Willie Mew

I’ve been collecting Southampton-related postcards for some time now and I recently saw one that immediately caught my eye. The front of the postcard itself was striking enough, but it was the address on the back that instantly stood out to me. I recognised this address because I had plotted it on my interactive Titanic Crew Map, which shows the Titanic crew members who either lived or lodged in Southampton prior to the liner’s fateful voyage. I purchased the postcard and began investigating the story behind it. I hope you find the story as interesting as I did.

'Courage et brutalité'

‘Courage et brutalité’

The postcard itself is an eye-catching piece of French propaganda and it was made by the postcard printing firm of the photographer Ernest Louis Désiré le Deley, who was based on Boulevard de Sébastopol in Paris. ‘Courage et brutalité’ shows the courageous nurse defending the French soldier from the supposed brutality of the Germans.

This postcard was picked up by a British soldier whilst he was on active service in France during the First World War. He decided to use the postcard to write a message to his son, who was back at home in the Bitterne Park area of Southampton.

Noting that he was on active service, his message reads:

My dear Alfie
Just a card trusting you are enjoying yourself and I hope you are a good boy and helping dear mother as much as you can
I hope I shall soon be home with you all soon give mother a kiss for me with all fond love and kisses from your loving dad’

The message.

The message.

It was addressed to Master A. Mew of Hillside, a house on Hillside Avenue in Bitterne Park. It was this address that I recognised as being on the Titanic Crew Map. However, I had not plotted a man named Mew on the map, but a man called William Henry James Slight instead. More on him later. It was the name of the recipient that gave me my first lead, and I soon found the Mew family.

The birth of Alfred ‘Alfie’ John Mew – the recipient of the postcard – was registered in the first quarter of 1906. His parents were Willie John Mew and Caroline Maud Giles and they had been married a year earlier in Bradfield, Berkshire. Caroline had been born in Tilehurst near Reading, about six miles away from Bradfield. Willie – whose name was sometimes given as William – had been born in Southampton in 1876, the son of Isaac, a shoe and boot maker, and his wife, Emma (née Kennell). In 1881, the family were living on Bugle Street in the heart of Southampton’s old town.

Willie was still living with his family on Bugle Street in 1891, but he would soon get a job and leave the family home. He married Caroline in 1905 and Alfie was born a year later, with his birth being registered in the South Stoneham district which covered a large area, mostly north and east of Southampton.

Willie’s work then took him north, away from his hometown. The family were living in Staffordshire by 1909 and in the September of that year, Willie joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants while he worked as a cook on the London and North Western Railway. The young family were living at 89 Leslie Road in Heath Town near Wolverhampton by 1911. The five-year-old Alfie had been joined by a little sister, Edna Maude, who had been born in London in 1907. Willie was still working on the railways as a dining bar cook in 1911 and that year, one of his colleagues, a dining bar attendant, was lodging with him.

By 1912, however, the Mew family had moved back to the Southampton area and Willie Mew had gone to sea. By now, they were living in the house called Hillside on Hillside Avenue in Bitterne Park. This is the address on the postcard, but it is also the address on the Titanic Crew Map.

Hillside, Hillside Avenue, Bitterne Park.

Hillside, Hillside Avenue, Bitterne Park.

William Henry James Slight was staying at Hillside when he signed on to join Titanic’s crew in April 1912, but who was he, and why was he there? Slight was born in Southampton in 1875 and in 1897 he had married Catherine ‘Kate’ Lawes. Their only child, Henry, was born in 1898. Slight was presumably at sea when the census enumerator came knocking in 1901, since Kate and the two-year-old Henry were living at 5 Gordon Avenue with her brother-in-law and two boarders. The Slight family were still at the same address ten years later, in 1911. Henry was now twelve years old and there were three boarders supporting the family’s income. Sadly, within a year of the 1911 census, Kate Slight died at the young age of thirty-five. Henry was only thirteen when his mother died. The 1911 census was taken in April and almost exactly one year later, William Slight was staying at Hillside.

If we look at the Particulars of Engagement for Titanic, we can see the men and women who signed on to join the ship’s crew before the maiden voyage. They would have signed on in Southampton and with their signature, they stated details such as their age, their address, and their previous ship. The document lists the capacity in which they would be engaged, as well as their weekly wage. We can find William Slight in this document. He signed on as a larder cook on 4 April 1912, six days before the ship was due to leave Southampton. His address is given as Hillside, Bitterne Park, but there is something very interesting above his entry. Above his name on the register is the signature of one W. J. Mew.

Was Slight friends with Mew? Is this why William Slight was staying at Hillside when he signed on to join Titanic’s crew a year later? The two men did appear to sign on together. Did Caroline Mew intend to look after Henry Slight whilst his father was away at sea? This is purely speculation; we may never know.

