A Night to Remember: Titanic Passenger Major Peuchen
Robert Ayres as Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, resourceful Canadian industrialist and yachtsman
North Atlantic Ocean, April 1912
Film: A Night to Remember
Release Date: July 3, 1958
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Costume Designer: Yvonne Caffin
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
111 years ago tonight, around 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 12, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. The ship would sink in less than three hours, taking more than 1,500 to their death and leaving just over 700 survivors in open boats scattered across the sea, waiting for rescue.
“Women and children first” had the been the standing order of survival as lifeboats were loaded and lowered, first cautiously and then with increasing alarm as those aboard realized the ship’s desperate condition. Unfortunately, there was only room in the lifeboats for about half of those aboard and a fatal combination of initial trepidation among the passengers and restrictive attitudes by some officers responsible loading the boats resulted in most not being filled to capacity.
Nearly half of the survivors were men, though this still translated to only about 20% of the male passengers and crew that had been aboard the liner. One of these men was Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, a chemical manufacturer and militia major from Toronto who was three days shy of his 53rd birthday as he sat shivering in lifeboat number 6.
Major Peuchen was making his 40th transatlantic voyage when Titanic struck the iceberg, and his resourceful nature may have resulted in his survival even if he hadn’t been selected to enter lifeboat number 6, perhaps having been among the likes of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, junior wireless operator Harold Bride, and fellow passenger and adventurer Archibald Gracie to have climbed atop the overturned collapsible lifeboat B as the ship sunk. However, Peuchen would have the distinction of being the sole adult male passenger that was allowed into a lifeboat by Lightoller, whose obsession with “women and children only” resulted in launching many port-side lifeboats far from full.
Of course, Peuchen didn’t just take a seat in the boat like the women and children that Lightoller had allowed. In one of the many dramatic stories from the sinking, boat no. 6 was about halfway down the side of the ship when Molly Brown—yes, that Molly Brown—realized that they were short of seamen in the boat, save for Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who had been steering Titanic when it struck the iceberg and whose character Mrs. Brown and others would be justified to question. Lightoller scanned the deck in search of hands to help man the boat, at which point Peuchen—who had sailed across the Atlantic in his own yacht and served in leadership positions of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club—stepped forward, cautiously offering his services as a yachtsman.
“If you’re sailor enough to get out on that fall, you can go down,” Lightoller replied, according to Walter Lord’s well-researched book A Night to Remember, which inspired the film of the same name. After the possible intervention of Captain E.J. Smith, brainstorming that Peuchen go down and break a window to shorten the distance of his entry to the boat, Peuchen did as Lightoller initially instructed, swinging himself out onto the boat’s forward fall and deftly climbing down to join the less-than-two dozen occupants of lifeboat number 6, full to only about one-third of its total capacity. In the process, he lost his wallet, which would be ultimately recovered from the wreck site in 1987 with Peuchen’s calling card, tickets, and travelers’ checks generally intact!
Once aboard the boat, Peuchen took his place aside lookout Frederick Fleet, who had been the first to spot the iceberg and alert the bridge nearly two hours earlier. Peuchen would soon run afoul of Quartermaster Hichens, whom Don Lynch proposes in Titanic: An Illustrated History “seemed threatened by Peuchen’s military bearing and knowledge of boats,” frequently reasserting his authority and insistence that the boat be pulled as far from the sinking vessel as possible to avoid any potential suction… and avoid the responsibility of saving additional survivors.
Indeed, no less than Captain Smith had specifically instructed that Hichens keep boat 6 nearby to pick up survivors, but Hichens flatly refused and was frequently given to grim and tactless tirades, particularly insensitive given the number of women in the boat who had just left their doomed husbands and loved ones aboard the sinking ship. Peuchen himself received some scorn in his native Canada, not just for surviving the disaster but also for not taking a firmer stand against Hichens, though it has also been suggested in Peuchen’s defense that he would naturally want to avoid any actions considered potentially mutinous.
Despite rumors to the contrary and the cultural prejudice against male survivors, Peuchen received his scheduled promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Queens’ Own Rifles just a month after Titanic sank. When World War I broke out, he retired from his profitable position as president of Standard Chemical to command the Home Battalion of the Queen’s Own Rifles. The stigma of survivorship followed Peuchen after both the sinking and the war, and—after a series of some poor investments through the ’20s—Peuchen died at his Toronto home on December 7, 1929.
“‘They told me of the navigation laws restricting men from the boats when women and children were on board,’ Margaret wrote. ‘I replied that such must have been the ancient law, and now that equal rights existed… their conscience on that score should be relieved,” recounts author Kristen Iversen in the biography Molly Brown, describing Mrs. Brown’s non-judgmental attitude toward Peuchen and his fellow male survivors. Lightoller also recounted in his memoir Titanic and Other Ships that he ordered Peuchen to board lifeboat 6, and that “he did, and has been very unfairly critized for carrying out what was a direct order.”
