Titanic Past and Present
What were the origins of this great ocean liner?
Why was Titanic built?
Why was she called unsinkable?
Why did she sink?
Why weren’t there enough lifeboats for everyone?
Was third class prevented from getting into lifeboats?
Who was at fault?
What changed after the disaster?
At the turn of the twentieth century Great Britain was pre-eminent; her largest shipping companies, Cunard and White Star, since the earliest days of transatlantic travel, battled for the greatest share of passenger business. By 1902 White Star had been purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC) whose dream was to monopolize North Atlantic shipping, eliminating competition and standardize the cost of travel and freight.
Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line was an intelligent businessman. Son of Thomas Ismay, the Line’s founder, he negotiated White Star’s purchase by the International Mercantile Marine Company. At the age of 41, he was head of one of the largest shipping organizations in the world. Ismay keenly observed the developments of his rival Cunard, and at a dinner party at the home of shipbuilder Lord Pirrie in London, Ismay talked about a new class of liner, one that was larger and finer than the competition.
Considerable significance is given to this evening party where Olympic and Titanic were planned. The fact is, developing these massive liners actually began in 1899 with Oceanic entering service in September, reflecting his father’s view that White Star ships would be large vessels of moderate speed and great comfort.
The reason for building these enormous floating palaces is easy to understand. Economy of size meant a steamship line operating two big ships would save more money than three or even four smaller, older vessels. The company profited in time and money benefitting wages, turnaround time, cargo and passenger receipts.
With White Star and other British lines in the hands of the American-owned IMMC, the British Mercantile Marine¹s reputation and national pride were at stake. The Cunard Line was unable to build new ships without financial help. The British Government rewarded the company with a $10 million low interest loan repayable over twenty years provided the company remained in British hands. The loan led to the construction of Lusitania and Mauretania, technological triumphs of the Edwardian era, when they entered service in 1907.
Without Cunard, the IMMC lost the ability to fix prices and eliminate competition, however a price war broke out in the Morgan Combine of shipping lines and by 1908 an emigrant could book passage to America for as little as $10. The situation became so serious that talks were forced among the companies forming the Atlantic Conference which led to the situation Morgan had initially planned price stability. The price war cost the IMMC dearly; Ismay believed the solution to the threat of competition, notably Cunard, was to build larger and finer ships. He decided to replace the older ones operating between Southampton and New York with a new class of ocean giants. The first Olympic, would begin a new era of luxury travel; Titanic was next incorporating various improvements learned from the operation of her sister. A third, as yet unnamed sister which became Britannic would complete an incomparable trio.
The coveted prize sought for the fastest Atlantic crossing, the Blue Riband, held little appeal for White Star; what was important was that each ship would hold the title, “largest liner in the world.” Although slower than Mauretania and Lusitania, the “Olympic class” represented the future generation of ocean liners.
At the shipyards of Harland & Wolff at Belfast, Ireland the new liners were protected with a double-bottom and sixteen watertight compartments formed by fifteen bulkheads running across the ship. (A deficiency of those compartments was not closing them off at the top, a major factor in Titanic’s sinking.) Watertight doors in the bulkheads could be closed instantly by an electric switch on the bridge. Should any two of the largest compartments become flooded, the liner could remain afloat indefinitely. The system of divided compartments, double-bottom and sheer size led the White Star Line and their builders to boast that Olympic and Titanic were “practically unsinkable” It’s interesting to note, the 1908 Souvenir edition of “The Shipbuilder”, Mauretania was advertised: “Practically Unsinkable owing to the Watertight Bulkhead Doors being hydraulically controlled by the Stone-Lloyd System” and when Mauretania was first commissioned, she carried only sixteen lifeboats. However the Titanic disaster is what people remember and in the process of editing company literature in newspapers and other publications, the word “practically” was dropped and the myth of “unsinkable” was born.
Famous buildings were compared with their height and length of the new ships. At 882 feet, they were longer than New York’s mammoth skyscraper, the Woolworth Building by one hundred and thirty feet. The floating palaces surpassed anything on the North Atlantic in size and luxury. Passenger entertainment and diversion were provided by a squash racquet court, a Turkish bath, a fully equipped gymnasium, a plunge (swimming) pool, a Parisian style café and libraries. There were four electric elevators (three in first and one in second class) and, for the wealthiest passengers there were deluxe suites with a private promenade.
Only the privileged could take advantage of these luxurious accommodations which cost as much as $4,350 in high season (Summer) for the six day crossing. On board ship meals are included in the ticket price; the first class passengers’ dining (saloon) room was styled in magnificent Jacobean surroundings. For those who wanted to dine in an exclusive setting where meals were charged extra and served on fine china, silverplate and glassware, the à la carte restaurant in Louis Seize motif, French walnut panelling and richly gilded carvings was for the select few.
