Copyright 1998 Aurora Brynn


Harold Thomas Cottam was born in Southwell, Nottinghamshire on January 27, 1891. After completing the local grammar school, he moved to London to study at the British School of Telegraphy. In 1908, at the age of 17, Cottam became the youngest person ever to graduate from there. (His record still stands today.) He wished to go out to sea as a shipboard wireless operator but was still too young. The rule was that you had to be "no less than 21 and no older than 25" to serve on ships. Sometimes, an operator could slip through the cracks being 19 or 20 but 17 was noticably under-age. Harold Cottam than moved to Liverpool to put his skills to good use by rigging up Russian ships with wireless shacks. So few nations had the technology and Britian's boys (especially the ones in the Marconi Company service) were the best-of-the-best. Young Cottam passed his time this way till the day came when he too could go out to sea.

Cottam's first post was as second operator of the Empress of Ireland, after a few months of service, he was made Marconi operator of the Liverpool land station of the British Post Office where he remained sixteen months. The year was 1908 and this is where Cottam met Jack Phillips. (For the full story see the Phillips page.) His last ship assignment before the Carpathia was on the Medic.

In 1910 Cottam met Harold Bride. He was working as a telegraphist in a London post office--taking a land break after the Medic-- and Bride walked in one day. He wanted to know what he had to do to become a wireless operator. Cottam--who wasn't supposed to answer questions while on duty--slid his phones off to rest around his neck and answered all Bride's questions after giving him some literature to read. Bride thanked him and left, returning early the next week with more questions about the schooling and how much it cost, etc. Cottam was just about to go on his lunch break so invited him to come along for "a little tibble with me" and they were fast friends from that day on.

It was 12:17 a.m. on April 15, 1912. the now 21-year-old, Harold Cottam--the lone wireless operator aboard the Cunard Liner Carpathia--was getting ready to turn in for the night. He had stayed up till 2:30 a.m., the night before and 3:30 a.m. before that so wanted to turn in early. It was a lucky chance that Cottam was still up with his headphones on at the instance Titanic called for assitance. . . .He was waiting for another ship (The Parisian) to reply to a message he sent before shutting down for the night, and--while waiting--decided to call up Cape Cod where he noticed they had unsent messages waiting for Titanic but didn't want to interupt the signal with Cape Race.

"I could hear him trying to trying to clear traffic. He was sending messages to make arrangements for a big dinner party and ordering various luxuries. I knew Jack was still transmitting, so I thought I would take his messages for him and pass them on." (Nottingham Evening Post, 1976)

After jotting down seven or eight messages in the span of five minutes, Cottam removed his headphones to take his shoes off and hang up his coat, thus missing Titanic's first distress call. When his headphones were once again in place, there was no signal from Cape Race or Titanic, so he decided to call up the ship. "I say, old man, do you know there are a batch of messages waiting for you from Cape Cod?" Jack Phillips barely waited for Cottam to finish the sentence before tapping back: "Come at once! We're sinking!"

Like every other ship that picked up Titanic's CQD and SOS signals that night, Cottam at first did not believe it. He tapped out "What's wrong? Should I tell my captain?" Phillips replied with an urgent: "Yes! It's a CQD, old man! We've hit a berg and are sinking!" He gave the ship's position as calculated by Fourth Officer Boxhall and Cottam quickly ran it to the bridge. First Officer Dean was on watch and thought the CQD might be a mistake or a prank. Cottam, knowing the seriousness of the situation and that his two best friends (along with 2200 other souls) were on Titantic and in danger, curtly answered: "I'll go directly to the Captain then and you can just bugger off." Dean and another officer follwed him down to Captain Rostron's quarters and apoligized when the wireless boy burst into the captain's quarters, waking him up. Rostron took one look at the distress message, ordered the ship to be turned around, and then asked Cottam "Are you sure?" "Yes, quite sure," was the reply. Carpathia was on the way. "We're turning around and steaming full force toward you." The reply was a very relieved "Thank you, old man."

