S.O.S. Titanic: David Warner’s Tweed Norfolk Jacket as Lawrence Beesley
David Warner as Lawrence Beesley, serious and sensitive schoolteacher
North Atlantic Ocean, April 1912
Film: S.O.S. Titanic
Air Date: September 23, 1979
Director: William Hale
Costume Designer: Barbara Lane
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Nearly twenty years before he chased Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet through the flooding corridors of the sinking ship, the late David Warner made his first foray in Titanic cinematic lore in S.O.S. Titanic, a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in September 1979.
A far cry from the cynical, pistol-packing Spicer Lovejoy, Warner starred as Lawrence Beesley, a real-life passenger who sailed on RMS Titanic during her fateful maiden voyage 111 years ago this week in April 1912.
Despite some of S.O.S. Titanic‘s shortcomings, Warner thoughtfully portrays Beesley true to life, as an intelligent science teacher who spent much of the voyage reading. In fact, Beesley had been engrossed in a book in his cabin, D-56, when Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 PM on the night of Sunday, April 14. (It should be noted that the sinking was decidedly not on April 12, which is the date S.O.S. Titanic curiously provides in a subtitle that was likely an unfortunate typographical error not corrected before the movie’s completion.)
After a noncommittal answer from a steward about the distress and then noticing the ship’s list for himself, Beesley loaded his pockets with books and made his way to the boat deck. Fortune found Beesley on the ship’s starboard side, where First Officer William Murdoch was loading lifeboats with the philosophy of “women and children first” as opposed to Second Officer Charles Lightoller’s port side command of “women and children only!” Around 1:25 AM, lifeboat number 13 was being lowered down the side, nearly filled to its capacity of 65, though a crewman in the boat noticed Beesley standing nearby and offered him the opportunity to jump into the boat.
Beesley may have regretted the decision shortly after, as lifeboat number 13 nearly met its own peril as the ship’s tilt positioned lifeboat number 15 almost directly above it as it too was being lowered, a moment that would briefly be depicted in James Cameron’s Titanic as well. Before lifeboat number 15 would have landed atop the occupants of boat 13—which would have inevitably resulted in disaster for the nearly 140 people occupying both boats—lead stoker Frederick Barrett managed to cut the falls that allowed boat 13 to drift free from the ship.
Beesley and his 63 fellow occupants of lifeboat 13 then watched in despair for the next hour as Titanic continued to founder, finally breaking apart and sinking beneath the waves at 2:20 AM in the early hours of Monday, April 15, taking approximately 1,500 passengers and crew to their deaths as the remaining 700-odd survivors awaited the arrival of the RMS Carpathia to rescue them.
Following the disaster, the literary-minded Beesley was quick to pen his own book detailing the disaster—The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons—released within six weeks of the sinking and written in his characteristic fact-oriented style that elevated it to join fellow survivor Archibald Gracie’s book as one of the most authoritative accounts of the sinking for decades. His intelligence and observational skills made him a valuable subject for interviews about Titanic. The now-octogenarian Beesley served as a consultant during the production of A Night to Remember in 1958, though he took his participation a level too far by gatecrashing the set and attempting to “go down with” the sinking model ship. (Among other reasons, director Roy Ward Baker protested Beesley’s appearance on set as he wasn’t a union actor!)
Lawrence Beelsey died on Valentine’s Day 1967 at the age of 89. Despite his prominence among Titanic historians, Beesley was only prominently portrayed on screen in S.O.S. Titanic, during which we follow his class-focused conversations and flirtation with fellow second-class passenger Leigh Goodwin (Susan Saint James), one of the film’s few composite characters, based on two women whom Beesley had been acquainted with aboard the ship.
What’d He Wear?
“I dressed in a Norfolk jacket and trousers,” Lawrence Beesley recounted in his account of the sinking, initially dressing to investigate the cause of the commotion before returning to D-56, where “I placed the two books I was reading in the side pockets of my Norfolk jacket, picked up my lifebelt (curiously enough, I had taken it down for the first time that night from the wardrobe when I first retired to my cabin), and my dressing-gown, and walked upstairs tying on the lifebelt.”