In a blaze of publicity Olympic successfully completed her maiden voyage to New York in June 1911. Ismay proudly wrote to Lord Pirrie, “Olympic is a marvel, and has given much unbounded satisfaction.” The owners and builders turned their attention to the liner nearing completion at Belfast. When Titanic was completed Ismay would then realize the fulfillment of his dream.
On Wednesday, April 10, 1912, the four buff-colored funnels of the Royal & United States Mail Steamer Titanic glistened in the bright spring morning. Gathered along the quayside was merry crowd of well-wishers bidding farewell to friends and relatives. Among those boarding was nine year old Frank Goldsmith from Strood, Kent, who was leaving England with his parents and some neighbors to live in Detroit Michigan. People standing on the pier gazed in awe at the giant liner towering over them; she was the largest liner in the world.
J. Bruce Ismay embarked at Southampton. This was only his third maiden voyage in one of his Company’s ships and naturally he was anxious to compare Titanic’s performance with Olympic’s the previous year. Also on board to check things out was Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland & Wolff. Accompanying him were twenty members of the shipyard’s “guarantee group” four of whom were apprentices.
None of the passengers or bystanders realized the preparations for Titanic’s maiden voyage had been laden with difficulties. A national coal strike left the new ship without enough coal for the voyage to New York. Other liners had the same problem but gave up their meager reserves for Titanic. The laborious work of removing coal by hand, from one ship into Titanic’s bunkers was a dirty business and it was necessary to clean the new liner from stem to stern.
Despite the extra work, shortly after noon the “all ashore” whistle sounded, and among goodbyes and bon voyages, gangplanks were removed and soon the sleek liner inched her way from the White Star Dock to begin her passage down Southampton Water across the Channel to Cherbourg, then a stop at Queenstown before finally heading to the open sea.
As Titanic was getting underway, she passed the American liner, S. S. New York moored at the quay, the smaller ship began straining at her lines drawn by the invisible suction from the Titanic’s three mammoth propellers, driven by a power plant capable of 55,000 horsepower. Abruptly, loud reports shattered the lighthearted mood. The three-inch steel hawsers securing New York to her moorings snapped, recoiling through the air landing within a few feet of startled onlookers. New York’s stern swung out towards the passing White Star liner. Captain Edward J. Smith, Titanic’s master who was retiring after completion of this voyage, immediately ordered the port propeller reversed.
Crew members rigged collision mats and an uneasy hush fell upon the spectators. The quick action of Captain Smith and the prompt attention of the tugboats prevented the Titanic’s maiden voyage ending at Southampton.
Smith was a popular and well-liked commander among passengers and crew; in fact he was so admired he was nicknamed; the “Millionaire’s Captain” or “E.J.”
Other than a collision involving Olympic with HMS Hawke less than a year before, Smith had an unblemished record. Because of the incident at Southampton, Titanic was behind schedule.
Illustration of grand staircaseAcross the Channel, the Mallets, enroute to Montreal and Mr and Mrs Joseph Laroche and their two daughters emigrating to Haiti, arrived at Cherbourg’s Gare Maritime at 4:00 pm, their luggage was taken from the train and brought to the quay. Nomadic and Traffic were White Star’s tenders. Traffic transported luggage and third class passengers. The two families boarded Nomadic at 5:30 PM and waited with a number of first class passengers who complained of the inconvenient delay. The liner finally appeared on the horizon anchoring about 6:30 PM off Grande Rade near Fort de l’Ouest in the outer harbor. Traffic moored alongside, twenty-two cross-channel passengers disembarked while mail and additional goods were taken aboard. Nomadic brought 274 first and second class passengers, including Margaret Tobin Brown, Mrs and Mrs John Jacob Astor, the Mallets and Laroches. The unloading did not take more than twenty minutes. A crowd of onlookers assembled on the jetty admired Titanic’s beautiful silhouette, her rows of sidelights glowing against the evening sky; she had not spent more than two hours in the French port.
The next morning, first class passenger Henry Forbes Julian wrote a third letter to his wife, it was his last:
“ON BOARD R.M.S. Titanic,
“11th April, 1912.
“We do not arrive at Queenstown until about noon, which gives me an opportunity of writing again. I had a good night and was very comfortable. The ship is so steady that it is almost the same as being on land. More than half the officers and stewards on board are familiar faces to me, as they are taken from the Adriatic and Oceanic. The two deck stewards remembered me quite well, and allotted me a chair in a select part of the deck. This is a brilliant morning and quite warm. . . . I think if you could only have reached the ship safely you would have been all right, for there are practically no draughts. Revolving doors are much in use, which prevent any through currents of air. In the smoking-room there is a big fireplace, which makes it cozy. The other rooms also have fireplaces, but have imitation fires heated by electricity; they are poor things compared with the real article. . . . The bands are unusually good. . . . I will feel happy with the thought that you are taking care of yourself at Redholme.”
