True identity of Titanic victim
HISTORIAN Mike Holgate has discovered the answer to a mystery surrounding the identity of a Torquay man who died on the Titanic.
Despite the vast amount of research undertaken during the 98 years since the sinking of the Titanic, there remains a small number of the 2,200 passengers and crew about whom nothing is known.
However, while looking through old newspapers at Torquay Library, Mike unearthed the intriguing tale of a man with two names.
He said: "It seems in April 1913, a hearing at Torquay County Court established the true identity of a stoker who had died a year earlier on the Titanic.
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"At court, a pensioner was bringing an action for compensation against the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.
"The court turned down an application in respect of the man's late son, Robert Barnhouse, also known by the alias Charles Barnes."
Mike's research showed that Robert Barnhouse had a colourful life. He was born in Barnstaple on December 8, 1870.
The fifth of eight children, he had left home more than 20 years before his death, and later became estranged from his family.
He drifted to Bristol, where his hands were badly burned in a fire at a licensed house run by William and Edith Curtis.
Mike added: "Homeless and destitute, Barnhouse was taken in by the Curtis family to recuperate, and he remained close to them until his untimely end 19 years later.
"When William Curtis moved to Southampton to run a bakery, Barnhouse went too. Now known as Charles Barnes, he then became a seaman.
"A chance meeting with his younger brother, Arthur, who worked as a railway cleaner at Eastleigh, near Southampton, re-established contact with his family in 1908.
"Their parents, George and Susan, had remained in Barnstaple until retirement age, then moved to Torquay.
"While serving on the Oceania, 'Charles' obtained shore leave while the ship was in Plymouth and, accompanied by Arthur, stayed with his parents at their new home at 3 Arch Row, Stentiford Hill, Torquay, in October 1911.
"A few months later he transferred to the newly-launched Titanic — and he was one of the 1,500 unfortunate souls who went down with the ship on her maiden voyage."
Despite this untimely demise, there were still some twists and turns in Robert Barnhouse's story.
At Torquay County Court, his father claimed £70 from the White Star Line and testified that he had been dependent on his deceased son, who had regularly sent him sums of 12 or 15 shillings in either stamps or postal orders, to pay his rent of three shillings a week (15p).
A letter he had received was produced in evidence. Dated December 1908, it had been sent while his son was receiving hospital treatment for an accident.
Mike said: "It was signed 'From your loving son, Robert Barnhouse'.
"However, Edith Curtis appeared for the defendants and claimed that the letter was in her handwriting — as 'Charles' could neither read or write.
"She contested that she had dealt with all of his correspondence and had never sent any money on his behalf to the natural parents.
"Furthermore, Charles Barnes had only worked for 18 months out of the last four years of his life. During these long periods of unemployment she had supported him.
"However, despite always treating him 'like one of my own children', her own claim for compensation had been rejected by the White Star Line.
"Summing up the case, Judge Lush-Wilson paid tribute to Mrs Curtis, citing her 'extraordinary kindness' to the deceased.
"In that respect, he considered that the dead man's obligations had been almost greater to her than his own parents.
"The uncorroborated claims of George Barnhouse were described as 'vague and shadowy'.
"Nevertheless, he found the applicant to be 'an honest and truthful witness' and, although the sum of £70 requested was 'altogether too high', awarded the sum of £5 plus costs.
"Edith Curtis also revealed that until 15 months before the maritime tragedy, Charles Barnes had 'always been in trouble' but since 'giving up the drink' had 'become a different man'.
"Ironically, this change in his fortunes had enabled him to resume his career at sea and gain a prestigious berth on the doomed Titanic."