Father Browne on Titanic

If it had not been for an intransigent Jesuit Provincial, our understanding of life abroad the doomed oceanliner would have been all the poorer. 

6-year-old Robert Douglas Spedden and his father Frederic

In James Cameron’s Titanic, there was a scene, as the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio sneaks onto the first class deck, of a child and his father playing with a spinning top on the promenade. That innocent scene of domestic bliss Cameron copied directly from a famous photograph actually taken abroad the Titanic by one Jesuit novitiate named Francis Browne.

Browne, later better known as Father Browne, sailed with the ship for the first leg of its journey, from Southampton, England, to Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. Although a wealthy family he befriended while on the Titanic asked him to continue the journey all the way to New York, his superior at Queenstown sent him a laconic, but providential, telegram requesting him to disembark.

Therefore, Browne became one of only eight people who disembarked from Titanic; back to his post, Browne carried back around 1,000 photographs taken between April 10th and April 12th 1912 on and around the ship. They were the only photographs taken of ‘Titanic’. Among them was the above photo of  — the one recreated by Cameron.

Cameron also owed Browne for his photo of the ship’s Marconi Room, which he had taken when he was sending his clerical superior the Marconigram request to travel to New York. The photo was the only picture to be taken of the room – and in any Titanic films since, the Marconi room had been based it on Browne’s partially exposed photograph. Browne also took the last known photograph of Captain Edward Smith.

After the disaster, the photos were instantly featured in many newspapers, and Browne himself became a minor celebrity. He delivered many Titanic-themed talks, but his photographs were forgotten after his death in 1960. They were only rediscovered by a different priest, Eddie O’Donnell, 25 years later. As for the Speddens, terrible fate continued. Although both survived the sinking, Robert was ran over by a car only six months later, and his father drowned in his own dimming pool just a few years later the father.