Titanic Survivor Story: David Wilson
Most people with an interest in the story of Titanic will be aware of the Guarantee Group, a group of men selected by the ship’s builders, Harland and Wolff, to travel on the maiden voyage in order to iron out any snags in Titanic’s operation. The group included the chief naval architect, Thomas Andrews, chief draughtsman, Roderick Chisholm, senior fitters such as Artie Frost and Bob Knight and a number of apprentices. None of them survived the ship’s sinking. However, travelling with them as a representative of Harland and Wolff was a young naval architect, William David Wilson, who was spared the fate of his colleagues on board Titanic because he was called away from the ship on urgent business.
David Wilson- From Apprentice to Draftsman
David Wilson was born in Ballymena, County Antrim in 1887. He studied naval architecture at the Belfast College of Technology where he won the Lord Pirrie prize for cross-channel steamer design. He started his apprenticeship at the age of 17 at Belfast’s other famous shipyard, Workman Clark. He left in 1910 and within a year was appointed a leading draughtsman at Harland and Wolff. At this time, construction on Titanic was well underway. One of David Wilson’s tasks was to draw up a 10 foot long technical blueprint of the water and plumbing system for Titanic. He also took part in Titanic’s sea trials on Belfast Lough before she departed for Southampton.
Picking Up Passengers
Mr Wilson was to be among Harland and Wolff’s senior representatives when the ship docked in New York. His niece, Gladys McClelland says,
“I often wonder and try to imagine what my uncle’s thoughts and feelings must have been at this time of his life. He was a young, single man of 25 and must have been so honoured, thrilled and excited at the prospect of being on the maiden voyage of this unique liner.”
Disembark- Departing from the Titanic
Titanic left Southampton on 10th April 1912 and sailed across the English Channel to Cherbourg in France. Here, hundreds more passengers got on board. Many were wealthy Americans travelling home after visiting the great cities of Europe. It was here in Cherbourg where David Wilson’s Titanic adventure ended. A message came through asking him to disembark from Titanic and go directly to Rotterdam in Holland to supervise urgent repairs on another ship. Gladys says,
“It must have been a very disappointed uncle who waved goodbye to the Titanic and his dream voyage of a lifetime in order to fulfil the call of duty. Naturally he took his luggage with him and possibly on account of the last minute change of plan, the blueprint of Titanic’s plumbing was still in his leather case.”
The urgent business at Rotterdam undoubtedly saved David Wilson’s life. It is hard to imagine how he must have felt when he received the news that all of his Harland and Wolff colleagues had perished in Titanic’s sinking. The loss of RMS Titanic wiped out so many of the top tier of design personnel at the shipyard. In 1913, David Wilson was appointed assistant manager and in 1918 senior manager of the design office. He remained at Harland and Wolff in Belfast until 1920, after which he relocated to Southampton to manage Harland and Wolff’s shipyard in that city. However his association with Titanic does not end there.
During the early 1920’s, Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, had to be dry docked in Southampton. Her owners, the White Star Line specifically asked for David Wilson to oversee a portion of the procedure of manoeuvring the 46 thousand ton ship into the dockyard. Then in 1926, Wilson and his young family moved to a flat in Putney. To their complete surprise, they discovered that the flat was owned by none other than Charles Lightoller, second officer on board Titanic and the most senior of the crew to survive. Lightoller lived in the flat below and Wilson’s daughter, Maureen recalls that the two men had many conversations about what happened on Titanic in mid Atlantic.
David Wilson spent his later career at Royal Mail Liners, from where he retired in 1950. He died eleven years later at the age of 74. If he reflected on his lucky escape from Titanic, these were not sentiments which he aired in public. Gladys describes him as a gentle, quietly spoken, unassuming man.
But what happened to the plumbing blueprint which left Titanic at Cherbourg in his suitcase?
With Titanic’s loss, there was no further use for it and it was stored, still rolled up, in the bottom of a wardrobe. It survived four burglaries in different Wilson homes and the near miss of a bomb to the family home in London during World War Two. After his death in 1961, his wife passed the blue-print to his daughter for safekeeping and she in turn passed it to her son. In 2005, after a family consultation, it was decided to sell the blueprint through Aldridge’s, the famous auctioneers of Titanic memorabilia. It is understood it was sold to a Titanic collector in the South of England. Gladys concludes, “Uncle David would have been happy for the financial outcome to go towards his three great grandsons’ third level education." Gladys, who lives in Limavady, Northern Ireland is a member of the Belfast Titanic Society and attended last year’s centenary of the launch of RMS Olympic on the slipway in Titanic Quarter.