S1E6 – Show Notes

Father Frank Browne in his later years, posing with his camera.

Father Frank Browne, Titanic photographer. Photo via Wikipedia.

Father Frank Browne was a curious man–not exactly a quality that one would expect to find in a Jesuit priest. He was outgoing–never afraid to strike up a conversation with the person seated next to him on the train, always expanding his network, uplifting others in the name of the Lord. He loved people, but he loved the world more. He saw his surroundings in a way that others couldn’t–the flashes of light, the slant of a windswept tree, the knowledge that the circumstances that existed in that moment, right then and there, would be gone in the next.

He was born in Cork, Ireland on January 3, 1880, the youngest of eight children. Eight days after his birth, his mother died of puerperal fever, a result of complications from childbirth. His father, a wealthy flour merchant, took care of the family, until he drowned in a swimming accident in 1889.

Following his father’s death, Frank was put into the custody of his uncle, Robert Browne, the Bishop of Cloyne. Robert raised Frank to be a respectable young man, steadfast in his faith and always focused on spreading the message of the church. From this point forward, it became apparent to Frank that his purpose in life was to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. He received his schooling in Belvedere College, then moved onto Christian Brothers College at the age of 12, and then to Castleknock college from 13 to 17. He was a bright young man, educated by some of the greatest minds the Jesuit church could offer.

After graduating college in 1897, he was invited to accompany his brother on a tour of Europe, traveling to France, Switzerland, and Italy, enjoying the sights and sounds of the European mainland–but mostly the sights. You see, before leaving Ireland, Frank’s uncle Robert had given him a present, something rare and new and exciting, something he knew that Frank, with his curious mind and an eye for detail would be able to fully appreciate. He gave Frank his first camera.

And, oh, how Frank loved it. He reveled in the power that came with this new piece of technology–the fact that he could preserve, forever, those moments that only he seemed to appreciate. He took as many photographs as his limited supply of film would allow, and he returned to Ireland in September knowing that he had found something special–something with which he could preserve history in ways more intimate than technology had ever allowed.

He continued to dabble in photography after returning home, but was forced to give up the hobby in order to focus on his studies and ministry. During this time, he made the acquaintance of a fellow classmate named James Joyce, who immortalized Browne in his final book, Finnegan’s Wake.

Frank did well for himself in his ministry, and he took photographs whenever and wherever he could. His passion for the hobby grew, and shortly after his uncle had been awarded £200 in a lawsuit claiming that he and his fellow bishops had been slandered by the Dundee Courier, Frank received a letter in the mail. One that would allow him to preserve a truly momentous occasion.

Father Frank Browne's letter of invitation to Titanic

Father Frank Browne’s letter of invitation to Titanic. Photo via AwesomeStories.

The letter read:

Dear Father Browne, “First Class”

We have pleasure in handing you herewith pass from Southampton to Queenstown per S.S. “Titanic” April 10, and we trust that you will have an enjoyable trip.

Yours truly, James Scott

 

Frank’s jaw dropped upon hearing this news. Where had this letter come from? How had he, of all people, been chosen to board this new ship, the pride of Belfast?

The answer became clear when his uncle presented him with a new camera and plenty of film.

 

Frank arrived in London less than a week later, and boarded the Titanic Special, a train reserved for first class passengers. They arrived in Southampton at 11:30 on the morning of April 10th, and Frank immediately began taking photos.

Passengers wait with their trunks, ready to board Titanic.

Passengers waiting to board Titanic. Photo by Frank Browne, via.

The ship in port, passengers crowded on the dock, waiting to board.

A third class woman sits huddled in a coat on the deck of Titanic.

Third class passengers on Titanic, waiting to be allowed to their rooms. Photo via BBC.

Third class passengers on deck, waiting to be allowed into their rooms.

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Passengers boarding Titanic. Photo by Frank Browne, via BBC.

Men and women, dressed in their Sunday best, trekking their way precariously down the gangway onto the ship.

He hadn’t even found his cabin before he began taking photographs. He wanted to capture every moment.

When it came time for him to locate his room, he pulled out the map of the ship that he had been given when he boarded. 37A–that’s what he was looking for. He scoured the blueprint, closely examining the labels within each little cabin, but saw no 37A. According to this map, it didn’t exist. Upon examining the map further, and noticing even more incongruities between the blueprint and his surroundings, Frank took out a pen, and at the top of the map, where the words “Plan of Titanic” were written, he crossed it out and wrote “Plan of Olympic.” He would have to find the room himself, he surmised, but that was hardly a bother. He would have the opportunity to get to know this new oceanliner.

 

Titanic map, showing the location where Frank Browne drew in his room.

Frank Browne penciled in the location of his room on the map of Olympic that he had been given. Photo via Youtube.

After he had finally found his room, and drawn its location onto his map, he sent a letter of introduction to the ship’s Head Purser, Hugh McElroy. McElroy met with Frank and introduced him to Captain Smith. The men were immediately taken by the Frank’s charm and gave him the run of the ship, allowing him into areas that no other passenger, first class or otherwise, would have ever been allowed.

 

Frank spent the day photographing the ship and its occupants.

A man and woman pose on the deck of Titanic.

First class passengers enjoying Titanic’s boat deck. Photo via.

First class couples enjoying the boat deck.

