I first heard the story of Richard Norris Williams whilst watching Roger Federer win his first Wimbledon tennis title. The commentator remaked that the first Swiss born ‘major’ winner was in a fact a ‘Titanic’ survivor.
His story is remarkable after being in the water in freezing conditions the doctor recommended that his legs should be amputated. He refused,worked at restoring them to health and won ‘major’ tennis titles after the war. Anyway here is his story:-
Mr Richard Norris Williams II, was born in Geneva, Switzerland on 29 January 1891 the son of Charles Duane Williams.
Richard was travelling on the Titanic with his father from Geneva to Radnor, PA. Williams, an accomplished tennis player, had planned to take part in tournaments in America before going on to study at Harvard University. The men boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg as first class passengers (ticket number PC 17597, £61 7s 7d).
As they left their stateroom on C-Deck after the collision on April 14th they saw a steward trying to open the door of a cabin behind which a panicking passenger was trapped. Williams put his shoulder to the door and broke in. The steward threatened to report him for damaging company property.
According to a family member, at around midnight the two men went to the bar and found it was closed. They asked a steward if he could open up but the steward said it was against regulations. Charles handed his empty flask to Richard which today is in the possession of Richard’s grandson Quincy II.
The two men wandered the decks as the ship sank under them, they went to A-Deck to look at the map where the ships run was posted daily, they returned to the Boat Deck to see the lights of the lifeboats glinting in the distance. Feeling the intense cold they retired to the gymnasium where they sat on the stationary bicycles while gymnasium instructor McCawley chatted to others that had congregated there.
As the Titanic foundered Richard and Charles found themselves swimming for their lives in the water, Richard was astonished to find himself face to face with first class passenger Robert W. Daniels’ prize bulldog Gamon de Pycombe doing likewise, one of the other passengers had earlier ventured below to release the dogs from the kennels.
Richard saw his father and many others crushed by the forward funnel as it collapsed, he narrowly avoided being crushed himself, the resulting wave washed him toward Collapsible A and after clinging to its side for some time he was hauled aboard; He and the other occupants were later transferred to lifeboat 14. He managed to forget the cold for a while when he was distracted by the sight of a man wearing a Derby hat with a dent in it. He attempted in several languages to explain to the man how to push it out but he didn’t seem to understand. Eventually he reached out to do it himself but the man resisted thinking Williams was trying to steal his hat.
The survivors in Collapsible A had suffered terribly from the cold since they were waist-deep in freezing water. After his rescue the doctor on the Carpathia recommended the amputation of both his legs but Richard refused; he exercised daily and eventually his legs recovered.
A month later Collapsible ‘A’ which had been abandoned by the Carpathia was recovered by the White Star Liner Oceanic, as this letter, from R.N.Williams to fellow Titanic survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie shows, its discovery led to a certain degree of confusion regarding Williams and his father:
‘I was not under water very long, and as soon as I came to the top I threw off the big fur coat. I also threw off my shoes. About twenty yards away I saw something floating. I swan to it and found it to be a collapsible boat. I hung on to it and after a while got aboard and stood up in the middle of it. The water was up to my waist. About thirty of us clung to it. When officer Lowe’s boat picked us up eleven of us were still alive; all the rest were dead from cold. My fur coat was found attached to this Engelhardt boat ‘A’ by the Oceanic, and also a cane marked ‘C.Williams.’ This gave rise to the story that my father’s body was in this boat, but this as you see, is not so. How the cane got there I do not know.’
The overcoat was also mentioned in a letter from Mr Harold Wingate of the White Star Line to Colonel Gracie:
‘The overcoat belonging to Mr Williams I sent to a furrier to be reconditioned, but nothing could be done with it except dry it out, so I sent it to him as it was. There was no cane in the boat. The message from the Oceanic and the words ‘R. N. Williams, care of Duane Williams,’ were twisted by the receiver of the message to ‘Richard N. Williams, cane of Duane Williams,’ which got into the press, and thus perpetuated the error.’
Williams continued his tennis career and entered Harvard. Despite his traumatic ordeal and the injury to his legs Richard won the 1912 United States mixed doubles (with Ms. Mary Browne). In 1914 and 1916 he was United States singles champion, 1920 Wimbledon men’s doubles champion (with Mr C. S. Garland) and runner up in 1924 (with Mr W. M. Washburn), 1924 Olympic gold medalist and between 1913 and 1926 was a member of the United States Davis Cup team.
Williams served with distinction in the U.S. Army in World War I and was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre.
In later life Williams went on to become a successful investment banker in Philadelphia and was for twenty two years the President of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He died of emphysema on 2 June 1968, aged 77. His body was interred in St. David’s Churchyard, Devon, Pennsylvania.