This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine
On 14 April 1912, shortly before midnight, RMS Titanic struck a colossal iceberg. A little more than two-and-a-half hours later, the ship sank beneath the icy waters of the Atlantic ocean, taking with her the lives of more than 1,500 people.
Launched in May 1911 in Belfast, Ireland, to an audience of more than 100,000, Titanic began life as one of three Olympic-class sister ships, designed by their owners, the White Star Line, to be the biggest and most luxurious ships afloat. Olympic had been launched the previous year amid much publicity, but at 46,328 tons, Titanic exceeded her sister in weight and, ultimately, in notoriety.
Titanic left Southampton for New York on 10 April 1912, calling first at Cherbourg, France, and then Queenstown (known as Cobh since 1921) in Ireland, before travelling across the north Atlantic to America. Passengers from all walks of life were travelling on Titanic, all bound for the same destination but for a multitude of different reasons. Millionaire and chairman of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay, and Macy’s store owner, Isidor Straus, were just some of the prominent names travelling first class, while Irish emigrants, and those from farther afield, were among those in third class, most seeking new lives in America.
“During the day of 14 April, Titanic had received several warnings that she was heading into an ice zone” says WB Bartlett, author of Titanic: 9 Hours to Hell, the Survivors’ Story and Why the Titanic Sank, “but these were not acted upon seriously and Captain Edward J Smith maintained the ship’s speed, confident that ice would be spotted in time.
“Although his decision may seem irresponsible today, Smith’s response reflected a general complacency of the time. Most ships simply would not slow down in good visibility, even if there were ice conditions ahead. Titanic‘s downfall was the dark night and lack of wind, which meant waves could not be seen breaking on the ice until it was too late.”
At around 11.40pm, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an indistinct object looming out of the darkness about half a mile away, but despite taking evasive action, the iceberg had been spotted too late, and the ship was travelling too fast, to avoid a collision.
“Ironically, it was this evasive action that caused so much damage to Titanic,” comments Bartlett. “The last minute attempt to turn the ship, instead presented a vast amount of her side to the ice, punching open its hull below the waterline to a length of 91 metres in less than 10 seconds, and flooding six of Titanic‘s 16 watertight compartments to a height of 4.25 metres. If the ship had hit the iceberg head-on, she would almost certainly have stayed afloat.”
Although icy water was gushing into the ship below deck, initial reaction to the collision was, for the most part, one of unconcern. Titanic, after all, was widely believed to be an unsinkable ship and even when advised to don life jackets and make their way to the boat deck, few passengers did so in the early stages.
“Launching Titanic‘s 20 lifeboats was a haphazard affair,” says Bartlett. “The captain’s orders were to load women and children first but this seemed to apply mainly to women and children in first and second class. Accounts from third-class survivors describe how they were prevented from reaching the boat deck until, in most cases, it was too late. It is no coincidence, then, that 203 of Titanic‘s 325 first-class passengers survived the disaster, while less than 200 of the ship’s 700-plus third-class travellers made it to New York alive.”
Despite a flurry of messages sent by the ship’s wireless operators between 12.15am and 2.17am, the closest ship to respond was the Cunard liner Carpathia, 58 miles and four hours away. “There is still controversy surrounding the rescue of Titanic survivors,” comments Bartlett. “Two separate enquiries held after the sinking ascertained that there was actually another ship in the area – later identified as the Californian – that saw distress rockets being launched from Titanic, but failed to respond. Survivor accounts also reported seeing the lights of another ship in the distance, with some claiming to have rowed their lifeboats towards them.
“The real tragedy of Titanic was that it was a completely avoidable catastrophe,” concludes Bartlett. “It’s a well-known fact that there were only enough lifeboats onboard the ship to accommodate 1,178 of her circa 2,200 passengers and crew, but other factors also contributed, such as the angle at which the ship struck the iceberg, the speed at which she was travelling and the reactions of those onboard, and elsewhere, to events. The terrible loss of life, played out in slow motion over a few hours, was a chain reaction of events, each individually compounding the problem.
“What the disaster did succeed in doing was to substantially reduce the level of complacency in the shipping industry and to introduce a rapid change in regulation – such as 24-hour radio coverage, compulsory lifeboat drills and boats for all – still seen a century later.”
9 places associated with the Titanic story
Where the Titanic dream was born
The city of Liverpool was once home to the head offices of the White Star Line, an Australian company bought by Thomas Henry Ismay in 1867. The first White Star Line ship, Oceanic, was launched in 1870 and was a sign of things to come from the flourishing company, boasting running water in every cabin and a host of other comforts not seen before at sea.
Titanic and her two sister ships were born of competition between the White Star Line and its main competitor, Cunard, which had launched two large, fast and luxurious liners, Lusitania and Mauretania, in 1907, with considerable success.
