RMS Titanic – at the time, the world’s largest man-made moving object at 269 metres in length and widely considered to be ‘unsinkable’ – struck an iceberg at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912. Despite several warnings, Titanic was racing through dangerous waters almost at its top speed of 23 knots. The berg was spotted only 30 seconds before impact, thanks in part to the fact that lookouts were not equipped with binoculars.
The iceberg caused a crack of over 200ft along Titanic’s starboard side. The size of the rupture meant five of the forward compartments flooded, with the ship’s design allowing for four to flood safely. It is widely believed that if the collision was head on, Titanic would have survived.
It took just two-and-a-half hours for the colossal vessel to sink, sending survivors into the freezing waters. Overall, the maritime disaster claimed over 1,500 lives. There were 705 survivors. Here, we bring you a guide to the history of the doomed vessel…
Where was Titanic built?
Titanic was built at Queen’s Island, once the heart of Belfast’s shipbuilding industry. The establishment of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1861 had turned Belfast into one of the world’s great shipbuilding centres. More than 1,700 vessels were built at the shipyard’s Queen’s Island site, including RMS Titanic.
“Titanic was the second of three Olympic-class ships designed and built for the White Star Line between 1908 and 1914″, Aidan McMichael, chairman of the Belfast Titanic Society, told BBC History Magazine. “Around 3,000 people worked on the construction of the ship – about 20 per cent of Harland & Wolff’s workforce – and the vessel was designed here, in Belfast, in drawing offices that still survive today, overlooking the slipways.
“Most of the workers hailed from east Belfast and there would have been vast swathes of people walking to and from the shipyard every day. Titanic, and its sister ship Olympic, which was built at roughly the same time, would have been iconic sights on the skyline.”
The first of the three ships to launch was Olympic, on 20 October 1910. As the largest ocean liner in the world, its launch attracted huge local and international interest. Less than a year later, on 31 May 1911, Titanic slid down slipway number three, and into the waters of the Victoria Channel in Belfast Lough. After launch Titanic was moved to the nearby Thompson wharf, where the majority of the fitting-out was completed in preparation for its maiden voyage in April 1912.
“Ship launches in Belfast were greeted with much excitement,” says McMichael. “As the first of the three ships, and as a new class of vessel, Olympic was launched to great fanfare, as was Titanic. Around 100,000 people – about a third of the city’s population – turned out to watch Titanic’s 62-second descent into the water, with tickets sold to raise money for charity.”
The fitting-out process took just under a year, and on 2 April 1912, with its paint barely dry, Titanic left Belfast Lough and set sail for Southampton to pick up its first passengers.
DID YOU KNOW? Only three of its four funnels were needed to release steam from the boilers, which were burning through 650 tons of coal every day. The fourth was added for decoration only, as the designers thought it would make Titanic look bigger.
Titanic began her maiden voyage in Southampton
Titanic began her maiden voyage in Southampton, then a major port of exit for transatlantic crossings with excellent rail connections to London and the rest of Britain. “The loss of Titanic was arguably felt most in Southampton, which saw 549 of its residents lose their lives in the disaster,” historian WB Bartlett told BBC History Magazine. “Most of the ship’s crew lived in Southampton and the majority of Titanic’s passengers also boarded there.”
After leaving Southampton for New York on 10 April 1912, the liner called first at Cherbourg, France, and then Queenstown (known as Cobh since 1921) in Ireland, before travelling across the north Atlantic to America. “Many Irish families saw America as their chance to escape economic deprivation and poverty,” says Bartlett. “In fact, between 1848 and 1950, more than six million emigrated from Ireland, with nearly half of those sailing from Cobh.”
Entertainment on Titanic included a newspaper and a band
Titanic had its own newspaper, The Atlantic Daily Bulletin. Printed every day, it included news, stock prices and horseracing results, as well as the day’s menu. (The last meal for the first-class passengers had 11 courses.)
The vessel also had a band which entertained first-class passengers throughout the voyage, having memorised all 350 songs from The White Star Line Songbook. Famously, as the ship was sinking, the band continued to play for two hours to calm people down.
The last meal served to first-class passengers on Titanic included filet mignon and roasted pigeon
On the evening of 14 April 1912, hours before the iceberg collision, Titanic‘s first-class passengers sat down for their last meal aboard the ship – and for some, the last meal of their lives. As menus have been salvaged from the wreck, we know that it was a good one.
The final meal is better described as a feast. Oysters, filet mignon, poached salmon, chicken Lyonnaise, foie gras and roasted pigeon were some of the delicacies, each served with a different wine. For dessert, one option was Punch Romaine, citrus sorbet drenched in rum and champagne. With all meals as extravagant as this, the kitchen staff of 113 cooks, 15 first cooks, 12 pastry chefs, five sous chefs, six bakers and five butchers were kept busy.