On Thursday, April 11, Titanic dropped anchor late morning off Queenstown, Ireland. The tenders Ireland and America brought more passengers, picked up mail and a few people got off including Father Frank Browne, an amateur photographer who took snapshots of shipboard activity during his one day voyage.
One family who boarded at Queenstown practically unnoticed was Margaret Rice with her five children; Albert, 10; George, 9; Eric, 7; Arthur, 4; and Eugene age 2, from Athlone, County Westmeath who were emigrating to America, to join Mr Rice who found employment in Spokane, Washington.
As she weighed anchor for the last time and headed out into the Atlantic the 2,200 passengers and crew prepared themselves for the journey to New York. In terms of numbers on board this was hardly a record sailing; Titanic could carry a maximum of 3,500. Many passengers preferred to sail during the summer months especially wealthy first class passengers who did not like to travel out of season.
On the North Atlantic there were defined sea lanes or tracks which all passenger liners followed. The northern track, taken during the months of August to December was approximately 200 miles shorter than the southern track taken during the months of January to July.
The winter of 1911-1912 in the Arctic had been very mild; ice floes had drifted to the Gulf Stream further south then anyone could remember and the number of icebergs was larger than normal.
This was of no consideration to Titanic’s passengers as they watched the green hills of Ireland fade into the distance; in a few days the new liner would be entering the steamship lanes off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Life for her first class was a wonderful experience. Like turning the pages of the “Illustrated London News” or a similar American publication emphasizing “Who’s Who,” Titanic reflected Edwardian society in miniature perfectly. A number of prominent American and British celebrities added glamour and even a little scandal to the rarefied atmosphere. John Jacob Astor with his new bride, Madeleine, was the great grandson of a wealthy fur trader. Through shrewd business dealings he turned an inheritance into a fortune estimated at $87 million. At age 46 he remarried a young woman of eighteen who was younger than his son; the divorce and remarriage scandalized New York society. Benjamin Guggenheim was another millionaire on board. His family made their money in the mining and smelting business but he preferred the life of a playboy and was traveling with his mistress. George Widener was accompanied by his wife and son. Widener was heir to a large fortune; his father, P. A. B. Widener, coincidentally, was a director of the International Mercantile Marine Company, parent company of the White Star Line. Mr and Mrs Isidor Straus, owners of W. H. Macy’s department store; Mr and Mrs Henry B. Harris (a Broadway producer); Frank D. Millet, the American painter and President William Howard Taft’s military aide, Major Archibald Butt, enroute to Washington with a message from Pope Pius X.
Notable British passengers included; The Countess of Rothes; William T. Stead, editor of the “Review of Reviews;” metallurgist Henry Forbes Julian, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife Lucile, a successful ladies’ fashion designer for London and New York society.
One important name was missing from pages of the White Star liner’s first class passenger list. J. Pierpont Morgan had booked passage but at the last moment canceled. Claiming to have been unwell, a reporter later tracked him down to a hotel in the French spa town of Aix-les-Bains near the Swiss border. Despite the loss of the Titanic and having just celebrated his 75th birthday, Morgan seemed to be enjoying the invigorating climate along with his mistress.
Sunday, April 14th, dawned with the promise of another glorious day of bright sunshine, a calm sea and mild weather. Most passengers were settled into their shipboard routine. Besides a bracing stroll on deck there were plenty of distractions to keep passengers occupied in her splendid interiors. After breakfast in the dining saloon a Church of England service was held presided over by Captain Smith.
Most passengers did not seem to notice that the lifeboat drill that morning had been canceled. In 1912 there were no mandatory rules for lifeboat rehearsals or crew musters. The British Board of Trade’s regulations were outdated, failing to keep pace with the ever increasing size of passenger liners. Lifeboat capacities were based on a liner’s gross tonnage; as it stood the number of boats carried by Titanic exceeded the Board of Trade’s requirements.
White Star, however went some way towards exercising the practice. In their publication, “Regulations for the Navigation of the Company’s Steamships” it stated: “The crews of each boat are to be mustered at their boat stations every Sunday at noon, the Chief Officers reporting a supply of water in each boat, and the Carpenter reporting the davits and screw lashings in working order…On each occasion on which the crew are so drilled it is to be entered in the ship’s Log Book, and reported home in the Commander’s letter.” No adequate explanation has ever been found why this important shipboard discipline was overlooked.
While passengers and crew were having lunch, wireless operators, John George “Jack” Phillips and Harold Bride, were busy catching up on a backlog of passenger messages. The previous evening the wireless set had broken down and not until early Sunday morning were the two men able to send or receive messages. Wireless telegraphy was fairly new, and many ships had none. Bride and Phillips worked for the Marconi Company who installed the sets on ships as a franchise, encouraging people to use the new technology to send messages back to land. Operators were paid per message. Olympic and TitanicUntil the miracle of wireless telegraphy, when a ship was at sea for weeks there was virtually no communication until she landed.
