I first came across the life of Ernest Carter last year, after another long day of reorganising the Charterhouse Treasury. Located above the Chapel, it is a treasure trove of old documents, books and photographs revolving around the Charterhouse’s seven-hundred-year history.
Among the objects scattered around was a book on the Charterhouse’s pupils, containing a brief bio on their life and career. On one of the pages, someone had left a bookmark with an asterisk next to one of the names: Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter. Whoever had been reading the book last had clearly taken interest in him. But why?
Reading Carter’s biography seemed to read like all the other entries; educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, he embarked on an ecclesiastical career by becoming the reverend of St. Jude’s in Whitechapel. Then came the twist at the conclusion:
‘Lost in the unfortunate sinking of the RMS Titanic, 15 th April 1912’
Of course, we all know of the Titanic, such as it is engrained into the heart of popular culture. The most infamous maritime disaster of the 20 th century, and here a former alumnus of the Charterhouse was on board! Naturally, I decided to do a bit of delving into Carter’s life and career… Ernest Courtenay Carter was born on 17th February 1858 in Compton, Berkshire, the son of George and Catherine Carter. As the son of a clergyman, Carter would’ve have secured useful connections to allow him to be admitted to the Charterhouse School. He was one of the last original pupils to be educated on the original Smithfield site from January 1869 (the 1871 census lists his residence at the school itself) to August 1875. The move to Godalming came about after the Clarendon Report of 1864 recommended the removal of Charterhouse (then in an overcrowded, and unhygienic area) to the fresh and rural countryside of Surrey, predominately as a means to attract wealthier parents. Having served in ‘Gownboys’ (one of the most distinguished houses of the school) during his tenure there, he was admitted to St. John’s College, Oxford as an undergraduate in 1880, afterward made the Assistant Master at Godolphin School in Hammersmith.
After taking holy orders, being made deacon and eventually the curate of Chieveley in Berkshire by 1896, Ernest married Lilian Hughes, daughter of known Christian Socialist Thomas Hughes. However, they soon relocated to the East End in 1898; Ernest becoming the Reverend of St. Jude’s in Whitechapel. Located on Commercial Street, it was rife with poverty, prostitution, and crime, which brought negative publicity. The district was also one gigantic melting pot of different ethnicities and faiths. Ernest Carter certainly faced an uphill struggle with his appointment, especially in an area that was trying to shake off the unfortunate reputation of being the scene of the Jack the Ripper murders. But he seemed to excel at his role in providing pastoral support to Whitechapel’s community. An obituary of him in The Times mentioned his ‘merry enthusiasm’ in ‘organis[ing] in the cause of temperance’, his ‘great meetings’ at the People’s Palace in Mile End (a well-known venue then for public speaking and entertainment). Carter also held an ‘open-house’ on a Thursday for ‘those who cared to call’, most of them being ‘workers’. The ‘large congregation’ at his funeral reflected Carter’s associations with the local community, including members of the Police Force and other East London clergy.
In the spring of 1912, Ernest and Lilian planned on journeying to America for a holiday, purchasing a second-class ticket for £26 (£3000 in today’s money) for the Titanic, newly launched, revolutionary in terms of speed and comfort. Boarding at Southampton on the 10 th April, the Carter’s became quickly acquainted with the rest of their fellow second-class passengers; surviving testimonies mention their presence onboard. As with his work at Whitechapel, Carter became a go-to figure for spiritual advice.
On the night of Sunday 14 th April, according to second-class survivor Laurence Beesley, Ernest was ‘instrumental in arranging’ an evening carol service in the second-class saloon. Well-attended, the event was a success, ‘the singing [going] on to quite a late hour.’ Afterward, ‘Mr. Carter closed with a few words of thanks to the Purser for allowing him to use the saloon, made a few remarks as to the happy voyage we had on a maiden trip, and the safety there was in this vessel.’
According to another passenger, Ernest also remarked: ‘It is the first time that there have been hymns sung on this boat on a Sunday evening, but we trust and pray it won’t be the last.’ At 11.40pm, an hour after the service ended, Titanic struck an iceberg. Breaching several major water compartments, the ship began to rapidly go down by the bow, beyond the point of being saved. In the panic that unfolded, Ernest and Lilian were glimpsed by some passengers on the boat deck; despite being invited on board the lifeboats several times, both refused, so as to allow other passengers to be evacuated.
Ernest and Lilian perished in the sinking; their bodies, if recovered, were never identified. In the edition of The Carthusian Magazine in June 1912, the editor had this to say:
‘If each of us were asked what event during the last holidays had made the deepest impression on us, there would be little doubt that the reply would be the same in nearly every case: “The death of the Titanic”.
‘While we sympathise with the nation on its irreparable loss, we may be glad that the disaster did not affect Charterhouse more closely: for there was not a single Old Carthusian on board the ill-fated vessel. Yet we feel sure that had any of our number been present at the final scene, they would have acquitted themselves with the heroic courage as was displayed by the heroic dead.’
In a later edition, an amendment was made, acknowledging Ernest and Lilian’s passing. A brass plaque was made to commemorate their death, but was later moved to a church in Oxfordshire, after the destruction of St. Jude’s in the Blitz.
Eerily, at the remembrance service at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 18th April, the final hymn that ended the service was ‘For those in Peril on the Sea’, the same hymn recommended by Ernest on that fateful Sunday night, an hour before the disaster.
‘Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter’, Encyclopaedia Titanica, <https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/ernest-courtenay-carter.html>
The Carthusian Magazine, Vol. X, Nos.358-59, June-July 1912
R.L. Arrowsmith, Charterhouse Register: 1769-1872, Phillimore & Co. Ltd., London and Chichester, 1974