Father Thomas Roussel Davids Byles (26 February 1870 – 15 April 1912) was an English Catholic priest who famously remained on board the RMS Titanic as she was sinking after colliding with an iceberg, hearing confessions and giving absolution.
Father Byles was born Roussel Davids Byles in Leeds, Yorkshire, the eldest of seven children of the Reverend Dr Alfred Holden Byles, a congregationalist minister, and his wife Louisa Davids. He attended Leamington College and Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire, between 1885 and 1889, then went to Balliol College, Oxford in 1889 to study theology, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894. While at Oxford, Byles converted to the Roman Catholic faith, taking the name Thomas. In 1899, he went to the Beda College in Rome to study for the priesthood, and was ordained in 1902. He was assigned to St Helen's Parish in Chipping Ongar, Essex in 1905.
An invitation to officiate at the wedding of his younger brother William prompted Father Byles to make the trip to New York City. He said Mass on the morning of the sinking, Low Sunday, 14 April 1912, for both second- and third-Class passengers in their respective lounges. The sermon was on the need for a spiritual lifeboat in the shape of prayer and the sacraments when in danger of spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation.
On the TitanicEdit
Father Byles was walking on the upper deck praying his breviary when the Titanic struck the iceberg. As the ship was sinking, he assisted many third-class passengers up to the Boat Deck to the lifeboats. He reputedly twice refused a place on a lifeboat. Toward the very end, he recited the rosary and other prayers, heard confessions, and gave absolution to more than a hundred passengers who remained trapped on the stern of the ship after all of the lifeboats had been launched. He continued doing this until after the ship sunk. Hundreds of passengers were swimming in icy-cold seawater, dying of hypothermia. Father Byles, also a swimmer, gave absolution to as many swimmers as possible before he died himself.
His body, if recovered, was never identified. His brothers installed a door in his memory at St Helen's Catholic Church in Chipping Ongar, Essex.
Popular cultureEditHe has three times been portrayed in films about the disaster. In the 1979 television movie S.O.S. Titanic, he was portrayed by Matthew Guinness. In the 1997 film Titanic, he was portrayed by James Lancaster, reciting Revelation 21:4. Richard Basehart plays a thinly-disguised Father Byles in the 1953 film.