The historically important West Africa Benin 1897 Expedition, South Africa Boer War White State Line Troop Transport Vessel Chief Officer,1909 Royal Naval Reserve Decoration and loss of the Titanic connection group awarded to Commander Benjamin Steel, R.D., Royal Naval Reserve, who worked as an Officer for the White Star Line from 1894 through to 1927, having been aboard the cruiser Forte during the Benin 1897 Expedition, he was Chief Officer of the liner Majestic during transport duties to South Africa from 1899 through to 1901 when she carried some 37,000 troops, having been aboard her when in November 1900 Britannic sailed to Australia with a Guard of Honour to represent Great Britain at the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth, and took part in the fleet review at Sydney Harbour to mark the occasion. Appointed assistant Marine Superintendent at Liverpool in 1903 and then Southampton Marine Superintendent for the White Star Line in 1908, it was whilst in this role that Steel has gone down in history for having been purportedly the last man to have left the doomed Titanic as she cast off from Southampton Harbour on 10th April 1912, he having not only been aboard the that morning’s lifeboat drill, which had been a success, and of which he later gave evidence at the Wreck Commissioner’s Testimony concerning the loss of the Titanic, but had then been present for a conference with Captain Edward Smith on the bridge, and having collected the R.M.S. Titanic’s muster list from Smith, stepped ashore as Titanic cast off. The famous photograph of Titanic cast off and readying to steam out of Southampton Harbour whilst being pulled by tugs, shows a man in civil dress and wearing a hat sitting on the dock watching her leave, this man is reported to be Benjamin Steel, and it has been widely published as such.
Group of 3: East and West Africa Medal 1887-1900, 1 Clasp: Benin 1897; (LIEUT. B. STEEL, R.N.R., H.M.S. FORTE); Transport Medal 1899-1902, 1 Clasp: S.Africa 1899-1902; (B. STEEL); Royal Naval Reserve Decoration, EVII cypher, hallmarks for London with date letter ‘o’ for 1909.
Condition: Good Very Fine or better.
Benjamin Steel was born on 18th May 1863 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, and then joined the Merchant Service having passed his Master’s Exam at Liverpool in 1887. Steel joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a Sub Lieutenant on 22nd September 1892, with seniority backdated to 1st September 1892, having gone in at that rank due to his prior experience on merchant ships. During his tenure with the Reserves he was borne on the books of Eagle, the Royal Naval Reserve Training Establishment for the North West of England and based at Liverpool.
With the Merchant Service, he then joined the White Star Line in 1894, being appointed 1st Mate of the line’s own tender Nomadic.
It was whilst he was serving with Nomadic that Steel who had been appointed to Acting Lieutenant with the Royal Naval Reserve on 9th June 1896, was then called for military service as a Lieutenant aboard the cruiser Forte on 1st July 1897 for duty off the West Coast of Africa, and as such participated in the Benin Expedition which lasted from 6th February to 7th August 1897. These operations centred round an expedition to Benin City against Chief Overiami who was involved in the slave trade and in practices of human sacrifice. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hamilton, East Yorkshire Regiment, commanded a force of Niger Coast Constabulary and Rear Admiral Rawson, Royal Navy, aboard St George, was in overall command. Commissioner Ralph Moor accompanied the expedition. This is one of the few instances where naval personnel who remained on board were entitled to the East and West Africa Medal 1887-1900, with relevant clasp, in this case Benin 1897, with 340 of the crew of Forte qualifying.
With hostilities over, Steel was back with the Merchant Service and appointed 2nd Mate of the liner Germanic from 24th July 1897, and then plied the Atlantic to New York and back. Steel was appointed Chief Mate aboard her on 19th August 1897, but this was clearly a stand in position as he had reverted to 2nd Mate on 17th September 1897. Transferring to the liner Adriatic on 12th November 1897 as her 1st Mate, this vessel was by then deemed old for crossing the Atlantic and was the reserve ship of the White Star Line fleet. Steel then joined the line Majestic as her 2nd Mate on 29th April 1898. Steel’s captain as this time was none other than Edward Smith, who would late achieve fame as the captain of the doomed Titanic. Smith commanded Majestic for nine years between 1895 and 1904. Appointed 1st Mate of the White State Line cargo ship Cevic on 26th May 1898, the next day he rejoined Majestic as her 1st Mate before being appointed 2nd Mate of the line Cymric on 11th July 1898, and five days later on 16th July 1891 joined the line Teutonic as her 2nd Mate.
