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Titanic's secret savior: The extraordinary story of the Countess of Rothes

Countess of Rothes
Countess of Rothes

On the night that the Titanic sank, one woman, the Countess of Rothes, put the welfare of others before her own, working tirelessly to row them to safety. Angela Young tells her great-grandmother’s incredible story

My great- grandmother Noël, Countess of Rothes, was born on Christmas Day 1878. She was christened Lucy Noël Martha but was always known as Noël after the day she was born. She lived until she was 76 – a long life for those times – but she might easily have died at sea at the age of 33 when, in 1912, she sailed from Southampton on board RMS Titanic.

Noël boarded Titanic with her parents, Thomas and Clementina Dyer-Edwardes, her husband’s cousin Gladys Cherry and her maid Roberta Maioni. Her parents disembarked at Cherbourg on the evening of 10 April. If they hadn’t, her father would surely have died just a few days later.

When Titanic hit the iceberg just after midnight on 15 April, Noël was ordered into the lifeboats, as were all the women and children, while the men were held back.

But the sailor in charge of her lifeboat, Able Seaman Thomas Jones, didn’t think her a woman at all: ‘When I saw the way she was carrying herself and heard the quiet, determined way she spoke to the others,’ he said later, ‘I knew she was more of a man than any we had on board.’

Noël had become châtelaine of Leslie House in Fife when, in 1900, she married my great-grandfather, Norman Evelyn, the 19th Earl of Rothes. She oversaw a large household of staff, so she knew about encouraging, managing and gently persuading people to do as she asked. And my great-grandfather owned a yacht, so she also knew how to row and to take a tiller – unusual skills for a woman in those days. But Able Seaman Jones knew nothing of this, he only saw that the other two men who had boarded his lifeboat in the confusion weren’t seamen (one was a steward, the other a cook) so, when he saw the calming effect Noël had on the terrified female passengers, he put her in charge of them. And when he realised that she knew about boats he put her at the tiller.

Noël boarded lifeboat number eight at one in the morning and for the entirety of that long, cold and frightening night, while she helmed the boat, or rowed, or taught others to row, or comforted the distraught women, she thought about her two young sons safely at home, and prayed she would see them again.

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