Voices from the Titanic, page 1
Geoff Tibballs worked in television for fifteen years before leaving in 1989 to become a full-time author. He was since had over a hundred books published on a wide variety of topics, including social history, sport, television and humour. His 1997 book, Titanic, written to coincide with the Hollywood blockbuster, was a best-seller. His titles for Constable & Robinson have included Business Blunders, Legal Blunders and The Mammoth Book of Jokes.
For Carol, Nicki and Lindsey
Copyright © 2012 by Geoff Tibballs
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First published in the UK as The Mammoth Book of How it Happened: Titanic, by Robinson, an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002
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Printed in the United Kingdom
CHAPTER 1 A FLOATING HOTEL
CHAPTER 2 NEW YORK BOUND
CHAPTER 3 THE MOMENT OF IMPACT
CHAPTER 4 WATCHING AND WAITING
CHAPTER 5 THE NEWS BREAKS
CHAPTER 6 TEARFUL REUNIONS
CHAPTER 7 THE OFFICIAL INQUIRIES
CHAPTER 8 THE RETURN OF THE DEAD
PASSENGER AND CREW LISTS
PEOPLE AND PLACES
The morning of Wednesday, 10 April 1912, dawned bright and breezy in Southampton, but the cool spring air was heavy with anticipation. For in a few hours’ time, the biggest ship in the world, the White Star liner Titanic, was due to set off on her maiden voyage, bound for New York with a passenger list which read like a Who’s Who of early twentieth-century society. The great and the good had been captivated by accounts of the ship’s superlative accommodation, which likened it to a floating hotel. For those who could afford prices of between £400 and £870 for a one-way ticket, a first-class suite aboard the Titanic was the only way to cross the Atlantic. The inaugural voyage of this magnificent vessel was expected to be an occasion that would live in the memory for years to come. And so it proved.
The Titanic was born out of entrepreneurial greed – a ruthless desire by shipping magnates to cash in on the lucrative transatlantic routes and to eliminate all competition in the process. The chosen method was to build bigger and faster ships than ever before. The principal protagonists were two British companies, the White Star Line and Cunard, the latter having been responsible for establishing the first transatlantic steamship service via its vessel Britannia in 1840. Over the next fifty years trade between the United States and Britain increased sevenfold, not only in terms of tobacco, cotton and wheat, but also in human cargo. Growing numbers of Europeans saw America as the promised land and opted to start a new life there, and, since the only means of travel was by ship, passenger demand rose dramatically. Founded in 1850, when it specialized in carrying emigrants from Britain to Australia, the White Star Line steadily began to challenge Cunard’s monopoly on the transatlantic routes and by 1875 had produced steamers capable of travelling at 16 knots, reducing the journey time to less than seven and a half days. All White Star vessels were built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast.
Sensing a business opportunity, American financier John Pierpont Morgan decided that he, too, wanted a slice of the action. His company, International Mercantile Marine, bought Inman Lines of Liverpool and started a fierce price war, offering third-class transatlantic passages for as little as £2. He then tried to buy Cunard, but was prevented from doing so by the British government. So he turned his attention to White Star. The chairman of Harland & Wolff, Lord Pirrie, thought that the best way to protect his yard’s interests was to team up with Morgan and in 1902 he helped the American acquire White Star, which thus became a subsidiary of International Mercantile Marine. Joseph Bruce Ismay remained as chairman of White Star and all White Star ships continued to have British crews and to fly the British flag. But the real power lay on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1907, backed by sizeable subsidies from the British government, Cunard launched the Lusitania and the Mauretania, both of which were capable of an average speed of 26 knots. At the time White Star’s fastest ship was the Teutonic, at 21 knots. In order to compete with the Cunarders, White Star laid plans for the construction of a fleet of three huge liners, larger than anything which had gone before, and which would offer the last word in passenger comfort. To reflect their size and class, they were to be called Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic. The design team was led by Lord Pirrie’s brother-in-law Alexander Carlisle until his retirement in 1910, when he was succeeded by another of Pirrie’s relatives, nephew Thomas Andrews. J. Bruce Ismay approved the design on 29 July 1908 and a contract was signed for the building of the first two ships. Work on keel number 400 – the Olympic – began at Harland & Wolff in December 1908; keel number 401 – the Titanic – was laid at the end of the following March.