Seeing further service on the Trans-Atlantic run, Steel then transferred as 1st Mate of the Germanic on 9th November 1898, and having crossed the Atlantic, Steel was aboard her when on 13th February 1899, while being coaled at the White Star's New York City pier, a blizzard blanketed her decks with a heavy layer of snow. Now top heavy, she listed to port so much that water began to enter doors opened for coaling, and Germanic settled on to the shallow harbour bottom. She was raised, and determined to be worth saving, so she returned to Belfast for repairs that lasted four months. Having returned with her across the Atlantic, Steel then transferred as Chief Mate to the line Britannic on 23rd October 1899, joining her after her requisition by the Royal Navy for service as a troop transport carrying troops to South Africa for service in the Boer War. Known as Hired Military Transport No.62. During this period, under the command of Bertram Fox Hayes, Britannic transported 37,000 troops to and from the conflict over three years. In November 1900 Britannic sailed to Australia with a Guard of Honour to represent Great Britain at the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth. She took part in the fleet review at Sydney Harbour to mark the occasion.
Steel was aboard Britannic for most of her trooping to South Africa, and was also present when she took part in the Sydney Harbour fleet review to mark the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, being appointed Master aboard her on 3rd August 1900, he briefly held command, but as Chief Officer aboard her, he was awarded the Transport Medal 1899-1902 with South Africa clasp. Steel then transferred as Chief Mate to the liner Oceanic on 31st May 1901, she being the proposed sister ship of the famous Olympic. Steel was ultimately appointed the commanding officer of the liner Nomadic at some time in 1902, before being posted ashore on his being appointed assistant Marine Superintendent at Liverpool in 1903, a position he held till he was appointed Southampton Marine Superintendent for the White Star Line in 1908, a position he held till he full retired in 1927, after a remarkable 40 years service with the Merchant Service.
Meanwhile Steel had been promoted to Commander with the Royal Naval Reserve, and had then been placed on the Retired List on 13th May 1908, being awarded the Royal Naval Reserve Decoration on 9th November 1909.
It was however for his work as the Southampton Marine Superintendent for the White Star Line that Steel would go down in history for his connection with one of the worst and certainly the most famous maritime disasters of all, the loss of the Titanic in 1912. As mentioned, Steel’s old commanding officer, Captain Edward Smith who he had first met aboard Majestic back in 1898, was himself appointed to the newly launched Titanic in May 1911, with his vessel being completed on 2nd April 1912.
On the 10th April 1912 the Titanic set sail across the Atlantic from Southampton on her maiden and final voyage. On the morning of the 10th April 1912, Steel in his role of Southampton Marine Superintendent for the White Star Line went aboard Titanic to witness amongst other things, her final life boat drill, a task which was performed satisfactorily as Steel later gave evidence to the Wreck Commissioner’s Testimony concerning the loss of the Titanic. Everything which the crew of the Titanic did, Steel deemed to be correct. With this done and the passengers embarked, Steel who had a conference with Smith and one other on the bridge, then collected the R.M.S. Titanic’s muster list from Captain Edward Smith on the bridge, and as Titanic cast off, Steel became reputedly the last man to have stepped off the ship prior to her crossing of the Atlantic. The famous photograph of Titanic cast off and readying to steam out of Southampton Harbour whilst being pulled by tugs, shows a man in civil dress and wearing a hat sitting on the dock, this man is reported to be Benjamin Steel as it has been widely published as him since. As mentioned Steel remained the Southampton Marine Superintendent for the White Star Line through to 1927 when he retired. Steel died on 12th October 1944 at Chalk Hill, London.