Canada's History

Dodging Disaster


- By Michael Dupuis

The eventful life of Hilda Slayter Lacon, who survived not one but two of the twentieth century’s worst disasters.

HILDA SLAYTER HAD WASHED HER HAIR AND WAS DRYING IT AS SHE SAT IN HER berth, when she heard a dull thump. Had the Titanic struck another vessel? As the thirty-year-old from Halifax left her stateroom on the starboard side of E deck she encountere­d a steward. “We have hit an iceberg,” he declared as he hurried down the hallway. After going up to the main deck, where she saw crew members preparing lifeboats, Hilda returned to her room and put on extra clothing. She persuaded her cabin-mate, Florence Kelly, that they should make their way up to the top deck, where the lifeboats were located.

Once there, Hilda was surrounded by a crowd of men who opened a path for her to lifeboat 13. Just as the fully loaded boat was about to be lowered, Hilda was thrust into the stern and handed ten-month-old Alden Caldwell by the child’s mother, who then found a spot in another part of the lifeboat. “You are lucky,” said the man next to Hilda, as she noted later in her journal. “They called three times, ‘Are there any more women?’”

Their safety was not yet assured. The lines connecting lifeboat 13 to the ship began sticking as they unwound. To make matters worse, water being discharged from the

Titanic was streaming into the path of the lifeboat’s descent. Hilda could feel the lifeboat dipping and heaving as it dropped over the ship’s side. Meanwhile, lifeboat 15 began descending from above.

Hilda later recalled that she and the others in her lifeboat yelled to stop the second lifeboat from being lowered — it came so close that she actually touched its bottom with her fingertips. Fortunatel­y, at the last moment a man crawled along the outside of lifeboat 13 with a knife in his mouth and slashed the ropes that held it. Immediatel­y it was driven to one side by the discharge from the ship’s pump, but it came down safely in the water, with lifeboat 15 also in one piece beside it. Minutes later Hilda, the baby and sixty-three other occupants of lifeboat 13 floated away from the Titanic, which was by then listing badly.

As her lifeboat drifted, Hilda could see the doomed liner, its lights still blazing but the bow already dropping below the water. Hearing people in the water shouting, she asked, “Are they calling for the boats to get together?”

“Calling, Miss?” someone on board lifeboat 13 replied. “That ain’t calling. That’s drowning.”

The baby Hilda was holding slept soundly for an hour but then woke and began to cry. Turning to a fellow passenger, English science teacher Howard Beesley, she asked, “Will you feel down and see if the baby’s feet are out of the blanket? I don’t know much about babies but I think their feet must be kept warm.” Beesley found the exposed toes and wrapped them up. Little Alden stopped crying. Having recognized Hilda’s

voice as belonging to a woman he had met at the purser’s table earlier in the voyage, Beesley said, “Surely you are Miss Hilda Slayter?”

“Yes,” Hilda replied, “and you must be Mr. Beesley; how curious we should find ourselves in the same boat.”

Born in Halifax on April 5, 1882, Hilda Mary Slayter was the tenth of eleven children of Dr. William Bruce Slay- ter and musician Clarina Underhill Clark. The Slayters were a prominent upper-middle-class family; two of Hilda’s brothers became doctors, two lawyers, one an architect, and another a Royal Navy admiral, while her two sisters married army officers.

At twenty-seven she moved to Europe to become a profession­al singer. However, she did not have a strong enough voice for an operatic career, and with the encouragem­ent of her brothers, who had been supporting her musical aspiration­s, Slayter began the search for a husband. She soon met Toronto-born Henry Reginald Dunbar Lacon, the third son of a British baron and Member of Parliament.