From that moment on, till Phillips and Bride lost power to the wireless room at 2:17 a.m., Cottam kept in constant contact with them--relaying the Carpathia's position and how fast they were going. Though Jack Phillips was at the set most of the time, Harold Bride took over three times during the event and he and Cottam's messages seem almost chatty. Cottam heard the Baltic and asked if Titanic knew she was trying to call them. Bride answered "No. I can't hear anything over all the steam that's escaping from the boilers." "Well, you should call her up. She's trying to contact you." "Thank you, old man." A few times, ships that Titanic couldn't hear, would relay messages through the Carpathia. Phillips and Bride both agreed that the Carpathia was "the best thing doing" so ceased communication with all other ships. Over the next two hours, Phillips tapped back the grim news of Titanic: "We're putting the women off in boats". . . ."Water is flooding the boiler rooms". . . ."I don't know how much longer we can last." At 3:30 a.m., even though he hadn't heard from them in over an hour, Cottam was still flashing away at the key. "If you are still there, we're firing our rockets."

When the first lifeboats started to arrive, Cottam left the shack in order to check out the action on deck, but soon returned to his set. By 8:30 a.m., all survivors were aboard the Carpathia. Now came the steady flood of "what happened?" messages from relay stations and other ships who had come to the aid. Cottam, frazzled by the activities of the early morning hours, and desperately in need of sleep, transmitted a message to Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic. "I can't do everything at once! Patience please. . . ." He then related all he knew, of the 20 lifeboats and 705 survivors being taken aboard, and how Captain Rostron said they had it under control and everyone else should return to their regular routes.

"Our captain sent order that there was no need for Baltic to come any further so with that she returned on her course to Liverpool. Are you going to resume your course on that information? We had 2 or 3 officers aboard and the 2nd Marconi operator, who had been creeping through water 30 degrees sometime."(wireless to the Olympic)

When asked if there was a list of survivors, Cottam replied, "No. I'll send it soon." The Baltic asked if there was any important message he would like to get to New York and Cottam--so obviously done in at this time--replied, "I haven't eaten since 5:30 p.m. yesterday."

Since the Carpathia had a low power antanae, the Olympic was to be her relay station. Cottam would send something to the ship, and Operator E.J. Moore aboard the Olympic would send it to Cape Race in Newfoundland. When a list of survivors was finally compiled, Cottam began transmitting them, warning, "Please excuse the sending. Am half asleep."

"...It became practically impossible for Cottam to cope with the deluge of signals or to answer the inquiries. Newspapermen in New York, unaware of his difficulties and of the weak range of his apparatus, became annoyed, and unfairly suggested that a "censorship" had been imposed on news, for some sinister purpose vaguely hinted at."(Second Officer Bisset of the Carpathia; Tramps & Ladies)

As night was falling, Captain Rostron began to worry about his lone Marconi Man. He sent two officers below decks to the infirmary where Harold Bride was recovering from crushed and frostbitten feet with the message that Cottam was "acting queer" and could he help? Bride gamely agreed and was carried up to the wireless shack. Captain Rostron then declared that the wireless would only be used to transmit only disaster related messages--giving the two Harolds total control over what was and was not sent to New York. They took the "only disaster related messages" order to mean survivors names and any messages for their families. This is why all outside inquiries were ignored. The story of Jack Binns and the Republic was known to all wireless operators but the 2 Harolds were not in it for the money--they just did what they were ordered to do. . .Transmit official disaster related messages.

When the ship docked on the night of April 18th, Cottam left in search of the New York Times office. He had been given specific details not to say a word to anyone but the Times. The newpaper was paying a healthy sum to both Harolds for their exclusive stories. On the way, he got lost and wandered into a rival newspaper's office but asked for directions, quickly left, and didn't spill a single detail of his part in the rescue till seated across from a New York Times reporter. Harold Cottam was paid $750 and Harold Bride recieved $1000. Considering Marconi Operators made less than $30 a month, this was some serious cash.

Since Bride had lost all his belongings in the disaster, Cottam divied up his suits so Bride wouldn't have to wear his Marconi Uniform all the time. That's why, in pictures after the disaster in New York and Washington, Bride's clothes look too big on him--because Cottam was 5'8" to his 5'6". After the Times finally shelled out the promised money, Bride bought a few new suits but still mostly wore Cottam's.

