Arthur Henry Rostron was born in Astley Bridge, Bolton, Lancashire, to James and Nancy Rostron in 1869. Educated at the Bolton School from 1882 to 1883 and then at the Astley Bridge High School, the young Rostron decided that he wanted to pursue a career at sea, and so joined the cadet school HMS Conway, in Liverpool, at the age of thirteen. After two years of training there, he was apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping firm bearing the imposing name of the Waverley Line of Messrs. Williamson, Milligan, and Co. Sailing first on an iron-hulled clipper ship, Cedric the Saxon, Rostron spent the next six years at sea, sailing to all parts of the world including the Americas, India and Australia, gaining invaluable experience in practical seamanship while he studied for his various Mates’ examinations: by 1887 he was serving as Second Mate aboard the barque Red Gauntlet. Rostron would later remember that while he was aboard her he had his closest brush with death at sea, when the Red Gauntlet toppled over on her beam ends (literally lying on her side) during a storm off the south coast of New Zealand; the ship recovered and Rostron of course lived.
In December 1894, at the relatively young age of twenty-five, he reached a major milestone in his professional career, as he passed the examination for his Extra Master’s certificate, crucial to the ambitions of any young man aspiring to the command of a ship in the British Merchant Marine, and joined the Cunard Line in January 1895 as fourth officer on the ocean liner RMS Umbria. In the years after Rostron joined Cunard, he rose steadily, if unspectacularly, up the company ladder. This was not a reflection on Rostron’s abilities, for Cunard officers were expected to be conscientious and circumspect–but never spectacular. It was with as much truth as wit that Mark Twain had once summed up Cunard’s attitude when he observed, “The Cunard people would not take Noah as first mate until they had worked him through the lower grades and tried him for ten years or such matter…. It takes them about ten or fifteen years to manufacture a captain; but when they have him manufactured to suit at last they have full confidence in him. The only order they give a captain is this, brief and to the point: ‘Your ship is loaded, take her; speed is nothing; follow your own road, deliver her safe, bring her back safe–safety is all that is required.’” Arthur Rostron’s career demonstrated the truth of Twain’s remarks–-it would eventually demonstrate the wisdom of Cunard’s methods.
Rostron served on various vessels, including Campania, Etruria, Ivernia, Pannonia, Saxonia, Servia and Ultonia, the only break in his service coming in 1905 when, as an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve, Rostron was obliged to temporarily serve in the British Navy during the Russo-Japanese War. He worked his way up the ranks until September 1907, when he was named as First Officer of the shiny new Lusitania, then the largest and fastest ship yet built, a post he held all through her sea-trials, which were the most extensive ever conducted for a passenger liner up to that time. It was with some surprise then that he received the news, the day before the Lusitania departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage, that he was being taken off her bridge, but the surprise was a pleasant one, for Rostron was informed that he was being given his first command, the cargo ship Brescia. Then in quick succession, he commanded the Ivernia, Pavonia, Pannonia and Saxonia.
There is a temptation among some maritime historians to anticipate events and overplay the regard in which Arthur Rostron was held within Cunard before April 1912, but what is unquestionable is that he was a conscientious officer who was respected by his peers and crews alike. He was known throughout the company as “the Electric Spark” for his decisiveness and boundless, infectious energy. He was also noted for his piety; he neither smoked nor drank, was never heard to use profanity, and in a day and age wise enough not regard recourse to the Almighty as quaint or a sign of weak-mindedness, was known to turn to prayer for guidance.
He took command of the Carpathia on January 18, 1912, and took her to New York for the first time a week later. For the next four months the Carpathia plied her regular service between New York and Fiume. While on her westbound crossings she would usually be heavy with immigrants in Third Class but relatively few passengers in First or Second Class, while on her eastbound passages she was usually carrying Americans on holiday, calling at Europe’s Mediterranean ports and the ports of Europe, so that much of Third Class would be sitting empty. Consequently it was hardly surprising when, on April 11, 1912, the Carpathia pulled away from Cunard’s Pier 54, into the Hudson River and out of New York harbor with 125 First Class passengers aboard, with 65 in Second Class, and 550 Third Class passengers rattling about in a space designed for four times that number. It was a passage which promised to be a pleasant but uneventful crossing, with very little if anything in to offer in the way of excitement for passengers or crew.