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First Distress Signal Sent at Sea



The first ever distress signal at sea was sent by John (Jack) Robinson Binns. Early Life: Jack was born in Brigg Union Workhouse, Lincolnshire, in 1884, but moved to Peterborough in 1885 to live with his uncle, William. He left school when he was aged 14 and gained employment as a Telegraph Clerk with the Great Eastern Railway. Unfortunately for Jack, not long after he started work he sustained serious injuries to his legs in a railway accident and spent six months recuperating in Peterborough Infirmary. He continued working for the GER but eventually left to attend the Marconi Radio Company Training School and ‘graduated’ as a ‘Marconi Man’ in the merchant marine. Heroism at Sea: After serving on board various German ships and doing a spell of shore duty in Ireland Jack joined the White Star Line as a Telegraphist (Wireless Operator). Jack was on duty on the RMS Republic in January 1909 when the liner was in collision with the Italian liner Florida in the North Atlantic. The Republic sustained serious damage but John was able to transmit a Morse code distress signal, 'CQD' (CQ being a call for any ships or land-based radio operators, and the 'D' being the all-important signal for distress), which was picked up by the Marconi Radio shore station on Nantucket Island. This signal is acknowledged to be the first ever distress signal sent at sea. The signal was re-transmitted to the SS Baltic which, together with other vessels, was able to steam to the assistance of the stricken ships, guided by the radio signals sent out by Jack who stayed at his post for nineteen hours, in the biting cold (part of the radio cabin had been ripped away in the collision leaving it open to the elements) working with crude equipment running on emergency back-up batteries. Six people died in the accident; all surviving passengers and crew from the Republic were transferred to the Florida which made it safely into port. The RMS Republic, however, was too badly damaged and sank in 40 fathoms south of Nantucket. Life After the Sinking: Jack was welcomed as a hero when he returned to New York where he was subjected to much unwanted publicity and inducements to profit financially from his experiences but these were rejected and Jack returned to England. He arrived back in Peterborough, which he considered to be his home, on Feb. 9th, where he was greeted by the Mayor and presented with a scroll of honour. Marconi presented Jack with a gold watch in recognition of his heroism.  He had suggested after the 1909 collision that every merchant ship should carry two wireless operators and this principle was incorporated into the US 1912 Radio Act. In 1939 he received a medal from the ‘Veteran Wireless Operators Association'. Jack continued his employment with the White Star Line and, in 1912, was offered a job on the company's newest liner, the Titanic. By this time, however, the young 'Marconiman' was engaged, and his American fiancee didn't want him to return to sea.  He resigned his position and went to work as a journalist in New York. Ironically, his first journalistic assignment was to report on the loss of the Titanic! Jack died of a stroke in New York in 1959. He bequeathed his gold watch, medals and scroll to the citizens of Peterborough and they are now in the possession of Peterborough Museum. References: Peterborough Archives


A ‘Titanic’ Loss of Life



In April 1912 the eleven members of the Sage family set off to start a new life in Florida as pecan farmers. Unfortunately, the boat they sailed on was the Titanic.

The Peterborough Connection

John and Annie Sage were originally from Hackney in London. They moved to Norfolk where they ran a pub, the Bentinck Arms in West Lynn. In 1902 they moved to Peterborough, and lived at 237 Gladstone Street, where they kept a small bakery and shop. In 1910 John decided on another change; he and his eldest son George went off to Canada to scout out the possibility of the family emigrating there. They worked as waiters in the dining cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but also found time to visit Florida. So impressed was he, that John bought a fruit farm in Jacksonville, Florida.

Preparing to Leave

On his return to Peterborough in the  autumn of 1911, the family prepared to leave England. However, not all family members were enthusiastic about the move. The Sage's eldest daughter, Stella, was loathed to leave her many friends behind, and John's wife, Annie, didn't welcome the move as she felt settled in Peterborough. She was also concerned that her daughter Dolly had narrowly escaped drowning a couple of years before and she superstitiously feared that meant she was doomed to eventually meet her end in water. John insisted on the move however, and the family finally agreed.

The Ship

The Sage family originally planned to sail on the Philadelphia, an American Line ship operating out of Liverpool. These plans had to change as the ship was laid up in dock due to a coal strike. They booked onto the RMS Titanic out of Southampton on her maiden voyage instead, as third class passengers on a family ticket, number 2343.


On the night of 14/15 April 1912 the ship struck an iceberg, and the entire family died in the sinking. Some witnesses reported that one daughter was offered a place in the life boats but refused to go without the rest of the family. Only one body was recovered, that of Anthony William Sage. This was the single biggest loss of life from one family in the disaster. Family members: John George Sage, Annie Elizabeth Sage, Stella (born 1891), George John (born 1892), Douglas (born 1894), Frederick (born 1895), Dorothy Florence (born 1897), Anthony William (born 1899), Elizabeth Ada (born 1901), Constance Gladys (born 1904) and Thomas Henry (born 1911)