People on board
HELLER, William Thomas
William Thomas Heller was born in Penzance, Cornwall in 1900 to Nicholas John Heller and Ellen Mary Sullivan. Nicholas was working in the Post Office in Penzance and Ellen was the daughter of a Royal Navy man from Devonport. William was the eldest of their five children, the youngest, a twin, dying shortly after birth and he was their only son. Ellen died in 1917 at the age of forty three. The family was then living in Tolver Road in Penzance.
By 1900 telegraphic communication was well established, with both European and transatlantic underwater cables laid. With commercial success came competition, not least in Kerry. The Waterville station was owned by an American company, the Commercial Cable Co., while from 1911 the Valentia and Ballinskelligs stations were owned by the Western Union Telegraph Co. The outbreak of war in 1914 brought two major changes to these stations. One was the volume of traffic increased enormously, meaning staff numbers increased and long hours of work were required. Secondly, censorship was imposed and censors or ‘Post Office Technical Staff’ were present in the stations, eleven in Valentia and six in Waterville. Each station was surrounded by barbed wire and kept under military guard.
Three young men from Penzance were among the staff at the Valentia station: William Heller, Thomas Richards and Wilfred Paul.
On the 10th of October 1918 the three were returning home for a fortnight’s holiday and were travelling on RMS Leinster. Another group of three Telegraphists was also on board the Leinster, recently graduated from the Irish School of Telegraphy in Cork. Anthony Baker, Anthony Jones and Ralph Murray were all from Waterville where their fathers were working as Telegraphists in the Cable Station. The two groups may have known each other already, and in an affidavit to a probate hearing on Anthony Baker in December 1918, Thomas Richards said that they met up on board the ship. Of the six, only Richards survived the sinking, though the bodies of Anthony Jones and William Heller were recovered.
Nicholas Heller got word that his son’s body had been picked up at sea and brought to St Michael’s Hospital in Kingstown where he died. His body was returned to Cornwall where he was buried beside his mother in the Penzance cemetery. Nicholas Heller remarried in 1919, later becoming Assistant Superintendent in the Post Office. He died at the age of ninety-three and is also buried in the Penzance cemetery.