After testifying on the first and second day of the US Inquiry into the Titanic disaster (April 19th and 20th), Cottam learned he would be detained in America under subpeana along with Mr. Bruce Ismay, various crew members, the four surviving officers and Harold Bride. "Going home" was now in the hands of the American government. The Inquiry was then relocated to Washington DC on April 21. Cottam--in all rights--should have been on the train to DC with the other officers and crew the night of the 20th, but some strings were pulled and he was allowed to stay in New York with Bride till his friend was well enough to travel. They were each other's strength and support throughout this trying ordeal, and shared a hotel room in Washington.

While in the nation's capitol, Cottam was befriended by one of the senators. Besides being treated like a hero by the American public, Cottam was shown all the historical, tourist spots of interest in DC. The White Star officials looked down upon him, and didn't understand why this working class boy was among them and getting the star treatment. Cottam had loads of fun in Washington and even remarked "I'd like to stay here longer." Everyone treated him so nice and it was like a bit of a vacation. He temporarily lost his post on Carpathia that he had held since February 10 of that year but America was fun for the wireless boy. He tried to get Bride to come and see the sights of Washington with him, but Bride wouldn't go to anything but the tour of the White House.

After testifying a total of eight times at the American Inquiry, Harold Cottam was finally allowed to return home. He returned as third operator of the Caronia. Harold Bride also tried to get a post on the ship so he could go home too, but they were 'full up', even when he tried to buy a passenger ticket, so he decided to wait for the position offered to him on the Baltic. (It docked in Liverpool a month after their arrival in New York.)

On his first trip back to Southwell since the disaster and subsequent Inquiries, Cottam somehow got wind of a reception that was waiting for him complete with the local brass band. Wanting to avoid the fuss, he got off at the stop right before Southwell and walked the 4 or 5 miles home, thus spoiling his own hail-the-conquering-hero party. (For a map of Southwell, and Cottam's path, click here.)

Cottam was with the Carpathia is Istanbul during the Turko-Italian War and, later, was aboard one of the first ships to traverse the Panama Canal. For the first three years of World War I, he was stationed in Scotland--rigging up antanae and working in relay stations whose true purpose was to spy on German activity.

Harold Cottam married Elsie Shepperson in 1922 and retired from the sea in the 1920s, returning to Nottingham to raise his family. The Cottams had four children--Bill (born 1922), Jean (born 1924), Sybil (born 1926) and Angus (born 1928). In the 20s and 30s, Cottam was a traveling salesman for the Mini Max Fire Extinguisher company. Daughter Jean can remember being very young and playing with the sales brocures.

When his beloved Elsie died in 1950, Harold Cottam lived alone. He missed her terribly and would talk to her as if she was still around; but only when he was alone so none of the kids would worry. In his letters to the Brides, Cottam would pour out his hurt and loss over her death and tell them this--that he still spoke to her and sensed her presence and was comforted by that. It wasn't really like he was alone. Elsie was still there in spirit.

As for the children, they were grown and moved on. Eldest daughter Jean married an Australian airman--Colin Dovey--and moved to Australia with him after War World II. (She died on April 10, 1999.) Second daughter Sybil moved and still lives in British Columbia, Canada and Angus (the youngest) was also away from Southwell. (He died in 1978.) Eldest Son, Bill, joined the army in 1937 at age 15 and was more or less away from home (apart from leave) till he was discharged in 1950. He later moved to Sacramento, CA but returned to England when he could and stayed with his father. They would stay up till 2 in the morning and just talk. During his many story-telling sessions, Cottam would mention his part in the Titanic disaster but it was still a painful subject so he never went into much depth or detail. Bill much rather prefered hearing stories of his adventures while working for the Japanese and American shipping companies.

After living an extremely long and eventful life, Harold Thomas Cottam died in 1984 at the age of 93.

Additional Pictures:
*Not to be used without the web-master's permission*

Cottam age 16~~gramar school graduation.
Cottam "off the boat" in NY~~April 18, 1912.
Cottam testifying~~April 19, 1912
The 2 Harolds after testimony~~April 20, 1912


Contributing L/F Writer: Aurora Brynn. 1998
The author wishes to express her sincere and heartfelt thanks to the Cottam family for providing me with invaluable information. . .Bill, Jean and Sybil for answering questions about their dad, Nephew Arnold Shepperson for passing the info on to me via email, and telling me the wonderful train-station story, and Grand-Niece Claire Parker for putting her scanner to good use! Thank you all!
Family Photos
Cottam's 1912 New York Time Interview

1