Why great-grandparents’ romance may have inspired Titanic movie

Beverley Roberts at the Titanic Belfast
Beverley Roberts at the Titanic Belfast

Beverley Roberts hands me a purse. It is tiny, it’s brown leather wrinkled, it’s insides worn. The small, delicate item gives me goosebumps, for it belonged to Kate Florence Phillips, a survivor of the Titanic disaster and Beverley’s great-grandmother.

Beverley, who lives in Kidderminster, England, is in Belfast for the 20th anniversary celebrations and to tell the story of her great-grandparents’ tragic love story.

Kate Florence Phillips and her daughter Ellen

Kate Florence Phillips and her daughter Ellen

Her great-grandmother Kate, who was given a beautiful diamond necklace by her married lover Henry Samuel Morley, before he died when the ship sank, is believed to be the inspiration for the Heart of the Ocean storyline between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie.

Beverley, 45, said her great-grandmother Kate was eloping with her married lover when the doomed ship sank - and she believes her grandmother Ellen may have been conceived on the Titanic.

Henry Morley, a wealthy sweet shop owner, died in the disaster.

After surviving, Kate was taken in by the Red Cross in New York, then returned to Worcester three months later, where she realised she was pregnant.

Henry Morley

Henry Morley

Beverley believes Kate and Henry’s love affair inspired the relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters in the 1997 Titanic movie.

Henry Morley was said to have given Kate a diamond-encrusted sapphire necklace, which he had specially made in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, on board the ship.

Beverley said: ‘‘It was always a very sore point with my grandmother Ellen that she never knew her father.

‘My great-grandmother died in the 1960s - so I never really knew her - but she never talked about Henry. Her friends and family always said she was never the same after she came back to Worcester.’’

‘‘The sinking of the Titanic was one of the biggest ever maritime disasters - but for me, it might just be the only reason I’m here today,’’ added Beverley.

Kate Florence Phillips was just 19 when she began an affair with Henry Morley - 20 years her senior - after working for him in his sweet shop.

The pair decided to elope to the US to start a new life, leaving behind his wife and 12-year-old child - and boarded the Titanic under the assumed names of Mr and Mrs Marshall.

‘‘Henry’s brother knew about the elopement,’’said Beverley. ‘‘He took them to Southampton and waved them off. He was the only one that knew.’’

‘‘Henry had told the family he was going away to California for a few months on holiday.’’

It is understood the pair travelled second class on the luxury liner.

When the boat sank, Miss Phillips was put into a lifeboat along with other women and children - and Henry Morley, who could not swim, is believed to have drowned, although his body was never found.

Before her death in 2005, Beverley’s grandmother Ellen fought tirelessly to have Mr Morley’s name added to her birth certificate as her father - a battle which she never won.

Before she died, she told how her mother escaped.

‘‘My father didn’t want her to go and tried to cling on to her, but the sailors threw her in the boat,’ she told the White Star Journal. My father’s body was never found. My mother was in the lifeboat for eight hours.

‘‘All she had on was a nightgown, but one of the sailors wrapped his jumper round her. She went on to New York and stayed there for three or four months before discovering she was pregnant and returning to Worcester.

‘‘The shock of the Titanic must have disturbed my mother’s mind. It’s my deepest regret that I didn’t make her tell me about him.

‘‘My mother became more and more disturbed - once she swallowed some acid and it burned the walls of her stomach.

‘‘She was eventually put in an asylum and my stepfather left her.

‘‘In 1989, someone showed me a local item on the Titanic, and it had pictures of people from Worcester in it.

‘‘It was the first clear picture I had seen of Henry Morley. I cried and cried and cried.’’

Beverley added: ‘My poor grandmother never knew her father, and that was something that troubled her until the day she died.

‘‘It’s terribly sad really - my great-grandmother was on her way to start a new life with a man she loved.

‘‘I want to make sure I do everything I can to keep their amazing story alive.

“I am just really proud and fascinated.’’

Beverley has watched the Titanic movie many times.

‘‘The music and the ending really upset me because you think, what did she go through, what did she feel.’’

The purse is the only memento Beverley has of her great-grandmother - the necklace was sold many years ago. She wraps the purse up carefully and puts it back in her bag - a little piece of Kate Florence Phillips who lost her love to the ocean.