The two sister ships were almost identical, although the Titanic was marginally longer at 882 ft 9 in. by virtue of the addition of an enclosed promenade for first-class passengers. Each ship boasted ten principal decks, a maximum speed of between 24 and 25 knots, a regular service speed of 21 knots and what was thought to be the latest in safety features. These included the installation of a Marconi wireless system for telegraphing messages at a range of up to 1,500 miles and a network of supposedly water-tight compartments. The Titanic was divided into sixteen such compartments, formed by fifteen watertight bulkheads running across the hull. Six of these reached up to D deck, eight went up to E deck, but the other rose only as far as F deck. Each bulkhead was equipped with automatic watertight doors, held in the open position by a clutch which could be released instantly by means of an electric switch controlled from the captain’s bridge. In a special issue published in the summer of 1911 The Shipbuilder magazine concluded: ‘In the event of an accident, or at any time when it may be considered advisable, the captain can, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout, practically making the vessel unsinkable.’
In concentrating their defences on transverse bulkheads, the Titanic’s designers had taken into account the experience of the Guion Line’s Arizona, which, in 1879, had ploughed head-on into a 60-ft-high iceberg near the Newfoundland Grand Banks. Although her bows were wrecked, the Arizona remained afloat and was able to make it safely back to St John’s. But the transverse bulkheads, while effective against a blow to the bows, failed to protect the Titanic from a side-on collision. The designers claimed that the Titanic would stay afloat even if two of the watertight compartments somehow became flooded but, by not extending the bulkheads sufficiently high within the interior of the ship, they left it vulnerable to a sudden inrush of water, which, as it transpired, would flood one compartment, surge over the top and fill the adjoining one.
An even more
Alexander Carlisle was so concerned about the lifeboat capacity that his original plans incorporated sixty-four boats, sufficient for everyone on board. However he was forced to revise his ideas because lifeboats took up too much deck space. International Mercantile Marine and its subsidiary the White Star Line demanded that any extra space be used to provide more spacious promenades for the all-important first-class passengers. Such misguided priorities meant that the Titanic carried the bare minimum sixteen lifeboats, although an additional four collapsible boats were provided to raise the overall seating capacity to 1,178. White Star prided itself on the fact that the Titanic therefore had boats in excess of the Board of Trade regulations, but the figure still represented just 53 per cent of the estimated 2,228 people on board at the time of the disaster, and only 30 per cent of the Titanic’s total capacity.
Naturally these considerations had no place in the minds of passengers and crew as they converged on Southampton on that April morning. The first-class travellers, at least, were more concerned with inspecting the ship’s much-vaunted facilities, which included a gymnasium, squash court (at 2s 0d for half an hour), Turkish bath and swimming pool. Passenger accommodation was spread among the top seven decks, A to G, and was strictly segregated according to the three classes of ticket. First-class passengers were able to sample private, enclosed promenade decks (to keep out the chill evening air), and a splendid à la carte restaurant, while even the second-class state rooms were the equal of first-class accommodation on virtually any other ship of the day. Similarly, the state rooms for third-class (or steerage) passengers were as smart as second-class cabins on other vessels. At the very bottom end of the scale, the cheapest passage was £7 15s, including meals, where the accommodation for many, especially immigrants, consisted of an open dormitory way down on G deck. While first-class passengers could enjoy the ship’s facilities well into the night, White Star encouraged all third-class travellers to retire by 10 p.m. Allegations of preferential treatment given to first-class passengers during the rescue – to the point where steerage passengers were said to have been forcibly prevented from reaching the lifeboats – would be a recurring theme of the Titanic tragedy.
White Star had anticipated a huge demand for tickets for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, yet the initial response had proved disappointing, mainly because a national coal strike in Britain had seriously damaged the shipping industry. Voyages were cancelled at short notice, leaving customers wary about making firm travel plans. The strike was not finally resolved until 6 April – four days before the Titanic was due to sail for New York. Faced with the prospect of a half-empty Titanic setting off on her much-hyped maiden voyage, White Star transferred a number of passengers to the Titanic from other liners. Most were happy to do so, but a few demurred. They had a strange feeling of foreboding about the majestic new ship.
Southampton Docks were a hive of activity from daybreak on the morning of 10 April. The general crew reported at 6 a.m. and were followed ninety minutes later by Captain Edward John Smith, an experienced seafarer who had been transferred from the Olympic. The first passengers started to turn up at 9.30 when the boat train arrived from London Waterloo. Among the 497 third-class passengers who would leave from Southampton were 180 Scandinavians, lured by White Star’s aggressive advertising campaign in Norway and Sweden. The vast majority were emigrating to the United States and had booked their passage aboard ‘the first available ship’. That ship was the Titanic.