W. J. Mew and W. Slight, both of Hillside, on the Titanic Particulars of Engagement document. Source: Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Agreements and Crew Lists, Series III: Titanic. BT 100/259 and 100/260. The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England.

W. J. Mew and W. Slight, both of Hillside, on the Titanic Particulars of Engagement document. Source: Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Agreements and Crew Lists, Series III: Titanic. BT 100/259 and 100/260. The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England.

It is likely that Willie Mew and William Slight went together to sign on as crew and this would make sense when you consider that Slight was staying at Mew’s house at the time. Mew signed on as a sauce cook and, like Slight, he would receive a salary of £7 per month. The two men were roughly the same age and it is entirely possible that they had known each other for a while. When they both signed on as Titanic crew members, they both stated that their previous ship had been Titanic’s sister, Olympic. Perhaps they had gone to sea on Olympic together, just as they signed on to join Titanic together.

Elsewhere on the Particulars of Engagement, we can find William Slight’s brother, Harry. He gave his address as 48 Bellevue Street and signed on as a third class steward, also on 4 April 1912. The brothers must have been pleased to secure employment on the world’s newest and largest ocean liner at a time when many people were struggling to find work. Harry Slight had married Alice Agnes Kinchenton in 1902 and in 1911 he must have been away at sea, because his wife and two young children were living at 42 Bellevue Street and he was absent.

It is likely that Willie Mew and William Slight were friends and, although this is merely speculation, it is possible that Caroline Mew intended to look after Henry Slight whilst his father was away at sea with her husband. This would explain why William Slight was staying at Hillside. Alternatively, Henry may have gone to stay with his aunt, Alice, or other family members, and there may not have been enough space for William to stay. This is, of course, all speculation.

We may not know why William Slight was staying at Hillside, but we do know that on 4 April 1912, Willie Mew and William Slight went together to join Titanic as crew members. However, something must have happened between signing on and actually joining the ship because when Titanic departed Southampton for the first and last time on 10 April 1912, Willie Mew was not on board. Again, we do not know why. Whatever made him fail to join probably ended up saving his life. The sinking had a profound and devastating impact on Southampton. Hundreds of local men left their hometown on that April morning, never to return. Their widows and children were left behind to face not just the emotional trauma of losing a loved one, but also the financial hardship that the loss of a breadwinner would undoubtedly cause.

Willie and Caroline Mew may have been at home when they heard the news that Titanic had struck an iceberg four days after leaving Southampton. It is not known where Henry Slight was when he heard the news. Aged just thirteen, he would still have been mourning the loss of his mother in early 1912 when the news reached him that Titanic, the ship his father was working on, had been lost.

In the days after the sinking, families gathered outside the White Star Line office on Canute Road and anxiously waited for news on loved ones. As names of survivors filtered through, White Star Line staff scribbled them on pieces of paper stuck to boards outside, and the families stood in the road and waited. William Slight’s name would not be written on the paper. It would not have been long before Henry realised that his father was not coming home. We can only imagine the grief that this young boy would have been forced to endure at this time, having lost both his mother and his father in a matter of months.

Families waiting for news outside the White Star Line offices on Canute Road in the days after the sinking. The company’s staff would write the names of survivors on sheets of paper outside as news filtered back to Southampton. The former White Star Line building is still there (now Canute Chambers), and the building in the background of this image next to it is now the Admiral Sir Lucius Curtis pub. Image source unknown, please contact me if you own this image.

William Slight’s brother, Harry, had also been on board Titanic. He too perished. The brothers were lost at sea and their bodies were never recovered. According to the British Board of Trade report, a total of 1,514 people died when Titanic sank on 15 April 1912. 720 crew members had given a Southampton address before they embarked and 542 of them died. This means that over one-third of those who perished in the disaster were crew members who gave a Southampton address before the voyage. Hundreds of wives became widows overnight, many children became orphans, and countless families were forced to mourn the loss of loved ones. The Slight family mourned the loss of two of its men. Other families faced similar situations. One woman in Northam lost her husband and her son. There are hundreds of stories like this.

However, Willie Mew, for whatever reason, did not board Titanic. Whatever made him not join the ship probably saved his life.

Two years and three months after the sinking, Britain declared war on Germany. Willie Mew, who was now around the age of thirty-eight, decided to serve his country. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and by 16 December 1914, he was in France. He would have experienced being away from his family before due to the time he had spent at sea, but it must have been a strange Christmas for the Mew family, knowing that Willie was out there, somewhere, in a theatre of war.

At some point during the conflict, Willie picked up the postcard and penned the note to his son. It has no postmark, so we cannot be sure of the date, and the lack of stamp indicates that it was not sent as an individual item through the postal service. Perhaps Willie bundled the postcard in an envelope with a letter to his wife?

