Jessie Wills Anderson

Jessie Wills Anderson

An unassuming gravestone sits in the village cemetery, no different to those surrounding it. It gives no indication of the lives led by those it immortalises.

You would never know to look at it, but this one gravestone is a memorial to a woman who survived perhaps the most famous maritime disaster. A disaster which is still talked about regularly over 110 years on.

A gravestone in Kerry Cemetery.
In Loving Memory of Alexander Anderson, Manhyfryd, died 1928 and of Jessie Wills, his wife, died 1963 Peace Perfect Peace

It only recently came to my attention that we have a Titanic survivor buried in the village cemetery. I was busy researching something else when I came across a newspaper article about the funeral of Jessie Wills Anderson (née Leitch).

Though a native of Scotland, Jessie ended her days in the peaceful surroundings of Dol-Llys Hall, a care home at Llanidloes in Wales. In February 1963, a local newspaper, the County Times, reported:

“Mrs J. W. Anderson, who died at Dol-llys, Llanidloes, on February 6th, aged 82 years, was one of the few survivors of the “Titanic” disaster in 1912. She was the widow of Mr Alexander Anderson, Manhyfryd, Kerry, who predeceased her in 1928.

The funeral at Kerry Church on Saturday was conducted by the vicar, the Rev. J. Idris Jones.

Chief mourners were her brother, the Rev. Alexander Leitch, Knighton, Mrs C. Elliot, Wolverhampton, niece, and Mr D. Leitch and Mr G. Elliot, nephews. Friends from Dol-llys Hall and Kerry also attended the funeral.

Wreaths were received from members of the family and from all at Dol-llys Hall; Mr & Mrs Orlando Jones & Glen; Hilda & Colin Easthope; Mary & John; Alistair.

The bearers were Messrs. J. M. Chandler, J. Thomas & Arthur Jones.”

Much has been written about the man Jessie travelled with aboard Titanic. Many newspaper articles of the day refer to her as the nursemaid or nanny, and yet she was so much more to Rev. John Harper and his daughter, she was his niece.

A newspaper clipping showing Rev. John Harper, Jessie Leitch and Nana Harper.
A newspaper clipping from The Leeds Mercury (24th April 1912) with the caption: “Mr. John Harper, pastor of Walworth-road Baptist Chapel, drowned; Miss Leitch, his niece, and his daughter Nana, rescued by the Carpathia (Topical.)

On 6th May 1912, a report in the Daily News gives Jessie’s account of the events leading up to the disaster…


The Rev. J. Harper’s Last Day on the Titanic

Miss Leitch, one of the survivors, has given a graphic account of the closing incidents of the life of Rev. John Harper, the pastor of Walworth-road Chapel, London, her uncle, with whom she was travelling to Chicago.

“About midnight,” she said, “Mr Harper” came to our state room and told us that the vessel had struck an iceberg. While I was dressing he went to learn further particulars, and returned to say that the order had been given to put on the lifebelts. We did so, and picking little Nana (his motherless child, six years of age) up in his arms he took her up to the deck. There the women were ordered to the upper deck.

“I had to climb a vertical iron ladder, and Mr. Harper held Nana up the ladder, and the men at the top lifted her up to me again. There was no opportunity for farewell, and, in fact, even then we did not realise the danger. We were assured again and again that the vessel could not sink.

“The last day we spent on the Titanic was Sunday. Mr. Harper asked me to read the chapter at our morning family prayers, and later we went to the Sunday morning services. The day was quietly and pleasantly spent; and when Nana and I went to look for Mr. Harper at about six o’clock to go to dinner we found him earnestly talking to a young English-man.

“That evening before we retired we went on deck, and there was still a glint of red in the west. I remember Mr. Harper saying ‘It will be beautiful in the morning!’ We read from the Bible and prayed, and so he left us.”

Jessie and Nana left the sinking Titanic aboard Lifeboat 11 at around 1.35am on 15th April 1912, though the lifeboat was nearly swamped by a jet of water pumped from the Titanic. Several passengers reportedly complained that the boat was lowered at dangerous angles. Lifeboat 11 was picked up by the “Carpathia” around 7am. 