At 1:40 pm the operators’ working routine was disturbed by an incoming message from the White Star liner Baltic: “Captain Smith, Titanic. Have had moderate variable winds and clear fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athinai reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in latitude 41.51 N. longitude 49.11 W…Wish you and Titanic all success. Commander.” This particular message was handed directly to Captain Smith, who, instead of posting it in the chart room, gave it to Bruce Ismay who casually put it in his pocket. Later in the day Smith asked for it back.
Smith was very aware of the danger from ice. On Friday he had received ice warnings from the French Line vessel La Touraine and on Saturday Furness, Withy & Company’s steamer Rappahannock reported having passed through heavy field ice.
Titanic steamed on and had passed this area without spotting any ice but messages from Baltic and the Cunard liner Caronia indicated that ice would continue to pose a threat during the voyage. Smith altered course steaming sixteen miles further south before making the turn, at the so-called “corner” and headed due west towards the Nantucket Lightship.
From the German steamer Amerika wireless operator Otto Reuter sent at 1:45 PM: “Amerika passed two large icebergs in 41 degrees 27′ N., 50 degrees 8′ W., on the 14th April.”
Previous messages had been promptly delivered to the bridge but this one never got there. Titanic’s wireless unexpectedly went dead and Phillips, busy trouble shooting, shoved aside probably the most critical ice warning. (This important document is in the Titanic Museum, Titanic Historical Society collection). By early evening, Phillips finally got the set operating.
Approaching the iceberg danger zone, Titanic remained on course, her powerful quadruple-expansion engines and single low pressure turbine drove the liner smoothly through the water at a moderate 22.5 knots. The temperature was falling fast and by 8.55 PM it was only one degree above freezing. Second Officer Charles Lightoller sent word to the ship’s carpenter John Hutchinson to see that the fresh water supply did not freeze. Soon afterwards Captain Smith entered the bridge and together with Lightoller discussed the conditions.
They noted the lack of wind and the unruffled sea. Up in the crow’s nest lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee had been told to keep a “sharp eye peeled” for small ice and growlers.
The night was crystal clear; there was no moon and the sky was filled with stars. The sea looked as smooth as plate glass, paradoxically, a disadvantage for the lookouts. Without waves breaking around an iceberg’s base leaving a wake, it would be hard to spot without reflective moonlight, especially if a berg was showing its dark side.
Carpathia among iceburgsHaving assured himself that all was well, Captain Smith retired for the night, with the instruction “If in the slightest degree doubtful, let me know.” Lightoller continued to peer into the darkness. Out beyond the ship’s bow lay an inky, black expanse of water.
Phillips, the senior operator was interrupted by a message from the Atlantic Transport Line steamer Mesaba. The message read: “Ice report. In latitude 42 north to 41.25 north, longitude 49 west to longitude 50.3 west. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs, also field ice. Weather good, clear.”
Phillips replied: “Received, thanks.” Mesaba’s wireless operator waited to hear that the message had been relayed to the captain and sent two words: “Stand by.” Instead Phillips continued sending the backlog of passenger messages to Cape Race. Another ice warning that was never delivered to the bridge.
At ten o’clock, First Officer William Murdoch relieved Lightoller. The two men chatted briefly about the falling temperature, now down to 32 degrees and the emphatic reminder to the lookouts to be on their toes for any signs of icebergs. Lightoller then went below leaving Murdoch to the darkness and freezing night air.
By 11:30 PM most passengers had gone to bed, but a few night owls were gathered around a card table in the first class smoking room. In the main dining saloon, stewards preparing for Monday morning breakfast, carefully arranged gleaming silverplate and fine china edged in 22k gold on immaculate damask linen. As her passengers slept or relaxed, Titanic in a blaze of light from her sidelights illuminating the ambient darkness, forged steadily ahead, speed unabated, a white wave of foam curling around her bow. The clock on the first class grand staircase decorated with a carved panel of two classical figures representing Honor and Glory crowning Time showed 11:40 PM
A few moments later Fleet in the crow¹s nest began to make out what was at first, a small, irregular black object directly in their path. “There is ice ahead” he said to Lee, the other lookout, as he instinctively rang the crow’s nest bell three times indicating to the bridge that something lay directly ahead.
Sixth Officer James Moody answered the telephone; “What did you see?” “Iceberg, right ahead!” shouted Fleet. Without emotion in his voice Moody said “Thank you.” replaced the receiver and called loudly to Murdoch “Iceberg, right ahead.” By now the First Officer had already seen the iceberg and rushed to the engine room telegraph moving the handles to “Stop” then “Full Speed Astern” and immediately ordered “hard a starboard.” Moody standing behind the helmsman, Quartermaster Robert Hitchens, replied, “hard a starboard. The helm is hard over, sir.”
