Arthur Henry Rostron was born in Bolton on 14 May 1869 and attended Bolton School in the early 1880s. In his autobiography, Home from the Sea, he says it was at the age of five or six that he expressed his ambition to become a sailor; an unusual choice of career for a Bolton boy whose family had no direct connections with the sea. It was indeed a memorable day when he donned his Cadets uniform, bound for Liverpool, and was given a ‘send-off’ by his classmates at the railway station. He trained for two years on HMS Conway, moored on the Mersey, and at the end of this he was Head Boy.
He then joined a full rigged clipper ship, the Cedric, which was powered only by sail. This was a tough life, spending hours aloft, struggling to furl sails. By the age of 25 he had gained his Extra Masters Certificate and, soon after, joined Cunard, and in January 1912 he took command of the Carpathia.
On 15 April 1912, whilst en route from New York to Europe, the Carpathia became involved in an event which shocked the world. Harold Cottam, the Radio Officer on board the Carpathia, heard the CQD/SOS distress signal from the Titanic which, on her maiden voyage, had struck an iceberg and was sinking. This information was quickly relayed to Captain Rostron who, once having been assured that the unthinkable had occurred – Titanic was sinking – and despite never having performed a rescue before, did everything right. The Carpathia was 58 miles away from the Titanic, east of the ice field, but he immediately turned his ship around and sailed at top speed into the danger zone.
He first posted six extra lookouts and then set out a comprehensive checklist of instructions for receiving survivors. Captain Rostron knew every member of his crew and was confident he could depend on them all to carry out his instructions to the letter. Four hours later, the Carpathia reached the survivors: all 706 were taken on board and the ship returned to New York where 705 disembarked. Sadly, one man had died.
Captain Rostron and many of the survivors were summoned to attend inquiries in New York and London to give evidence following the disaster and this resulted in the Board of Trade changing the regulations which remain in place to this day:
- Every ship at sea must have a place in a lifeboat/life raft for all the people on board;
- Lifeboat drill must be carried out before the ship leaves port.
- An ice patrol was set up in the North Atlantic which operates from March to August.
Captain Rostron was awarded the following:
- The Congressional Medal with the thanks of the USA Congress;
- The American Cross of Honour;
- The Freedom of the City of New York;
- Decorated by the French Government;
- Decorated by the Hungarian Government;
- Knighted by King George V in 1926.
All the Carpathia crew were given medals by the survivors.
Arthur Henry Rostron followed his childhood ambition and went away to sea. He worked his way up through the ranks and was Commordore of the Cunard fleet when he retired. He is still Cunard’s most decorated Captain.
He was held in high regard by all who sailed with and under him. Captain Rostron was aware of the significance of every crew member and their role. He walked the decks every day and asked questions, thereby keeping himself informed, up-to-date and approachable. He was, however, a very modest gentleman, and, when asked to comment on the rescue by a reporter in New York, he said ‘A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night.’ It was only in the preface of his autobiography, written when he retired in 1931, that he said:
‘My late passengers now read of things I would never talk about, and I would mention that it was the Wireless Officer on the Carpathia, who, through his attention to duty and his interest in his work, gave me the opportunity to do something really useful which firmly planted my feet on the ladder of success.’
Captain Rostron’s medals are on permanent display in the Maritime Museum, Liverpool, by courtesy of the Rostron family.