Thomas Roussel Davids Byles was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1870, the eldest of seven children in a Protestant family.

His father Reverend Alfred Holden Byles was a Congregationalist minister who had married Louisa Davids.

After attending Leamington College and Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, he studied theology in Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894.

Byles converted to the Church of England and later to Roman Catholicism, taking the name Thomas.

After following his brother, who had also converted to Catholicism, to Germany, he accepted the position of tutor to the second son of Prince von Waldburg-Wolfegg-Waldstein.

He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1902 and assigned as parish priest to St Helen’s Parish in Chipping Ongar, Essex, in 1905.

He taught boxing to the young men of Ongar in a shed behind the church.
His brother William, who had moved to New York to run a rubber business, sent an invitation asking him to officiate his wedding to Katherine Russell, which he accepted.

Fr Byles travelled from Essex to Southampton and boarded the Titanic in Southampton on April 10, 1912 with a second-class ticket, which cost £13.
When the ship docked at Cherbourg, France, to collect more passengers, he wrote a letter to his housekeeper Miss Field back in Ongar.

He wrote: “When you look down at the water from the top deck, it is like looking from the roof of a very high building. I will write as soon as I get to New York.”

On the morning of the sinking, Sunday, April 14, 1912, Fr Byles celebrated mass for both second and third-class passengers, many were Irish Catholics.
In his sermon, he preached in English and French, about the need for a spiritual lifeboat in the form of prayer and the sacraments when in danger of spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation.

The priest was praying on the upper deck when the ship struck an iceberg at 11.40pm.

He assisted the women and children on their way to lifeboats, consoling them and twice refusing a place himself.

When passengers got excited or anxious he would say: “Be calm, my good people.”

Miss Helen Mary Mocklare, a third class passenger, gave an account of what she witnessed.

She said: “A few around us became very excited and then it was that the priest again raised his hand and instantly they were calm once more.

“The passengers were immediately impressed by the absolute self-control of the priest.”

After the last lifeboat departed the priest led more than 100 passengers kneeling on the upper deck praying the rosary and told them to prepare to meet God.

As the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage, Father Byles heard passengers’ confessions and gave absolution.

He died, aged 42, in the sinking and his body was never recovered.
The Essex Chronicle published an article about the priest’s funeral service at Ongar Church on May 2, 1912.

It read: “As soon as it was beyond doubt that Father Byles was amongst those who had perished, the sorrowful tidings were announced by the tolling of the church bell, and since then Masses have been said almost continually for the repose of his soul”.

Another priest officiated William’s wedding and after the ceremony, the bride and groom changed into mourning clothes and attended a memorial mass for the groom’s brother.

Later that year the newlyweds travelled to Rome to meet with Pope Saint Pius X, who said that Fr Byles was a martyr for the church.

In April, 2015, Father Graham Smith, parish priest at St Helen’s Church, with support of Bishop Alan Williams of the Diocese of Brentwood, initiated the first steps toward making Byles a saint.