Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega describes an aspect of the passenger liner “Titanic” that most people don’t know: it was also a mail ship. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
The Titanic. That’s how the infamous ship is referred to, but the official name is the RMS Titanic. That acronym “RMS” is important when we consider the duties entrusted to the Titanic and other RMS ships.
RMS is the abbreviation for “Royal Mail Steamer,” or later, “Royal Mail Ship.” RMS ships were tasked with transporting mail. As part of that duty the ship carried mail clerks who prepared the mail for sorting and delivery at ports. Mail was collected at all ports of call as well as from ship passengers.
The Titanic Post Office
The Titanic had both a mail room and a post office where five employees worked. The U.S. National Archives’ blog explains that the era of mail-carrying ships started in 1839, and by 1859 post offices were added to steamships. In 1877 White Star ships (the company that owned the Titanic) began using “RMS” to designate their status.(1)
According to the National Postal Museum’s blog post on the Titanic mail clerks:
“Sea post clerks were highly skilled and respected postal workers who sorted, canceled and redistributed the mail in transit. Most were selected from the ranks of the Railway Mail Service or the Foreign Mail Section. Regarded as the best of the best, these men typically sorted more than 60,000 letters a day, making few errors.” (2)
The Titanic carried five mail clerks tasked with the care and sorting of approximately 3,364 bags of mail. These mail clerks consisted of three Americans (William Logan Gwinn, John Starr March, and Oscar Scott Woody), and two Englishmen (John James Bertram Williamson and Richard Jago Smith).
The night of the sinking (the Titanic struck an iceberg shortly before midnight on 14 April 1912). the mail clerks were celebrating fellow clerk Oscar Scott Woody’s 45th birthday in their private dining room. When the ship struck the iceberg, the clerks hurried to the mail room to find that there was water on the floor.
They took their duty to “protect the mail at any cost” seriously and went to work, hauling mail bags to the top deck in an effort to save what they could. Unfortunately, neither the mail nor the mail clerks survived the sinking. (3)
While we may never know the full extent of what mail was destroyed in the sinking, historical newspapers estimated that 7 to 10 million letters and packages were lost in the disaster.
Did all the mail sink on that fateful night? While most of the mail was lost, there are a few known letters carried by passengers that survived. One letter, written by first-class passenger Alexander Oskar Holverson to his mother, was found in his pocket notebook when his body was recovered. The letter was sent to his family and was auctioned off in 2017 for $166,000.
Second-class passenger Esther Hart wrote about her trip on Titanic stationery, along with a PS from her 7-year-old daughter Eva. The letter was in the coat that Esther wore when she was rescued. In 2014, that letter was also sold at auction.
You can read a copy of the letter on Encyclopedia Titanica.
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Note on the header image: “Titanic Sinking,” by Willy Stöwer, 1912. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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(1) “RMS Titanic: Letters from a Lost Liner,” Prologue (
https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2012/02/07/rms-titanic-letters-from-a-lost-liner/: accessed 9 April 2023).
(2) “Titanic Mail Clerks,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum
(https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/fire-ice-hindenburg-and-titanic-exhibition-ice-the-titanic-disaster/titanic%E2%80%99s-mail-clerks#:~:text=While%20there%20is%20no%20way,2%2C000%20pieces%20of%20mail%20each: accessed 9 April 2023).