Monmouth area mourned sinking of Titanic
MONMOUTH, Ill. — In isolated, rural western Illinois, in the days before radio and television, one might suppose that an incident that occurred off the coast of Newfoundland would have little significance, but that was far from the case when news of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, reached Monmouth and its surrounds.
The disaster hit home when it was revealed that a Bushnell man was among the wreck’s more than 1,500 victims. Two residents of Kirkwood had also booked transportation on the ship for its return trip to England. And even though details of the tragedy could only be gleaned through the printed word in a newspaper, local residents were transfixed by the news, and ministers devoted entire sermons to the subject.
The Bushnell victim was 35-year-old William Alfred Brocklebank, a talented groom and horseman who was employed by the Truman Pioneer Stud Farm, just south of Bushnell. A native of Lancashire, England, he had returned to his home in Essex in early December 1911 to spend Christmas with his wife, Eleanor, and his children, Phyllis, 7, and William, 5.
For his return trip to the United States, Brocklebank purchased a ticket on the Titanic, excited to be a participant in her maiden voyage. The third-class ticket cost him 8 pounds, 1 shilling, or more than $1,000 in today’s currency. As a single man, his tiny cabin was located on one of the lower decks, and he was only furnished with a straw mattress and blanket. Only two baths served the more than 700 passengers in steerage.
The lowest deck flooded within five to 10 minutes after the iceberg collision and the next-lowest deck flooded shortly thereafter. Staircases were located far from most of the third-class cabins, so those passengers comprised the majority of the deaths in the sinking.
Just how did a British subject end up at a Bushnell horse farm? The Truman farm was established in 1878 by the son of a well-known English horse breeder and cattle importer. Before founding the farm, John George Truman worked in the Chicago stockyards buying cattle for his father, but his family’s specialty was draft horses. Located in the heart of England’s Shire breeding district, the Trumans’ home farm had access to some of the world’s finest Shire horses, which were much sought-after in the United States.
John Truman managed the selling of Shire, Hackney and Percheron horses in the United States, while a brother, Wright, managed the Bushnell farm, and another brother, Reginald, was a veterinarian for the farm. Between 1900 and 1918, the Pioneer Stud Farm imported 1,032 horses from England and was known as America’s largest horse importer. Bushnell was known as the “Horse Capital of the United States.”
Brocklebank had been employed by another English breeder who sent him to the United States aboard the Lusitania in 1909 to purchase blood stock to be shipped back to England. He apparently enjoyed life in the United States and a few months later was hired by the Trumans to be their chief driver and showman of Hackney stallions. He planned to eventually bring his wife and children to the States, and hoped to begin making arrangements during the holidays. After Brocklebank was lost at sea, his widow never remarried and died in 1928.
Meanwhile, in Kirkwood, two brothers had also been eagerly anticipating a voyage on the Titanic. Gus and N. P. Nelson, both retired bachelor farmers from Sweden, booked passage on the Titanic’s maiden return trip to Europe, en route to a yearlong visit to their boyhood home at Halstead, Sweden. N. P. had made the trip several years previously, but it was to be Gus’s first visit.
Instead of embarking April 22 on the Titanic, the brothers left New York April 25 on the liner Celtic.
The tales of heroism and sacrifice aboard the Titanic inspired Monmouth ministers to preach on the topic on the Sunday after its sinking.
The Christian Church was crowded that evening to hear the sermon by the Rev. D. E. Hughes on “God’s Part in the Wreck of the Titanic.” At the First United Presbyterian Church that morning, Dr. J. A. Burnett told his congregation, “God’s paths in the sea are paths of mystery, power and terror. A week ago at this very hour the company on board the Titanic were joyfully anticipating the end of the voyage; some were looking forward to the return to their homes, others were coming to make new homes. Then came disaster.”
Burnett said the lesson he took from the tragedy was the genuine manliness displayed by passengers and crew, which gave him a new faith in humanity and the world. “The spectacle of the millionaire, the philanthropist, the cultured man of letters, the minister, the military official, all bending to the law of service to the weaker,” he said, “this it is that thrills me and fills me with admiration for those heroic souls.”
We don’t know the details of William Brocklebank’s death, or whether or not he performed acts of heroism during the disaster, but his employers saluted his bravery. On the flagpole atop the Hackney barn of Trumans’ Pioneer Stud Farm, the Union Jack was raised and then lowered to half-staff.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.