A new exhibit, Titanic: The Manitoba Connection, will be opening at the Manitoba Museum on February 12. “Most Manitobans would be surprised to learn that the province had any connection at all to the Titanic,” said Sharon Reilly, the social history curator for the museum, in a press release. “But 130 of the ship’s passengers were bound for Canada. Nine Manitobans died in the tragedy, while some of their families survived.”
Among the victims of the sinking of the Titanic that fateful evening and morning of April 14 and 15, 1912, were real estate entrepreneur Mark Fortune and his son Charles, and fellow REALTORS® Thomson Beattie and John Hugo Ross, as well as George Graham, a department manager at the Eaton’s Store in Winnipeg. Other victims associated with Winnipeg were J.J. Borebank, who was then residing in Toronto, but had lived in Winnipeg for 10 years and was noted for establishing the River Heights residential development, and Thomas McCaffrey, who then resided in Vancouver, but had spent time at Union Bank branches in Neepawa and Winnipeg.
In memory of their comrades who perished, the membership of the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange (forerunner of WinnipegREALTORS®) sponsored the furnishing and equipping of a new 16-bed ward in the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, aptly named the Titanic Ward.
A Sunday, April 21, 1912, resolution passed by the exchange’s members also carried the promise to erect a plaque in the new ward, “suitably inscribed in perpetuation of the memory of the late members.”
Mary-Alice Grassick 30 years ago read about the plaque in the book, A Vision Fulfilled: The Story of the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, 1909-1973, by Harry Medovy. It wasn’t much of a reference, but Grassick wondered about the whereabouts of the plaque that had disappeared years earlier. “I felt we were losing our history,” she told the WREN. For 20 years, she relentlessly hunted for the plaque. Finally, when going through items in the basement of the Community Services Building on William Avenue across from the hospital, her perseverance was rewarded. Behind a filing cabinet in the building, she found the illusive plaque, which is now on display in a small museum in the Children’s Hospital.
In April 2004, past-president of WinnipegREALTORS®, Tom Fulton, was contacted by Grassick to take part in a special rededication ceremony for the plaque (which will also be mentioned in the museum exhibit), commemorating Fortune, Ross and Beattie. The dedication on the plaque reads: “To their heroic and inspirational memory ... Greater love hath no man than this than a man lay down his life for his friends.”
During the April 1912 special meeting, exchange president H. Oakes read out the resolution “to perform the last sad rite of respect to the memory of our late fellow member, Mark Fortune ... (who) was not only a charter member and past president of our organization (1906), but was one of the oldest members of the real estate faternity.” Ross arrived in the city in 1874.
The only survivors of the calamity from Manitoba were Fortune’s wife, Mary, 60, who was born in Portage la Prairie, and their children Ethel, 28, Alice, 24, and Mabel, 23. The fact that only the Fortune women survived is testimony that the majority of the 705 victims were men. Women and children were the first to be placed in the too-few lifeboats, which only had the capacity to carry a third of the 2,201passengers aboard the Titanic. Also acting in favour of their survival was the fact that the Fortunes had first-class berths, while many of those who perished were second- and third-class passenmgers.
Mary was awoken at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 by a grating noise and felt a very gentle nudge below her cabin. Minutes later, her husband came into the cabin and told her and the girls to follow Charlie to the deck. On the deck, Mark told his wife and daughters to get into lifeboat No. 10, and then he and his son helped others board the lifeboat. It was the last time the Fortune women would see Mark and Charlie alive.
According to the resolution, Ross, the president of the exchange in 1907, “stood for the highest ideals” in the real estate industry, “and his name always carried weight as that of a man of integrity and fairness.”
Similar sentiments were expressed about Beattie in the resolution, who was called “one of the honoured members of the Winnipeg real estate exchange for many years ...”
A month after the disaster, Beattie’s body was found adrift in one of the Titanic’s collapsible boats.
In the late 1980s, I met an Englishman who had made a pilgrimage to Neepawa to see the grave of his great-uncle who perished in the 1912 Titanic tragedy. When his great-uncle’s body was recovered, the papers found in one of his coat pockets indicated he was bound for Neepawa under the sponsorship of the Independent Order of Foresters. The body of the man, who set out for England a year earlier to bring his brothers Lewis and Stanley back with him as farm workers, was subsquently buried in Neepawa’s Riverside Cemetery. On May 10, 1912, the Neepawa Press reported: “Thus was laid to rest the remains of Leonard Hickman, an efficient English farm labourer (living in Neepawa but working in the Eden District). Had he been a state dignitary or a millionaire, there might have been more pomp, but there could not have been more genuine sorrow and respect manifested.”
But there is a twist to this story. When the personal effects thought to belong to Leonard were returned to England, it was determined that it was his brother Lewis who was actually interred in Neepawa, a man who had never set foot in the community. It is believed that during the confusion of the disaster the two brothers had mistakenly grabbed each other’s coat.
Lewis’ wife in England was aghast to learn about the fate of her husband’s body. Because of the distance involved and the cost, she was never able to visit his gravesite. It wouldn’t be until decades later that a member of the family finally made the pilgrimage to Neepawa, where the mistake was recognized and the tombstone redidicated to the memory of the three brothers, Leonard, Lewis and Stanley, who died when the Titanic sank.
The new exhibit will give Manitobans an opportunity to see that even their province, located thousands of kilometres from the Atlantic, was not immune from the effects of the 1912 maritime disaster.