HALIFAX – Clifford Crease was only 24-years-old when he set out aboard C.S. Mackay-Bennett to take on the daunting task of recovering Titanic victims from the North Atlantic.
He worked aboard the cable ship as a craftsman in training, but when the time came to help retrieve hundreds of bodies from the frigid waters Crease said he would do whatever was needed.
The experience would quietly haunt him for years.
It wasn’t until he was in his late 60s that he opened up about his story.
“He never spoke to his wife about it or his (only child) Pauline,” Crease’s granddaughter Rabia Wilcox says. “He finally spoke to our father – Jack Wilcox – in 1955.” It was six years before Crease passed away, at the age of 73.
Rabia says her father and grandfather were watching a television program about Walter Lord’s book “A Night to Remember” and that prompted him to open up about his connection to the Titanic.
It was the first time Crease spoke openly to anyone about what he saw and did in those days after the disaster.
Until then, his memories were only kept in a small diary, in which he logged all of the grim details including one discovery he thought of every day for the rest of his life.
“The fourth body that they recovered was the unknown child” she says, “and it was my grandfather that pulled in the unknown child into his arms.”
He found the boy floating in the freezing water, without a life jacket.
“He never fully recovered,” she says. “He told our father it was the worst thing that ever happened to (him).”
Rabia came to Halifax from Ottawa with her younger sister, Nadine, to pay their respects to their grandfather, the crew of the Mackay-Bennett and the victims of Titanic.
As a part of their commemoration they will read from the diary on Saturday at the Nova Scotia Archives, where the diary has been kept since not long after Crease passed away.
Nadine says the crew of the Mackay-Bennett were all required to keep a journal while they undertook the traumatic mission.
But only her grandfather’s diary and one other – that of Frederick Hamilton, the engineer aboard the cable ship – are still known to be in existence. Hamilton’s tome, she says, is in the Maritime Archives in England.
“The first time I touched Grampy’s diary, I cried,” Nadine says. “We felt his essence and what he must have gone through.”
Even though their father had learned about Crease’s story in 1955 and passed on his diary to the archives, he kept the story a secret as well.
They only learned of their grandfather’s diary in 2004.
Rabia says it was the spirit of her grandfather that influenced her to ask questions about his story and from there she went on to write a book about him, titled “Under The Titanic.”
She says the story of his commitment to the unknown baby’s legacy — helping to make sure the boy got a proper burial and grave marker — was not only heartfelt it wound up playing an important role in solving the mystery of his identity.
Rabia says the Mackay-Bennett crew referred to the child as “our babe” and placed a brass plate engraved with those words in the coffin when he was interred in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
That plate was found to have protected the only remaining bone from the boy’s body, when the grave was exhumed.
It allowed forensics experts to do a DNA test and later identify the 19-month-old as Sidney Leslie Goodwin.
Crease visited the boy’s gravesite every year on the anniversary of the disaster, to lay a wreath.
Rabia says her grandfather was forever connected to the child, even in death: Crease’s grave is only metres away from the so called “grave of the unknown child.”
At a special service Sunday honouring those lost in the tragedy, the sisters will make sure their grandfather’s story is known.
“It feels for 100 years it’s been a quiet, sort of little side step of what happened to the huge event of the Titanic,” Nadine says. “And finally they (the crew of the Mackay-Bennett) are being honoured in a way we are very grateful for.”
The Nova Scotia Archives has a number of diaries on display, but the original copy of Clifford Crease’s diary is not available to the public. It can be viewed on the archives’ website. Rabia and Nadine Wilcox will be at the archives Saturday, Apr. 14 to read some of their grandfather’s passages. They’ll also attend the special memorial service at Fairview Lawn Cemetery on Sunday.