The 46,000-ton liner seemed to take a prolonged length of time, gradually responding to her helm and began to turn to port. Murdoch intended to order “hard a port” to bring the stern away from the iceberg but it was too late; she struck. And as the iceberg glided by, breaking iron rivet heads fastening the steel shell plates causing massive leakage below the waterline, tons of ice fell onto the fo’c’sle and well deck. Murdoch closed the electric switch controlling the watertight doors. Deep inside the ship’s alarm bells rang as the massive watertight doors sealed each of the liner’s sixteen compartments.
Walter Belford was Titanic’s night chief baker. “We were working on the fifth deck amidships baking for the next day. There was a shudder all through the ship about 11:40 PM The provisions came tumbling down and the oven doors came open.
Captain Smith rushed onto the bridge; “What have we struck?” he asked. “An iceberg, sir’” replied Murdoch. Then the First Officer explained what he had done.
After receiving an initial report that no damage was found, Smith ordered the carpenter to go down and “sound” the ship. When he returned he had bad news that Titanic was taking on water. Soon passengers began noticing the lack of vibration from the engines and worried about the impact from the collision.
J. Bruce Ismay, in his suite on B-deck, was awakened by scraping noises. He quickly put on an coat over his pajamas, made his way to the bridge and asked Smith “Do you think the ship is seriously damaged?” Smith replied, “I am afraid she is.”
Thomas Andrews had gone below and gave his assessment of the damage to Smith. In less than 10 seconds Titanic’s first six watertight compartments had been opened to the sea by the iceberg. The first five; the forepeak, number 1, 2, 3 holds and number 6 boiler room were flooding uncontrollably. The flooding in boiler room number 5 was controlled by the engine room pumps, but the sheer weight of water, in the first five compartments, drew the liner¹s bow down, pulling her head lower and lower. A critical design flawher watertight compartments which did not reach high enough, allowed water to flow from one compartment into another like liquid flowing in an ice cube tray. That Titanic would founder was a mathematical certainty. The only question was when? Andrews estimated another hour. The recent theory put forward that Titanic sank principally due to poor grade steel or brittle steel is not only untrue, it is also a moot point.
At first there was an understandable reluctance from some passengers in first and second class when stewards ordered them to put on their lifejackets and go up on deck. To leave the warmth and safety of their stateroom at midnight when all was quiet and nothing seemingly alarming happening didn’t make sense. In third class it was a different story, a complicating factor was United States Immigration regulations which required gates on immigrant ships (Titanic was officially listed as an Emigrant Ship) to separate steerage (third class). Stewards had difficulty with language and perhaps fearing a stampede for the lifeboats, some stewards kept passengers below until they received word for them to be allowed on deck.
On the bridge shortly after midnight Smith issued the order for the lifeboats to be uncovered and swung out. At approximately 12:10 am he entered the wireless room for the second time since the collision. The first time he informed Phillips and Bride that Titanic had struck an iceberg, this time he told the two men to prepare to send out a distress signal. Phillips asked “What call should I send?” The regulation international call for help was “CQD.” “Just that” replied Smith. One of the ships to answer Titanic’s call of distress was the Cunard liner Carpathia on her way to the Mediterranean. Her commander, Captain Arthur Rostron, turned his ship around at once and steamed as fast as he could toward Titanic’s last reported position. Carpathia, compared to Titanic, was a small ship capable of a modest 17.5 knot top speed; it would take her over 4 hours to reach the sinking ship.
Problems on the boat deck mounted as the officers and crew, unfamiliar with the working of the boats, tried to persuade reluctant passengers to leave the apparent safety of Titanic. Whatever the first and second class passengers thought about their security or comfort, the officers knew the ship would founder and, unfortunately they failed in their duty to load each boat to its stated capacity. This failure contributed to 500 unnecessary deaths.
For most of the third class passengers they never had the opportunity of deciding to get into a lifeboat or not, because by the time they were allowed on deck most of the boats had gone. When third class passenger Gus Cohen reached the boat deck, he could not get in a boat; later he jumped in the water, was picked up and his life was spared.
When it was time to say goodbye and separate the men from the women and children, Frank Goldsmith, Sr. leaned over and squeezed his son¹s shoulder, “So long, Franky,” his father said, “see you later.”
Some explanation, regarding the number of passengers in each boat was offered at the British Inquiry. The surviving officers believing, a fully loaded boat would “buckle” under the strain of lowering, however this was proven incorrect when some of the boats were tested. Another explanation was that Captain Smith intended to load the partially filled boats with passengers from one of the gangway doors in the side of the ship. This never happened. The first boat, with a capacity for 65 was lowered with 27 passengers and crew. Between 12:45 to 2:05 am the officers and boat crew managed to launch eighteen of Titanic’s twenty lifeboats. Although the officers and crew followed the unwritten rule of the sea of “women and children first” in reality, as Titanic sank, a male passenger on the starboard side of the boat deck was five times more likely to be allowed entry to a boat than on the port side.
