Real Life

The Titanic’s Kiwi connection

A Tauranga woman explores her family's infamous past.

As lookout Frederick Fleet watched the Atlantic Ocean open up before him on April 15, 1912, he knew his job on the RMS Titanic meant he was responsible for spotting hazards. However, he didn’t know he would witness the start of the world’s biggest maritime disaster to date, and would be left racked with guilt that he failed to see the fateful iceberg. It was this guilt that Tauranga woman and Frederick’s third cousin Julie Gregory (née Fleet) says contributed to his suicide.

Julie, speaking exclusively to New Zealand Woman’s Weekly about her ancestor, says there is more to the late seaman than has ever been reported or portrayed in the media. Pieced together from knowledge passed down by her paternal family – as well as her own research – Julie believes Frederick lived “a horrible life”. “He had a sad start, not a great middle and a sad end,” Julie says.

From Frederick’s birth in Liverpool in 1887, his life was a challenge. Abandoned by his 18-year-old mother Alice and unaware of his father’s identity, Frederick moved from foster homes to orphanages. As young as 12 or 13 years old, Frederick trained as a ship’s deckhand before he received the fateful call up as lookout on the RMS Titanic.

The night of the sinking on was exceptionally dark and still, with clear skies, a new moon and no wind – the water was like glass. According to Julie’s research, Frederick was perched in the ship’s crow’s nest without binoculars. In the months after the disaster, Frederick was one of the key witnesses in both the UK and US inquiries. He is documented as stating that if he had the night binoculars he asked for, he would have spotted the iceberg sooner than he did.

It was at 11.40pm when he saw the iceberg directly in the Titanic’s path. Ringing the ship’s bell three times, he telephoned the bridge to inform the other officers, yelling, “Iceberg, right ahead!” down the line. Julie says he was one of the first crewmen to get women and children into lifeboats, and managed to get all of the passengers in his lifeboat to safety on rescue ship the RMS Carpathia.

Julie says his good deeds couldn’t prevent the crippling guilt Frederick felt for the rest of his life. “There was a lot of pointing the finger at him. I don’t think he ever got over it,” she says.

“Never mind the fact he was the first to see the iceberg. “He was treated with disfavour on every other ship he worked on after the Titanic too. There was this huge stigma about survivors from the ship.”

The only ray of sunshine in Frederick’s life was when he met wife Eva, and later the birth of his daughter, Dorothy. “It was his only happiness, but when his wife fell ill and died, he couldn’t handle it. He’d finally found some good and when that was taken away from him, I guess it was too much,” Julie says.

Frederick was found hanging from a clothesline in January 1965. The cause of death was determined as suicide, which Julie attributes to Frederick’s deep depression. “I think it was a mixture of a whole lot of grief – no parents, the foster homes, of course the Titanic, and then his wife died… there was just so much grief.

“The way he’s been portrayed in the media is sad. I don’t know if hero’s the right word, but he did get all of those women and children off the boat – and don’t get me started on his unheroic portrayal in the movie!” she exclaims of the 1997 film Titanic.

In light of the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Julie is trying to find out all she can about Frederick and the Fleet side of her family. Because Julie’s mother didn’t want her association with the Fleet family known, Julie was unaware of her connection to Frederick until she was 21. “I’m on a mission!” she laughs. “I want people to know more about Fred and the Fleet family. There was more to him than just the Titanic!”

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