The couple made plans to marry in British Columbia and to live on Lacon’s large property on Denman Island, in the Georgia Strait off the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was a remote and sparsely populated place at the time. Henry had visited it and enjoyed his experience there. As the third-born son, he was unlikely to inherit land in England, so presumably he opted for relatively cheap property in Canada, however remote. It is also possible that Lacon was a remittance man: an emigrant assigned regular payments from home on the expectatio­n that he stay away. The match between Lacon and Slayter was clearly a mutually beneficial arrangemen­t, rather than a deeply romantic relationsh­ip, and once married Slayter had little choice but to follow her new husband to the isolated homestead.

She acquired a seven-thousand-dollar wedding trousseau that included a satin wedding dress embroidere­d with pearls, a matching silver opal and mesh scarf, satin slippers, silk stockings, and hair bandeau, as well as a blue satin silver net dress, silver-and-blue scarf, and Italian-embroidere­d handmade lace blouses. With her trousseau all set, Slayter booked passage on a new White Star Line ship that was soon to embark on its maiden voyage — RMS Titanic.

Her finery all went down with the ship, but Slayter escaped watery doom. After three hours on a lifeboat, she was picked up by the Cunard rescue ship Carpathia and arrived in New York City on the evening of April 18, 1912. After a brief stay in the city and several newspaper interviews about her neardeath experience in the mid-Atlantic, she travelled to Canada’s

west coast and on June 1 married Henry Lacon in Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral.

One can only imagine the shock Hilda must have felt as she set foot for the first time on Denman Island. Nearly two hundred kilometres from Victoria and three hundred from Vancouver, the island was just nineteen kilometres long by six kilometres wide, with a population of fewer than 150 European settlers; there were no Indigenous people on the island by the time she arrived. The nearest neighbour to the heavily wooded Lacon homestead on Repulse Point was twelve kilometres away, and the ferry dock was another four kilometres beyond that. Travel was by horse and buggy on a rough dirt road.

For the next four years Hilda endured life away from the comforts to which she had become accustomed. The only bright spots were the birth of her son Reginald William on March 10, 1913, the establishm­ent of St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, and the occasional journey off Denman Island to spend time in Victoria or Vancouver. With the outbreak of the First World War, the island’s population dwindled further, as many of its men joined the war effort. In 1916 Henry decided to apply for military service, and, happily for Hilda, his decision resulted in the family transferri­ng to her hometown of Halifax, where, coincident­ally, 150 of the

Titanic’s 1,503 victims are buried.

Soon after the family moved to Halifax, Henry was appointed to the 10th Siege Battery headquarte­rs in the south barracks near the intersecti­on of Sackville and Brunswick streets. The Lacons first lived on Brenton Place but soon moved to Barrington Street near the ocean terminals. For Hilda, life in the city’s affluent south end was comfortabl­e, and, for the niece by marriage of shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, it was socially enjoyable and rewarding. She strolled with four-year-old Reginald to Point Pleasant Park, took the tram to the splendid public gardens on Spring Garden Road, and visited her mother on nearby Morris Street.

Hilda’s idyllic life suddenly changed on the morning of December 6, 1917. At 8:45 a.m. the Norwegian ship Imo, carrying supplies destined for Belgian relief, collided with the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc in the narrows of Halifax harbour. The collision caused a fire on the Mont-Blanc, whose crew abandoned ship. The vessel drifted to Pier 6 on the Halifax side, and at 9:04:35 a.m. the Mont-Blanc’s deadly cargo of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzol self-destructed in a blast that killed two thousand people and injured six thousand more. The explosion destroyed sixteen hundred houses and damaged another twelve thousand.

While the explosion virtually levelled the city’s Richmond district in the industrial north end, Halifax’s residentia­l south end was not immune to damage. When the blast occurred, Hilda was home with Reginald; Henry had already left for the south barracks. The explosion’s concussion wave shattered the house’s windows, tore doors off their hinges, tossed furniture, loosed plaster from the walls, and, most seriously, caused the roof to collapse. Covered in soot and ceiling plaster, and shaken but miraculous­ly uninjured by the shards of flying glass from her home’s windows, Hilda found herself in the middle of the living room. After a frantic search she found Reginald, who was unhurt. Mother and son made their way through the horrific aftermath to the home of relatives, the Francklyns, on South Park Street.

