Arthur John Priest: The Unsinkable Stoker

Oct 18, 2023 1 comments

If there was anyone on board the Titanic that truly deserved the title “unsinkable” it was a coal stoker named Arthur John Priest, who survived no fewer than four ship sinking, including that of the Titanic and its sister ship Britannic, as well as living through two ship collisions.

Priest was born in Southampton, England in 1887 and worked most of his life as a member of "the black gang"— a term given to the coal stokers that toil in the bowels of steam-powered ships stocking the furnaces and keeping the boilers hot. They were so called because they were always covered in coal dust from shoveling coal. This grueling labor was often carried out shirtless due to the intense furnace heat.

Titanic departing Belfast for sea trials.

Priest's first brush with disaster came while serving as a coal stoker aboard the Royal Mail Steam Packet's RMS Asturias. During her maiden voyage in 1908, the ship was involved in a collision, but fortunately, no lives were lost.

In 1911, at the age of 24, Priest was working aboard the RMS Olympic when she was involved in a collision with the British warship HMS Hawk. The Hawk struck the Olympic's starboard side, creating two breaches just above the waterline. The bow of the Hawk was severely damaged, nearly leading to capsizing. Fortunately, the Olympic managed to navigate back to Harland and Wolf in Belfast for the necessary repairs under her own power.

Arthur John Priest.

John Priest's next experience with disaster came on April 14, 1912 with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. There was a coal strike at the time of Titanic's departure from Southampton and many ship crew members were laid off. Priest was among the few who managed to secure a position as a stoker on board the Titanic. He was in the Firemen's crew quarters between shifts when the ship struck the iceberg.

Priest made his way up the deck of the ship along with few other stokers through a maze of gangways and corridors. By the time they emerged into the freezing night air, most of the lifeboats had already gone. Priest jumped into the freezing waters wearing only the shorts and vests he was working in, and was picked up by a lifeboat.

An artist's impression of HMS Alcantara and SMS Greif engaging each other.

Having survived the Titanic, Priest joined the military when World War 1 began, and was assigned to HMS Alcantara, an armed merchant cruiser, as a coal stoker. In January 1916, Alcantara intercepted the German merchant raider Greif, disguised as the Norwegian merchant ship. Alcantara ordered Greif to stop for inspection, which she did. As Alcantara came along side of the Grief, she opened fire.

A shell struck Alcantara's bridge, resulting in the loss of several officers and disabling the helm. In retaliation, Alcantara fired back, striking a munitions hold on the Grief, triggering a substantial and destructive explosion. With the engine room flooding on the Alcantara, the command was issued to evacuate the ship. Both vessels started to sink just as the HMS Munster reached the scene, rescuing survivors from both ships, among whom was John Priest.

HMS Britannic as an hospital ship during World War 1.

Nine months after the incident, Priest was back to work, this time in the boiler room of HMS Britannic, Titanic's other sister, which was serving as a hospital ship ferrying wounded soldiers back to Britain through the Mediterranean. Two other Titanic survivors were also onboard—Archie Jewell and Violet Jessop, a stewardess who was now serving as a nurse.

In November of 1916, off the Greek Isle of Kea, the vessel encountered a German mine that ruptured the bulkheads in two of her cargo holds. In response, the ship's captain directed a course change toward the island, aiming to run aground. However, due to the rapid flooding of the holds and damage to the steering mechanism caused by the explosion, Captain Bartlett's attempts to beach the ship proved futile. In a manner reminiscent of the Titanic incident, John Priest, along with Violet Jessop, undertook the arduous journey, navigating catwalks and ascending multiple flights of stairs to reach the boat deck. John Priest and Violet Jessop jumped into the water and were picked up by another lifeboat. Archie Jewell also made a miraculous survival after his lifeboat was chopped up by the propellers.

SS Donegal

Priest’s final experience with near death occurred in April 1917, onboard the hospital ship SS Donegal , where he was working as a fireman. While crossing the English Channel, the ship was attacked by a German U-boat and sank. Priest suffered a serious head injury which him out of action for the reminder of the war. Priest later wrote a letter to his sister describing the sinking:

I came up under some of the wreckage ... everything was goin' black to me when someone on top was struggling and pushed the wreckage away so I came up just in time I was nearly done for ... there was one poor fellow drowning and he caught hold of me but I had to shake him off and the poor fellow went under.

After surviving his fourth sinking, Priest retired from working at sea and left his job as a stoker. He lived out the rest of his days in Southampton, with his wife Annie. He claimed that “no one wished to sail with him after these disasters.”

Priest died in 1937 at his home in Southampton at the age of 49 from pneumonia. He is buried at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton, England.

# Titanic's unsinkable stoker, BBC
# The Unsinkable John Priest,


  1. Seems he was cursed. Could he have been the reason all those ships experienced misfortune? A veritable 'kiss of death'. Great story - thanks!


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