Inger Sheil’s research into the life of Harold Lowe took her to the UK and then to publish a book about this unassuming hero from the Titanic…
In 1999, overcome by the frustrations of trying to do research at long distance, I moved to the UK. Being in situ made a remarkable difference, as I was able to travel across Britain on long weekends of fact finding. Family and friends often found themselves dragged along for the ride, and to my surprise they seemed to enjoy it. Some said that they enjoyed the focus my quest gave their travels, as we put together pieces of the puzzle to form the bigger picture. Of course, I spared them the interminable microfilm sessions in archives, the painstaking trawling of years and years’ worth of newsprint or deciphering handwritten notes.
I lost my research collaborator, Kerri, to her family duties, although she remained an enthusiastic project supporter. The Lowe family remained steadfast supporters as well, supplying both material and insight. They did not, as some families try to do, attempt to dictate the direction the narrative took. They were confident that the actions of their forebear, and the words of eyewitnesses who saw him on the night of the disaster, spoke eloquently enough. There was no need for any gloss, and I believe the story I pieced together bears out their belief.
There were curious coincidences and incidents of serendipity. A friend who lived in Kew revealed that her next-door neighbour was distantly related to Harold Lowe; she put me in touch with an elderly relative who remembered visiting the Lowe family in the 1930s. Her recollections of Harold were added to the book.
My earlier assumptions that all Titanic material had been well-picked over by writers and researchers proved to be ill-founded. Many books stuck to well-worn ruts, while there were survivor accounts that had not seen the light of publication since 1912. One of the most remarkable discoveries I made was a series of letters written from the Titanic by one of Lowe’s fellow officers that had never been published. Coming across so much material about the White Star Line and the Titanic, I was able to publish a number of articles on aspects of the disaster for several of the international Titanic interest groups.
There was never any shortage of media interest in new Titanic discoveries, either. Once, after finding an overgrown headstone with an inscription dedicated to the Sixth Officer in a Yorkshire cemetery, I sent a media release to some newspapers, expecting it to rate a paragraph mention at most, then left for the weekend to visit friends. I arrived home to my irate brother waving a phone in my direction and indignantly telling me he was not my media manager. Yorkshire’s largest newspaper was holding the front page for the story while they waited to check a detail with me, BBC radio had been calling, and there was a TV station wanted to speak with me. My brother had called everyone, including our family back in Australia, to see if anyone knew where I’d gone.
Eventually, with the research as complete as I could make it, I returned to Australia and a job at the Australian National Maritime Museum. One of the most difficult things was convincing myself that the manuscript was finished; it seemed there was always a detail to be added or a further avenue to be investigated. The approaching 100th anniversary of the sinking finally convinced me it was time. I sent a letter and précis of the manuscript to The History Press, a large specialist history publisher in the UK with a very respectable catalogue of Titanic-related books, and held my breath.
The History Press proved enthusiastic about publishing the title in time for the anniversary, with a short deadline for editing the manuscript and assembling the images. Harold Lowe’s grandson, John, helpfully couriered key images from his photographic collection for high quality scanning for publication. After a brief but very intense period of after-hours work with proofs and jacket designs, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the work had gone to the printers.
It has been a long, curious journey that’s given me great pleasure from making it in Harold Lowe’s company. He has proved a fascinating travelling companion – highly individualistic, sometimes stubborn, often courageous, and frequently surprising. I hope that Titanic Valour does his remarkable story justice, in all its tragedy and its triumph.
– Inger Sheil
Inger’s new book Titanic Valour – The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, published by The History Press, UK is available through The Store. Call +61 2 9298 3698 or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to order a copy.