On the fireplace mantle of my Haverford home sit two framed photos of women I don’t know. One is Clear Annie Cameron, born in Great Britain in 1877 near Manchester. The other is her sister, Janet Gertrude Cameron, born in 1873.
Clear set out for America with her friend, Nellie Walcroft, on April 11, 1912, in a second-class cabin aboard the White Star Line’s R.M.S. Titanic. They’d planned to hire themselves out as “lady’s maids” in America.
Clear’s last known address—from a letter dated October 1913—is the house where I’ve lived for the past 10 years. The correspondence begins with a letter dated April 11, 1912, from Clear to her sister. The next was written aboard the Carpathia, the ship that rescued survivors. It describes, with a chilling immediacy, the Titanic disaster of April 12.
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Several years ago, my husband and I received a letter from Caithness, Scotland. Ted Dowding and his wife, Dinah, had recently come across some letters from Ted’s aunt, Clear Annie Cameron, to his mother. The family had never heard from Clear after the last correspondence they received from our address in 1913.
Clear was 35 years old and single when she left England for New York. She’d been a personal maid to a Lady Ella Oldham of Hyde Park, but salaries for household help in London at the time were low, and Clear and her friend had heard there was higher pay in America. “Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive and kicking,” she wrote on Carpathia stationary. “We are dreadful sights and we have lost everything we had except the clothes we stand up in, and unfortunately they are the worst we had.”
After a few days of rest, her sleep interrupted by “horrid dreams,” Clear decided on a position with Mrs. Nelson Henry, wife of Gen. Nelson H. Henry, surveyor to U.S. Customs in New York. As it happened, Mrs. Henry was the head of the Women’s Relief Committee that was hurriedly organized to help female survivors of the Titanic.
We discovered that some of the past owners of our home were Clear’s employers in 1913. A search by a local historical-society sleuth turned up nothing on them or Clear.
During the next few years, we heard occasionally from the Dowdings, who published a book of Clear’s letters. They sent us a photo of Clear and her sister, along with a shot of our house from 1913. It looks pretty much the same today.
Other projects beckoned, and Clear faded into the background of my life—only there she was, every day, looking into my living room from the mantel.
Clear and her friend ended up in lifeboat No. 14, and she gives an account of the officer having to fire his revolver to frighten men who were trying to get into their already full boat. When they got about two miles from the Titanic, they watched her sink. “She just broke in two and the ends were sticking up only for about five minutes,” Clear recounted. “The cries were dreadful of the poor dying people, one cannot get them out of one’s mind.”
Many survivors were never reimbursed fully for their losses, even though there were several organizations that tried to help. Clear seemed fatalistic in her attitude about losing everything. “It’s sad to think of the lovely clothes the fishes are swanking about in,” she wrote. “Not so much those do I mind, but it’s the heaps of other wee treasures I can never get again, and all got by working so hard and taking care. They are gone forever, and it can’t be helped. Lucky I’m here, and the more one thinks of that, the more marvelous it seems.”
Clear’s observations about New York City are sprinkled throughout her letters over the next few months. Speaking of her work, she writes that it is “altogether easier. The Lady will just as soon clean her own shoes as let you do it, and the girls never go down on their knees to sweep or wash a floor.”
After she’d been in the city for about a month, Clear sent a letter to her sister. “I never heard of such a place as New York for fires. The blooming engines are going all day, and it’s funny to hear the postman coming along; he blows a whistle at every house he leaves a letter,” she wrote. “The trams and trains overhead are running all night. You never heard such unearthly cries in your life that goes on during the day—and the style of dress you would just laugh and laugh at, I know. Nothing is to be compared with London. They have got the money here, and that’s all.”
By the end of July, Clear’s disillusionment with New York had peaked. “We had a terrible storm here today, and the sewage is so very bad the water could not get away,” she wrote. “It was almost up to your knees in the road, and the rats were floating about, and the filthy smell is enough to kill you. New York is, I should think, one of the dirtiest, rottenest holes on earth.”
By the end of September 1912, Clear had left the New York to do a bit of traveling and get some rest. The ordeal on the Titanic had exhausted her perhaps more than she’d let on. She still had nightmares and a bad case of nerves. In a letter sent from the house that’s now my address on Oct. 18, 1913, she seems to like Philadelphia better than New York. “The people are more settled and homelike,” she wrote. “In New York, they are all like a lot of mad folk—nothing but bundles of nerves.”
That was the last letter the Dowdings have from Clear. Ted died before he could discover what happened to his aunt. Just before her death, his wife found out that Clear had passed away in England in 1962. Nothing else was known about her.
I like to think that she had a good, full life after she went back to England. I keep her picture here on my mantle so she won’t be forgotten. Isn’t that all we can ask for, in the end?
Freelance writer Kathy Stevenson last wrote about her visit to a local hookah bar in the April 2011 issue of Main Line Today.
Charles A. Aldworth (age 30), Bryn Mawr (died)
Alexander Cairns (age not listed), Bryn Mawr (died)
William Ernest Carter (age 36) Bryn Mawr
Lucille Polk Carter (age 14), Bryn Mawr
William Thornton Carter (age 11), Bryn Mawr
Victorine Chaudanson (age 36), Haverford
Margaret Fleming (no age listed), Haverford
Nathan Goldsmith (age 41), Bryn Mawr (died)
Alfred Larned Ryerson (age 61), Haverford (died)
Mrs. Arthur Larned Ryerson (age 48), Haverford
Suzette Parker Ryerson (age 21), Haverford
Emily Borie Ryerson (age 18), Haverford
John Borie Ryerson (age 13), Haverford
Alfred Ryerson was a wealthy businessman whose family had been on vacation in Europe when they got news that their eldest son, Yale University student Arthur Ryerson Jr., had been killed in an automobile accident. The family was in mourning, and caught the Titanic going to New York. As the lifeboat that carried many wives and children of wealthy passengers was being loaded, Ryerson tried to get 13-year-old John into it. A ship’s officer refused, but Ryerson said he should go because he was only 13 and should remain with his mother. The officer relented, but made the comment, “No more boys.”
Auguste Serraplan (age 30), Bryn Mawr
Walter B. Stephenson (age 52), Haverford
John Borland Thayer (age 49), Haverford (died)
Mrs. John B. Thayer (age 39), Haverford
John Borland Thayer Jr. (age 17), Haverford
Thayer, his wife Marion, and son John Jr. (Jack) were returning to Pennsylvania after an extended vacation in Europe. Thayer was a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Mrs. Thayer was placed into lifeboat No. 4, but Mr. Thayer and her son weren’t allowed to get in. Her last sight of them was as they stood with John Jacob Astor watching the lifeboat being rowed away. As Titanic was sinking, young Jack ended up in the water and somehow managed to get into an overturned collapsible lifeboat. He survived, meeting up with his mother on the Carpathia. His father was not so lucky.