Thomas Ismay’s son, J Bruce Ismay, who would later sail on the ill-fated Titanic voyage, proposed, developed and implemented the concept of three Olympic-class liners, bigger and better than anything ever seen before.
Titanic was actually due to pay a courtesy call to Liverpool before she embarked on her maiden voyage but was forced to cancel due to time constraints.
Today, a plaque marks the site of the former White Star Line offices in James Street, Liverpool, while an impressive memorial to six of the ship’s most senior engineers, all of whom came from Liverpool, can be found near to the Liver building. Elsewhere, a memorial to the ship’s musicians who famously played on as the ship sank, is located outside the city’s Philharmonic Hall. www.visitliverpool.com
Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast
Where three of the largest ships in the world were created
Titanic’s chief designer was Thomas Andrews, managing director of Harland & Wolff, Belfast’s largest shipyard and one that had a monopoly on the construction of all White Star Line ships, creating more than 70 in all. Much work was required to prepare the shipyard for the new liners Olympic and Titanic (and the later third sister, Britannic), including strengthening the existing slipways with reinforced concrete up to nearly 1.5 metres thick and erecting a 69-metrehigh steel gantry over them.
Some 3,000 men were employed in the construction of Titanic, keeping vast numbers of the city in employment. On 31 May 1911, with the help of 15 tonnes of tallow and five tonnes of tallow and train oil mixed together with three tonnes of soft soap, Titanic slid slowly down the slipway into the river Lagan. She was then towed to the Thomson graving dock to be fitted out with some of the most luxurious fixtures of the day, such as an onboard swimming pool, electric powered lifts and a carved grand staircase.
To mark the anniversary, a new £1 billion waterfront development in the dockland area that once housed Titanic is to open to the public, while a six-floor Titanic visitor attraction, Titanic Belfast, will tell the ship’s story from the city’s point of view. Work is also under way to restore the tender Nomadic, once used to ferry passengers to Titanic. www.the-titanic.com
Where Titanic embarked upon her maiden voyage
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,” comments Bartlett.
“Most of the ship’s crew lived in Southampton and the majority of Titanic’s passengers also boarded there.” Among the more well-known individuals who embarked at Southampton was Macy’s founder Isidor Straus. His wife, Ida, famously refused to board a lifeboat and remained instead by her husband’s side as the ship sank. Also boarding at Southampton was the reformer and journalist William Stead who was travelling to America to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall. Stead, who had allegedly been told by a clairvoyant to “beware of water” was also lost in the sinking.
Several memorials to Titanic can be found in Southampton, including an engineers’ memorial in the city’s East Park, which was unveiled in 1914 to an audience of over 100,000. Elsewhere, the 14th-century Holyrood church, which was bombed out in the Blitz, houses a memorial dedicated to the ship’s firemen, stewards and crew. The Grapes pub, Oxford Street, was once a popular haunt for crew members, so much so that six of them missed the ship’s departure on the day of the sailing. www.visit-southampton.co.uk
Cobh (formerly Queenstown), County Cork
Where Irish emigrants boarded in search of a new life in America
Titanic’s third and final port of call before New York was the town of Cobh (then Queenstown), where hundreds of Irish emigrants boarded in search of a new life in 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.” Travelling third class from Queenstown was 39-year-old Margaret Rice and her five children, aged between two and ten. Like many other third-class passengers, Margaret and her family were unable to secure places in the lifeboats and they all perished. Of the 123 people who boarded at Queenstown, only 44 survived.
Today, visitors to Cobh can take the Titanic trail around the town, as well as see the remains of the 19th-century wooden pier where passengers waited to board the tenders that would ferry them out to Titanic. http://visitcobh.com
Titanic wreck, North Atlantic ocean
Where Titanic has lain undisturbed for 100 years
Following its collision with the iceberg at 11.40pm on 14 April, water flooded six of Titanic’s watertight compartments, making staying afloat an impossibility. Almost two and a half hours later, as the weight of the incoming water pulled Titanic’s bow beneath the surface, its stern rose up until the ship was almost vertical. Those who had been able to secure a lifeboat could only watch as the ship sank beneath the waves, but eyewitness accounts vary as to whether the ship snapped before it sank or after.
Bartlett comments: “It’s almost certain that Titanic snapped either at, or very close, to the surface of the water, but it is possible that it didn’t completely break until it was fully submerged. What the majority of accounts do agree on, though, is that the ship’s lights burned on until the very end, with some visible beneath the water even as it sank.”