This may be explained by certain officers interpreting the “women and children first” order as “women and children only.”
For Mrs. Quick and her daughters, they reached the top of the ladder from below. There was no confusion on A Deck. Men were standing watching the proceedings, many were helping women and children into the lifeboats. Holding Phyllis tightly in one arm, Mrs. Quick led the badly frightened Winnifred toward boat Number 11 in the last stages of loading passengers. The crewman in charge watched Mrs. Quick approaching and said chilling words: “Only room for the children.” “No,” replied Mrs. Quick. “Either we go together or we stay together.”
Faced with a mother who was clearly determined to protect her children he relented. Phyllis and Winnifred were literally tossed in, Winnifred lost her slippers in the process. After seeing her children safely into the boat, Mrs. Quick climbed in. Apparently the last person allowed to enter, a crew member announced with finality, “That’s enough. No more can get in.”
As the ship sank lower, any thought of protocol was forgotten in the panic to launch the two remaining boats, collapsibles A and B.
Walter Belford said one of his most vivid recollections was the sight of Captain Smith standing resolutely on the bridge as the ship went down. He quoted Smith as he addressed a group of remaining crewmen after the last boats were gone, “Well boys, I’ve done the best I can for you. Now it’s in your own hands. Do the best you can to save yourselves.”
By 2:10 am Titanic’s stern had risen out of the water to an upright angle. Lights still blazing, there was pandemonium below decks where inanimate objects came to life; crockery, furniture and whatever else not fastened crashed towards the bow. In the engine spaces the massive boilers tore loose from their foundations and crashed through the bulkheads. For the hundreds of terrified passengers clinging to the stern the noise must have been unimaginable. Finally, under the incredible forces the hull was being subjected to, gave way and split in two just forward of the fourth funnel. The bow section quickly sank; the stern settled back for a few moments before it rose again vertically for the final time. The stern remained motionless against the starlit sky for a few moments before it began descending two miles to the ocean floor. As the Atlantic closed over the words on her stern – TITANIC LIVERPOOL – hundreds of passengers struggled in the icy waters.
“We went over to the side straight away, I jumped overboard from the well deck about thirty feet above the water² said Belford who was wearing his white baker’s uniform and a lifejacket with a quart of whiskey stuck in his belt.
A crewman in lifeboat Number 3 declared “She’s gone lads row like hell or we’ll get the devil of a swell.” In Number 4 a crewman, closer to the sinking, cried out “Pull for your lives or you’ll be sucked under.”
Somewhere in the darkness, close to where Titanic went down, hundreds of people struggled including the Mallets and Joseph Laroche from France, Henry Forbes Julian of Torquay, England and Milton Long of Springfield, Massachusetts, fighting for their lives amongst the mass of floating debris. Death came quickly for some, pulled under or crushed as the ship sank, others drowned, but most succumbed to the elements; the water was so cold.
The lucky ones, huddled in lifeboats listened to the awful sound of family and friends crying out in vain. Little Frank Goldsmith, had his head tucked tightly against his mother’s breast. He described the sounds of those dying years later in his autobiography, “Echoes In the Night.” Living near Tiger stadium in Detroit, whenever a home run was hit the crowd’s moaning sound brought back those awful memories. He lost his friend, Alfred Rush who had turned 16 that day and wore long pants for the first time. Alfred elected to stay behind “with the men.” Mr Goldsmith was with another Strood friend, Thomas Theobold, who handed his wedding ring to Mrs. Goldsmith as she stepped in the lifeboat, to give to his wife in case he didn’t see her again.
In lifeboat Number 1, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife Lady Lucile, were some of the lucky to escape. Duff Gordon gave each crewman in the boat £5 towards the replacement of their lost kit; this kind gesture was later misinterpreted as a bribe to prevent the men from returning to save others still struggling in the icy water.
In collapsible C, J. Bruce Ismay sat with his back to Titanic in the lifeboat’s stern pushing the oar away from him. He could not bear to watch her sink.
The Countess of Rothes handled Number 8’s tiller so impressing the seaman in charge that he later presented her with the boat’s metal number.
Benjamin Guggenheim had dressed in his best and prepared to die “like a gentleman” while his mistress escaped in lifeboat Number 9.
George Widener and his son died together. His wife survived and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works; her father-in-law kept his financial interests with the IMMC despite the death of his son and grandson.
In Number 6 the majority wanted to return to pick up survivors. Quartermaster Hitchens, Titanic’s helmsman, overruled everyone graphically describing how the people in the water would capsize their boat.
