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The Unsinkable John Priest

by guest author Richard Saunders


John Priest



Just about everyone has heard of "Molly Brown," or "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." Interestingly, she never heard that name herself. She was never called Molly and was called "Maggie" by her friends and family her entire life. The name Molly first seems to have been attached to her posthumously (32 years after her death) by playwright's in the 1960 Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which 4 years later (1964) was adapted to film in the musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring the late Debbie Reynolds. 





(Right) Titanic 1st class passenger Margaret "Maggie" Brown.






Maggie Brown developed a sort of reputation after the Titanic disaster for her feistiness and "take charge" attitude after the two Titanic inquiries revealed how she helped in the ship's evacuation, took an oar herself in her lifeboat, and insisted that the boat go back and try to save more people. Her urgings were met with opposition from Quartermaster Robert Hichens, the crewman in charge of Lifeboat 6. Hichens was afraid that if they went went back, the boat would either be pulled down due to suction or the people in the water would swamp the boat in an effort to get in. Several survivor accounts state that Maggie Brown told Hichens that if he didn't go back, she was going to throw him in the water. Sources vary as to whether or not they found anyone.


Someone Truly Deserving of the Title "Unsinkable"

If anyone aboard Titanic deserved the title "Unsinkable" it would have to be Titanic coal stoker (also called fireman) Arthur John Priest, or John Priest as he went by.

Priest was born in Southampton, England in 1887 and worked most of his life as a member of "the black gang" a term given to the coal stokers because they were always covered in coal dust from shoveling coal, and shoveling they did; Titanic's hungry furnaces consumed over 800 tons of coal a day and had to be fed 24 hours a day.

John Priest experienced his first brush with disaster while working as a 20-year old coal stoker aboard the Royal Mail Steam Packet's RMS Asturias. In 1907, Asturias was involved in a collision and foundered on her maiden voyage, fortunately without loss of life.

In 1911, Priest, now 24, was working aboard the RMS Olympic when she was involved in a collision with the British warship HMS Hawk. The Hawk hit on Olympic's starboard side punching 2 holes in her hull just above the water line. The Hawke's bow was crushed back to the bridge and nearly capsized. Olympic was able to make it back to Harland and Wolf in Belfast for repairs under her own steam, the HMS Hawk required towing. Unfortunately, 3 years later the HMS Hawk was attacked and sunk by a German U-boat.




Far left photo shows Olympic's damage and right photo shows the HMS Hawk's crushed bow.




John Priest's next experience with disaster came on April 14, 15, 1912 with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. There was a coal strike at the time of Titanic's departure from Southampton and many ship crew members were laid off. Priest was one of the few able to secure a job as a stoker aboard Titanic. He was in the Firemen's crew quarters between shifts when Titanic struck the iceberg.




Historically inaccurate artist depiction of RMS Titanic sinking




When the word came from the lead fireman to abandon ship, Priest and 44 other fireman made the long winding tedious trip up to the boat deck emerging from the absolute bottom of the ship. By the time they reached the boat deck all the life boats had been launched and the deck was awash. Priest, scantily clothed from working in a 96 degree environment in the boiler-room, dived into the 28 degree water and managed to be picked up by a life boat. (Thought to be boat 15) How he survived hypothermia is anyone's guess.




The SS Alcantara converted to the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara





Two years after Titanic's sinking World War I began. John Priest joined the military and was assigned to the newly requisitioned SS Alcantara of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. She was converted into an armed merchant cruiser and was commissioned into the Royal Navy's 10th Cruiser Squadron as HMS Alcantara. John Priest was working as a coal stoker aboard Alcantara in January of 1916 when they intercepted the German merchant raider Greif, disguised as the Norwegian merchant ship named Rena out of Tønsberg, Norway. At 9:15 AM, Alcantara ordered Greif to stop for inspection, which she did. As Alcantara came along side of the Grief, she dropped her Norwegian flag and opened fire.

A shell hit on Alcantara's bridge killing several officers and knocking out the helm. Alcantara returned fire hitting a munitions hold on board Grief causing a large devastating explosion. As the engine room began flooding on Alcantara, the order was given to abandon ship. Both ships began sinking just as the HMS Munster arrived on the scene. She picked up survivors from both ships, including John Priest.