Attempts to pinpoint the location of Titanic’s wreck began soon after the ship’s sinking but with no success. In 1985, however, with the help of sonar technology, Dr Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a group of scientists successfully captured the first pictures of the wreck, two and a half miles below the surface. The ship was found 13.5 miles east of the location given by Titanic’s wireless operators on the night of the disaster – a mistake that had led some rescue ships to the wrong side of the ice field on that fateful night. www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/titanic/the_journey/exploring_the_wreck
Chelsea Piers, New York, USA
Where survivors were put ashore
Rescue ship Carpathia docked at Chelsea Piers, New York, on 18 April, pausing only to drop off Titanic’s empty lifeboats at the White Star Line pier 59 before continuing to Cunard’s pier 54 to drop off its passengers. Thousands of people lined the quayside as the ship docked – desperate to find out what had happened to family and friends – as well as reporters and photographers eager to report on the disaster. “The response to the tragedy was immense,” says Bartlett. “In my opinion, the sinking of Titanic was the biggest news story to hit New York before 9/11 and reactions varied from anger, shock, horror and disbelief. As time went on, some Americans began to apportion blame for the disaster on what they saw as a British lack of regulation and, once the initial shock died down, reactions became more heated.”
Pier 54 was demolished in 1991 but the metal arch that once boasted Cunard signage still remains. Although the rest of Chelsea Piers is now an amusement complex, there are a number of memorials to Titanic victims across the city. www.chelseapiers.com
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Where many of Titanic’s dead were laid to rest
Over the course of several weeks various boats set sail to recover bodies from the wreck site, an operation that was co-ordinated from Halifax, the nearest port to the disaster.
Many of the bodies were still floating on the surface, kept afloat by life jackets; 328 were recovered, although only 209 were brought ashore. Those who were too badly disfigured to identify were buried at sea, mainly third-class passengers.
The majority of the bodies that were brought back to Halifax were buried in three cemeteries. Fairview, a non-denominational cemetery, holds 120 Titanic victims, some of whom were never identified, while others were interred in the Jewish cemetery Baron de Hirsch, and Mount Olivet, the city’s Roman Catholic cemetery.
The bodies of a number of wealthy Americans were shipped back to New York, but only one person from Britain (bandmaster Wallace Hartley) was transported home. The White Star Line, which denied responsibility for the accident, did offer to return bodies for burial, but at a cost of £20 – more than £600 in today’s money. For many, the repatriation of a loved one was simply too costly to be borne. www.halifaxinfo.com
Bolton, Greater Manchester
Where the ‘hero of the hour’ was born
In the aftermath of the Titanic tragedy, one man in particular emerged as a hero: Arthur Rostron, captain of the Cunard liner Carpathia, who took enormous risks to reach the sinking ship before it was too late. Although the exact number is still debated, it is generally accepted that around 712 passengers were rescued by Carpathia, which had travelled flat out in order to reach the ship in time.
Rostron, who was born in Bolton, is often favourably compared with Titanic captain Edward J Smith, who, according to eyewitness accounts, appeared to have been completely overwhelmed by the situation. Smith was last seen in the bridge area after giving orders to abandon ship. Rostron, however, was widely praised for his clear head and the disaster was the making of his career: he eventually became head of the Cunard fleet.
Also born in Bolton was Stanley Lord, master of the Boston-bound liner Californian on the night Titanic sank. Many believe that Californian was, in fact, the mystery ship that had failed to come to Titanic’s aid (though others passionately disagree with this view), and Lord was pilloried in the press as the man who “might have saved all onboard”.
In 1999, a plaque to Rostron was unveiled on the wall of the house in Blackburn Road in which he was born. www.visitbolton.com
Dalbeattie, Dumfries & Galloway
Where a controversial officer is hailed as a hero
Titanic’s first officer William McMaster Murdoch was born in Dalbeattie in 1873 and joined White Star Line in 1899. With a host of sailings behind him, Murdoch was a senior officer on Olympic’s maiden voyage in 1911 and was made first officer the following year on Titanic’s first, and final, voyage.
It was during Murdoch’s watch that Titanic struck the iceberg and it was under his orders that evasive action was taken to try and avoid a collision. Says Bartlett: “Murdoch was placed in charge of loading the boats on one side of the ship and it seems that he took a fairly pragmatic approach to this, filling the boats with women and children first but allowing men in if there was room.
“There is some controversy surrounding Murdoch’s death, and this was compounded by the 1997 film of the disaster, directed by James Cameron, which depicts Murdoch committing suicide after killing two passengers. Although some survivors later stated that one of the officers did shoot himself, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that this was Murdoch and his body, if recovered, was never identified.” What is recorded, however, is Murdoch’s diligent efforts to get passengers off the ship and he is widely celebrated in Dalbeattie. www.dalbeattie.net
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: WB Bartlett, author of Titanic: 9 Hours to Hell, the Survivors’ Story and Why the Titanic Sank (both Amberley Publishing)