TITANIC-TITANIC.com | Titanic Articles: The Titanic Woman Of Sorrows
Loss . Perhaps no single survivor of Titanic was to understand the word like Rhoda Mary Abbott. While others lost spouses, parents, children, and friends, the only woman that went into the water and still survived probably wished at times that the frigid North Atlantic had claimed her as well. But for Rhoda Mary Abbott there would be years to remember the nightmare. There would be years to regret never being a grandmother. There was a lifetime to think about what might have been. And the most seriously injured of the disaster's survivors would recover only to die knowing that she had been deprived of the opportunity to leave behind any living legacy.
It was in 1893 (ironically April 15) that former middleweight boxing champion George Stanton Abbott arrived on American soil. He was a 25 year-old English pugilist and was looking forward to making a name for himself in the United States. Rhoda Hunt had been born in Aylesbury, Buckingham, England on January 15, 1873, the daughter of Joseph Hunt, a farm labourer, and his wife Sarah Green Hunt. The two married in England about 1890 and Rhoda Mary Abbott followed her husband to America in 1894. They made their home in Providence, Rhode Island and in due course started a family. Stanton's name began to appear on flyers throughout the state of New York as he participated in local boxing matches.
Rossmore Edward Abbott would make his debut as firstborn son on February 21, 1896. He would welcome his only sibling, Eugene Joseph (Gene) Abbott, on March 31, 1899. Both boys were born in Providence and started school there. For a time the family prospered in Providence and was active in the Salvation Army. But the marriage became shaky after a few years and the couple separated in 1911. Rhoda used her talents as a seamstress to support her young sons but in early 1911 she determined that life would be easier if she returned to her widowed mother in St. Albanshurst, England. She and her sons made the voyage to England on the Olympic. But once the family arrived, the boys found themselves uncomfortable among strangers and quickly became homesick. Within a short time it became obvious they were not adjusting to their new home and Rhoda Mary Abbott opted to return to Providence for their sake. She booked passage to America on the Titanic and the threesome boarded the ship at Southampton, the boys anxious to return to their familiar home.
In the late hours of April 14, 1912, Rhoda Mary Abbott was awakened by the impact with the iceberg. Becoming alarmed she sent her younger son Gene to investigate. He returned telling of passengers putting on lifebelts and Rhoda wasted no time getting dressed. She made her way to the after-deck by the time the second boat was lowered and waited with Gene to find a place in a lifeboat. Rossmore was "held back" with some older people. For some reason she never found a place in one of the lifeboats although she claimed that a number of men were allowed to escape while she and seven other women stood by until the last. When the ship plunged, Rhoda Mary Abbott and Gene were drawn under the water together but when she surfaced, Gene did not. She then went under a second time but claimed to be blown out of the water by the explosion of a boiler, resulting in burns to her thighs. Somehow she scrambled to Collapsible Lifeboat A where she begged the other occupants to pull her in. In an interview given to the Providence Daily Journal in late May, Rhoda Mary Abbott described her experience on Collapsible A.
"Soon the raft tilted and all slid off into the water. Many of them managed to get back on it and some did not. I managed somehow to get on it, but I don't know how. We were forced to stand on the boat in lockstep to keep our balance for over six hours. Had it not been for Officer Lowe, I would have been drowned. I was nearly exhausted when he lifted me into his lifeboat. It would have been impossible for an officer to show more courtesy and many of the criticisms that have been made against this man are very unjust."
After rescue by the Carpathia, Rhoda Mary Abbott remained on a small cot in the smoking room due to the injuries she sustained during her escape from the sinking Titanic. Her legs and feet were badly frostbitten and upon arrival in New York she was hospitalized somewhat longer than most of the other survivors. On May 5 she was described as being critically ill due to shock and fever. But by May 18, things had improved.
(THE WAR CRY, May 18, 1912):
"We found Rhoda Mary Abbott in excellent hands at the New York Hospital on West Sixteenth Street, New York, and she seemed deeply grateful for the considerations shown her by everybody, including our beloved Commander, the remembrance of whose visit she assured us was a very precious one and found embodiment in a beautiful bunch of roses upon the dressing table.
We were glad indeed to find the dear sister rapidly recovering from the physical suffering-which at times has amounted to torture-which she has been called upon to pass through. In fact, she can already sit up a little, and we learned with the greatest pleasure that there is every hope for a complete recovery, without any permanent disability whatever.
