John Borland Thayer II

For my readers who follow cricket, the recent controversy about the dismissal of an English batsman in an Ashes test will not be news.  However, it made me think about the game and its reputation for sportsmanship (although sometimes breached rather than honoured these days – yet still, I think, cricket comes out well in this regard compared to all other mainstream sports).  The Ashes, of course have been fought over since 1882 between England’s and Australia’s finest cricketers.

The phrase, “It’s just not cricket” has gone down in the English vernacular to describe anything that is not performed in adherence with the spirit as well as the rule of law and, indeed, many years ago anyone who didn’t live morally and abide by the spirit as well as the rule of law would be blacklisted at clubs and spurned in social circles.

One person I came across who exemplified this in spades will probably not be known to the vast majority of people but his story is worth recounting…

The man is John Borland Thayer II.  Thayer was born in 1862 to a well-connected family and, in his youth, was a prominent sportsman in the USA.  He was captain of the lacrosse team in 1879 at the University of Pennsylvania and also played for their basketball team.  He also played cricket for the Merion Cricket Club and first-class cricket for the Philadelphian cricket team against a US American-born side and against English counties on tour in 1884.  He also played for Merion CC against a Winnipeg XI.

His record was not exceptional (he played 7 first-class matches, scored 138 runs with an average of 11.5 and claimed 6 wickets at an average of 26.8) but the fact that there has been any American playing cricket at this level was news to me!

The Merion Cricket Club was founded in 1865 and its first match was in 1866.  The club still exists and prospers although from the 1920s until the early 1970s the cricket team was defunct, replaced by squash, tennis and golf, but thanks to members with an eye to history it was resurrected in 1972.

But I digress.  Back to John Thayer. In 1892 he married Marian Longstreth Morris – a descendant of old-moneyed Philadelphia families and they had four children – John (Jack), Frederick, Margaret and Pauline – and he went to work for the Pennsylvania railroad after university becoming a Vice President at the company.


In the Spring of 1912, he, his wife, Marian and son, Jack had been in Europe as guests of the American Consul General in Berlin and on April 10th the family boarded a ship at Cherbourg-en-Cotentin as first-class passengers, heading back to New York.

On the evening of the 14th, after Thayer, Marian and Jack had enjoyed a dinner party held by the Widener family in the à la carte restaurant with Lucile and William Carter, Major Butt and Captain Smith they went back to their cabin C68.  Jack was about to climb into bed when he felt the ship sway slightly. The ship’s engines stopped.  Voices and running feet could be heard on deck. He called to his father that he was going up on deck to see the “fun”. Thayer decided to join him.

The ship was the Titanic.  And it had just struck the fatal iceberg.

The passengers were so little alarmed that they joked over the matter. This ship was, after all, unsinkable.  The few that appeared on deck early had taken their time to dress properly, and there was no panic. Some of the fragments of the iceberg had fallen onto the deck, and these were picked up and laughingly passed around by some of the facetious passengers who offered them as mementoes of the occasion.

After some milling about on deck, Thayer and Jack came in from the cold and, heading back to their cabin, they met the Titanic designer, Thomas Andrews who told them that he did not “give the ship much over an hour to live”.

At a quarter past one on the morning of April 15th, the stewards told everyone to go below and dress in warm clothing and life preservers. Jack and his father did so to find his mother and her maid fully dressed. They all hurried up to the lounge on “A” deck which was fast becoming crowded and the noise deafening. The now idle boilers were blowing off excess steam through relief valves and the crew were launching distress rockets.

Word was passed for women and children to board lifeboats on the port side.

As the boats were prepared for lowering, John and Jack said an emotional goodbye to Marian whom they had helped into a lifeboat with her maid and Eleanor Widener.  Thayer now turned back only to bump into Chief Second Steward George Dodd who advised him that Marian was still on board. John and Jack frantically searched for her, found her again and for a second time saw her safely into lifeboat 4.  However, he had now lost Jack in the crowd.

Thayer had no intention of taking a seat on one of the few lifeboats.  Instead, he stayed with his friends George and Harry Widener and Charles Duane Williams. At last, all the boats that could be lowered had gone.  The last man saved, Colonel Archibald Gracie, subsequently reported that he had seen Thayer looking “pale and determined” by the midship rail aft of lifeboat 7 talking with George Widener.  There was obviously great confusion and no-one can be sure but Jack later speculated that his father had been struck and killed by the collapsing second funnel when the Titanic sank.

Thayer was never seen again.  Jack managed to jump and eventually swim to a collapsible lifeboat which was floating upside down with several men clinging to it. He was helped onto the boat and eventually there were 28 men desperately hanging on. For the rest of the night they had to remain motionless, afraid they would fall into the icy water if they moved an inch.  Daylight came and with the aid of a whistle they were able to summon two lifeboats from the Titanic who took the 28 men off their precarious perch and in doing so undoubtedly saved their lives.

In a book that Jack later wrote as a family record he recalls how the night was shattered for 20 or 30 minutes as those in the water cried for help until they could no longer withstand the cold and exposure. Jack writes, “How could any human-being fail to heed those cries?”. He continued, “The most heartrending part of the whole tragedy was the failure, right after the Titanic sank, of those boats which were only partially loaded, to pick up the poor souls in the water. There they were, only 400 or 500 yards away, listening to the cries, and still they did not come back”.

When Jack and his companions were finally taken off the collapsible boat, and the two lifeboats came to the rescue, Jack’s own mother was manning one of the oars.

Mrs. Stephenson, in the lifeboat with Marian, her maid, Margaret Fleming and Eleanor Widener said afterwards, “Mr. Thayer was one of the bravest men I ever saw. Immediately after we felt the shock of the collision he bent every effort to comfort and console the women and to see that they got safely into the lifeboats. He refused to give a thought to his own safety until he had done all that mortal man could do for us”.


I started this piece talking about the spirit of the game of cricket.  Thayer actually lived that spirit and my admiration for the man is immense.  A minute adopted by the Board of the Pennsylvania Railroad after his death described his many virtues including the ‘characteristic manhood and heroism with which he accepted his fate”.  I only hope that I am never faced with such a decision and that, if I am, I have Thayer’s courage.

Would that we had more of his nature in the corridors of power today.