On 3rd May 1912, the South London Press reported that Jessie and Nana were returning home on board the “Celtic” and would hopefully be back that evening. Rev. John Harper had been on his way to Chicago where he had arranged to preach in the pulpit at the Moody Church. Mr. E. J. Woolley, a deacon at Moody Church, Chicago, described the arrival of the “Carpathia” in New York, and the meeting with Jessie and Nana…

Newspaper headline from the South London Press (3rd May 1912).

“About eight o’clock that evening the bulletin came that the ship was approaching the dock. I will not attempt to describe the scene on the dock: pathos, tragedy, and joy were strangely mingled as friends gave up the last hope of meeting their loved ones or, on the other hand, were again reunited. Providentially, we came upon Dr. Philip Maurs and his daughter, who had sailed upon the “Carpathia,” and who knew Miss Leitch and Nana Harper. They secured the transmission of our message to Miss Leitch, and she came ashore and met us, bringing little Nana in her arms. She showed wonderful fortitude and bore up bravely. Little Nana was not aware that hope had been given up for the rescue of her father. Miss Leitch had only the clothes she wore; had saved no money or valuables, and little Nan, taken as she had been from her berth at midnight, had only her little nightgown and blanket wrapper, around which Miss Leitch had wrapped her own cloak. A lady standing by insisted on throwing a heavy ulster over Miss Leitch, which she had brought to the pier for that purpose. We soon secured our automobile, and were giving the weary travellers their support. They had no stateroom on the “Carpathia” and had stayed night and day in a corner of the library. Early this morning Mrs. Betts brought in an entire outfit for Nana, and then took them both in the auto to buy further necessary clothing for Miss Leitch, and a hat.”

Mr Wooley also described how “Miss Leitch and Nana” were provided with comfortable rooms and that both resolved to return home and not go on to Chicago, where they were assured of a heartfelt welcome.

Tragedy would again hit the Leitch family in November 1927 when Jessie’s nephew, John Alexander Leitch died aged just 3 years old. Little John Leitch died after being accidentally run over by a car. At his funeral, Jessie left a wreath with the message “With loving remembrance, from Auntie Jessie and Uncle Alick, Kerry”.

Jessie’s husband of a few short years, Alexander Anderson, would also be dead just seven months later.

I can only hope that the rest of Jessie’s life was a happier and more peaceful time.


  1. Lorrie Orr says:

    Such tragedy. I admire the heroism of so many of the male passengers on the Titanic, willing to save women and children before themselves. I wonder what would happen if such an event happened today?

    • Nikki says:

      I imagine some men would still be heroic, but somehow I imagine these days it would be a free-for-all. Sadly, people seem to be a lot more selfish these days.

  2. Kris P says:

    That’s quite a history you turned up, Nikki. I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been being afloat at sea for days or weeks prior to the rescue.

    • Nikki says:

      The rescued were only in the lifeboats for a matter of hours before “Carpathia” found them, but I have no doubt those hours seemed endless and possibly without much hope.

      • Yeah, Another Blogger says:

        Hello. I agree with you that a Titanic-like situation these days would result in pretty much a free-for-all. But, maybe we’re wrong. I hope so. Neil S.

  3. lisl says:

    Thank you for sharing this sad family story. The account was one of the most personal and telling I have read. I remember years ago (without camera)coming across another Titanic survivor in a Gloucestershire Churchyard, but sadly didn’t make a note so I could go back

  4. Ginnie Hart says:

    All of this from visiting a cemetery, Nikki, and finding a particular tombstone of historic importance! This is exactly why I love visiting cemeteries, wondering about all the stories that can be told if the stones could but talk. This particular story is one I haven’t heard and is most touching.

  5. Astrid says:

    That is some story and like you, I hope that she found her peace in life. She had her share. The sinking of the Titanic is one of those disasters that people know about. Seeing that stone on the cemetery and reading about it makes it more “alive” again. Thank you for this incredible post.

