Moviegoers and history buffs alike have been in a tizzy lately over the re-release of Jack and Rose’s tragic love story aboard the ill-fated Titanic.
But what many members of the Drake community do not know is that the university has its very own story of loss in relation to the historic vessel.
When the Titanic sank on April 13, 1912, not only was Ernest Portage Tomlin the only resident of Des Moines to perish aboard, he was also a student at Drake’s Bible College.
Born in Canada in 1889, Tomlin came to Drake in 1907 and enrolled in the university’s Bible College. According to historical documentation by long-time Cowles Library employee James Leonardo, Tomlin was a boarder in a single-family residence located at 1209 23rd St., near the present-day location of Taco’s Mariana’s on Forest Avenue while he resided in Des Moines.
Tomlin’s transcripts show that he was a highly motivated student who took classes in subjects ranging from advanced mathematics to Latin to botany. He also maintained an A average, and though his family owned a largely successful bakery, he was known among his friends for his desire to do work with the church.
In the spring of 1910, during his third year at Drake, Tomlin learned that his father was ill and returned home to be with his family near Notting Hill in London.
Less than two years later, Tomlin was eager to return to the university to finish his studies.
He wrote letters to his friends at Drake providing the details of his voyage, but when classmates like Will Mander got word of the tragic fate of the supposedly unsinkable White Star ocean liner, they feared the worst.
“I received a letter from Ernest last week stating that he was sailing for America on April 10, from Southampton,” Mander said, according to an article published in the Des Moines Tribune on April 16, 1912. “We find that the Titanic was the only boat that left Southampton on that date and have every reason to believe that he was one of the passengers. I believe that he traveled third class.”
Unfortunately, Mander’s insights were correct.
According to Leonardo, Tomlin bought a third-class ticket on the RMS Titanic for eight pounds and one shilling, the equivalent of about $31.64 in the United States at the time.
At the time of his death, Tomlin wore a black coat with a blue-stripped flannel vest. In his pockets, rescuers found two billfolds, “a silver watch, pencil, papers, diary, fountain pen, comb, $87 in U.S. currency, one pound and 10 shillings in gold, and two shillings nine pence in change,” according to Leonardo.
On April 24, 1912, the Drake Daily Delphic reported that a ship named the Mackay-Bennett had recovered Tomlin’s body. There is a disagreement as to whether Tomlin’s body was returned to New York or buried at sea along with many others.
Though many of Tomlin’s direct descendents are no longer alive, an interest in his legacy and history of the Titanic has lived on in his descendants.
Described as a “traditional family business since 1865,” according to the shop’s website, the establishment called Martin’s Bakery was started by Tomlin’s grandfather and carried on by his father, Edwin Tomlin.
“My sister Marylin Powell has researched our family at least as far back as the early 1900s,” said Martyn Hawkins, the owner of the family bakery, in an email.
While the original Tomlin bakery was located on St. Anns Road in Notting Hill, the building was torn down around 1960 in a redevelopment project, and Hawkins’ father, the son of Edwin Tomlin, moved the business to Hounslow before finally relocating to the current location in Cornwall, Hawkins said.
In 1992, the family sold a postcard mailed by Tomlin to his younger sister Lily from the Titanic for roughly 2,400 pounds, according to the Drake historical archives.
Thanks to collaborative efforts with Leonardo, much of the information Hawkins and his relatives have regarding Tomlin’s fate aboard the Titanic can now be found on the Internet, though the family is still interested in learning more about its lineage.