The Daily Telegraph
The surprising hero of Chipping Ongar
One day in April 1912, the housekeeper at St Helen’s church, Chipping Ongar, received a letter posted at Queenstown (now renamed Cobh), Co Cork, from the parish priest, who was on his way to America to officiate at his brother’s wedding. Fr Thomas Byles didn’t have much news, except that he’d lost his umbrella and did “not much like the throbbing of the screws” of the great ship. Four days after the letter was posted, Fr Byles was dead, for his ship was the Titanic.
I think Fr Byles must have been a saint, or he wouldn’t have behaved as he did as the ship went down. The Titanic hit the iceberg 20 minutes before midnight on Sunday April 14. On that day, Fr Byles had said Mass for second-class passengers in their saloon, then for those segregated in third class. He preached in English and French on the need for a lifebelt of prayer and the sacraments to save one’s soul when in danger of spiritual shipwreck.
Fr Byles, not fearing the cold, had been walking up and down an upper deck reciting his breviary before the ship struck. He put the book in his pocket and began to help women into the boats. More than 90 per cent of men in second class died, as there were not enough boats and the code was women and children first. Fr Byles twice refused the offer of a place in a boat.
The Titanic took over two hours to sink. Fr Byles, 42, a fairly short man, not robust, led third-class passengers up to the boat-deck. “Be calm, my good people,” he said, according to Ellen Mockler, aged 23, one of the 76 women in third class to be saved. She remembered him giving absolution.
This was the first Sunday after Easter, and the strong custom of the time was to go to Confession and receive Communion around Easter. So Fr Byles had spent most of Saturday hearing Confessions. Now he gave general absolution to those gathered round him, as allowed in danger of death.
With the bows sinking below the sea, he led people gathered at the stern in reciting the Rosary. There were no boats left.
“Fr Byles and another priest stayed with the people after the last boat had gone,” another survivor said. “A big crowd, 100 maybe, knelt about him. They were Catholics, Protestants and Jewish people who were kneeling there.” The ship broke in two and sank at 2.20am.
Bernadine Wrobel, the parish researcher at St Helen’s, supplied me with Fr Byles’s story, though I may have added errors of my own. She says that more and more people now come to see the memorial window at St Helen’s. It depicts Jesus, the Good Shepherd, flanked by St Patrick and St Thomas Aquinas, who is rarely shown in English art. His presence is explained by Fr Byles’s background.
Born in 1870, the eldest child of a Congregational minister in Leeds, he was originally named Roussel Byles. Going up to Balliol College, Oxford, he became a member of the Church of England, but in 1894, before he took his degree, he moved again, to the Catholic Church. It was then that he took his new name, after the great theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Dogged by ill health, he could not become a priest as he wanted until 1902, after studying at the Beda college, Rome. From 1905, he served at Chipping Ongar, visiting far-flung rural parishioners by bicycle. He might have stayed, in a backwater perhaps, but doing a job no one else was there to do, had not his brother William paid his £13 fare to America. In the event William and his bride changed from their wedding clothes into mourning for his Requiem.
The voyage had proved not to be for their sake, but for the benefit of Thomas Byles’s fellow passengers.