The lettering is faded from contact with the icy waters of the Atlantic and the passing of 100 years.
The stamp on the envelope has washed away and most of the sentences are illegible. But it’s still possible to pick out a few words: ‘Hope you have a good trip home’.
This letter from a father to a son is loaded with meaning as it is connected to an amazing story of courage and survival.
Portsmouth teenager Sidney Daniels received the note from his dad Walter as he embarked from Southampton on the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic.
And five days later it was still in the 18-year-old Titanic steward’s pocket when he jumped from the sinking ship into the freezing Atlantic and swam into the unknown.
The survival of the letter and its owner still amazes Sidney’s son Richard a century later.
‘It is incredible. I don’t think dad would have gone back for it because when they first woke him up he thought it was a lifeboat drill.
‘I think it would have been in his pocket anyway and somehow managed to stay there. I would love to know what it says but considering where it’s been it’s not surprising most of it is unreadable.
The fact the letter still exists is astounding enough. But Sidney has also left a detailed recorded account of that night in 1912 when more than 1500 people died and the world was left stunned.
The teenager and his crewmates were woken at about 11.30pm.
‘We thought it was an emergency boat drill and we weren’t very pleased about this,’ he says in the recording given to Southampton City Council’s Oral History Unit decades later.
The steward was assigned to Lifeboat 13 and helped women and children on to the boat as the sea rushed in beneath them and Titanic continued to slip to her watery grave.
In the final moments, having done his duty and feeling the brutally cold sea rising up to his knees, Sidney decided to jump for his life.
He says in the recording: ‘Well I swam away and, by sheer good luck, I came across a life buoy with another man clinging to it.
‘I looked around and I said to this fella ‘‘We’re too near for suction, she’ll suck us down.’’
‘I turned and swam away again, no objective, just swam away.’
Sidney had no idea how far he would get, but with an amazing piece of luck he came across an upturned lifeboat.
He managed to get up and sit on the keel and with about 20 other people survived the night.
Sidney would go on to wed, have seven children and die in 1983, aged 89. And a century later his family are remembering him as a hero.
‘We’re extremely proud, who wouldn’t be?,’ says Richard, 76.
‘He must have saved many lives just by putting people into boats and then he had the strength to save his own. He did everything as it should have been done.’
The family have been left with many reminders of Sidney’s story – including his name in a commemorative publication produced soon after the tragedy and a summons he received to give his account at an official Titanic inquiry.
But there’s one important treasure missing – the pocket knife that probably saved Sidney’s life.
While people fought for their lives, Sidney joined a crowd trying to get one of the last collapsible lifeboats down.
Someone shouted for a pocket knife and Sidney passed his up. In the recording he says it was used for the last lashing securing the boat.
It is believed the lifeboat was washed off board during the final break-up of the ship. But it was this vessel that was found by Sidney later to keep him alive all night.
In the recorded account he gives details of the hours after Titanic went down.
‘I said to this fella, sitting with his back to me, I said ‘‘I’m tired I’m going to sleep.’’
‘He said ‘‘For God’s sake, son, don’t go to sleep.’’
‘Course I didn’t. Had I gone to sleep I’d never have woken up again, it being so cold.’
Later he says: ‘Come towards the dawn... well a ship came into sight.. I said ‘‘there’s two’’. It turned out that one was the ship and the other was the iceberg alongside of each other. It was the Carpathia come to take us off.’
From personal effects to memories, Sidney’s legacy reveals the very real tragedy behind the famous facts and myths that have grown up around the Titanic disaster.
What we hear today through films and documentaries is a story of courage, ignorance and wisdom. And Sidney has confirmed some of the most famous details.
‘He didn’t talk about it much but he would when prompted,’ says Richard. ‘
Richard, who lives in Portsmouth, heard how Sidney was sent to fetch Isidor and Ida Straus, among the richest couples on the ship. Ida couldn’t be persuaded to leave the ship with the other women and children and died with her husband.
Modern cinema and TV audiences have seen the ship’s band playing on board to the end.
Early in his recorded account Sidney says: ‘ We stood around waiting for orders, dancing around to the music – the musicians were on board playing the different tunes on deck.’
And he told Richard about a man who swam up to the upturned lifeboat packed with people trying to survive.
‘They just couldn’t make room for him, there was no more space. He just said ‘‘God bless’’ and swam off. ‘
The water was so cold that night that very few people would have survived more than a few minutes. Richard believes Sidney lived because he was young and a strong swimmer.
In a final twist to the tale, Sidney’s father, who ran the Devonshire Arms in Southsea, heard his son was missing. But Sidney managed to cable his family and return home.
Sidney served in the First World War and was injured in France. He raised his family in Portsmouth and even went back to work on the ships.
As Richard considers what his father left behind, he says: ‘I’m not sure what happened to the pocket knife, it must be far down under the sea. But this is special, the real memorabilia, not things people buy in shops. It really means something.’
Fred and Caroline’s Titanic discovery
Caroline Dinenage was searching the Internet for a family photo when two words sprang out at her – ‘Dinenage’ and ‘Titanic’.
The Gosport MP, pictured, had stumbled across a list of people on board and accidentally discovered a family link to the doomed ship.
Later research by a genealogist and her Meridian presenter dad Fred revealed that his great uncle James was a Titanic steward who went down with ship.
‘It’s such a sad story. James was a first-class steward who left a widow and son,’ says Fred, who took part in this week’s ceremony to mark Titanic’s departure from Southampton.
James, 47, was an experienced member of the crew looking after the richest passengers. ‘He seems to have been very successful at it,’ says Fred. ‘It looks like he made quite a bit of money in tips and he would bring that back to his wife Alice. He seems to have been a generous, hard-working man.’
Sadly his body was never found.
Caroline says the link has given her plenty to think about. ‘You see the films and everything relates to a different era, it all seems intangible. But discovering this has made me think of it more in terms of an actual tragedy, how horrific it must have been for these people who had little chance of survival.’
Hear Sidney’s words
When Richard Daniels walked into a room at Southampton’s new SeaCity Museum, he heard his father telling his own Titanic story.
Parts of the crew member’s account of that night are being played, along with the recorded memories of other survivors, at the museum.
‘It was a very strange experience hearing dad’s voice like that, but they’ve done the whole thing very well,’ says Richard.
As the son of Titanic’s last surviving crew member, Richard was invited to a memorial service at Southampton Docks and the opening of the museum on Tuesday. The events marked the date Titanic set sale from Southampton.
Around 724 of the ship’s crew lived in Southampton and only 175 returned home. The museum tells the story of the disaster as well as the city’s seafaring history.
For further information, visit seacitymuseum.co.uk