He was born by the sea,
grey waves lapping at the mouth of the River Mersey;
the moaning and barking of fog horns and sea gulls,
a siren's song.
Perhaps it was the lively hum of commerce in the ports of Liverpool which fascinated him. Perhaps the sense of adventure and duty surrounding the British Royal Navy. Maybe young Charles was simply following the footsteps of his seafaring brothers when he enlisted in the Royal British Navy at age 11, and began training in baking and pastry.
By the turn of the century, Charles Joughin appeared on crew logs of the Majestic at the age of 22, the largest pre-dreadnought class ship launched at the time. He spent much of his career as a second baker feeding her complement of nearly 680 men. It was this skill in baking that earned him a position in the White Star Line, a prominent British shipping company, carrying freight and passengers across critical transatlantic routes.
He was assigned to the Olympic, the lead ship in the White Star's trio of Olympic-class ocean liners. Unlike her sister ships, the Olympic had a long 24-year career carrying passengers, as well as service as a troopship during the first World War, in which she was nicknamed “Old Reliable”.
However, this is not a happy tale of a baker's successful career onboard the safe and stalwart Olympic.
As fate would have it, while waiting for duty, Charles Joughin, then aged 30, was assigned to go to Belfast to help stock the RMS Titanic and bring it back to Southampton so it could launch on its maiden journey. During the trip from Belfast, Charles was offered a job and a promotion onboard the Titanic and accepted. He would serve as Chief Baker and supervise a galley staff of 13; an unlucky baker’s dozen comprising of ten bakers, two confectioners, and one "Vienna Baker" who would be responsible for much of the sweet breads and breakfast pastries enjoyed by the vessel's passengers.
I can imagine Charles shaking hands with the officer who hired him, warm with pride, thinking of his little home in Elmhurst, his wife Louise, daughter Agnes, and young son Roland; completely unaware of the dark and icy horror awaiting.
The Galley of the Titanic:
Society in the early 1900's was explicitly class-based and social and economic status was reflected in every facet of life. The ill-fated ship, in fact, was intentionally designed to reinforce these class differences and the food served aboard is a perfect illustration. Consider the three surviving menus below, each describing the meals intended by the three different passenger classes on board.
Not only were the First Class dishes cooked by experienced chefs like Alexis Joseph Bochatay and bakers like Charles Joughin, the ingredients themselves were expensive and top-quality. Fillet mignon, roast duckling, beef sirloin and fresh oysters were served for the First Class dinners. First and Second classes had different menus for each day, while Third's humble offering was to be the same for each day of the long Atlantic crossing.
A Night To Remember
According to the National Geographic Society, icebergs regularly break off from arctic glaciers and are carried by the deep, cold Labrador Current that flows past Greenland into the North Atlantic Ocean's shipping lanes. Ice frequency varies from year to year, but this particular April in 1912 saw more ice masses than had ever been recorded. A record that lasted until 1972. It was late. Less than 20 minutes to midnight. Chief Baker Charles Joughin is off duty and asleep in his bunk. It had been a long shift preparing for the next morning's breakfast and the ship was cutting through the inky blackness of the freezing sea.
We all know what comes next.
A hideous crash and screaming tear of steel shuddered through the entire vessel, shaking Charles from his bunk. It took mere minutes for it to become apparent what was about to transpire. The Titanic was unprepared and ill-trained for the emergency and Charles left his quarters to find the staff lacking orders and in disarray. With impressive foresight, he assembled his bakery staff and directed them to collect over 50 loaves of bread and other provisions from the bakeshops to pass out to the lifeboats while awaiting rescue. As his bakers went on ahead to escape the disaster, surrounded by icy water streaming into the ship and panicked passengers creating bedlam, Charles calmly returned to his cabin, unscrewed a bottle of whiskey and took a drink, then another. Having fortified his spirits, he made his way through the chaos to his designated position at Lifeboat 10.
Prioritization of women and children in the lifeboats was generally followed throughout the ship, even though there were only enough boats to carry less than half of the passengers aboard. As the assigned captain of Lifeboat 10, he loaded it full of fearful, shivering passengers, one after another until the boat was full; but Charles Joughin did not board the vessel himself. He saw it lowered into the freezing waters safely and clear of the swiftly-sinking Titanic.
Having given up his seat on the lifeboat, and therefore his chance of survival, he again returned to his cabin. I imagine he found the same whiskey on the desk where he had left it, unscrewed it again and quietly, stoically, finished the bottle.
At that point, rosy-cheeked and more than a little drunk, Charles was thrown to the floor of his cabin as the ship's bow dipped below the waves and suddenly began to sink faster. The stern was lifted out of the water into the air, listing dangerously. Hearing the screams of people in the icy water, Charles rushed, haltingly, drunkenly, back to the deck of the ship where he began tossing deck chairs and other furniture overboard to use as flotation devices. When there was nothing left to throw, he made his way again to the pantry for yet another stiff drink. But once there, another might crash cut through the screams. The Titanic had actually broken completely in half and as the hull buckled, the stern listed even higher out of the water to an almost completely vertical angle with hundreds of people clinging to it, including Charles. He had managed to hold on to the railing at the very tip of the stern, drunk and terrified with no hope of survival as he slowly rode the doomed vessel, all the way down like an elevator into the lethally cold water below.
Sudden immersion into freezing water typically causes death within minutes, either from cardiac arrest, uncontrollable breathing of water, or cold-incapacitation. Almost all of those in the water died of cardiac arrest or other bodily reactions to freezing water within 15 to 30 minutes. But those were the passengers. Chief Baker Joughin had been a man of the sea since he was 11, a strong swimmer with plenty of liquid courage in his belly to warm the blood in his veins.
Charles paddled through choppy waters for an incredible three hours before being picked up by Collapsible Lifeboat B. In the breaking light of a foggy dawn on April 15th the final passenger to leave the Titanic had survived by getting so drunk that hypothermia could not set in. Around 4am, the RMS Carpathia approached in response to distress signals and set to work fishing the 710 shivering, frightened survivors from the water. The Titanic had claimed around 1,500.
As the sun rose, Carpathia's captain recounted 20 large bergs measuring up to 200 feet high and numerous smaller masses, as well as ice floes and debris from Titanic. Survivors described being in the middle of a vast white plain of ice. Today this area of the North Atlantic is known as Iceberg Alley.
After recovering from the disaster in New York, Charles returned to Liverpool with his family until his wife died during complications during childbirth after which he immigrated to the United States. Despite everything, he remarried and remained a man of the sea, serving in the second World War transporting troops, and remarkably also surviving the sinking of the SS Oregon after a collision only 15 miles from its destination. The ship sank in only 125 feet of water an her mast tops remained above the surface of the waves for several tides.
After retiring from sailing, the death of his second wife, Annie, was a great loss from which Joughin never quite recovered. He had lived a long life of adventure and heroism. He had served the world's wealthiest and fed the poorest as they crossed oceans looking for a better life. No matter what twists of fate that swept him through history, he persevered.
At 78, his health having rapidly declined after suffering for two weeks with pneumonia, Charles died.
He is buried in Paterson, NJ beside his beloved Annie.
There is only one way to end this story...
Fellow bread lovers, let's raise a glass to Charles:
A courageous sailor, a swashbuckler, a boozy survivor, a baker.
Thank you for reading