(Above left) An artist's depiction of the German raider Grief in battle with the HMS Alcantara. (Above right) Both ship's sank. Another close scrape with death for John Priest. 68 of his shipmates were lost on the Alcantara.

Nine months later after surviving HMS Alcantara's sinking, Priest found himself once again in a boiler room shoveling coal, this time aboard the converted hospital ship HMHS Britannic, another Titanic sister ship. Also serving aboard Britannic were fellow Titanic crew survivors Archie Jewel and stewardess Violet Jessop, serving as a nurse. In November of 1916, off the Greek Isle of Kea, a sudden loud and violent explosion shook Britannic. Her captain (Charles Bartlett) first thought she had been torpedoed. It turned out they had run up on a mine field in the channel which had just hours before been laid by the German coastal mine layer sub, SM U-73.




(Left) Converted White Star Liner and Titanic sister ship, HMHS Britannic. As with Titanic, John Priest was working at the very bottom of ship in the boiler room





The mine exploded on Britannic's starboard side blasting away two bulkheads in two of her holds. The water came rushing in and Britannic almost immediately began assuming a starboard list. Nurses had earlier opened the port holes for ventilation and as Britannic's list increased, water poured in through the portholes hastening the sinking. In a desperate attempt to save the ship, Captain Bartlett rang orders for flank speed and turned the ship toward the island with the hopes of beaching her. Unlike Titanic's sinking in 2 and a half hours, Britannic was going down quickly. With the holds rapidly flooding and damage to the steering gear from the explosion, Capt. Bartlett's efforts to beach the ship were fruitless. John Priest had to be thinking "Oh no. not again" as water began quickly flooding the boiler room and the order was give to abandon ship. Just like on Titanic, Priest found himself making the long winding trek across catwalks and up several flights of stairs to the boat deck from the very bowels of the ship. Britannic's propellers were still turning as she was close to rolling over and her stern began lifting from the water. Two of the lifeboats had been sucked into the propeller's and were chopped into pieces. John Priest (and Violet Jessop) ended up jumping into the water and were picked up by another lifeboat. Archie Jewel was in one of the life boats pulled into the propellers and miraculously survived, though seriously injured. 



Artist depiction of HMHS Britannic rolling over on her starboard side before disappearing under the surface.

Image credit: M Cook / rhill555.deviantart. com






Like a cat with 9 lives, John Priest had used up 5 of them and would unbelievably soon use a 6th.

After the HMHS Britannic sinking, Priest was assigned to the HMS Donegal. Donegal was a Midland Railway passenger ferry that was requisitioned by the British Admiralty to serve as an ambulance ship during the war. In April, 1917 while crossing the English Channel from Le Harve, France to Southampton with wounded soldiers they were attacked. Donegal and a companion hospital ship, HMHS Lanfranc, were both torpedoed by the German U-boat SM UC-21.



Ambulance ship HMS Donegal (above left) was sunk by SM UC-21 (above right)  in the English Channel with the loss of 29 patients and 12 crew. Unfortunately, former Titanic lookout, Archie Jewel was among those lost in the sinking.


John Priest suffered a serious head injury in the HMS Donegal sinking, but he did survive and the incident put him out for the remainder of the war. Priest later wrote a letter to his sister describing the sinking, he said, "I came up under some of the wreckage ... everything was goin' black to me when someone on top was struggling and pushed the wreckage away so I came up just in time I was nearly done for ... there was one poor fellow drowning and he caught hold of me but I had to shake him off and the poor fellow went under."




After surviving 6 life-threatening incidents at sea; the RMS Asturias foundering, The RMS Olympic - HMS Hawk collision, the RMS Titanic sinking, the HMS Alcantara sinking, the HMHS Britannic sinking, and the HMS Donegal sinking, John Priest is one man that truly deserves the title "The Unsinkable John Priest."

Arthur John Priest died at his Southampton home at the age of 50 from pneumonia with his wife Annie at his side in 1937. He was buried at Saint John Churchyard in Membury, England.


Image credit:




New York Times 11/16/12.

Chicago Tribune 1/22/16

John P. Eaton & Charles A. Haas (1994) Titanic: Triumph & Tragedy, 2nd ed.



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