Frederick Fleet reluctantly entered the public eye in 1912, on the fourth day of the United States Senate Inquiry in to the sinking of the Titanic. He confirmed his name, his place of residence, and his age. He then confirmed that he was a sailor, more specifically, a lookout man. Fred Fleet was the lookout man on that fateful night in April 1912, when the Titanic infamously struck the iceberg that would send it to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Born in Liverpool on 15 October 1887 to parents who abandoned him as a child, Fleet grew up with numerous foster parents before first going to sea aged 16 in 1903. He worked his way up to become an able seaman and served as the lookout on RMS Oceanic for four years.
In Southampton in April 1912 he signed on to be a lookout on the Titanic, along with five other men who would share the duty. The ship departed Southampton on 10 April 1912 and for four days sailed without any problems, destined for New York.
On the night of the 14th, at 10pm, Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee began their shift on the crow’s nest of the Titanic as it sailed through the night in the middle of the vast, quiet ocean.
An hour and forty minutes later, at 11:40pm ship’s time, Fleet spotted the iceberg. He quickly rang the crow’s nest bell three times to warn the bridge, before picking up the telephone and shouting the infamous “iceberg, right ahead!” warning down the line. It was too little, too late. Despite the efforts of those in the bridge, the Titanic struck the iceberg. Fleet and Lee stayed on duty for a further twenty minutes, before being relieved.
Fleet made his way to the deck, to help with the loading of lifeboats. As an able seaman, he was ordered on to lifeboat number six, which ensured his safety when it was launched at 01:10am. He would have watched on as Titanic slipped beneath the waves just over an hour later.
Due to his role as a lookout, he was summoned to the United States Senate Inquiry in to the sinking, and took to a line of questioning. I’ve added a couple of bits below from the following link, where you can read the full transcript: Frederick Fleet Testimony
5238. What did you report when you saw this black mass Sunday night?
– I reported an iceberg right ahead.
5239. To whom did you report that?
– I struck three bells first. Then I went straight to the telephone and rang them up on the bridge.
5241. Did you get anyone on the bridge?
– I got an answer straight away – what did I see, or “What did you see?”
5242. Did the person who was talking to you tell you who he was?
– No. He just asked me what did I see. I told him an iceberg right ahead.
He was asked about binoculars.
5341. Are you given glasses of any kind?
– We had none this time. We had nothing at all, only our own eyes, to look out.
5347. Did you make any request for glasses on the Titanic?
– We asked them in Southampton, and they said there was none for us.
5357. Suppose you had had glasses such as you had on the Oceanic, or such as you had between Belfast and Southampton, could you have seen this black object a greater distance?
– We could have seen it a bit sooner.
5358. How much sooner?
– Well, enough to get out of the way.
Fleet told the inquiry that he and his lookout mates were disappointed not to receive any binoculars for the journey, and always maintained that had he had some, he may well have seen the iceberg sooner and they could have averted disaster.
Fleet remained as a look out for years, serving on Union-Castle line ships, then in the Merchant Navy during the First World War and finally as a lookout on the Oceanic for many years in the 1920s and 1930s. He gave up life on the sea and worked at the Harland and Wolff repair works in Southampton docks until the Second World War, when he signed up and served again.
In the 1960s, when he should have been approaching retirement, times were hard for Fleet. He lived with his wife and her brother at 8 Norman Road in Southampton, and he took to selling copies of the Daily Echo on a street corner near the docks.
It’s a very sad ending to Fred’s story. On 28 December 1964, Fred’s wife died, and as previously agreed, he would have to move out of her brother’s house. This caused Fred to spiral in to a severe depression, and tragically, on 10 January 1965, he hanged himself in the house’s back garden.
Frederick Fleet was buried in a pauper’s grave with no headstone in Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton in 1965. His grave remained unmarked until 1993, when the United States based Titanic Historical Society funded a proper headstone for Fred, which is there today as a mark of respect to the man who who first saw the iceberg on that cold, fateful night in April 1912.