“Titanic’s unsinkable stoker”


That’s the title of a 2012 BBC article that I came across while researching information for a book I’m writing.  John Priest was either the unluckiest stoker afloat, or the luckiest – I’m not sure which!  Here’s an excerpt.

Priest was one of the lucky few to find a job on Titanic as it prepared for its maiden voyage across the Atlantic [in 1912]. He was perhaps fortunate to have already served on Titanic’s sister ship Olympic and was a fireman on board when it was holed below the waterline in a collision with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke in 1911.

The Olympic crash wasn’t Priest’s first brush with disaster. He had previously worked aboard a ship called the Asturias that was badly damaged in a collision on its maiden voyage.

. . .

When Titanic hit an iceberg just before midnight on Sunday 14 April 1912, many of the passengers and crew were unaware that anything was amiss until the engines stopped. In the very bowels of the ship, Priest was off duty and resting between shifts.

The odds against his survival were steep, due to his both his physical and social position within the ship. The route to the deck took him and other members of the black gang up through a maze of gangways and corridors before they could reach the deck. By the time they emerged into the freezing night air, most of the lifeboats had already gone.

Those firemen who survived – 44 in all – swam for their lives through water just marginally warmer than freezing, wearing only the shorts and vests they worked in. Small wonder that Priest suffered frostbite.

. . .

[In World War I] Priest was among those who went to war, serving aboard the armed merchant vessel Alcantara. In February 1916, Alcantara intercepted the German raider Grief, which was disguised a Norwegian ship. As Alcantara approached, Grief opened fire. There was a short, ferocious, close-range battle, at the end of which both ships were sunk.

More than 70 of Priest’s shipmates were killed and he only narrowly escaped, with shrapnel wounds.

When he returned to work, it was aboard Britannic, Titanic’s other – even bigger – sister, which was serving as a hospital ship ferrying wounded soldiers back to Britain through the Mediterranean … On 21 November 1916, the great ship struck a mine and sank near the Greek island of Kea. Once again, he emerged from the very depths of a foundering ship alive.

Indeed, the majority of the ship’s crew were evacuated safely, but two of the lifeboats were lowered into the sea too early and were sucked into the ship’s still turning propellers, killing 30 men. Among those pulled into the blades was Archie, who somehow survived.

. . .

After Britannic, Priest would achieve one final escape from a sinking ship. On 17 April 1917, he was a fireman aboard the hospital ship Donegal when it was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He suffered a head injury and would not serve again during World War One.

. . .

Priest’s is an amazing story of human endurance. He worked his entire life in extraordinary conditions in the belly of the ship, where fires and explosions were common. He was often at the very worst part of a vessel from which to escape and yet he survived an astonishing litany of torpedoes, mines, icebergs and collisions to live out his days spinning tales in the pubs of Southampton.

There’s more at the link.

Priest claimed later that “men refused to sail with him because he brought bad luck”.  With a track record like that, I can’t blame them!  None of it was his fault, of course, but when a sailor gets a reputation as a “Jonah” slung around his neck, it’s almost impossible to shake it off – even today.  It’s like a military pilot who earns the nickname “Magnet Ass” because his aircraft gets hit so often by anti-aircraft fire:  once he gets that reputation, there are those who’ll do anything to avoid flying with him.



  1. I don't consider myself to be superstitious, but even I probably would have had second thoughts about boarding a ship that he was on, at least after he was on a sinking ship for the third time.

  2. His war history should really be viewed separately. I've encountered a fair number of stories of crew and passengers surviving multiple sinkings during wars. Would be interesting if anyone had collected stories and statistics of war and non-war survivors of this category. Wartime stories included survivors that had the vessels that plucked them from the water also being sunk before they reached land. Vague recollection that a few had 3 sink under them before reaching safety.

    Of course, not all survived the 2nd or 3rd time their ship went to the bottom. In some cases, POW's enroute to other camps had ships sunk by their own forces. The Japanese made little effort to retrieve this category of survivor. The Germans generally did better.

  3. When I was in the Marshall Islands, I crewed on two sailboats which sank three times. After that, no skipper would have me on board – until I (and my crew) won a yacht club regatta with a rental boat.

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