Robert Douglas Spedden playing with a top on Titanic's deck as other men watch.

Robert Douglas Spedden, playing with a top on Titanic’s deck. Photo via Imgur.

Robert Douglass Spedden playing with a top.

Thomas McCawley, Titanic's fitness instructor, demonstrates the brand new rowing machine to Frank Browne.

Thomas McCawley, Titanic’s fitness instructor, demonstrates the brand new rowing machine to Frank Browne. Photo via AwesomeStories.

Thomas McCawley demonstrating the rowing machine in the ship’s gym.

 

At dinner in the first class dining room that evening, he made the acquaintance of a wealthy American couple. He began telling them of his fortune in receiving a ticket with passage to Queenstown. He explained his passion for photography, and remarked that he was having a marvelous time aboard this new oceanliner.

A busy first class dining hall on Titanic.

A busy first class dining hall on Titanic. Photo by Frank Browne via.

The couple found themselves enjoying Frank’s company so much, that they offered to pay for his passage to New York in order to spend more time with him. Frank was delighted by this news, and he immediately took his new friends down to the Marconi wireless room. He asked Jack Phillips to send a telegram to his Jesuit superior, asking permission to say aboard the ship. At this time, he snapped the only known photo of Titanic’s Marconi room.

 

Jack Phillips at work in Titanic's Marconi Room.

Jack Phillips at work in Titanic’s Marconi Room. This is the only known photo of this room. Photo via HF.ro.

Father Browne continued to enjoy the rest of his time aboard Titanic. He took dozens of photographs during his two day journey to France and Ireland, focusing mostly on the ship’s crew and passengers.

When they arrived in Queenstown on April 11th, a response from his superior was waiting for him. It said, quite simply “GET OFF THAT SHIP.”

He was disappointed, certainly, but he had received his orders, and that was that.

He gathered his belongings and waited patiently on deck for the tender to take him onto the port at Queenstown, snapping photographs of the people waiting on the shore, of the mail being transferred onto the ship and of the tender ferrying passengers to and from Titanic. As he made his way down the gangway onto the tender boat, he passed by Hugh McElroy, and said “Goodbye, I’ll give you copies of my photos when you come again. Pleasant voyage.” McElroy would never have the privilege of seeing these photos.

 

A crowd waits in the port at Queenstown to board Titanic.

Titanic passengers wait to board in Queenstown. Photo via.

Bags of mail being loaded onto Titanic.

Bags of mail being loaded onto Titanic. Photo via TIME.

Because the dock in Queenstown was too small for Titanic, passengers were ferried onto the ship by a tender boat.

Because the dock in Queenstown was too small for Titanic, passengers were ferried onto the ship by a tender boat. Photo via AwesomeStories.

When he had arrived on land, Father Browne snapped the last photograph ever taken of Titanic. 

The last known photo of Titanic as she left Queenstown. The ship is on the horizon, making its way away from land.

The last known photo of Titanic as she left Queenstown. Photo via.

Browne returned home to continue his studies, and learned of the loss of Titanic a few days later. The photographs he had taken, knowing they were an important part of preserving the ship’s history, were more vitally important than ever.

He sold the rights to his photos to a number of newspapers and news cartels, but kept the negative images. These photos were printed in newspapers all over the world, and there’s a solid chance that, if you’ve ever seen a photo from Titanic, you’ve seen a piece of his work.

He spent the next few years touring the country, giving speeches about Titanic, and eventually received a letter from White Star Line, which said “Dear sir, We shall appreciate it if in any lectures you deliver, you will abstain from any reference to the loss of the Titanic, as you will easily understand that we do not wish the memory of this calamity to be perpetuated.”

Father Frank Browne gave speeches about the loss of Titanic for the rest of his life.

He also continued to pursue his life’s work as a Jesuit priest, and in 1916, he was sent to join the Irish Guards as a chaplain for WWI. He took many photographs in his time in mainland Europe, documenting the daily realities that soldiers faced. He returned home after the war, the mostly highly decorated chaplain in Ireland.

Poor health took him to Australia, in search of warmer weather, and during this trip, he photographed daily life on farms and cattle stations. He later returned home by way of Ceylon, Aden, Suez, Saloniki, Naples, Toulon, Gibraltar, Algeciras, and Lisbon, taking pictures at every single stop.

During his lifetime, Father Browne took over 42,000 photos. For the rest of his life, he kept the telegram from his superior, “GET OFF THAT SHIP” in his wallet, saying “it was the only time that holy obedience ever saved a man’s life.”

He died in Dublin in 1960, when he was 80 years old. He was buried in Glasnerin Cemetery.

It wasn’t until 1985 that his photographs were seen once again. They had been stowed away in a large trunk, in the basement of a Jesuit house in Donnebrook. When the trunk was opened, and it was revealed how many photos were actually inside, the London Sunday Times dubbed it the photographic equivalent of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Father Frank Browne’s photography has gone down in history, if not his name. He alone is responsible for giving later generations a look into the splendor and majesty of Titanic. His curiosity and his love for the world around him have provided millions of people the ability to connect more intimately with the people who traveled on the ship. Because of him, we can put a face to the names. Because of him, we can put together a story. For that, I’m grateful.


Omitted is a Titanic history podcast, written, produced, and edited by Corey Constable. Be sure to follow along on Instagram and Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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