Father Browne on Titanic

If it had not been for an intransigent Jesuit Provincial, our understanding of life abroad the doomed oceanliner would have been all the poorer. 

In James Cameron’s Titanic, there was a scene of a child and his father playing with a spinning top on the promenade as the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio sneaks onto the first class deck. That small innocent scene of domestic bliss Cameron copied directly from a photograph actually taken abroad the Titanic of 6-year-old Robert Douglas Spedden and his father Frederic.

The photo was taken by one Jesuit novitiate named Francis Browne, later better known as Father Browne. Browne was an enthusiastic amateur photographer (who had received his first camera from the same uncle who later bought him his ticket for the Titanic trip). He sailed with the ship for the first leg of its journey from Southampton, England to Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. Although a wealthy family he befriended while on the ship asked him to continue the journey all the way to New York, his superior at Queenstown sent him a laconic, but providential, telegram requesting him to disembark and return home.

Therefore, Browne became one of only eight people who disembarked from Titanic. Back to Queenstown, he carried back around 1,000 photographs taken between April 10th and April 12th 1912 on and around the ship. They were the only photographs taken onboard ‘Titanic’. His photos were later forgotten but eventually rediscovered by another priest and were used as references during the set design process for the film Titanic.

Cameron also owed Browne for his photo of the ship’s Marconi Room, which he had taken when he was sending his clerical superior the Marconigram request to travel to New York. The photo was the only picture to be taken of the room – and in any Titanic films since, the Marconi room had been based it on Browne’s partially exposed photograph. Browne also took the last known photograph of Captain Edward Smith.

After the disaster, the photos were instantly featured in many newspapers, and Browne himself became a minor celebrity. As for the Speddens, their terrible fate continued. Although both survived the sinking, Robert was ran over by a car only six months later, and his father drowned in his own dimming pool just a few years later the father.

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