Beesley gave no additional description of his jacket, but contemporary photography from his return voyage on the RMS Laconia shows a belted four-button jacket with voluminous side pockets (no doubt large enough to hold Beesley’s books) but lacking the characteristic pleated strips of a Norfolk jacket, thus qualifying his garment as a “half-Norfolk jacket”.
Between a barely disguised Queen Mary filling in for Titanic and some curious facial hair decisions (e.g., David Janssen’s fully bearded John Jacob Astor IV!), S.O.S. Titanic offers a refreshing dose of reality-informed accuracy in that David Warner’s costume as Beesley reflects how his real-life counterpart dressed during the voyage and sinking.
Given the garment’s sporting origins, true Norfolk jackets are invariably made of woolen tweed, a coarse and rugged cloth with insular properties that would have kept Beesley warm in an open lifeboat sailing through below-freezing ocean. Norfolk jackets are also typically worn in the country, where brown was conventionally worn under English tradition during the Edwardian era, so it’s historically informed that Warner’s screen-worn tweed is woven in a brown-and-cream tic-check, arranged by brown vertical stripes.
This Cheviot tweed’s complex weave almost disguises the fact that it indeed features the vertical sewn-down box pleats on each side of the jacket that characterize a “full” Norfolk jacket. As these pleats run over the chest, the jacket has no breast pocket but still has hip pockets; in fact, Riccardo Villarosa and Giulano Angeli explains in The Elegant Man that these are “designed to support the weight of cartridges in the pockets,” related to the Norfolk jacket’s original purpose as a shooting garment. The patch pockets on Warner’s Norfolk jacket are covered with pointed flaps that each close through a single button.
Warner’s single-breasted Norfolk jacket has well-padded shoulders, a single vent, notch lapels, and a high-fastening four-button front with the lowest button aligned with the self-belt around the waist. The sleeves are finished without any cuff buttons.
During the sinking, Beesley is shown to layer the Norfolk jacket over a dark brown woolen cardigan sweater, with a button-up front that rises nearly as high as his jacket.
With all of his shipboard attire—which also includes a black three-piece suit and a gray herringbone tweed suit—Beesley wears a white cotton shirt with a front placket, double (French) cuffs, and a detachable stiff white club collar, fastened to his neckband with a gold stud.
His ties echo the brown tones in his jacket. His first tie is black with rust-brown bar stripes in the traditionally English “uphill” direction.
For another day spent on deck with Leigh, Beesley wears a woolen knit tie in a tan, black, and rust micro houndstooth check.
Beesley balances the jacket with dark brown woolen trousers finished with plain-hemmed bottoms that break high over his black leather Chelsea boots. This slip-on ankle boot originated during the Victorian era when shoemaker Joseph Sparkes Hall designed them for the queen. Characterized by their elastic side gussets, the style became a reigning men’s footwear staple for the better part of a century through the start of World War I, though the Chelsea boot’s popularity would be revived in the 1950s and ’60s.
Beesley protects himself against the cold in blue knitted outerwear accessories, including a scarf and fingerless gloves in a vivid shade of royal blue.
As he describes in his book and would later be pictured wearing aboard Carpathia after their rescue, Beesley had brought his gold paisley robe dressing gown, with a light fawn-colored quilted shawl collar and cuffs that continues through the lining.
“Dressing gown, what you wanna bring that for?” asks the crewman who helps Beesley into lifeboat 13, prompting Beesley to respond “I don’t know…” with a sheepish laugh.
How to Get the Look
While tweed Norfolk jackets may be more associated with the sporting pursuits of the English countryside, Titanic passengers like Lawrence Beesley may have appreciated their warmth whether on deck or braving the open air of a lifeboat in the below-freezing sea.
- Brown-and-cream tick-checked striped Cheviot tweed single-breasted 4-button Norfolk jacket with box pleats, self-belt, patch hip pockets (with button-down pointed flaps), and single vent
- White cotton shirt with detachable stiff club collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Black-and-brown patterned tie
- Dark-brown wool cardigan sweater
- Dark-brown wool trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather Chelsea boots
- Blue knitted scarf
- Royal-blue knitted fingerless gloves
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie as well as Beesley’s contemporary account of the sinking, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic.
All the arrogance of class isn’t at the very top, you see.