Canada’s real estate pioneers on the Titanic

The first decade of the 20th century produced profitable times for Winnipeg. The great Canadian prairie was opening up. Settlers and immigrants were pouring into Winnipeg on any available form of transport. Those newcomers needed somewhere to settle, and waiting to help was the fledgling real estate industry.

Two successful early real estate practitioners were John Hugo Ross, “a wealthy real estate owner” as the Chicago Examiner described him, and his equally wealthy friend Thomson Beattie.

Photo: John Hugo Ross (Manitoba Historical Society/Michael Poirier)

Both men were born in Ontario in 1875. Beattie was the son of a private banker. Ross was the son of a real estate broker involved in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. How they met is unclear but by 1912 they had both formed their own real estate companies. Beattie went into partnership and formed the Haslam Land Co. while Ross formed the Hugo Ross Realty Company. In 1903, Ross was one of the founders of the Winnipeg Real Estate Board.

The two young men had offices across from each other in the city’s Merchants Bank Building. They were friends as well as business rivals. Like many wealthy Manitobans, they left the harsh winter weather for sunnier climes. In January 1912, the two sailed for the Mediterranean from New York on the SS Frankonia. February of that year found them in Egypt, where Ross fell ill with dysentery. The vacation had to be shortened and the men booked a trip home on a new ocean liner sailing from England – the Titanic.

While the real estate boom had been roaring in the Prairie provinces, an ocean away in London, engineers were designing and building the ultimate in luxury liners to carry passengers across the Atlantic. On March 31, 1909 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, the keel for what would become the White Star liner Titanic was laid down. Fourteen thousand Harland and Wolff workers were involved in the construction of the liner and her sister ship, SS Olympic, which was built at the same time. On May 31, 1911, Titanic was launched. The largest ship in the world, and perhaps the most written-about since Noah’s ark, was afloat and ready for fitting out.

The liner was designed to carry the super rich and the lower end trade of immigrants seeking new lives in North America. The designers, surprisingly, provided third-class accommodation and facilities superior to those usually associated with ocean liners. With true Edwardian morality, the single men and women were kept apart. Males in the bow, females aft. Families could travel together and some third-class cabins accommodated 10 people and had a wash basin in the cabin, a major improvement for the period. Food was unimaginative but plentiful, although it was prepared in a separate galley than that used for the first-class passengers.

In first class the ship’s designers excelled themselves. The showpiece of the liner was the grand curving staircase constructed under a large glass dome. Each evening as the formally dressed passengers descended the sweeping staircase to reach the dining saloon, Titanic took on a magic all its own. The most expensive cabins on board were four parlour suites. Each contained a sitting room, two bedrooms, two dressing rooms, a private bath and lavatory.

Ross and Beattie did not warrant such deluxe cabins, but as wealthy young men they naturally booked first-class passage. In addition to their private cabins, they had access to gourmet dining, luxurious public rooms including a large smoking room, a swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, a palm court where the ship’s orchestra played and ample deck space for outdoor exercise.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton at 12 noon on Wed. April 10, 1912. Perhaps as a warning from King Neptune, as Titanic moved from the dock she came close to colliding with the liner New York. Disaster was narrowly averted.

Passage to New York entailed two stops, one in Cherbourg and the second in Queenstown in southern Ireland, both to take on additional passengers. On April 11 she left Queenstown with 1,302 passengers and a crew of 907 on board and headed out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The fatal collision with the iceberg occurred just before midnight on Sun. April 14. There had been numerous warnings of ice throughout the day from vessels in the area. These warnings did not cause Captain Smith to take any detour or reduce speed. He did, however, send two crewmen up to the lookout to watch for ice. Shortly before midnight the lookouts spotted a giant iceberg. Their warnings came too late to allow the helmsman to steer clear and at 11:40 pm, ship and iceberg met with a loud bang and a shudder that ran through the ship.

To passengers the damage seemed minor, but beneath the sea’s surface the iceberg had ripped a giant gash in the hull. From that moment the Titanic was doomed. Just under three hours after the collision, the Titanic slipped under the surface to plunge down to the sea bed. There she remained undisturbed and unseen for the next 80 years.


The actions of the passengers and crew after the collision were the subject of a series of inquiries held in the U.S. and the U.K. There were many stories of families being broken apart, of men trying to take women’s places in life boats. Stories of bravery and courage, and of cowardice and selfishness. Many of the stories have proven difficult to authenticate. What is clear is that the ship had an insufficient number of life boats for the number of people aboard. The listing of the ship made the launching of some boats impossible and the general sense of confusion made orderly abandonment of the ship impossible.

The most reliable figure for the final death toll is that determined by the British Board of Trade inquiry, which fixed the number at 1,503.

So what of our two Winnipeg real estate brokers? John Hugo Ross, whose dysentery forced the early return home on the “unsinkable liner”, was carried aboard the ship in Southampton on a stretcher. There was a report that Ross was seen by a fellow Canadian traveller after the collision in his pyjamas on the grand staircase. He asked, “What was the bang?” and when told the ship had collided with an iceberg, he said he was returning to his bed. He is presumed to have died in his cabin. His body, like so many others, was never recovered.

Beattie got off the ship. Whether, as some reports say, he fell overboard and was picked up by a collapsible boat or whether he left the ship on the collapsible, he was on the life boat after the sinking. But during the night, he and two other men on this craft died. They drifted on the ocean for almost a month after the sinking. Then their boat was spotted by the Oceanic, which took the three bodies on board and gave them a burial at sea.

Today nothing remains of the companies formed by Ross and Beattie. There is a memorial stone commemorating Beattie in a local cemetery. Winnipeg has a Hugo Street and a plaque dedicated to his name at Winnipeg City Hall.

By Brian Slemming

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One response to “Canada’s real estate pioneers on the Titanic

  1. That was indeed an interesting post. Two people in history of real estate,both also died in history with the most famous ship that sank.

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