As Hilda and Reginald settled into the Francklyns’ home that night, a blinding snowstorm hit the city, hindering rescue efforts and further demoralizi­ng the citizens of Halifax. The next day Hilda awoke to a gale from the south, which

was soon followed by a blinding rainstorm that quickly transforme­d the heavy snow into water and slush, blocking the sewers, submerging the sidewalks, and making the already pitiful conditions in the city worse.

Once Henry returned and the family was reunited, repairs to the house began. Broken glass and fallen plaster were swept up, and windows were covered with mats, rugs, blankets, and battens — anything to keep out the winter weather. Through it all Hilda remained resolute. In early April, despite the presence of German submarines in the Atlantic, the seasoned and ever-adventurou­s traveller embarked with Reginald on a trip to England on Canadian Pacific Ocean Lines’ SS Missanabie.

Five months later, en route from Liverpool to New York City, the same liner — without Hilda aboard — was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland; all forty-five passengers and crew were lost.

By late 1921 Hilda had returned to Denman Island. When not travelling abroad, she continued her involvemen­t with St. Saviour’s on various committees and played the organ at church services. She was also active in the Denman Island Women’s Institute, often hosting the chapter’s monthly meeting.

Young Reginald was sent to Shawnigan Lake boarding school on Vancouver Island. After graduating in 1926, he continued his education in England, where he ultimately settled. He joined the Royal Navy in 1934 and, during the Second World War, was awarded the Distinguis­hed Service Cross.

To avoid boredom, Hilda gave garden parties, played the piano, and tended her roses. Although still without electricit­y or a telephone, the Lacons had acquired an automobile and developed an active social life. Parts of the family’s large acreage had been cleared, a well supplied sufficient water, and not far from the house’s oceanfront location were a tennis court, apple orchards, and a vegetable garden. As Hilda approached the age of sixty-one, life seemed better, albeit routine.

However, danger lurked even in the island’s bucolic setting. Saturday, January 30, 1943, was a cold and snowy day on Denman Island. At two o’clock in the afternoon, a fire erupted in the Lacon house. The smoke and flames were seen across Baynes Sound — the channel between Denman Island and Vancouver Island. The Lacons did not have a telephone, so word of the fire first needed to be sent to Courtenay on Vancouver Island and then relayed to the Denman operator, who contacted all island residents simultaneo­usly with an emergency ring. The circuitous method of relaying news, and the snow-filled road to Repulse Point, meant that people trying to come to the Lacons’ aid were delayed. By the time neighbours arrived, fire had already destroyed the house as well as the woodshed and the garage.

The cause of the fire was not clear, but once again Hilda’s luck held, and she was miraculous­ly unhurt. She and Henry were able to save a few pieces of furniture as well as their car; however, many of their personal possession­s — including family photograph­s and heirlooms as well as Hilda’s piano — were lost in the fire, and irreplacea­ble antiques brought from England were destroyed. Luckily, the flames did not spread to

Hilda’s beloved rose garden, the tennis court, or the orchards; and, fortunatel­y, insurance covered much of the damage.

Throughout her life Hilda was an intrepid traveller, partly because she enjoyed seeking out new places but also because she welcomed opportunit­ies to escape both Denman Island and her husband. Passenger lists from Canadian, American, and British ocean liners reveal that she crossed the Atlantic at least twenty times and often remained in Europe for extended periods. While her ill-fated passage on the Titanic was Hilda’s most famous voyage, the one she remembered most for happy reasons took place when she was seventysev­en years old. On January 21, 1959, she boarded the Italian liner Augustus in Halifax, reached Boston two days later, and continued on to New York City. From there the Augustus crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Naples, Italy, where Hilda disembarke­d and, unaccompan­ied, began her lengthy exploratio­n of Italy and Greece.