  6. Jo says:

    It’s so interesting what you stumble upon when researching other things. Some people seem to have more than their fair share of tragedy, as you say, let’s hope that Jessie had some happier times as well as these sad ones.

  7. somewhereinireland says:

    Interesting that you found some information on the person listed on the gravestone. It’s always nice to find bits of history from people buried in the cememtery.

    • Nikki says:

      I found the information (well some of it) before I found the gravestone. Thankfully, the village cemetery isn’t very big, so it wasn’t hard to find (in fact, it’s not far from the cemetery gates)

    • Nikki says:

      Nana lived a long life. She died aged 80 on the 10th April 1986 – 74 years to the day after the Titanic set sail from Southampton. I believe she went to live in London with an aunt & uncle, then moved back to Scotland after marrying.

  8. Ann says:

    That’s truly fascinating, Nikki. Although we learned that Miss Leitch did seem to have met more than the average amount of tragedies in her life, I cannot help to wonder what happened to little Nana … xxx

  9. A touching and tragic story Nikki and an interesting one to read. It’s good to know that little Nana lived a long life after the horror of the Titanic.

    Many years ago my mum told me a brief story of one of her aunts – after spending some time in America she was due to come back to England in 1915 on board the Lusitania but after being warned that the crossing could be dangerous she decided not to board. That was to be her lucky day as the ship sank with the loss of 1,200 lives after being torpedoed by a German submarine.

  10. Sharon says:

    Amazing to hear a tale of a titanic survivor. And having read the comments, good to know that Nana lived a long and happy life after her rescue. Sorry that Jessie had to endure yet more tragedy in hers. X

  11. Wow! Sounds a bit, what weird, macabre, morbid? but I do enjoy looking around grave yards, we have an amazing one near us here in Newcastle which is the burial place for some interesting local characters.

    Such a tragic and yet fascinating post, thank you for sharing Jessie’s story.

  12. Beverley says:

    Thank you for sharing the story behind the headstone of Jessie Wills and her survival after the tragedy of the Titanic. So many brave souls lost that day and also for those who lived on and bore the scars. Amongst the sadness I hope she found some happiness in her life.

  13. jeanie says:

    This is absolutely fascinating, Nikki. I know I have much to catch up on here (I see you’ve even been to Finland!). I was glad you stopped by because it reminded me I hadn’t seen a post from you for ages. I thought I had subscribed by mail so I didn’t think about it much but when I dug deep in your blog, realized I hadn’t. So, forgive my absences. I always enjoy being here with your gorgeous photos and now this remarkable story of Jessie Leitch is one I will remember.

  14. Yvonne @Fiction_Books says:

    All that water – terrifying!! Now I know why I prefer to holiday on terra firma, with the idea of a cruise, or even a ferry crossing, not appealing to me at all. It was as much as hubby could do to persuade me to board the Isle of Wight hovercraft and we were only on board for 15 minutes or so!

    We too enjoy ferreting out interesting stories from local graveyards and whilst on a visit to Malmesbury Abbey yesterday, a very kind lady pointed us in the direction of a grave we had never noticed before. Apparently a local lady had been killed by a tiger, right in the middle of town.,mauling%20her%20to%20death%20before%20it%20was%20recaptured.

    Hope you are well, I am looking forward to your next small business post, as I have a couple of paper and stationery companies to share with you.

  15. Aiva Vocisa says:

    This is such a fascinating post, Nikki, and so is the rest of your blog! I thought I had subscribed by mail to your blog as well as hit the follow button, but none of your posts ever showed up on my WordPress feed which I find rather strange. So now I have some catching up to do.

    I think that it’s quite amazing how the Titanic still looms large in our collective imagination, as the magnificent ship that sank in the Atlantic on its first voyage in 1912, dooming many passengers to an icy death because there weren’t enough lifeboats. I know that the film was rereleased in theatres as part of marking its 26th anniversary with a remastered version (better sound) shown in 3D 4K HDR and a high frame rate. As I never saw it on the big screen, I planned to go but never ended up doing it. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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