It is not known where in France Willie Mew served, or in what capacity he carried out his duties with the Royal Army Medical Corps. This image was taken in France on 23 March 1918 and shows men of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Image © IWM Q 11569 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247154

It is not known where exactly in France Willie Mew served, or in what capacity he carried out his duties with the Royal Army Medical Corps. For illustration purposes, this image was taken in France on 23 March 1918 and shows men of the Royal Army Medical Corps. © IWM Q 11569 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247154

Thankfully, Willie survived the First World War and he would have returned home to Caroline, Alfie, and Edna. He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.

Willie soon returned to sea; his name can be found as a crew member on RMS Cedric in 1919. He was working on board as a chef, and returned to Liverpool from New York in the October of that year. He was still listed as the resident of Hillside on Hillside Avenue in the 1920 and 1925 street directories, but by the 1931-1932 directory, the Mew family had moved out.

Willie died at the Royal South Hants Hospital in Southampton on 16 March 1936. The following appeared in the 21 March edition of the Hampshire Advertiser: ‘MEW – On March 16th, very suddenly at R. S. H. Hospital, William, beloved husband of Caroline Mew, of 57, Bullar-road, Bitterne Park, Southampton, aged 59 years.’

Caroline, now a widow, was still living at 57 Bullar Road in 1939. She was living with her daughter, Edna, who would marry Frederick Arthur Whitford, a merchant seaman, in early 1940. Also residing at this address was an eighteen-year-old apprentice aircraft engineer called William Armstrong. Armstrong may have been employed at the Supermarine works at Woolston, where the Spitfire was designed and first built. The factory was about two miles away, on the same side of the River Itchen as the house on Bullar Road. The factory would be targeted by the Luftwaffe and bombed in September 1940.

Alfred John Mew, the recipient of the postcard that sparked this research, had married Louisa Georgina Maud Johnson in Southampton in 1938. In 1939, he was living with his mother-in-law on Adelaide Road in the St Denys area. At this time, he was working as a postman (storekeeper) and during the Second World War he would volunteer for the St John Ambulance Brigade. On the 1939 register, his wife’s name is listed below him, but this has been crossed out for some reason, and her name can be found again later in the document.

Some time after 1939, Caroline Mew moved to Reading. She died there – whilst residing at 42 Zinzan Street – in 1959. She was buried on 13 April 1959 at St Michael’s Church in Tilehurst, the very church where she had been baptised some seventy-six years earlier.

This is where I will end my story about the Mew family. There are 720 Titanic crew members represented on the Titanic Crew Map who were on board that night, and 542 of them died. William and Harry Slight were two of them. Willie Mew, for whatever reason, had a lucky escape. The odds would not have been in his favour had he joined the ship and, had he been on board, he may well have perished, just like his friend and so many others who had lived in Southampton in 1912.

He had then served his country in France during the First World War and made it through unscathed, returning home to his family afterwards. Willie Mew witnessed two events that devastated Southampton. The loss of Titanic created hundreds of widows in 1912 and then eight years later, in 1920, the Southampton Cenotaph was unveiled. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Cenotaph is a striking memorial to those who died during the First World War and by 1922, there were 1,997 names inscribed on the stone. 1,997 local men and women who gave their lives and their loss would have been keenly felt by their families in Southampton and beyond. Willie Mew would not live to see the Second World War – a conflict that added more names to the Southampton Cenotaph – but Caroline and their children, Alfred and Edna, may well have witnessed the savage destruction the Blitz brought to Southampton in that dark winter of 1940.

Thanks to the golden age of the ocean liner, various dock expansions, and many other successful industries, Southampton did prosper in the first half of the twentieth century. However, the town also suffered the loss of thousands of men and women as a result of a tragic sinking and two long and terrible wars. The Mew family would not have been the only ones to witness the devastating effects that Titanic’s loss and total war had on Southampton, but looking at their connection provides another human perspective to these events.




Birth, Marriage, Death & Parish Records, Findmypast.co.uk

Census records, Findmypast.co.uk

Newspapers, various, Findmypast.co.uk

Britain, Merchant Seamen, 1918-1941, The National Archives and Findmypast.co.uk


The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; War Office and Air Ministry: Service Medal and Award Rolls, First World War. WO329; Ref: 2096

Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Agreements and Crew Lists, Series III: Titanic. BT 100/259 and 100/260. The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England

Western Front Association; London, England; WWI Pension Record Cards and Ledgers; Reference: 135/0644/MET-MID

The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 658; Item: 2

Britain, Trade Union Membership Registers, MSS.127/AS/2/3/19, Findmypast.co.uk