This is the more remarkable when we consider what Rhoda Mary Abbott has had to endure. It must be understood that, at the sinking of the ship, she was not fortunate enough to get a place in any of the boats, but was precipitated into the sea in a lifebelt and drifted about. Not knowing how to swim or sustain her balance, she became a playtoy of the waves, floundering around, sometimes turning over in the water, until a raft was reached, to which she managed to cling with icy fingers, with the lower limbs completely submerged in the water, until day broke and the Carpathia hove in sight. The physical agony of being submerged in ice-cold water for five and a half hours, linked to the mental pain caused by the knowledge that her loved ones had already perished, almost paralyzes the imagination. Yet God was merciful, she realizes, in sparing her.
A faint and rather doubtful smile played upon the sufferer's face when she spoke of her youngest boy, who was a constant attendant at the junior meetings at our St. Albans corps in England, and who, she stated, from the moment they were in danger, kept to his knees in prayer that, whatever happened to him and his brother, the mother's life should be preserved. The prayer of the dear lad was answered.
Rhoda Mary Abbott is recovering rather more slowly from the mental shock than from the physical. Her boys were very precious to her. Her hopes were built upon them. Yet, as we tried to speak words of hope and cheer, in the endeavour to get the poor, stricken soul to realize that her boys were now in better care than she could give them, far removed from the temptations that beset young fellows of their age, safely harboured in the Homeland, she gave a tearful assent, and tried courageously to resign herself to the Master's will.
We must continue to pray for her."
Finally returning to Providence, she relied on help from church members and friends to rebuild her life. In the summer she travelled to the western United States in an attempt to relieve her mind from the terrible experience which resulted in the loss of her two sons.
On September 1, 1906, a young blonde silversmith who had been living in Montreal crossed the border into the United States. He made his way directly to Providence, Rhode Island and was to live there sporadically. George Charles Williams was born in London, England on November 20, 1875 (B), a son of John Saunders Williams. He was a slight, blue-eyed man with a fair complexion. In Providence he found his old friend Rhoda Abbott and her husband and he was to be a source of comfort to Rhoda when her marriage began to fall apart. When she returned to Providence following the Titanic disaster he was quick to befriend her again. Having been unable to ply his trade as he had planned in Rhode Island, he made several trips to Jacksonville, Florida to investigate job opportunities. Rhoda Mary Abbott found the cold of Rhode Island unbearable following her experience in Collapsible A and suffered from ongoing asthma afterwards. She accompanied George Williams on several trips to Florida and found the warmer climate to her liking. It was there that the two were married on December 16, 1912. Letters written to fellow survivor Emily Alice Goldsmith indicate that it may have largely been a marriage of convenience, Rhoda commenting, "I thought it the best I could do." The couple located in Jacksonville permanently after their marriage and George Williams found work as a bookbinder.
Rhoda was nearly 40 at the time of her marriage to George Williams and she was to have no other children. On September 2, 1919 she became a citizen of the United States through her husband's naturalization. In February of the following year George made a trip back to London to deal with the estate of his father. Rhoda, still deathly afraid of the water, opted to remain in Florida. But by 1923 her fear had subsided enough to allow her to accompany her husband on a trip back to England and on to Germany. They returned to the United States aboard the President Arthur on September 23, 1923.
In August of 1928 Rhoda Abbott Williams made her last voyage across the Atlantic Ocean when George needed to return to England to finalize the settlement of his father's estate. Rhoda enjoyed spending time with her sister and niece and seeing old friends. But then disaster struck again. In late 1928 George Williams suffered a severe stroke and was partially paralyzed making a return to Florida impossible for the foreseeable future. The couple found a small flat at 47 Cleveland Road in Barnes, Surrey that was to be their final home.
The next few years saw a quiet and mundane existence for Rhoda and Charles and few would have guessed that the plain woman in their midst was among the most tragic figures in an epic drama. George Williams had developed heart problems and the effects of his earlier stroke lingered for years. Mitral stenosis claimed his life on June 5, 1938. Rhoda made plans to return to Jacksonville and take her husband's ashes there for interment but a declaration of war thwarted her before she could depart England. She continued a solitary existence in her little home throughout the World War II years but by the end of hostilities her own health began to fail. Plagued by hypertension she suffered cardiac failure and died at home on February 18, 1946. All the tragedies of life had passed.
There was to be one more ironic twist in the story of the hapless "Lady of Titanic Sorrows." It might be said that of all those survivors of the Titanic tragedy, Rhoda's desperate fight for life in the frigid North Atlantic most closely paralleled that of Second Officer Lightoller, even to the point of being injured by the blast from a boiler. When on February 23, 1946, the mortal remains of Rhoda Abbott were cremated, her ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Mortlake near Richmond, Surrey, England. Just six years later, Charles Herbert Lightoller's ashes would join her on the same bit of grass.