Peuchen’s actions the evening of the sinking would be prominently depicted in the 1958 film A Night to Remember, considered to be one of the most accurate dramatizations of the Titanic disaster. (Of course, this is overlooking some understandable technical inaccuracies, including the fact that the ship broke apart while sinking—the contemporary testimony provided by Lightoller, Peuchen, and scores of others was that Titanic had sunk intact, consisted with the informed written accounts of survivors Archibald Gracie and Lawrence Beesley, and this was considered the prevailing wisdom until Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the wreck proved otherwise.)
In A Night to Remember, Peuchen was portrayed by English actor Robert Ayres, a familiar face of ’50s cinema and ’60s television. The character can also be briefly spotted in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, by an uncredited actor more closely resembling the actual Peuchen, though far less of the character’s story is presented in the finished film.
What’d He Wear?
Major Arthur Peuchen looked at the tin box on the table in C-104. Inside were 200,000 dollars in bonds, 100,000 dollars in preferred stock. He thought a good deal about it as he took off his dinner jacket, put on two suits of long underwear and some heavy clothes. … He slammed the door, leaving behind the tin box on the table. In another minute he was back. Quickly he picked up a good-luck pin and three oranges. As he left for the last time, the tin box was still on the table.
— Walter Lord, A Night to Remember, Chapter III: “God Himself Could Not Sink This Ship”
Peuchen’s testimony to the U.S. Senate in the month following the disaster also includes mention of an overcoat with these “heavy clothes” but no further description, leaving the character’s wardrobe generally to the imagination of costume designers.
Echoing real-life passengers like Lawrence Beesley—and his eventual portrayal by David Warner in the 1979 made-for-TV movie S.O.S. Titanic, as featured in my most recent post—A Night to Remember‘s costume designer Yvonne Caffin dressed Robert Ayres as Peuchen in a Norfolk jacket, the hardy country garment initially developed in England for outdoor shooting.
While a classic “full” Norfolk jacket is typically characterized by a full self-belt, hefty hip pockets, and vertical box pleats, jackets lacking the latter are often classified as a “half-Norfolk” jacket. Made from a gun club check tweed, the half-Norfolk jacket worn by the film’s Peuchen has the typical full self-belt, here with a pointed end and closing through two buttons. A single vent in the back extends almost as high as the belt.
Norfolk jackets were initially designed with voluminous hip pockets to carry rifle and shotgun ammunition, and Peuchen’s half-Norfolk jacket continues this tradition with its large patch pockets that each close with a button-down rectangular flap. The single-breasted jacket is tailored with straight shoulders, roped sleeveheads, and a high three-button front. The sleeves are plain at the cuff, with no buttons or vents. The short notch lapels are finished with sporty swelled edges, and we see Peuchen affix the “good-luck pin” from his yacht club mentioned in Lord’s book to his left lapel before leaving the room.
Peuchen wears a light-colored (non-white) cotton shirt designed with a front placket and squared double (French) cuffs that he fastens with narrow bar-shaped two-sided cuff links. He also attaches a stiff white club collar that allows him to neatly wear a very straight and narrow silk bow-tie patterned with white pin-dots. To keep warm, he layers a light-colored long-sleeved V-neck sweater with ribbed cuffs under the Norfolk jacket.
Rather than traditional trousers, Peuchen’s Norfolk suit has matching breeches, specifically the type of full-fitting knickerbockers known as “plus-twos” as they extend about two inches beyond the knees, where they would be fastened tightly under the ribbed tops of Peuchen’s light-colored socks. His dark cap-toe derby shoes are likely brown leather, consistent with the outfit’s country associations.
Peuchen completes his attire with a medium-colored pinwale corduroy flat cap, the cloth and style harmonizing with the country associations of his other attire. A signet ring shines from his left pinky finger.
Understandably, Peuchen also pulls on a life vest when joining his fellow passengers topside during the sinking. Covered in a hardy white linen, these life vests comprised of six cork-filled rectangles on each side—front and back—laced together on the right and left sides. Though Titanic only had room in her lifeboats for a total of 1,178, the ship at least carried more than 3,500 of these life vests, made for White Star Line by the Barking-based manufacturer Fosbery and Co.
How to Get the Look
A Night to Remember presents Major Peuchen dressed for a proper day of Edwardian era sport shooting as he joins his fellow passengers evacuating the sinking Titanic, though the heavy cloth and full coverage of his half-Norfolk suit would have likely provided him both warmth and a wide range of movement while operating the oars in his lifeboat.
- Gun club check tweed Norfolk suit:
- Single-breasted half-Norfolk jacket with high three-button front, two-button pointed self-belt, patch hip pockets (with button-down flaps), plain cuffs, and single vent
- “Plus-two” knickerbocker breeches
- Light-colored cotton shirt with detachable stiff club collar, front placket, and squared double/French cuffs
- Dark silk pin-dot straight and narrow bow tie
- Light-colored wool V-neck long-sleeved sweater
- Dark brown leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Light-colored knee-high socks with ribbed tops
- Medium-colored pinwale corduroy flat cap
- Signet pinky ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie as well as Walter Lord’s extensively researched book that provided much of the source material.
And please don’t fall for the much-debunked theory that the Titanic was switched out for her sister ship, the Olympic (or, ahem, the Omplec), which has been making the rounds on TikTok!