Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, Titanic Survivor
April 11, 2022
Arthur Godfrey Peuchen
110 Years ago the Titanic was steaming across the Atlantic on its Maiden Voyage
Did you know that a prominent Fenelon Falls Businessman was on Board?
The White Star Line’s RMS Titanic symbolized the conspicuous consumption of the Edwardian Era—it was designed to give First Class travellers the feeling of being in a great house, rather than a ship, complete with a deep saltwater swimming pool, Turkish bath, steam room, gymnasium and massage room. At the lounge, passengers could join a party in the smoking room or quiet reflection in the reading and writing room. It had a Café Parisien reminiscent of a French village, and many wonderful culinary options.
As the Titanic set out from Southampton, Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, owner of the Standard Chemical Company was on board. He purchased the Napanee Paper Company’s mill at Fenelon Falls and converted it to manufacture wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal, and acetic acid. The distillery was located in Garnet Graham Park, roughly where the beach volleyball court stands today (it was this establishment that caused the contamination found onsite several years ago). With headquarters in Toronto, he had 3 other plants where he made Paris Green, the most common nineteenth century insecticide and poison. He had been in Britain to approach Lord Haldane of the War Office, about supplying acetone for explosives.
As he enjoyed the comforts that came from being near the pinnacle of British society—in the company of some of the wealthiest men in the world—he would have no reason to suspect that his life was about to change forever. Just before midnight, on April 14, 1912, the lookout up in the crow’s nest spotted an iceberg straight ahead. It was too late to avoid it, and a collision rocked the boat, sending chunks of ice up on deck, that some playful passengers made a game of. Peuchen left $200,000 in securities in his cabin as he went up to the deck to see what had happened.
As it was becoming clear on the bridge that the ship would sink, Peuchen was watching the lifeboats being loaded. As lifeboat 6 was being lowered, a quartermaster shouted up from below that it was poorly manned. Up on the deck, the call went out for any sailors who were available, and when no one else volunteered, Peuchen said that he was a yachtsman. The captain suggested that he could go to a lower deck and break a window to get into the boat, but then it was observed that if Peuchen was as good of a sailor as he professed he should be able to climb down a rope to the lifeboat, which he did, hand over hand the whole way down.
Peuchen ended up in a lifeboat with famous Denver socialite Margaret Brown, who would soon become known as ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ as she rallied the ladies in the boat to row. They were ultimately rescued by the Carpathia, but 1,500 other passengers were not as fortunate—making the Titanic one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters ever.
The American Senate called an inquiry into the catastrophe, and Peuchen was the only Canadian to testify. He was critical of the crew, particularly the quartermaster who had called him down into the lifeboat. Because he was a male survivor, (First Class, nonetheless!) for the rest of his life, he would be accused of cowardice. At the time it was circulated, “He said he was a yachtsman so he could get off the Titanic, and if there had been a fire, he would have said he was a fireman.”
In his defence, the Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Lightoller testified that he had ordered Peuchen into the boat (Lightoller was the most senior officer to survive, he had been sucked under, blown to the surface as a ventilator erupted, then swam to a capsized lifeboat through the freezing water). The fact that Lightoller had to say this, was a testament to what Peuchen was facing. For the rest of his life he would forever face scrutiny that he should not have lived. When war broke out in 1914, he retired from the Standard Chemical Company to command Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles, only to resign one year later. His only son was severely wounded, he lost much of his fortune after the war through bad investments, and died in 1929. It was said he had a broken heart from all the scorn he had received.
In 1987, was wallet was retrieved from the debris field, containing his calling card, a traveller’s cheque and Toronto streetcar tickets. He is immortalized in A Night to Remember.