It is difficult to imagine how cold it was for those floating in the water. Walter Belford was rescued from the bone-chilling water. “I kept taking a sip of whiskey from time to time to keep warm. There were a couple of shots left when I was rescued.”
Of the eighteen boats successfully launched only two returned to the scene. Boat Number 4 was the first to return with four crewmen and 36 women on board including Madeleine Astor. Her husband’s body was later recovered and brought to New York on the same train as 29 year-old Milton Long, whose body was retrieved by the cable ship MacKay-Bennett, one of the vessels chartered in Halifax by the White Star Line. Long was the only son of Judge and Mrs Charles Long and is interred in Springfield (Massachusetts) Cemetery.
The women pulled five crewmen from the water; one steward remained conscious, two others died. When Number 4 rejoined a small flotilla of boats tied together Fifth Officer Lowe decided to transfer survivors from Number 14 until it was sufficiently empty to make a rescue attempt. The crewmen could hardly row, the sea was littered with the dead, who were held upright by their cork lifejackets. One of the crewmen turned over several bodies, most of them had died from exposure (hypothermia).
An hour after Titanic sank, Lowe found four alive, two passengers and two crewmen, but one died later that night.
The writer William T. Stead, the painter Frank D. Millet and Major Archibald Butt died; their bodies were never recovered.
In lifeboat Number 2 Fourth Officer Boxhall burned green flares taken from the wheelhouse to attract attention of a rescue ship; his last was seen by those on board Carpathia. Captain Rostron ordered rockets to be fired in reply and at 4 am the Cunard liner arrived at the estimated position given by the Titanic’s wireless operator.
Large numbers of icebergs were all around the ship as the crew began to pick up survivors from boats scattered over several miles of ocean. Rostron reported that there was very little wreckage when he got near to the scene of the disaster; a few steamer chairs, cork lifejackets and only one body. Titanic’s boats were hauled up and stowed on deck. The rescue operation had taken four hours and as the Carpathia briefly searched the area for more survivors, two memorial services were held. The first, a short prayer, for the 705 who had been rescued, the second, a funeral service for those that had died.
In the minutes and hours that followed the sinking the seabed became littered with thousands of objects. China from the à la carte restaurant; tiles from the floor of the gymnasium; a woman¹s high button shoe; a giant boiler from the engine room and lying in of this field of devastation was the broken and shattered hull of Titanic.
When Dr. Robert Ballard’s expedition found the wreck on September 1, 1985 he decided to leave the area in peace, recording the discovery with photographic images. In 1986, he returned and placed a bronze memorial plaque on her stern for the Titanic Historical Society honoring those who died. He kept his promise, but since then the wreck site, considered by most a mass grave, has been stripped and several exhibitions staged in Europe and the United States have displayed an odd assortment of twisted, torn and broken objects; even personal items and clothing. We now know the motive was profit and the pettiness shown by various individuals was proven; the gravesite had been violated.
Most people are curious about life aboard the once mighty ship; in reality Edwardian life had many of the conveniences we enjoy; one only has to talk with their grandparents. It was an age of great optimism and invention and because so much had been created in so short a time, the impression was man had conquered nature. There were marvelous machines like sewing machines run by electricity that could mass produce instead of single hand-made products; wonderful entertainment — movies, phonographs and cameras, even time off for a holiday previously unheard of. Travel in automobiles, paved roads, communication by telephones and mail-order catalogues afforded labor saving appliances for everyone.
Titanic’s furnishings weren’t unique. It is a myth that has formed over time. As in any hotel chain, and ships were simply elegant floating hotels, the china, glassware, linens, utensils, nearly everything aboard were products of mass manufacture.
Over 1,500 lives were lost, frozen or drowned in the frigid North Atlantic. The statistics are appalling enough to read let alone the reality of such a magnificent ship sinking on her maiden voyage. Of the 1,324 passengers and 899 crew on board, at the time of the collision, only 706 survived the disaster. Approximately 320 bodies were recovered, many buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but no trace was ever found of the Rice family. Margaret and her five young children; Albert, George, Eric, Arthur and Eugene all perished, their only memorial – RMS Titanic.
The news reports predictably generated a furious clamor, including hundreds of indignant newspaper editorials and two official government inquiries; one by the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, with Senator William Alden Smith, a Republican from Michigan as Chairman; the other by the British Court of Inquiry, with Lord Mersey as Wreck Commissioner.
The official inquiries did little to help people understand why such a terrible tragedy could have happened. Government hearings have a way of gathering information but conclusions often fall short of the mark because political considerations rather than fact usually take precedence. In recent years the enormous weight of material written has in many ways confused understanding of the disaster.