The final boat train arrived at 11.30 a.m., carrying many of the 202 first-class passengers who were sailing from Southampton, and half an hour later – at the stroke of noon – three loud blasts on the Titanic’s powerful whistles heralded her departure. As she was cast off, eight crew members, who had slipped out for a last-minute pint, dashed along the pier in a desperate attempt to scramble board. Two just managed to reach the gangway before it was raised; the other six were left behind on the dock, cursing their luck.
The first stop was to be Cherbourg in northern France, followed by Queenstown in southern Ireland. From there, it was full steam ahead across the wide open waters of the Atlantic … and a date with destiny.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster – which brought full-scale inquiries both in Britain and the United States – a number of questions needed answering. Had Captain Smith ignored warnings of ice? Was the Titanic making a speed record attempt? Why was the colossal iceberg not seen by the lookouts until the last minute? Why were some lifeboats allowed to leave half empty? Why were so few third-class passengers saved? Did officers of the Titanic open fire on third-class passengers to prevent them reaching the lifeboats? What was the identity of the mystery ship seen on the horizon? Could hundreds of lives have been saved had the nearby Californian responded more quickly? And, most important of all, how did a supposedly unsinkable ship come to end up at the bottom of the ocean? That some of these questions remain unanswered to this day accounts for the enduring fascination with the Titanic a hundred years after the event.
The story of the sinking of the Titanic has been told countless times since 1912 by authors and film producers alike, but no account is as graphic or revealing as those of the eye-witnesses, from the people who were actually there on that fateful night. Here, via contemporary newspaper reports and survivors’ tales – many of which are from rare sources and have therefore never previously appeared in book form – the Hollywood tinsel is stripped away so that the real story of the Titanic can be told, step by step, from her glorious launch in Belfast to the sombre burial services for those who perished at sea. The all-too-brief journey takes in vivid accounts of the departure from Southampton (a dramatic affair in its own right), life on board the luxury liner and the moment of impact, described by one Able Seaman as ‘just a trembling’ while a trimmer on duty in the engine room experienced nothing more than ‘a slight shock’. A first-class passenger recalled: ‘It did not seem to me that there was any great impact at all. It was as though we went over a thousand marbles.’ But while passengers were led to believe that everything was under control and that there was no cause for alarm, it became apparent to senior officers that the collision was infinitely more serious than anyone had imagined. The Titanic was slowly sinking.
As the evacuation process got under way, there are powerful descriptions of tearful farewells, panic, bravery, fear, resignation and, ultimately, the frantic scramble for lifeboats. Those who managed to find a place recount the horrendous conditions in the boats, of witnessing the great ship go under, of seeing human bodies bobbing up and down lifelessly in the sea, and of the enormous relief at being plucked from their nightmare by the rescue ship Carpathia. Some of the narratives throw up sizeable contradictions, but given the circumstances this is only to be expected.
Initial newspaper reports confidently stated that all on board the Titanic had been saved. But within a day the awful truth emerged that over 1,500 lives had been lost. The gathering of information was not helped by a virtual news blackout imposed by the Carpathia, but, when that ship docked at New York on the evening of 18 April, the world’s press were on hand to describe the arrival and to snap up survivors’ stories for exclusives. Many of the most poignant scenes took place at the quayside as friends and relatives hoped and prayed that their lo
The days and weeks that followed brought official inquiries, accusations and denials, reunions and burials. Newspapermen were on hand to record them all, complete with occasional inconsistencies, a spot or two of sensationalism, and their own peculiarly nationalistic slant on affairs. The American press were quick to blame the British for the disaster, citing survivor Bruce Ismay as the villain of the piece and emphasizing the heroism of all the American millionaires. The British press reacted by largely defending Ismay and another target, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, while printing allegations of cowardly behaviour by assorted Italians, Germans and Chinamen, basically anyone foreign. Some of these accounts, therefore, have to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt but they nevertheless provide an interesting insight into the prevailing feelings of the day. This, then, is the tale of history’s most infamous maritime disaster as it was relayed in all its horror to the world in 1912.
Compiling this book would have been impossible without the help of the staff of the British Newspaper Library at Colindale. I would also like to thank the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, Nottinghamshire Library Services, and, as always, Nick Robinson and Krystyna Green at Constable & Robinson.
Most of the newspapers and magazines from which extracts have been taken for this book have long since ceased publication but nevertheless I have made every effort to contact any copyright holders. I sincerely apologize for any omissions.
Geoff Tibballs, May 2001
A FLOATING HOTEL