Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.
When building the Olympic and Titanic, the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff went out of their way to create ships that provided a vast amount of space and comfort, far more than any rival then afloat. As might be expected, this showed up nowhere more so than in first class.
The two sisters were half as large again as their nearest rivals, the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. Those record breaking legends could cross the Atlantic in five days, but they were known as snappy rollers in any kind of bad weather. The Atlantic had bad weather in spades.
With Olympic and Titanic, White Star opted for slower, steadier ships that could make the crossing in six days. In effect, they eschewed speed for comfort and steadiness. And the sheer scale of the new ships allowed them to create unparalleled passenger spaces, both indoors and out.
A full two thirds of their vast interior spaces were given over to the 750 first class passengers. This included suites, cabins, and the most luxurious range of public rooms that had ever gone to sea. First class had the sole use of a salt water indoor swimming pool and an adjacent set of Turkish Baths, complete with masseuse. There was also a racket ball court nearby and, on the upper deck, a fully equipped gymnasium, facing out over the ocean.
There was a library, a smoking room and a barber’s shop. In an age where phones were still a relative novelty, the Titanic had a fifty phone switchboard. For those personal valuables too big for the purser’s room, there was an enormous, bank sized vault down on G-Deck, with walls of Belfast steel fully a foot thick. It is still down there.
There was a small garage and, irony of ironies, a huge ice making machine. Stenographers were available; there was even a florists.
The main dining room was joined by a separate, a la carte option, and a pair of veranda cafes that looked out over the ocean. Unique to the Titanic was the Cafe Parisien, the first real night club at sea. Full of wicker furnishings and climbing wall plants, it was a definite attempt to put a little bit of Europe into the heart of a British liner. One would be added to the Olympic in her massive, post Titanic disaster refit.
The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912
Inside, the ships tended to have lighter, less heavily panelled spaces than the Cunarders. Combined with the sheer scale of these rooms, it gave Olympic and Titanic a feeling of almost endless, spectacular space. Casual luxury was very much the order of the day. Of the four elevators, the three forward ones were exclusively for the use of first class passengers.
The single remaining elevator was the preserve of second class; the first time on any ships that such a facility had been provided. As for third class, they were simply expected to walk to where they needed to go. Needless to say, their quarters were mere shades of the sumptuous show pieces up top.
Titanic left Southampton on schedule at noon on Wednesday, April 10th, and called in for passengers and mail at Cherbourg that same evening. The next day found her briefly at anchor off Queenstown in Southern Ireland, where her last passengers came on board. While she was there, some local traders were allowed on board to set up a temporary market. Two hours later, the big liner was skirting the coast of Southern Ireland. As twilight fell, she stood out into the reddening Atlantic, and the voyage proper could really begin.
The Titanic was less than half full in first class. As was normal, each of the 322 first class passengers was given a booklet, explaining the ship’s routine, and the services available to them on board the ‘Floating Ritz’. They were also given a first class passenger list to browse; in this case, it was some twenty-eight pages in all.
The bars aboard Titanic opened at half eight in the morning, and closed- in theory- at eleven thirty at night.They had two sets of musicians to entertain them; a five man band led by the soon to be immortal Wallace Hartley, and a separate trio that played mainly in the reception room before dinner, and later in the Cafe Parisien.
They could use the new fangled Marconi wireless to send telegrams to anywhere in America, via the great transmitting station at Cape Cod. Ten words for 8s 4d, extra words sixpence each, address and signature for free. Up on the broad sweep of the promenade deck or outside on the boat deck, a deck chair could be hired, at four shillings for the entire crossing.
Downstairs, the racket ball court could be rented for two shillings per half hour session; this included the services of the resident professional, Fred Wright. He did not survive the sinking.
Somewhere in that booklet, White Star took the precaution of intimating to it’s clients that certain professional card sharps were in the habit of crossing the Atlantic, hoping to make a killing. On that score at least, the Titanic would not disappoint.
On the back of the same booklet was a map of the Atlantic, and the information that the Titanic was expected to make thirteen round trip voyages to New York in 1912. Her first eastbound crossing, scheduled to sail from Manhattan on April 20th, was booked solid.
On the Atlantic crossing, successive days at sea tend to blend into each other. There was none of the round the clock entertainment that passengers expect now as their right. But on the maiden voyage of Titanic, many of the passengers were entertainment enough in their own right.
Fifty-eight millionaires were booked in the gilded glamour of first class. There were railroad owners and newspaper barons, movie stars and sporting icons; presidential aides and society matrons. Decorated military men and the simply obscenely rich of two continents. There were fashion house owners, steel barons, and a smattering of lords and ladies (though the British aristocracy continued to favour the Lusitania and Mauretania) as well as the odd art collector.
There was also an extraordinary menagerie of seven pampered pooches, housed in seriously swanky kennels. All things considered, it was a high rolling, demanding lot, and the crew would certainly have had their work cut out to keep them happy.
Maybe that is why Captain Smith cancelled the normal lifeboat drill. It was due to be held on that fateful Sunday morning but, for reasons we’ll never know, he decided not to go ahead with it.
By this time, a pretty agreeable vibe permeated the entire ship. The Titanic was two thirds of the way to America, and performing quite beautifully. The sea was incredibly calm. It had been like a millpond since the ship sailed. Surviving crew veterans later said that they had never seen such a continuous, calm sea on any crossing.
The sun shone continually, but the ship’s progress across the ocean generated a breeze that made it too cold to sit outside for very long. Inside, stewards patrolled the indoor promenades with carts of hot soup, and wrapped blankets around anybody who wanted them.
Under this kind of subtle daily conditioning, a kind of pampered stupor overwhelmed the passengers on board the Titanic like some kind of sleeping sickness. When combined with the breezy complacency of the Captain and his officers- not to forget the owner- it created a fatal cocktail that went a long way towards numbing those same passengers to any sense of danger. So, when mortal peril came knocking that April night, the initial reaction was a mixture of confusion, disbelief and, in some cases, simple denial.
And that explains a huge amount of what happened as the ghastly black comedy- the sinking of the Titanic- unfolded. Anything-anything at all- seemed more likely and believable than the simple, fatal truth.