Titanic passengers: 8 stories of people who sailed on the liner
Titanic brought people together from all levels of society – from the wealthy to those seeking a new start. From a future Olympian to the architect who went down with his ship, uncover the tales of those who were on board…
Eight stories of luck, bravery and tragedy…
John Jacob Astor IV (47) and his 19-year-old wife Madeleine were the wealthiest couple aboard Titanic, and among the richest in the world. Astor, an American business magnate, was believed to be worth more than $80 million when he went down with the ship. The couple had cut short an extended honeymoon across Europe and Egypt – a trip taken to escape the gossip surrounding their 28-year age gap and marriage – after Madeleine had fallen pregnant. Wanting the child to be born in America, they had booked passage home on Titanic.
Madeleine was safely conveyed onto a lifeboat and later remarked how many of the men left on board didn’t seem to be alarmed at the situation. Her husband’s body was later recovered from the ocean. Madeleine gave birth to John Jacob Astor VI in August 1912 – he was nicknamed the Titanic baby.
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Dutch-born Alfred Nourney was keen to live a life of luxury on Titanic. To avoid a scandal after getting a woman pregnant, Nourney was journeying from his home in Cologne, Germany, to stay with relatives in America. Travelling under the pseudonym Baron Alfred von Drachstedt, Nourney brought with him jewellery and expensive clothes to fool people of his fake aristocratic status, and though he boarded second class at Cherbourg he soon requested a transfer to first class.
He was one of the first into a lifeboat, where he is said to have smoked and continually fired his gun into the air. One story claims that on the rescue ship RMS Carpathia, Nourney’s behaviour was less than gentlemanly, and he was allegedly found asleep on a pile of blankets meant to be given out to survivors. Once in the US, Nourney claimed he had lost all his money on board and returned to Germany, where he later joined the Nazi Party.
One of the minds behind the construction of Titanic, Andrews was on board for the ship’s maiden voyage as part of the guarantee group – representatives from Harland and Wolff who were there to look for things that could be improved and to fix any minor problems. After the collision, Andrews informed the captain that the ship would sink within two hours.
Knowing there were not enough lifeboats, he tirelessly searched cabins – persuading people to put on lifejackets and get on a lifeboat if they could. A steward claimed to have seen Andrews in the first-class smoking room, staring at a painting of Plymouth Sound (which Titanic was due to visit on its return) making no attempt to save himself. Others, however, said they had witnessed him assisting with the evacuation until the bitter end before jumping overboard himself. His body was not recovered.
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American actress Dorothy Gibson had starred in many theatre productions and silent movies before her journey on Titanic, and was returning from a holiday in Italy with her mother. Gibson and her mother escaped Titanic on the first lifeboat to leave the sinking ship, but they found themselves in peril again when a hole was discovered in the bottom of the lifeboat – it had to be quickly plugged with clothing. Just days after her return to New York, Gibson re-enacted the experience in the silent film Saved from the Titanic – the first movie about the disaster – which premiered on 16 May 1912. Gibson co-wrote the film and even wore the same clothes she had worn on the night of the sinking.
Richard Norris Williams
The American tennis player Richard Norris Williams had boarded Titanic as a first-class passenger at Cherbourg and was heading home to take part in a tournament. After the ship struck an iceberg, but before the real danger had become apparent, 21-year-old Williams had come across a steward trying to help a panicked passenger who was stuck inside their cabin. Williams broke down the door to rescue the passenger – but attracted the ire of a steward, who threatened to sue him for damage.
Williams was among those who jumped into the below-freezing water, forced to cling to a lifeboat while he awaited rescue; he was later told by the doctor on board the rescue ship Carpathia that his legs – damaged by the extreme cold – may need to be amputated. Williams refused and walked up and down the deck to restore circulation; just six weeks later he won a tennis tournament.
Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche
Haiti-born engineer Joseph Laroche was travelling second class with his wife and two daughters when Titanic sank. Joseph had moved to France at the age of 15 to study engineering, but racial discrimination had prevented him from obtaining a well-paid engineering job in that country. When his French wife, Juliette, fell pregnant with their third child, they decided to return to Haiti. Joseph, who is believed to have been the only black passenger on board Titanic, managed to get his family into a lifeboat but he went down with the ship; his body was never found.
Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown
US socialite Margaret Brown posthumously became known as the ’Unsinkable Molly Brown’ following her Titanic experiences. Molly’s husband, from whom she had separated, was mining engineer James Joseph Brown, and it was his business successes that had shot the couple to the highest levels of Colorado society. Molly had been travelling in Egypt with the Astors before booking a trip home on Titanic after hearing her grandson was ill. Once aboard a lifeboat, she helped to row, encouraging other women to do the same in order to keep warm. This was despite the protestations of the quartermaster in charge, whom she allegedly threatened to push overboard.
Molly also tried in vain to persuade the quartermaster to turn back and look for survivors, and once aboard Carpathia, helped her fellow survivors, handing out food and blankets. She would later set up a survivors’ committee to help those who had lost everything. The fame she gained enabled Molly to help other charitable causes, including helping to establish a French relief station for injured soldiers during World War I.
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Violet Jessop may go down in history as one of the luckiest people to have travelled at sea – after surviving collisions on all three of White Star Line’s Olympic-class liners. The daughter of Irish immigrants to Argentina, Jessop and her family moved to England after the death of her father, and she began working as a stewardess on board passenger liners. In September 1911, Violet was working on Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic when it collided with the warship HMS Hawke near the Isle of Wight.
A year later, Violet was again working as a stewardess, this time on Titanic. As the ship was sinking, Violet was asked to assist non-English speaking passengers onto lifeboats before being ordered into lifeboat 16 herself. In 1916, Violet was on board the third of the Olympic-class ships, RMS Britannic – which had been converted into a hospital during World War I – when it sank in the Aegean Sea after hitting a mine. Thirty people were killed but Violet survived the sinking, although she suffered a severe head injury. Despite all of these close calls, she continued to work at sea. She died in 1971, aged 83.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
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