TITANIC-TITANIC.com | Titanic Articles: Biography Of Major Arthur Peuchen

By James Parsons

 

He was a first class passenger, the only millionaire from Toronto, a bluff, talkative commissioned officer in the Queens Own Rifles. He made his money in chemicals as President of the Standard Chemical Company. He looked the part of a commanding officer. He was tall, erect and athletic. He had crossed the Atlantic at least forty times and like all seasoned travellers, booked a cabin for comfort not for show. Born in Montreal in 1859, the son of German immigrant parents. In 1871, Peuchen moved to Toronto where he enlisted in the Queens Own Rifles. He made Captain in 1894 and promoted to Major ten years later. 1911 he served as marshalling officer in charge of the Indian Cavalry at the coronation of George V. He was a lumber magnate who owned forest reserves in Alberta. Peuchen lived with his wife Margaret and their two children, a daughter, Jessie, 16 and son Alan, 14. in Toronto, but their real home was a country retreat on Lake Simcoe (50 mi. North of Toronto) called "Woodlands," a lavish estate complete with marina, tennis courts and a golf course. An expert yachtsman, Peuchen had been vice-commodore of the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club in Dorval (just West of Montreal). With company refineries in England, France and Germany, Peuchen was often away from home.

Peuchen's misgiving about sailing aboard Titanic was about the chequered record of Captain Edward John Smith whom he had sailed with before. When he learned Smith was in command, he thought at 62 much to old for the job and said, "Surely we are not going to have that man."

It was Peuchen who persuaded the richest Canadian aboard, a fourth generation member of the Molson family that had made a fortune brewing beer, banking and building steamships, Harry Markland Molson, to extend his stay in England and sail home with him on Titanic, as they were old friends.

April 14, 1912, Major Peuchen sat down to dinner in the dinning room with Harry Molson. "The dinner was exceptionally good," Peuchen would remember later. The menu of plover eggs, with caviar, oysters, soup, a choice of lamb, duck, chicken or beef and an orange bombe with spun sugar. Approaching 11:00pm many of the men had retired to the Louis Quinze smoking room. Major Peuchen went into the smoking room where he found friends enjoying cognac, cigars and stimulating conversation. Talk would have been about politics and free trade with the U. S., sports, hockey and the Stanley Cup. A new sports car, a Bugatti that made a first time appearance at that years Grand Prix. Amundsen's discovery of the South Pole.

11:40pm Iceberg impact. Arthur Peuchen thought the ship had struck an "unusual wave. It was not like a collision and I didn't think it was serious." He went on deck briefly to watch the 70 foot iceberg slip away.

When lifeboats started loading, Peuchen in cabin C 104 grabbed oranges and a pearl pin but ignored $200,000 worth of stocks and bonds, his jewellery, and presents he bought for his children. He didn't believe the ship was going to sink. Peuchen thought it sad to leave his "cheery room, cosy, large and comfortable as it was, to go up top." Peuchen caught up with Thomson Beattie and asked what all the fuss was about. Had he heard? "The order is for lifebelts and boats," Thomson Beattie told him. Only then was Peuchen really aware that people in the companionways were wearing life preservers and distraught women seemed anxious.

12:55pm Major Peuchen looked over the ships rail as number 6 was lowered. Peuchen was concerned because it was leaving empty and when he asked second officer Charles Lightoller why, he was told the ropes would not hold a full load. At that point someone in the boat yelled, "We've only one seaman here. Can someone give us a hand?" Officer Lightoller shouted for help.

Peuchen stepped forward and told Lightoller that he was a yachtsman who could handle a boat as well as anyone. Number 6 had already begun its decent, and Lightoller told Peuchen if he was as good a sailor as he claimed to be, he could get into the boat and join them. Captain Edward John Smith suggested Peuchen go one deck below and break one of the windows on the promenade to get into the boat. But Peuchen grabbed a rope, swung himself off ship, and slithered down 25 feet into the boat. As soon as he was aboard, the crewman in charge, the Quartermaster Robert Hichens ordered Peuchen to help him get the rudder operating.

Major Arthur Peuchen asked helmsman Robert Hichens to row back and look for survivors. Robert Hichens cut him short. His responsibility, he said, was to the living, not the crying and dead. "It's our lives now! Not theirs. There's only a lot of stiffs out there," Robert Hichens said.