No second-class menus from that night have been found, but we know that breakfast included grilled ox kidneys and Yarmouth bloaters (herring). Those holding the cheapest tickets tended to have a hearty lunch of stew and something light in the evening.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking, several restaurants recreated the first-class spread, including one in Hong Kong that offered a 1907 bottle of wine rescued from the ship itself.
How many lifeboats were on board Titanic? And why were so few on board rescued?
Originally designed for 64 lifeboats, Titanic only had 20 – not enough for the 2,200 passengers and crew on board. Many of the launched boats were not filled to capacity, with one carrying 24 people, even though it could fit 65. A lifeboat drill was planned for the day it hit the iceberg, but it was cancelled.
The mighty ocean liner set sail with too few lifeboats to hold everyone on board, a decision based on the assumption that – in the unlikely event she ran into trouble – other ships would come to the rescue. They didn’t, but why?
There were two reasons. First, a miners’ strike caused a shortage of high-grade steam coal in Britain, which meant that far fewer ships than usual were at sea in the North Atlantic.
Under normal circumstances the Titanic might have expected to be in sight of two or three ships at all times – but those ships were simply not there. The second reason was that not all ships had radios, and those that did have them did not man their radios 24 hours a day.
At least two ships, the SS Californian and SS Parisian, could have reached Titanic in time to rescue everyone on board had they received the distress call – but the radio sets on both ships were switched off that night.
- Did you know? Captain Smith and White Star chairman Bruce Ismay have been the subject of much derision and criticism – but the record suggests that both men have been treated unfairly by history…
How many died during the Titanic disaster?
The disaster claimed over 1,500 lives. With the Atlantic Ocean’s temperature below zero, many people died within minutes of entering the water.
The ship’s baker, Charles Joughin, however, survived for two hours, claiming he could not feel the cold as he was blind-drunk on whisky. Alongside the 705 survivors were two of the nine dogs brought aboard: a Pekinese and a Pomeranian.
A day later, on 16 April, the Daily Mail reported on the disaster. The headline read, “Titanic sunk. No lives lost”. The true nature of the tragedy will not be known for several days.
Why did the SS Californian not respond to Titanic’s distress calls?
As RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of 15 April 1912, a ship that could have saved hundreds of lives was only a few miles away, yet deaf to distress calls. The SS Californian had stopped for the night due to the risk of icebergs. Actually, its radio operator Cyril Evans had sent out warnings a few hours earlier… before going to bed.
During the night, the crew noticed a stopped ship not far away, and woke the captain, Stanley Lord, when it sent up white rockets. He didn’t act, believing them to be signals between ships of the same line. It was only when the radio was turned back on the next morning – and another ship, the RMS Carpathia, was on the scene – that the truth was realised.
Back on land, Lord made his case worse by giving conflicting reports to newspapers and the official inquiries. He claimed the Californian was 20-30 nautical miles from Titanic, when it was a lot closer. No charges were brought against him, but his career was in ruins. The captain of the Carpathia, meanwhile, was hailed a hero.
How accurate are the most famous films about the disaster? Mark Glancy looks at three pivotal portrayals of Titanic’s fateful voyage…
Several notable names of the period died during the Titanic disaster
Counted among the dead were some notable names. John Jacob Astor IV was one of the richest people in the world, but even his immense riches could not get him a spot on a lifeboat. WT Stead, a founding figure of investigative journalism, was allegedly last seen sitting in a leather chair as the ship sank, reading a book. Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store, and his wife Ida died together. Ida was about to get into a lifeboat when she decided to stay with her husband.
Shipbuilder Thomas Andrews did not meet his fate in the way so often portrayed in books, documentaries and films about the disaster. In fact, his death was substantially more heroic.
The famously inadequate number of lifeboats on Titanic hadn’t broken any rules
Just four days after the sinking, a hastily cobbled-together inquiry convened in New York. Another would follow in Britain in May. They concluded that the White Star Line was not guilty of negligence. And although the shipping company would be taken to court and ordered to pay out, the fines weren’t huge. The greatest ire was reserved for the SS Californian, the other ship that didn’t come to Titanic’s aid.
In regards to lifeboats, Titanic’s famously inadequate number didn’t actually break any rules – health and safety has come a long way – so the inquiries could only conclude that the existing regulations were outdated.
If anyone got handed the blame, it was the highest-ranking White Star Line official to survive, J Bruce Ismay. He had leapt into a lifeboat and reportedly couldn’t watch as the Titanic sank, before spending four days in shock and inconsolable. Yet he was decried as a coward and the rumour mill whirled into action. Stories emerged saying he had known of the ice warnings, had originally limited the number of lifeboats, and pushed Captain Edward John Smith to keep the speed up so Titanic could get the crossing record.
He became “the most talked-of man in all the world,” according to one newspaper. Though he was never officially held responsible, Ismay was condemned in trial-by-media and spent the rest of his life a broken man.