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Lady Duff-Gordon's letter which is coming up for auction
Lady Duff-Gordon's letter which is coming up for auction

Having survived the sinking of the Titanic, the behaviour of two north-east aristocrats was to haunt them for the rest of their lives. A recently found letter reveals just how they felt about it


On the night of April 14, 1912, the pride of the White Star shipping line, RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and, less than three hours later, sank below the icy waves of the north Atlantic. More than 1,500 perished, making it one of the great maritime disasters.


Among the few survivors were wealthy aristocrats connected to the north-east of Scotland – Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon and her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon. Next week, at an auction house in Boston, a poignant letter written by Lady Duff-Gordon around a month after the tragedy will go under the hammer, re-igniting once more the controversy their survival sparked.

Sir Cosmo, an Olympic fencer whose baronial seat is the Maryculter House Hotel on the outskirts of Aberdeen, was travelling to New York with his wife, Lucy, who was a successful fashion designer in her own right with her company Maison Luicle, regarded as one of the great couture houses of the time. Her clients included Margot Asquith and the Duchess of York, and she had salons in New York, Paris and Chicago.


While others went down in history as heroes and heroines for their brave attempts to save others, the Duff-Gordons’ behaviour was to haunt them and, as the letter to be auctioned reveals, greatly upset them.

Lifeboat crew were under orders to let women and children on first and allow men places only if there were spare seats. Sir Cosmo, Lucy and their secretary, Laura Francatelli, managed to get three seats out of 12 occupied in the No.1 lifeboat, which had a capacity for 40. It transpired later that many of the lifeboats left the ship only half full. It was also alleged that Sir Cosmo offered the crew £5 each for the kit they lost with the ship, and that his wife reassembled the men in their lifejackets for a group picture afterwards.

This resulted in a major scandal and the wealthy couple soon became a popular tabloid topic, with allegations that Cosmo had bribed the crew to row away faster, rather than returning to rescue others. The press ultimately dubbed it the “Money Boat”. The only passengers to participate in the inquiry’s hearings, it was deemed that the Duff-Gordons did not deter the crew from any attempt at rescue, but that the lifeboat might have been able to rescue others had it turned around.

Bobby Livingston, executive vice-president of RR Auction, which is handling the auction of the letter next week, said: “Although Lady Duff-Gordon was a famous designer in her time, and well known in her own right, the Titanic tragedy is the most important moment in her life as far as history is concerned. Her commenting on the scandal brings the whole thing back into the present.”

The letter, written to a friend, states: “How kind of you to send me a cable of sympathy to New York on our safety. According to the way we’ve been treated by England on our return, we didn’t seem to have done the right thing in being saved at all!!!! Isn’t it disgraceful.”

Mr Livingston said: “She had returned to London and was facing horrible criticism from the public and press, who called them cowards for rowing away from the sinking ship.

“You just don’t see letters from Lady Duff-Gordon very often, especially one written around a month after the sinking of the Titanic, in which she’s complaining about the treatment she and Sir Cosmo have received at the hands of the press and public.

“The letter is written in fountain pen on good-quality stationery with her Knightsbridge address on the top left corner and written during the British Wreck Commissioner’s inquiry into the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which took place from May 2 to July 12, 1912.

“For a 100-year-old letter, it’s in great shape. It feels like you’re holding a page of history in your hand. Letter writing is becoming something of a lost art these days, so to be able to own something in your hands written by a famous person brings that person back to life.”

Mr Livingston said the letter had come to them from a client he believes to be a retired manuscript dealer, who found it in an old inventory, but had owned it for around 20 years.


“From her point of view, hearing the screams of the dying, hearing the horrible sounds of the sinking of the ship as they rowed away from this tragedy, must have been an emotional and horrible tragedy to live through. Then, to be falsely accused of somehow being responsible for the death of other people must have been overwhelming for her.

“You can see that in the letter; she’s really defending herself from these libellous statements,” said Mr Livingston.

Also, when recalling the night later, Lady Duff-Gordon told the Daily Journal there was panic as the lifeboats were launched, and she was reported as saying: “I recall being pushed towards one of the boats and being helped in. Just as we were about to clear the ship, a man made a rush to get aboard our lifeboat. He was shot and apparently killed instantly. No one made any effort to move him and his body remained in the boat until we were picked up.”

In Walter Lord’s book A Night To Remember, based on interviews with survivors, she is quoted as having said to her secretary, Miss Francatelli: “There is your beautiful nightdress gone,” as the Titanic finally sank under the water.

Hostile crowds packed the official inquiry hearing into the Titanic disaster to hear the Duff-Gordons give evidence. They were later cleared of any wrongdoing, but Lady Duff-Gordon would go on to say that her husband, who was also a sheriff and magistrate in Kincardineshire, was brokenhearted over the negative coverage for the rest of his life.

In 2010, new evidence of that fateful night came to light when a survivor’s account of the disaster – penned by Laura Francatelli – went on display. In it, the secretary, who was 31 at the time, describes how she escaped on one of the last boats to leave the ship with her boss and his wife – and how they did not even consider going back for survivors.

She recalls how she woke her employers when water seeped into her cabin after the liner struck an iceberg. The party refused to go into a lifeboat as only women and children were permitted, but that they were offered places on a rowing boat. And she told of the “awful rumbling” as the ship sank and the terrible “screams and cries” of 1,500 drowning passengers.

She also recalled how the three of them boarded a boat containing just five passengers and seven crew and did not consider going back for survivors. “We said we would go if Sir Cosmo could come also,” Miss Francatelli said. “The officer said to Sir Cosmo: ‘I should be pleased if you would go.'”

They rowed away, fearing as the Titanic sank they would be pulled under as well. The letter said: “We were a long way off when we saw the Titanic go right up at the back and plunge down.”

The survivors huddled in the boat to keep warm until they were rescued by the Carpathia two hours later. Sir Cosmo later paid the lifeboat crew members £5 each – the equivalent of about £300 today.

Miss Francatelli’s signed affidavit to the official British inquiry into the disaster sold at auction for $32,000, while a Japanese silk kimono worn by Lady Duff-Gordon as she stepped to safety from the Titanic fetched £38,000 at an auction in 2012.

Since news of this letter’s existence has been revealed, there’s been a huge amount of interest from around the world, said auctioneer Mr Livingston. “Correspondence from prominent passengers with such exceptional Titanic content is rarely encountered — especially written so soon after the tragedy.

The letter has a pre-auction value of $5,000-$6,000, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it that exceeds that. Institutions, museums and private collectors have all shown interest, but I suspect it will go to a Titanic collector with an interest in letters and manuscripts.”

Previous memorabilia sold by his firm includes a letter written by the bandmaster of the Titanic, Wallace Hartley, who played on as the doomed ship sank. It sold at auction in 2013 for £93,000. The gavel will fall on the auction on Thursday, January 22.