The Real J. Dawson
Mr. Joseph Dawson, 23, from Dublin,
Ireland came to Southampton to look for work. He
joined the Titanic as a Trimmer and perished in
the sinking. His body was recovered (#227) and
he was buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery,
Halifax, N.S. on 8 May 1912.
Dawson in the uniform of the Royal Army Medical
Corps, 1911. From "The Irish Aboard Titanic."
(Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)
There is a grave in Halifax - a humdrum, unadorned
marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows,
victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at
Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227,
the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse
inscription of a name: "J. Dawson." For years it was just
another name, a headstone and a footnote.
Until a 1997
cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe
back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson
didn't matter until James Cameron made the fictitious
character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love
story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his
screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class
passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). A modern
generation of young females pined for the young vagabond -
and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of
Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued
with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real
people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for
adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea
by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8,
1912, was now a "somebody." Floral tributes sprouted in
front of the J. Dawson stone.
Admirers left photographs of
Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the
granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left
hotel keys... Movie director James Cameron has said he had
no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912.
There are those who don't believe him, choosing to see
instead the hint of an eponymous "jackdaw" plucking an
attractive name - and subtly creating an extra strand to the
- Grave 227 at Fairview
Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia (©Leigh88, Canada)
- NO. 227 - MALE - ESTIMATED AGE
30 - HAIR LIGHT & MOUSTACHE
- CLOTHING - Dungaree coat and
pants; grey shirt.
- NO MARKS ON BODY OR CLOTHING
- EFFECTS - N. S. & S. Union
So who WAS the real Jack Dawson?
A Discovery channel documentary to be aired across the
USA in January 2001 addresses that question, drawing on new
research in which I have played a part through my book, The
Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to
the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been
unearthed in further research since.
Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable
belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to
be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other
clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew
when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that
there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at
the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an
Off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had
time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with
his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card - before
finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black
gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the
23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to
the worst, then at least his body might be identified for
the sake of far-flung loved ones.
And so it proved. Card number 35638 gave the key - the
corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The
name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson
was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the
firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black
mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were
caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship.
The sign-on papers yielded more - that Dawson was a
23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age
thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the
Atlantic's grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street,
Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.
But the man whose body wore no shoes - many firemen
pulled off their heavy work boots on the poop deck of the
Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves
by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded]
– was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later
researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no
number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did
not go up that far, and the trail was cold.
It is only through his Irish roots that the true J.
Dawson begins to emerge.
A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a
nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the
Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88,
surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was
born in that year of 1912.
She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member
who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The
trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first
initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to
Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he
had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship
How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox
survived in the family for many years, left his home city
and found a berth on the ship billed the "Queen of the Seas"
is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that
woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson.
The similarities between fact and fiction are striking
however - both were young men, both largely penniless, who
"gambled" their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the
other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were
intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.
Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze
and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is
more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long
documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas,
Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all
contribute interviews to the programme, "The Real Jack
Dawson", made by BBC Manchester, which will air after
While others touch on varying aspects of the disaster and
the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to
tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph
He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who
should have been a priest.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in
September 1888 - at the very time when Jack the Ripper's
reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the
gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London.
The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid
surrounds of "Monto", the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose
trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the
backdrop for the Nighttown chapter in James Joyce's Ulysses,
could not have known the circumstances of his birth.
Those details are indeed obscure - and deliberately so.
The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The
father was a widower who had once simply "jumped the wall"
in family folklore to escape an o'er-hasty decision to enter
as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.
If Patrick Dawson, Joseph's father, was ever married to
Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union
- a union that begat Joseph - was itself never registered.
There is nothing to show the parents were married at the
time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city
parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an
endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font,
nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been
dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of
Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of
God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial
masters is hardly surprising - up to five per cent of
recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days -
but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing
whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as
indeed may have existed in the marital stakes.
Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a
"spoiled priest," his choices in personal relationships were
strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And
Patrick Dawson's family was steeped in the faith.
It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times.
And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the
days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been
stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This
vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed
the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir
to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.
MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means "David's son",
pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later
engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as
patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of
beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures.
Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a
living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a
tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries.
In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the
Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four
sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All
four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick
blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”
Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr
William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and
moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted
to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin.
He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest
was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a
maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had
given the first-ever performance of his celebrated
“Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had
a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be
Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St
Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s
markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place
in the city.
The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John,
bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively.
Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the
Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two
years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.
The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at
the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was
rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was
born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six
days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.
Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had
already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving
on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the
streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn
shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before
swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.
Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with
Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her
own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in
Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked.
They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared.
Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888,
followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time
the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.
By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret
were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the
homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the
turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for
the first time – and the record, in the Irish National
Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list
his full name.
Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found
living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin.
Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as
his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are
the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.
It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be
the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS
Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two
small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the
four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones –
other families of eight and nine members make do with a
Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor,
now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an
education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was
taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into
the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of
Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame - and grew
An event in March 1909 catapulted him towards his fatal
encounter with the White Star Line.
Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret,
succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick,
now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as
relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph
and Margaret in the wider scheme of things.
Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with
accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in
Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his
sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants
Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s
shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother
Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the
Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in
the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the
largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic
now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from
Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard
about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay
for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of
discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and
survives in the family to this day.
It reads: “Certified, that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on
furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July
1911, and that his character on discharge will be very
There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave,
which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of
Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s
fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know
Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the
seaside girl began courting. Titanic fireman John Priest,
who survived encouraged Joseph Dawson, who was courting his
sister, to take a job with the black gang. (Public Record
Office, courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)
It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the
tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the
Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as
a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street.
Briton Street… the man inking the crew lists for the
stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly,
writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps
Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew
member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal,
Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.
John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The
Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest
had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and
Emmie both lost sweethearts.”
Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled
up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night
in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months
journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when
the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely
death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes…
buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union
card, and bit down hard on his lip…
There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might
have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a
search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all
against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love
The idea of a marriage is suggested by a letter, which
also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line
to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:
Further to our previous letter, we have to inform
you that a N.S. & F. Union book, No. 35638, was found on
the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the
Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had
better apply for the same.
Yours faithfully, for White Star Line –“
... and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had.
No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the
relatives might not even have been told that it had been
buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain
and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson,
the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives
by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over
the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line
maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in
1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.
Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age
of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the
care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little
Sisters of the Poor.
His son Joseph - carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer,
Irishman - lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope
in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of
the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers
of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary
after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of
Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson, taken for
all in all, was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the
veil of life at a tragically early age. So were they all,
all flesh and blood. And their stories deserve to live,
those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales
untouched by a brush with recent fame.
© Senan Molony, 2000. The author is
a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and
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