All those familiar with the enthralling story of the 'unsinkable' Titanic in the world's most famous shipwreck will instantly recognise the name of Laura Mabel Francatelli. Not only was she a first class passenger who survived the disaster to write at least two vivid accounts of her experiences during the fateful night of 14th-15th April 1912, but she was also a central character in what soon became one of the most controversial episodes of the entire tragedy.
Miss Francatelli, travelling in cabin E-36, was employed as secretary to Lady Lucy Duff Gordon who, accompanied by her husband Sir Cosmo, the fifth baronet, had booked passage on the Titanic as part of a journey to Chicago where she had business interests. Despite his privileged background, Lady Duff Gordon was, in fact, far better known in society than her husband since she was not only the sister of Elinor Glyn, the novelist and mistress of Lord Curzon, but she was also a brilliant and highly successful dress designer who ran one of London's leading salons, Madame Lucille, in Hanover Square, along with similar establishments in Paris and New York. For the Duff Gordons and Miss Francatelli, the North Atlantic crossing aboard the brand-new luxury liner proved a hectic round of enjoyable social engagements interspersed with sumptuous meals and sparkling company, all of which came to an abrupt halt just before midnight on Sunday 14th April. Once both crew and passengers had been roused, people began to congregate on the stricken vessel's boat deck and the boats themselves were gradually filled and lowered in a somewhat haphazard order. Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon, with Miss Francatelli, had initially gone to lifeboat No. 7 and thence to No. 3 in the hope of being able to keep together; when neither boat provided this opportunity, they made their way to No. 1 (emergency boat), one of two on Titanic which were kept swung out and ready for lowering at any time during the voyage. Smaller than the conventional lifeboats which could accommodate 65 persons, the emergency boats only held 40. In his testimony to the subsequent Inquiry into the sinking [of Titanic], Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon claimed that First Officer Murdoch had practically invited the party to get into that particular boat but, whatever the truth of this, it is sufficient to record that lifeboat No.1 was lowered with only 12 people in it -- the Duff Gordons, Miss Francatelli, 2 American male passengers and 7 crewmen, all stokers.
The fact that the lifeboat had room for another 28 persons was bad enough but the controversy arose when the occupants opted not to return to the spot where the ship had foundered in order to try and rescue at least some of the huge number of people floundering in the icy sea. Leading Fireman Charles Hendrickson seems to have been the only dissenting voice; Lady Duff Gordon was being seasick and Sir Cosmo seemed incapable of exercising any leadership whatsoever. As Titanic's stern slipped below the waves, Lady Duff Gordon turned to Miss Francatelli and made one of the night's most memorable remarks: "There is your beautiful nightdress gone." Pusey, another fireman, turned to the two women and said: "Never mind that, you have saved your lives; but we have lost our kit." Sir Cosmo, further upset when he heard that the crew's wages ceased at the very moment their ship sank, offered what, at the time, seemed like an act of genuine charity. Turning to Miss Francatelli, he instructed her to draft seven 'orders' for £5, each one drawn on his London bank (Coutts) and written out by her on blank paper, ready for him to sign. In point of fact, the orders themselves were not actually drawn until 16th April (on board the Carpathia), but when this gesture became public, it was soon suggested that Sir Cosmo had "paid off" the crew not to return to the wreck site for fear that the boat might be swamped. Fact or fiction -- and the truth will never be known -- Sir Cosmo eventually had to take legal action to clear his name but, nevertheless, the whole episode ruined his reputation and the stigma remained with him until his death twenty years later.
After Bruce Ismay's shameless saving of his own life, the Duff Gordon incident ranked second in the catalogue of Titanic controversies and Miss Francatelli was the prime witness to a scene which would be revisited again and again in the many books which have investigated the Titanic's loss during the past ninety-five years.
Laura Mabel Francatelli was born in London in 1882 and, having survived the Titanic disaster, later married a Swiss hotelier Max Haering; she died in London on 2nd June 1967.