In uncomplicated terms, the large loss of life was caused by outdated British Board of Trade regulations which allowed Titanic to go to sea with insufficient lifeboat accommodation. Regulations required vessels of 10,000 tons or over to carry a minimum of 16 lifeboats with a capacity of 5,500 cubic feet with rafts and floats equal to 75% of the lifeboats’ capacity. Titanic could carry a total of 3,511 passengers and crew but regulations meant the Company was required to provide space for only 962. White Star, in fact, provided Titanic with four extra collapsible type boats increasing the capacity to 1,178.
As a reader, one must forget the 21st century and think in terms of 1900. Lifeboats were considered a means to transport people from one ship to another. The Atlantic Ocean was a “highway” and if an accident occurred, help was always close at hand, another ship would soon approach and render assistance. In hindsight that was a poor reason but Titanic was not unique, all the big liners were inadequately equipped such as Mauretania mentioned earlier. Titanic happened to be the ship that the consequences of that thinking were tragically portrayed. Consider Lusitania’s fate a few years later; after receiving massive torpedo damage, the ship sank in fifteen minutes, lifeboats were still hanging in their davits.
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the catastrophe concerns Captain Smith. His failure during the loading of the lifeboats led to unnecessary loss of life. He was the head of the command structure which fell apart on Sunday night; his officers dispatched lifeboats with a fraction of their human capacity. As the master of a ship, the responsibility for the welfare of his passengers and crew was his alone.
Any seaman would tell you that a boat, with capacity for 64, in a flat calm could take 74 or perhaps more. Several of the Titanic’s boats left with just a dozen or so onboard. And while the world praised the heroic Captain for going down with his ship and put up a bronze statue to his memory, J. Bruce Ismay found himself a scapegoat. Even in the most recent Titanic film, Ismay is portrayed as an autocratic businessman who is shown up by the fictional Rose DeWitt Bukater as ignorant and uncultured. In reality, Ismay was a far more complex man than the two-dimensional stereotype. Well-educated, certainly well enough to know who Sigmund Freud was, he disliked media attention and kept his personal life and that of his family out of the public spotlight. One of his principles was never to interfere with another’s judgment, whether commanding a ship or driving a car, yet we see the opposite in the film. Through his intellect and strength of will he turned the ailing IMMC around and made a handsome profit for his fellow directors and shareholders. Titanic was his dream, but on the night of April 15, 1912, he found himself in a nightmare. Helping to load lifeboats to the ship’s last dying moments and sure he had discharged his duty, he entered one of the last lifeboats that was only half-filled.
Lord Mersey, in the British inquiry report, wrote: “As to the attack on Mr. Bruce Ismay, it resolved itself into the suggestion that, occupying the position of Managing Director…some moral duty was imposed upon him to wait on board until the vessel foundered. I do not agree. Mr. Ismay, after rendering assistance to many passengers, found C collapsible, the last boat on the starboard side, actually being lowered. No other people were there at the time. There was room for him and he jumped in. Had he not jumped in he would merely have added one more life, namely, his own, to the number of those lost.”
The press, particularly in the United States, where publisher William Randolph Hearst, a powerful man and an Anglophobe, who owned a large chain of newspapers and the first to syndicate insuring mass coverage, christened him “J. Brute” Ismay. Criticized for saving his own life when so many lives had been wasted by Captain Smith and Titanic’s officers, it is an irony of history that Ismay is judged so harshly.
In June 1913 he retired from the presidency of the IMMC, following arrangements made in January 1912. After Titanic’s loss he wished to remain a director of White Star. His colleagues, however, insisted he retire from that seat too. He owned an estate on the west coast of Ireland and spent a great deal of time there during the fishing season, neither hiding away nor seeking public attention following the disaster. Far from becoming a recluse (as popular legend has it) Ismay continued as chairman and director to several large companies in Liverpool and in London.
Titanic’s loss dismayed and infuriated the brave new world of 1912. Faith in the omnipotence of technology was badly shaken. But good did come from the terrible as so often happens. Ships would no longer be permitted to sail without enough lifesaving equipment for everyone; an International Ice Patrol was formed to warn ships at sea against wandering icebergs; the transatlantic tracks were shifted farther south during the critical winter and spring months and passenger liners were required to keep operators on a twenty-four hour wireless watch.
The White Star Line, contrary to myth, recovered from the disaster. The great tide of immigration from Europe filled their ships and the Company, in 1913, announced record profits despite the loss of their flagship.
Nothing, however, could bring back the more than 1,500 lives that had been sacrificed to a complacent faith in state-of-the-art marine technology and lax government regulations.
As for the Titanic, her story will be told again and again, proven by the interest in the Titanic Historical Society formed in 1963 and still growing, and the success of Jim Cameron’s film, despite the fictional screenplay, serves as a poignantly appropriate requiem.
by Edward S. Kamuda
Additional text and editing by Karen Kamuda, Paul Louden-Brown