“All this time we were hearing the Titanic, sending her wireless out over the sea in a last call for help.
“‘We are sinking fast’, was one which I picked up being sent to the [RMS] Olympic.”
The last message Cottam received from Jack Phillips was: “Come quick our engine room is flooded up to the boilers.”
After that he did not hear anything more and was sure this meant the great ship had sunk.
Phillips himself perished along with more than 1,500 others, after the Titanic went down.
At the scene of the disaster, Cottam described seeing wood and debris floating in the water but said he saw no bodies.
He later watched as some of the 705 traumatised passengers, mostly women and children, were taken aboard.
The Carpathia remained at the scene for about three hours looking for further people in the water, then set off for New York with the survivors.
Other ships which received the distress call would not have arrived until hours later.
The ship’s crew, including Cottam, were later given medals for their part in the rescue, with Captain Rostron receiving both a knighthood and the Congressional gold medal.
But the crucial part played by the wireless operator later slipped into relative obscurity – except among Titanic enthusiasts.
Cottam’s family said his modesty and desire for privacy probably had much to do with that.
Later he would turn down a chance to play himself in A Night to Remember, the 1958 film about the Titanic’s sinking.
However, they also believe the significance of his actions is little understood – arguably, the Titanic’s survivors would have spent many more hours exposed to the elements had he not decided to make contact that night.
Harold Cottam died in Lowdham in 1984, aged 93.
Some of his elderly neighbours knew of his achievement but as time went by others simply saw him as a quiet and private man.
The blue plaque was unveiled by Cottam’s granddaughter Wendy Gell at the Ship Inn in Lowdham on Saturday.
His great-granddaughter Nichola Gell said: “He never spoke about [the Titanic]. He didn’t want fame and fortune.
“That was the man he was. But if he hadn’t done what he did more people would have died.
“It’s nice that something is finally happening and he’s got some recognition, whether he likes it or not!”