The details of her tour of Italy and Greece in January and February of that year were published upon her return in a lengthy local newspaper story. Headlined “Mrs. Lacon’s Dream Comes True In Visit To Italy And Greece,” her travelogue was filled with detailed observatio­ns about historic sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneu­m, in Italy, and Athens, Corinth, Delphi, and Crete, in Greece. Of Delphi she reported, “The greatest religious and spiritual centre of the known world for about a thousand years…. On the southern slopes of Parnassos, a narrow mountainou­s vale spans out into an amphitheat­re, while behind it towers two enormous rocks separated by an abrupt and narrow ravine. The two pinnacles are the famous Phaedriade­s which tower above Delphi…. Looking westward from Delphi, there stretches the fertile plain of Amphissa with its thousand-year-old olive grove gleaming like a silvery-green sea, while the real waters of the Corinthian Gulf vanish beyond it like a mirror.”

Once again, though, on Hilda’s trip to Crete, danger was an occasional, unexpected companion, as the article noted in somewhat understate­d fashion. “In February, on the day scheduled for Mrs. Lacon to fly to Crete, it was snowing and blowing a gale, a most unusual type of storm for Greece whose climate usually resembles that of the French Riviera. The small plane used for the trip had had to brave the storm as it was not equipped to fly above it. Needless to say it was a very rough trip.”

On July 14, 1963, Hilda attended the fiftieth-anniversar­y commemorat­ion of the founding of St. Saviour’s Church. Soon afterward, she left Denman Island for the last time and headed to Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight. Now eighty-one, Hilda wanted to spend her remaining years with Reginald, his wife, Joan, and their children. For almost two years Hilda enjoyed living in their castle, which was built in a blend of Norman and Georgian styles and included fifteen bedrooms, a grand hall, a circular drawing room, and extensive cellars. The long stretch of oceanfront property must have reminded Hilda of her old home on Denman Island.

Hilda died of pancreatic cancer on April 12, 1965, a week after turning eighty-three and three days before the fifty-third anniversar­y of the Titanic’s sinking. After cremation, her ashes were flown from London to New York City on Trans-Canada Airlines. Then they were taken to Halifax, where they were interred in the Slayter family plot in Camp Hill Cemetery.

Hilda Slayter Lacon’s unique life encompasse­d contradict­ions aplenty. She endured failed career ambitions and a marriage that brought personal upheaval, hardship, and isolation; but she also enjoyed many years of privilege, freedom, and travel abroad. Narrow escapes from disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Halifax explosion, and the terrible house fire on Denman Island punctuated her existence and demonstrat­ed her courage and resourcefu­lness. Hilda Slayter Lacon indeed lived a remarkable, full, and storied life.

 ??  ?? An artist’s conception of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.
An artist’s conception of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.
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 ??  ?? Damage caused by the Halifax explosion in the north end of Halifax, December 6, 1917. 41
Damage caused by the Halifax explosion in the north end of Halifax, December 6, 1917. 41
 ??  ?? Hilda Slayter Lacon in the 1930s.
Hilda Slayter Lacon in the 1930s.
 ??  ?? Above: The Lacon house on Denman Island, B.C., in 1916 a few years after it was built. The man in front is likely Hilda’s husband Henry Lacon.
Above: The Lacon house on Denman Island, B.C., in 1916 a few years after it was built. The man in front is likely Hilda’s husband Henry Lacon.
 ??  ?? Left: St. Saviour’s Anglican Church on Denman Island, circa 1950. The church was built in 1914. The Lacons were instrument­al in its constructi­on, and Hilda was an active volunteer, playing the organ and sitting on various committees.
Left: St. Saviour’s Anglican Church on Denman Island, circa 1950. The church was built in 1914. The Lacons were instrument­al in its constructi­on, and Hilda was an active volunteer, playing the organ and sitting on various committees.
 ??  ?? Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight, where Hilda lived the last days of her life with her son, Reginald, and his family.
Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight, where Hilda lived the last days of her life with her son, Reginald, and his family.

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