Women rowing in number 6 were terribly uncoordinated. Major Peuchen suggested they might be better off if one of the women took the tiller from Hitchens so that he might help man the oars. The quartermaster thought Peuchen insubordinate. "I am in charge of this boat," Robert Hichens yelled. "It is your job to keep quiet and row." As a yachtsman Peuchen understood the rules of the sea - you never second guess the officer in charge. So he shut up. "I knew I was perfectly powerless," he said later. "Robert Hichens was very disagreeable." Robert Hichens had said to let the boat drift, Denver socialite Margaret Brown, who could swear like Robert Hichens, took charge. She began to row and showed the other women how. When Robert Hichens moved to stop her, Molly Brown told him if he didn't shut up she would throw him overboard. Robert Hichens shut up.

Those who survived Titanic behave as if they were members of a secret fraternity who in the aftermath of the disaster, distanced themselves from their sorrowful initiation.

The women simply wanted to forget. No one dared ask them what happened that night. No one wore their survivors badge proudly.

Major Peuchen was one of the exceptions. Peuchen accused Captain Edward John Smith of "gross carelessness." "The Captain knew we were going into an ice field, and why should he remain dining in the salon when such danger was about? Less mother of pearl and a searchlight on the bow could have saved hundreds of lives," he thundered.

Peuchen was no fool. He knew he would have to justify his being saved and protect his reputation. So even before the Carpathia reached New York, Peuchen had Lightoller sign a certificate that stated he had been pressed into service. Peuchen took the precaution, he said, because he didn't want people to think him a coward. "Married women were envious when they saw that I, a strong man, had been saved while their husbands, sons and brothers had gone down."

Peuchen was the only Canadian subpoenaed to appear before the U. S. senate Investigation into the disaster. He was summoned to give testimony in Washington on Tue. Apr. 23. Neither American or British, the Major proved to be one of the credible, impartial, expert witnesses. He tempered much of his criticism before committee chairman Senator Alden Smith, but was vehement of the seamanship aboard the Titanic. "They seemed to be short sailors around the lifeboats." Peuchen's assessment was scathing. "I imagine this crew was what we would call in yachting terms, a scratch crew, brought from different vessels. They might be the best, but they were not accustomed to working together."

Peuchen also had a lot to say about the lack of leadership and the lackadaisical attitude among the crew that left passengers with a false sense of security.

"There was no alarm sounded whatever," he complained. "In fact I talked with two young ladies who claimed to have had a narrow escape. They said...they were not awakened."

Senator Smith: They were not awakened?
Major Peuchen: They slept through the crash.
Senator Smith: I think you said that from your judgement and from your observation there was no general alarm given?
Major Peuchen: No I did not hear one. I was around the boat all the time.

His testimony was cogent, forceful and crucial. Senator Smith was grateful for Peuchen's appearance, but in Toronto, Peuchen was maligned for being too self-satisfied. The Toronto Mail discredited Peuchen "because he talked too much."

"He put himself in the position of a man who had to defend himself before the necessity for the defence was apparent." No one quite believed Peuchen's version of how he got off the ship, and he was ridiculed because he survived. When WWI broke out in 1914, Peuchen retired from Standard Chemical to command the Home Battalion of the Queens Own Rifles.

Titanic - The Canadian StoryAfter the war he discovered his Social Standing in Toronto still was stained because he had survived both the war and the sinking of the Titanic. He lost much of his money in the 20's as the result of bad investments and he spent the last 4 years of his life living in his company's dormitory in Hinton, Alberta. Peuchen was exonerated somewhat in 1935 when Lightoller published his memoirs in which he wrote that Peuchen had been unfairly criticized for carrying out what was a direct order. By then it was too late. Arthur Peuchen had been dead 6 years. He died in Toronto at the age of 69 on December 7, 1929.

I respectfully paid a visit to Major Peuchen's burial site in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in my home city of Toronto and upon taking the picture in this article, I said, " I apologize for the peoples negative attitude of the time," patted his headstone, and said, "you are my Canadian Hero," and Saluted him before leaving.

The information here is from "Titanic The Canadian Story" by Alan Hustak, publisher Vehicule Press in 1998.
ISBN 1-55065-113-7

James H. Parsons

 

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