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Leslie Williams

The sports stars who were on the Titanic

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the passenger liner which sunk in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

Some 1,514 people out of 2,224 on board died when the ship went down on 15 April 1912, carrying a mixture of aristocracy and ordinary folk looking to make a new life in America.

All those facts are well known. What is less well known is that among the passengers on that fateful voyage were nine of the world’s best sportsmen. Here are their stories.

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Richard Norris Williams

The 21-year-old Williams was a promising tennis player who was travelling first class with his father, Charles, on the voyage. Williams came through a series of hair-raising scrapes to make it out alive: he was threatened with arrest by a Star Lines steward for breaking down a door to rescue a fellow passenger (a scene borrowed in James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ movie), narrowly avoided the collapsing chimney stack of the sinking boat (which killed his father and several other people near him) before being washed overboard by a huge wave. He then managed to swim to one of the lifeboats, but was forced to cling to the side for several hours before he could get aboard.

After his rescue by the Carpathia, he was still not out of trouble: doctors told him that his injuries were so severe that they would have to amputate both his legs. Williams refused, recovered anyway, and two years later won the first of his two US Open titles. He also went on to win the Wimbledon doubles title in 1920 and the Olympic mixed doubles gold in 1924 (despite having a sprained ankle) as well as two Davis Cup victories. He died in 1968, aged 77.

Karl Howell Behr

Behr was 27 and already a US Davis Cup veteran and Wimbledon doubles runner-up at the time of the Titanic’s voyage, and he had only been in Europe on a flimsy pretext: he had fallen madly in love with Helen Newsom, a friend of his sister’s, and organised a business trip (he was a lawyer) to coincide with her Grand Tour of Europe.

Behr and Newsom made it safely onto the second lifeboat to leave the ship. Behr proposed on board the lifeboat, Newsom accepted, and the pair lived happily together until his death aged 64 in 1949. He went on to be picked for the Davis Cup alongside Williams in 1914, but due to work commitments did not play – though he did beat the world’s best player, Maurice McLoughlin, in a tournament a year later.

David John ‘Dai’ Bowen

The 21-year-old from Treherbert, South Wales, went down the mines as a boy, but his skill at boxing – under the tutelage of a former British army boxing champion and PT instructor called George Cundick – offered him a way out and a better life. He had already won the Welsh lightweight title and was tipped for future stardom, and having recently got married was heading to the USA on a third class ticket to take part in a series of professional bouts – including one against the legendary Packey McFarland, who won 105 fights and lost just one. Bowen drowned in the disaster, and his body was never recovered.

Leslie Williams

The blacksmith-turned-boxer from Tonypandy in South Wales was a stablemate of Bowen, a promising bantamweight who was also en route to the US for a series of professional fights. He drowned, though his body was later recovered before being buried at sea a few days later.

Charles Eugene Williams

The 23-year-old  from Harrow was squash world champion in April 1912, and was on his way to New York – in second class – to defend his title in a match against a Mr G Standing. Williams, a professional squash player, had been practising in the on-board squash court and had just gone for a cigarette when the ship hit the iceberg. He rushed out onto the deck and witnessed the iceberg towering over the ship. He survived after subsquently leaping off the side of the ship and making it to one of the lifeboats. Williams’s second class ticket, incidentally, cost £13; Dick Williams’ first class passage, by comparison, cost £61, seven shillings and seven pence, while Leslie Williams third class ticket was £8.

Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon

The Scottish landowner was a renowned sportsman who had won a team silver in the fencing at the 1906 Olympics. He was also an excellent wrestler, and took part in the mixed martial art known as ‘Bartitsu’ which was immortalised in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Duff-Gordon was among the 12 people on Lifeboat 1, which left the ship half-empty – mainly due to crew members who thought nobody would want to get on board since the ship was still believed to be unsinkable. He was briefly engulfed in a scandal after allegations that he had bribed the crew aboard the lifeboat not to go back and look for survivors following the sinking, but was later cleared and eventually died in 1931 at the age of 68.

William Ernest Carter

The polo player was travelling with his wife, two children and an entourage of maid, chauffeur and valet. He had been dining in a party with the captain the night the ship hit the iceberg, and after seeing his wife and children into lifeboats proceeded to spend some time helping load other boats. He eventually made it into a lifeboat later in the night when no more women or children could be found, alongside White Star Lines chairman Joseph Bruce Ismay. He made it safely home, but a serious polo accident later that year left him unable to compete again.

James Clinch Smith

The 56-year-old was one of the foremost yachtsmen of his age and a prize-winning horseman who had scooped dozens of prizes over the years at the New York Horse Show. He had been in Paris to patch up the differences with his estranged wife, Bertha, who had been living in France for eight years to pursue her musical career. The reconciliation had been a great success and Smith had been going home on the Titanic with Bertha due to follow later. He never made it, and his body was never recovered.

John Borie Ryerson

Just a teenager at the time of the sinking, Ryerson was heading back to the USA after a trip to England with his family. His father perished, but the rest of his family survived. Ryerson went on to become a highly successful amateur golfer, competing in over 400 tournaments around the world, and lived until the age of 87. He is mentioned in ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’ for having played over 1,000 courses in his life.

Washington Roebling II

Robeling had been a promising American Football player in his youth, but his fascination with cars led him to join the pioneers of the early days of motorsport. He designed and built his own car which he used to finish second in the Vanderbilt Cup in Savannah, and had been on a tour of Europe from which he was returning in April 1912. He was travelling in first class, and helped dozens of people into lifeboats – cheerfully promising one of them that “you’ll be back with us on the ship again soon” – but never made it off the ship himself.