John Priest, The Human Shipwreck
If you were walking up the gangplank of a ship in the early half of the 20th century and saw Arthur John Priest at the top, you’d be well advised to turn around and get off. If you were already at sea and come across him, you should grab a handful of lifejackets, go and sit in a lifeboat and wait for the inevitable. You see, John Priest had an unfortunate habit of being on board sinking ships. What is even more unfortunate is that he was actually a professional seaman who became known as the “unsinkable stoker”.
Priest was born in Southampton in southern England in 1887. Since Southampton was one of the largest ports in the world at the time it was only natural that he should try his had at a life at sea. As a Fireman, or Stoker, his job was to shovel coal into the huge furnaces that heated the boilers which drove the ships, it could hardly be called an easy life even if they stayed afloat… and Priest’s ships didn’t.
His first sinking was in 1907 when the RMS Asturias foundered on its maiden voyage. Now, the sea is a dangerous place and these things happen fairly regularly, so getting wet feet once isn’t really a black mark. If he’d then moved on to more “floaty” ships he would have enjoyed a life at sea in peaceful obscurity and we would have had nothing to write about. But our John seemed to have a nose for maritime disasters and went for them in a big way.
Next Priest found himself working on the passenger liner RMS Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. On 20 September 1911 Olympic was sailing in the Solent, a stretch of water between Southampton and the Isle of Wight when it collided with the bow of HMS Hawke.
Both ships were lucky to survive the encounter, which tore two huge holes in the side of Olympic and nearly capsized the Hawke. Both Hawke and Olympic were eventually repaired and put back into service but the Hawke went on to be sunk by the German U-boat SM U-9 in October 1914.
A few months later and the early morning of 15 April 1912 found Priest bobbing around in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean instead of the fiery heat of the ship’s boiler room. He was four days out on a journey from Southampton and should have been looking forward to a bit of time off in New York City. But once again, things weren’t going quite to plan for soggy John.
You’ve probably guessed by now that he was on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic when a struck a rather large and inconveniently positioned lump of ice. The unsinkable stoker took a plunge and managed to get into a lifeboat and down went the Titanic.
After this most famous of sinkings, Priest managed to avoid further mishap until World War 1, when he found himself onboard the lovely ocean liner SS Alcantara. Well, it started out as SS Alcantera but the British Admiralty decided to requisition the ship, fit it with a load of six-inch guns and depth-charges and commission it into the Royal Navy as the merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara.