WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.

Why?

Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.

THE TITANIC- WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG TO LOWER THE BOATS?

If any one thing is guaranteed to raise hackles in the whole, sorry saga of the Titanic, it is the subject of the loading and lowering of the boats.

Consider this; there were twenty boats in all. There were some fourteen regular, five ton lifeboats, and an additional pair of cutters, as well as four emergency boats on board. Their total capacity was something in the region of 1180 people. Yet only 705 would actually make it into those boats.

The Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 on the evening on Sunday, April 14th. But not until 12.45 on the morning of the 15th was the first boat- number 7- lowered from the sinking ship. With a capacity for some sixty five people, it left the Titanic carrying just twenty eight.

In many instances, the pattern was repeated. Boat number one, capacity forty, left carrying just twelve.

How could it happen? How could those boats- insufficient for around half of the 2200 plus people on board the sinking liner- leave with something like 475 empty seats? And how did it take so long to begin an evacuation that soon thereafter became almost ruthless in its desperate haste?

Some of the answers lie in the way that the Titanic was conceived and run in the first place.

When the writer Joseph Conrad derisively referred to Titanic as ‘a kind of maritime version of the Ritz’ not long before she set sail, he was closer to the truth than many then realised. The ship was staffed and run- in first class at least- like a top end, five star plus hotel.

There were literally hundreds of stewards, stewardesses, bell boys, chefs, musicians, postal clerks, and even a gardener on board the Titanic. They were there to deliver a level of service and catering excellence that would leave most land based hotels reeling in her wake.

But, for all of her finery and panache, the Titanic was not a hotel; she was a ship.

Of a total crew in excess of nine hundred, there were only something like sixty five trained seamen on the entire ship. That is to say, men who could be expected to carry out emergency duties in the unlikely event of an accident. Including, say, the loading, lowering and, indeed, the manning, of all the lifeboats.

Sixty five men out of a crew of nine hundred….

But the owners had thought of that. They had fitted the Titanic with a wonderful, new advanced system of launch gear for the boats. Known as the Welin davit system, it allowed for each lifeboat to be lowered smoothly to the sea by small, electrical engines. No need for a large amount of manual labour, and time saving to boot.

Of course, the boats could still be lowered manually, in the old fashioned way. This was all well and fine, if only one or two boats needed to be lowered that way.

But what happened if all of them needed to be lowered by hand, and quickly? That was the nightmare scenario that no-one could ever have envisioned. But that is exactly what came to pass on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

After the Titanic glanced against the iceberg at around 11.40, Captain Smith brought the ship to a standstill, and sent both his carpenter and Fourth Officer Boxhall down below to make an inspection tour of the damage. The carpenter’s report indicated that the ship was making water very quickly indeed.

Instead of ordering that the lifeboats be uncovered there and then, Smith himself then set off on a tour of inspection with Thomas Andrews, the chief builder of the ship. Their increasingly baleful progress through the damaged areas convinced both men that the Titanic was, indeed, going to sink. Here, valuable time was lost while the captain confirmed for himself what a perfectly qualified carpenter had already told him.

Now, Smith swung into action, and started swinging out the boats. He ordered that each boat be uncovered, filled with women and children, and then lowered away. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller would be in charge. First Officer Bill Murdoch would officiate over on the starboard side.

Stunned, half asleep and disbelieving, the seaman of the Titanic began to gradually report to the boat deck. What followed was a black comedy, played out across the sloping decks of the sinking liner.

The normal, scheduled boat drill which should have taken place that Sunday morning had been cancelled at the last moment- by Captain Smith. There was nothing unusual in that back in 1912. Cancellations were as regular as Atlantic storms, just part of the increasingly cavalier mind set that had taken over even the best and most formerly prudent of ocean liner captains by the second decade of the new century.

Thus, the men had no actual boat assignments; everything they did that night was by instinct, rather than routine. And that work was far from easy.

Every single boat had to be stripped of it’s canvas cover- no small job in itself. Then they had to be swung out on brand new davits, lowered flush with the boat deck, filled with women and children, and then lowered a full seventy feet down the side of the Titanic.

Once afloat, they had to be disconnected from the ropes that had lowered them, and then rowed to the assumed safety of some nearby rescue ship. Each boat weighed five tons empty, and they would take the additional weight of sixty five frightened souls on board. In those days, each boat had to be rowed manually. There were no electric motors for the lifeboats.

You can see that all of this was a pretty tall order, in and of itself. It would have presented a huge challenge to a perfectly trained crew; even one that had grown used to working together over a long period of time.

But for the crew of the Titanic, untried and unused to working as a team, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

With the electrical supply available to the ship slowly failing, Chief Engineer Joseph Bell had to decide on priorities, and quickly at that. He decided to concentrate on keeping power going to the lights and the wireless room on board.

To facilitate that, he shut down the power to a whole raft of redundant, now pretty much superfluous power outlets. As the situation worsened, Bell and his heroic engineers ruthlessly culled every bit of machinery that they could in order to keep those other, more vital elements alive and in play.

One of the first casualties was the lifeboats’ winches. After all, the boats could be lowered by hand, couldn’t they?

So now, the small band of sixty five seamen set about the loading and lowering of something like twenty lifeboats. There were two groups of four boats on the forward deck, and another group of four located aft, on both port and starboard sides. The four collapsible boats were on top of the officer’s mess right forward, and were somehow supposed to be manhandled down and fitted into the forward davits, once those were empty. It was an utterly farcical placement.

Both Murdoch and Lightoller knew that the Titanic was sinking by the head. As her bow sagged down, the water would inevitably rise to the forward end of the boat deck first. Which made getting those first, forward boats away something of a necessity, if anyone was to be saved at all.

Now this woefully inadequate band of sixty five men embarked on a herculean task for which they had not been trained or prepared, in circumstances that could hardly have been more dire. They knew almost from the start that they were truly up against it.

The passengers, alas, did not.

While the all too alarmed passengers in third class were kept below by the series of locked gates mandated by US Customs to keep the classes segregated on ocean liners, their counterparts in first and second class were reluctant to even come out on deck, never mind enter the lifeboats. And, after all, why would they?

The only coherent thought that seemed to occupy Captain Smith’s mind that night was the need to prevent a panic. Simple maths informed his thinking on that front.

Some 2200 souls had been entrusted to his care, and he had lifeboats for less than 1200. The nearest responsive rescue ship was some four hours’ steaming away. And the Titanic had just over half that time to live.

Smith knew that over a thousand of his passengers and crew had nowhere to go but down. And he also knew that, as the ship sank further, awareness of their truly desperate plight could trigger an unstoppable panic, one that might result in even more fatalities.

There was no public address system available to the Titanic, so no general alarm was ever sounded. This largely explains why there was a lack of any initial panic; it was the end product of people’s largely complete lack of awareness of the true nature of the ship’s plight. And, up to a point, that fed into Smith’s hand.

So, instead of opening up the gates to third class, Smith tried to play an unwinnable poker game; passengers in first class were lulled with lively ragtime and other upbeat tunes in the warm, well lit interior of the ship. Outside, the night air was freezing, and the sound of the ship’s boilers, venting off steam through the whistles, was akin to a deeply unpleasant roar that made conversation- and, indeed, hearing any shouted orders- all but impossible. No, better by far to stay inside in the warm, comfortable surroundings that they had enjoyed so much over the last five days.

At the same time, the under resourced, over worked handful of officers and men on the boat deck were desperately trying to coerce passengers into the boats. But even the few passengers that did come out into the frigid night air were reluctant; wives did not want to leave their husbands. Extended families were reluctant to be parted.  And the idea of climbing into those little boats, there to endure a potentially terrifying, seventy foot drop down into the darkness to drift about on the sea, seemed ridiculous. After all, they would only have to come back up the same way in a little while. After all, wasn’t the Titanic unsinkable anyway?

So, in that first, desperate hour, we find a fatal cocktail of events taking shape; overworked seamen, unused to working together, carrying out backbreaking work- so backbreaking that many of them were sweating in the freezing cold air- working frantically to manhandle these large, five ton boats out over the ship’s side, only to find that the handful of passengers that were about were extremely reluctant to enter them. Combined with an understandable desire to get those boats most threatened by the rising water away first, it is little wonder that things went to pieces.

Urgent, often haphazard work by a desperate crew was met with the utter complacency of many passengers in first and even second class that night, at least in that first hour. The result was the loss of almost five hundred more lives than were necessary; a shocking indictment. On the Titanic, almost everything possible was done for the comfort and leisure of the passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety.

And, inevitably, as the tilt of the deck grew greater, the fear and panic did spread like sleeping sickness right through the foundering ship. When a wave of terrified third class passengers did come pouring up from down below, they had to be physically pushed back in some cases. For sure, shots were fired in the air.

For by now the boat deck was crowded, but the boats were mostly gone. And, as a few able seamen were sent away in each successive boat, so the numbers available to launch those last boats dwindled, even as their work load grew ever greater and more desperate.

What could they have thought themselves, as they worked like manic automatons to load and lower those boats, knowing full well that they had scant chance of finding a place in one for themselves?

Perhaps the one, true mercy accorded to those men is that they could at least lose themselves in a job of work. But those brave men would never be lauded like Wallace Hartley and his immortal musicians, or be showered with the kind of praise rightly directed at the likes of the wireless operators, the stewardesses, or even the hapless Captain Smith himself.

Complacency was the chief catalyst for this ocean going catastrophe without an equal. People will continue to cite the freakish weather conditions of that incredible night as a prime contributor to what followed, and that may well be so. The iceberg wasn’t seen until it was far too late.

But, in truth, nothing was a greater danger to the huddled masses on the Titanic than the ingrained mind set and mentality of those that conceived, commissioned, and then sailed her. That collision of overconfidence and nature was fatally compounded by a kind of complacent, Olympian blind faith in technology; one that eventually found its comeuppance on that cold April night back in 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

THE TITANIC- QUESTIONS I’D LIKE TO ASK…..

When RMS Titanic plunged beneath the starlit Atlantic on the early morning of April 15th, 1912, she left more than fifteen hundred souls behind her, thrashing and gasping desperately for their lives in the freezing cold water.

She also left a whole raft of unanswered questions behind her. Questions that need answers now as much as they did back then. And, because of the shocking roster of lives lost among the senior staff on board, they are answers that we will never, ever get.

And, of course, that is part of her appalling, compelling mystique; what we actually know is just the tip of the iceberg- pun wholly intentional. But the real conundrum is in what lies beneath.

If some cosmic force could somehow grant me the means, what I would really like to know is what was said between three key players in the tragedy during those last few hours, as the Titanic sagged helplessly into the abyss. The slowly unfolding tragedy would have brought all three to within a close, enforced proximity during those last, ghastly hours.

Those three men were Edward Smith, the captain; J. Bruce Ismay, the owner, and Thomas Andrews, the chief architect for both the Titanic and her almost identical sister ship, the Olympic. Andrews had taken over this role from Alexander Carlisle to be fair, but his input into the design and construction of both ships was still pivotal.

Two of these men would perish in the disaster; a third would survive. For reasons of his own, he would prove to be somewhat less than forthcoming on any conversations he may have had with the other two men. But, in truth, he was never pressed by the largely deferential courts of inquiry held into the sinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

Conjecture on the subject is fascinating, but in the absence of definitive answers, conjecture is all it will ever be. Still, let us look at what all three men did know for certain, not long after midnight on Sunday, April 14th, 1912;

1) They knew that the Titanic was going to sink within three hours, and that the nearest responsive rescue ship was more than four hours’ steaming time away.

2) They knew that there were lifeboats for just 1180 of the 2200 plus passengers and crew on board.

3) They knew that the water temperature was well below freezing, and that no one could be expected to survive immersion in it for more than a few minutes.

And, the inescapable logic to be deduced from those three facts was that at least a thousand people were going to die before even a slight chance of rescue could reach them.

Of course, most of this shortfall hinges on the lifeboat capacity. The British Board of Trade regulations required that the Titanic carry only sixteen lifeboats. The White Star Line had provided her with twenty in all.

As the overall architect, Thomas Andrews had specified no less than forty-eight lifeboats each for the Olympic and Titanic. He even installed a special kind of lifeboat launching gear, called the Welin davit system, that was capable of launching three boats in succession from the same spot.

But Andrews was over ruled. By Bruce Ismay no less, in his capacity as managing director of the White Star Line.

Why? Each of those five ton lifeboats would have cost relatively little to build. And, because of the revolutionary Welin system, those twenty eight extra boats would have taken up no more floor space on the boat deck.

It has been argued in recent years that shipping line owners like Ismay saw lifeboats simply as rescue ferries, to be used to evacuate a ship in the event of fire or collision. That he did not conceive that they would actually have to be used as fully fledged survival craft in their own right.

Ismay’s supposed thinking was based on the experience of losing another, much smaller White Star liner, the Republic, back in 1909.

The Republic had been rammed in thick fog, off the coast of Nantucket, by a much smaller Italian immigrant ship, the Florida. The Republic immediately sent out a distress call as she began to sink very slowly but surely.

Luckily, the Republic was very close to land; right near the spot where most ocean liners begin their final run in to New York. As a result, she was soon surrounded by a small, rapidly growing rescue fleet, and  in quite short order.

The boats on the Republic were then used to simply ferry all of her passengers and crew over to the ships standing nearby, waiting to pick them up. Thus, every life on board was saved after the initial collision. It was, indeed, a text book operation, and it gained world wide attention at the time.

But Ismay either drew the wrong conclusions from the loss of the Republic, or simply went into denial. Either way, it proved fatal to the huddled throng on the sloping boat deck of the Titanic, just over three years later.

For Titanic was not near any land; she was four hundred miles out in the Atlantic. All the ships in the general vicinity that did answer her desperate wireless messages were too far distant to respond in time. And, from the outset, the Titanic was far more seriously wounded than the Republic had ever been. So Ismay’s argument that lifeboats were only necessary as short distance ferries was turned completely on its head, and with disastrous consequences.

The pathetic handful of lifeboats on board the Titanic would all have to serve as fully fledged survival craft, and quite possibly for hours on end. What was worse was that there was room in those boats for less than half the people on board.

Ismay knew that. And so did both Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews.

I will always wonder if Ismay used the Republic near escape as an excuse not to provide more boats- the same boats that the experienced, hugely dedicated Thomas Andrews clearly did feel were necessary. What could his motivation have been in such a case?

I don’t think it was necessarily about the boats per se, but rather, accommodating the larger extra numbers of crewmen that would have been needed to lower and man them properly. Even on ships as huge as Olympic and Titanic, space was not infinite. Providing more crew for more boats would have meant creating extra cabins for them. And that could only be done at the expense of giving something else up- like valuable cargo space, for instance.

Of course, this larger crew would also have resulted in a larger wage bill. Did Ismay use his fatuous optimism over the Republic rescue as a shield to cover his reluctance to increase the total number of boats and crew, simply as a cost saving expedient?

I’d love to know what Thomas Andrews had to say about it on the night of April 14th-15th, 1912. Because if anyone was entitled to feel aggrieved with Ismay, it was surely him.

As it was, the evacuation of the sinking ship was very badly botched. Only 705 people were saved in boats capable of carrying 1180- an appalling shortfall of some 475 souls.

This, largely, can be laid at the door of the popular, hugely experienced Captain Edward Smith. He ordered that the boats be swung out, and filled with ‘women and children first’ before being lowered.

On the port and starboard sides of the sinking liner, that same order was interpreted very differently by the respective supervising officers. On the starboard side, First Officer Murdoch read it as ‘women and children first’, and then subsequently allowed men into the boats when no more ladies were in evidence.

On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller read it as ‘women and children only’- end of. No men at all. Even when there were just twenty-seven souls aboard a lifeboat built to hold seventy people.

This resulted in something like three quarters of those saved leaving in the starboard side boats. Andrews, his world already crumbling around him, was struck numb with horror when he realised that Lightoller was lowering boats at nothing like their full rated capacity.

According to his own account, Lightoller told Andrews that he was worried about filling the boats at deck level, in case the full weight load of seventy people caused them to buckle under the strain. An incredulous Andrews told Lightoller that two of the boats had been tested in Belfast, fully loaded, and that there had been no problems at all. After this, Lightoller did step up the number of people in each successive boat that he lowered.

Andrews, of course, was by this time unable to comment.

That said, one man could have cut straight through this appalling dichotomy; where your actual chances of survival were much better, or worse, depending on which side of the deck you happened to be standing on. That man was Captain Edward J. Smith.

Smith could- and should- have overruled his feisty second officer. But he did not.

Again, why?

Ever since the collision, no one had been more acutely aware than Smith of how desperate the situation was. He was the first to see any wireless messages coming through to the sinking ship .He knew all too well that the lifeboat capacity was woefully insufficient. And, just like Andrews, he knew exactly who was responsible for that shortfall.

No matter how you view his actions leading up to the actual collision, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Smith; he knew that at least a thousand people were going to die. And he knew that, as the captain of the Titanic, the ultimate responsibility for that loss would be laid to his charge, and not that of Bruce Ismay. If he felt that to be both unjust and inevitable, then who can blame him?

So, what was said between captain and owner? They were in very close proximity for at least the first fifty minutes or so after the collision. Again, Ismay was not forthcoming on the subject. Again, Smith was unavailable to provide any kind of possible counter narrative.

For sure, many of the deck officers on the Titanic would have been privy to any exchanges between those two men. But most of them went down with the ship. There may have been some ‘in the know’- and Lightoller comes to mind- but he maintained a discreet silence. The Second Officer retained an extraordinary devotion to his late captain right up to the last days of his own, quite extraordinary life.

Quite simply, Smith seems to have quietly imploded, going to pieces even as the cold ocean devoured the innards of his ship. The shock of inevitable disaster, coupled with that massive, unavoidable loss of life, probably overwhelmed him. Almost everything was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers- Wilde, Murdoch, Lightoller, Lowe and Moody- in a nightmare situation that completely tore up the rule book.

This handful of essentially leaderless, desperately over worked men were constantly trying to improvise short term solutions for a situation that grew increasingly desperate with each new minute. If they were over stressed and made some impulsive mistakes, it is hardly to be wondered at under the circumstances.

But it is Thomas Andrews that I feel truly sorry for. For his story is nothing short of heart breaking.

I would love to sit down and ask him how he felt, as the ship he had laboured to bring to life over three long years, died slowly beneath his feet. How he felt about Bruce Ismay leaving the ship in one of the last lifeboats (if, indeed, he knew at all). Knowing that his recommendations about lifeboats had been ignored by the same owner that left in one of the few boats on board, while at least a thousand people were about to die as a result- that would have broken most men.

I cannot get them out of my head even now. The thought of Smith, stunned and ruined, watching helplessly as the water rose slowly but unstoppably towards him, about to obliterate both his life, and the enviable track record he had built up among the travelling public over some thirty-eight long years. Andrews, still trying desperately to save others even at the end, with no intention of ever doing anything to help himself. And yes, even Ismay, shivering in a little wooden lifeboat as his credibility sank with the dying leviathan that he could not bring himself to look at as she plunged under that stark, starlit ocean.

I would love to have been party to those anguished exchanges between these three, central figures as their worlds fell apart all around them. Because it is their story that is the kernel, the very epicentre, of the entire, needless tragedy of the Titanic. No one knew the truth in the way that they did.

All we have instead are questions that can never, ever be answered.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait...

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

GOING, GOING, GONE.. TITANIC STEAMER CHAIR SELLS FOR £85,000 AT AUCTION

The only surviving, authenticated first class steamer chair to be recovered from the wreckage of RMS Titanic was sold at auction on Saturday for some £85,000.

The chair was auctioned off by the same man- Andrew Aldridge of Devizes, Wiltshire- who recently oversaw the sale of Wallace Hartley’s violin for almost a million pounds.

The new owner is described as a ‘UK based collector of iconic pieces of history’. In other words, the buyer’s actual nationality remains undisclosed.

The chair is understood to be one of seven originally fished out of the Atlantic by crewmen aboard the Mackay-Bennett, the first of three vessels sent out from Nova Scotia to recover the bodies of the 1500 victims of the sinking in April, 1912. Once she returned to port, it came into the possession of the ship’s French captain, Julien Lemarteleur.

The most recent owner of the deckchair is understood to be an English Titanic enthusiast, who had kept the steamer chair for around a decade and a half.

While £85,000 is an astronomical sum, it just goes to show how buoyant the level of interest in anything even remotely connected to the Titanic remains worldwide. There is no doubt that the lost liner remains a powerful, totemic talisman of recent history. In fact, no artefacts from any other ship command anything like prices for Titanic memorabilia.

These steamer chairs, seen on the deck of the Deutschland, are very similar in design to the one from Titanic, just sold at auction for a staggering £85,000

These steamer chairs, seen on the deck of the Deutschland, are very similar in design to the one from Titanic, just sold at auction for a staggering £85,000

TITANIC 103 YEARS AGO; THE WORLD WAKES UP TO THE NEWS…..

“We have absolute faith in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is non-sinkable….”

These were the first words spoken in public by Phillip Franklin, the head of the White Star Line in the United States, in response to a series of alarming rumours that were beginning to circulate in New York and other cities.

Those rumours stated that the brand new Titanic, flagship of the White Star Line, had struck an iceberg en route to New York on her maiden voyage.

No one at first believed it. Wireless was in its infancy in those days. The last distress calls from the damaged liner had been cut off abruptly. The silence thereafter was deafening.

Gradually, a narrative gained momentum; the Titanic had, indeed, struck an iceberg, but all of the passengers had been put off safely in the boats. The Titanic herself was being towed by the Allan liner, Virginian, to the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia.

The White Star Line swept into action; a special train was hired to travel from New York, so that families of the passengers could be ushered quickly to Halifax to be reunited with their inbound loved ones. It set off full of hopeful, relieved souls.

Halfway through the Maine woods, the train was flagged down and stopped. By now, the world knew the awful truth.

The Titanic had gone down in the freezing Atlantic. Her only known survivors- some 700 souls- were aboard the Carpathia, and were actually en route to New York. The great liner had already been at the bottom for hours when Franklin made his hopeful, fatuous boast to an incredulous media.

The shock effect was seismic. Fifty seven millionaires had been on board, and now most of them were gone. The cold water culling of this group of platinum chip plutocrats had the inevitable knock on effect. The New York stock exchange almost followed the Titanic to the bottom.

Ironically, the simple, concise truth about what had befallen the ‘non-sinkable’ Titanic came, finally, from none other than her twin sister ship, the Olympic.

The end in sight, and the music is still playing.....

The end in sight, and the music is still playing…..

THE LUSITANIA; THE FIRST REAL ACT OF MARITIME ‘TERRORISM’?

When Walther Schweiger slammed his last remaining, famously unreliable torpedo into the glistening black flank of RMS Lusitania on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, he could never have foreseen what would follow.

One relatively tiny ‘fish’ was not expected to fell such a graceful, gigantic beast. Ships half her size- and much less well constructed- had survived torpedo strikes in the past.

But the torpedo exploded in the middle of a volatile brew of low grade American coal dust that hovered in the liner’s depleted fuel bunkers like a poisonous cloud. And, for the world famous Cunard liner, the result was catastrophic.

It was this second, far bigger explosion that sank the Lusitania in just eighteen minutes. Passengers were literally trapped in elevators between decks. Lifeboats splintered like matchwood. Almost two thousand people found themselves thrashing, gasping and flailing for their lives on the sun dappled waters off the coast of southern Ireland.

The horror of the scene was indescribable; some 1,201 passengers and crew were lost that day. Bodies were still being washed up on Irish beaches a full three weeks later.

Almost inevitably, the Lusitania became wrapped in the same kind of rosy, grisly aura of dreadful fascination as the Titanic before her. And there they remain to this day; the two most famous pieces on the chess board of maritime tragedies.

Of the two, it was the Titanic that had the greater death toll, by a little over three hundred. And yet, in so many ways, the sinking of the Lusitania seems infinitely more horrific, at least to my mind.

At the end of the day, what happened to the Titanic was an accident. A ghastly one to be sure, but an accident all the same.

The sinking of the Lusitania, and the death of the helpless souls lost with her, was deliberate. Cool, pre-meditated, and carried through with single minded determination by a master submariner who knew exactly what he was attempting to do.

Consider the sheer violence of her brief, bloody end. Walther Schweiger no doubt believed that the Lusitania was carrying a certain amount of contraband war munitions. And, from examination of the shattered wreck, we now know that assumption to be correct. And we can also safely assume that he thought it unlikely that his last torpedo would bring down such a giant prize as the Lusitania– a ship he knew full well to have all the built in safeguards and watertight subdivision of a Royal Navy cruiser.

But- those points made- when the young captain of U20 fired at the Lusitania, he must have known that, without doubt, some civilians would be killed. And it was the fact that a submarine could target what was essentially an unarmed passenger liner that lent the Lusitania disaster an immediate air of world wide outrage; a loss of innocence. After all, what kind of barbarian would deliberately target a large passenger liner, simply going about its usual business?

And there is no doubt that those on board the Cunarder on her last, fateful crossing had been lulled into something of a pampered stupour by their stately, six day progress across a calm, sunny ocean. At a time when most of war torn Europe existed on starvation rations or worse, the Lusitania was provisioned like the Ritz.

Those passengers also knew that the Lusitania was faster than any German warship, and much more so than any U-boat. It never seemed to occur to them that she could not outrun a torpedo.

When Schweiger made his strike on that sunny May afternoon, that fondly imagined pretty balloon exploded with an almighty bang. Quite literally. And nobody on board was in any doubt about the impending catastrophe from that first, awful moment of impact.

By contrast, the Titanic was a ship that had come quietly to a halt on a beautifully lit, glass calm sea. Her side had been ripped open by a gigantic, half concealed salt water assassin with deceptive, gentle ease, and most people never even felt the impact. Most of the passengers were in bed, and had to be woken by stewards. There was no panic at the beginning because, quite simply, there was no awareness. And, faced with a nightmare situation that no amount of experience could parry, Captain Smith decided to try and keep it that way for as long as possible.

The ghastly black comedy that was the sinking of the Titanic unfolded slowly, but with awful certainty. But throughout it all there was a sense of stillness, of disbelief. Survivors later said that they felt as if they were witnessing some great, dramatic story unfold from a distance, rather than actually being part of it.

There was time to uncover and lower all the lifeboats, however ineptly it was done. Time, too, for Jack Phillips and Harold Bride to send out their desperate calls for assistance from the wireless room. Time for many people to absorb the enormity of what was happening, to take in the ghastly, mortal peril that they were suddenly in. Time, at least, to maybe say goodbye to loved ones.

Those on the Lusitania were denied most of these things. The jolt from U20’s torpedo was the first, warning shot that ushered in the age of ‘total war’. Nothing would ever be quite the same again afterwards.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.

VIEWING TITANIC TODAY-MY PERSONAL TAKE

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

Ever since the first, grainy images of her shattered corpse slowly emerged from the depths of the Atlantic on September 1st, 1985, the Titanic has been photographed, video filmed and pored over like no other disaster site on the planet. Our level of fascination with almost every single detail of the ‘Floating Ritz’ has fuelled a series of increasingly more sophisticated descents to the wreck site.

And, as cameras have got more sophisticated and all seeing, mapping techniques have also moved on massively. We can now view the morass of wreckage on the ocean floor almost as perfectly as any town ashore seen via Google Earth. And, the more we see, the more we seem to want.

Think about it; the Titanic lies some four hundred miles from the nearest land, two and a half miles down in the most violent and unpredictable ocean on the planet. And yet she has been pored- and pawed-over far more extensively than either of her great tragic contemporaries, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania. And yet both of those wrecks are less than a few miles from shore, lying in only a few hundred feet of water in both cases.

Of course, neither of those ships wiped out well over half of the New York social register in one spectacular exit. For sure, the Titanic exerts a dreadful compulsion, a kind of awe inspired level of fascination that makes her a true stand alone. Two and a half miles down in the freezing Atlantic, this faded, shattered diva quite literally has the floor to herself. She is a century long theatre show that is  still drawing the crowds.

And, as always with the Titanic, it is the things that we still cannot see for ourselves that exert the true pull. Things we expected to see, but did not.

There is no long, jagged gash from where the iceberg was presumed to have ripped open her hull like some salt water assassin, shrouded by darkness. And- what would have been the ultimate money shot- almost no sign of the elegant gilt letters that once spelt out her name, either on the bows or the ruptured carnage of the stern.

But my word, what we did see was haunting enough….

The sudden, startling reveal of that great knife like bow, with the anchor crane swung crazily round, must rank as one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. And the debris field, strewn between the two halves of the hulk, reveals human life at it’s most magnificent and mundane.

Here, tea cups and chamber pots from third class lie strewn among champagne bottles from the first class wine cellar, their corks still in place. The front of a doll’s head gazes with sightless eyes at the slowly rusting frames of deck benches. Shoes, bags, and boilers sit juxtaposed in a hellish, haphazard underwater viewing gallery, frozen in space and time. Once remote, we can now view them with almost microscopic clarity.

The grave site of Titanic combines the stunted , eerie majesty of Pompeii with the sense of awe and wonder that Howard Carter must have first felt when he stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. How bizarre to think that the innards of the RMS Titanic had already been strewn across the sea bed for a full decade by the time he made that epochal discovery.

And yet…..

For all of their great clarity, excellence and sheer, haunting quality, the modern, almost forensic quality photographs of RMS Titanic were easily, effortlessly eclipsed, many decades ago

Look at the famous photo, taken by Frank Beken, of the Titanic as she steamed majestically down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight. Proud, brand new and full of promise, the great ship was overflowing with life. excitement and hope. The pride and the poise of the ‘greatest of the works of man’ is palpable, and near perfect.

It was never bettered and, in the way of these things, it never can be. And, however many times that I gaze in awe and respect at the stilled, ghastly, strangely dignified mess crouching silently on the ocean floor, whenever I think of Titanic, I see her in the same awed, amazed way that Frank Beken must have done on the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912. And I always will.

TITANIC AND POMPEII; A TALE OF TWO DOOMED TOWNS

The silent streets of Pompeii.

The silent streets of Pompeii.

I think it was John Maxtone Graham who first described the sinking of the Titanic as being akin to the last night of a small town. As with so much of Maxtone Graham’s work, it was a phrase that stayed with me.

And lately, I have come to realise that the assertion was truer than first apparent. For the disaster was, indeed, akin to the last night of a small town.

That town, specifically, being Pompeii.

Consider a string of coincidences that link the two almost as tightly as if they had somehow been threaded together.

Both Titanic and Pompeii catered to a relative few in extreme, pampered luxury. The Roman coastal city was a kind of First Century Las Vegas; a resort built for the pleasure, ease and indulgence of the ruling classes. Almost awash with wine, wallowing in orgies and a surfeit of elaborate entertainments, they depended for their subsistence on both a compliant middle class and a functioning underclass of servants and slaves to maintain their gilded abodes.

As for Titanic, she was the same, at least in First Class. Not for nothing did Joseph Conrad describe her as a ‘Floating Ritz’. The term, intended to be derisory, came to sum up all that doomed, gilded magnificence quite beautifully. Stokers worked back breaking, four hour shifts, ingesting vast amounts of coal dust even as the Astors, the Wideners and the Duff Gordons feasted on caviar and quaffed perfectly chilled champagne just a few floors above.

Mount Vesuvius at dawn

Mount Vesuvius at dawn

Both Titanic and Pompeii went about their respective businesses in blithe disregard of adjacent, potentially lethal natural hazards. In the case of the inhabitants of Pompeii, they played, whored and partied in the very shadow of the looming, smouldering menace of Mount Vesuvius.  Aboard  the westbound Titanic, one ice warning after another was shrugged off with almost breathtaking indifference, as First Class struggled gainfully through a daily marathon of swimming, taking the air and wading through a nightly ten course dinner.

Town and ocean liner alike exuded an air of huge, gilded permanence that seemed to overpower the more sensible faculties of even the most savvy of souls. An air of faux invincibility permeated both the streets of Pompeii, and the hushed, First Class corridors of the Titanic like some kind of awful sleeping sickness. And when disaster came to both, there were some surprisingly similar reactions.

Nature took out these twin monuments to human vanity with almost effortless ease. Fire in the case of Pompeii; ice in that of Titanic. The black, slowly reddening slopes of Vesuvius found an awful counterpoint centuries later, in the shape of the black, water sodden iceberg; the unyielding salt water assassin that slashed, punched and gouged open around a third of the hull of the Titanic. 

Reaction to imminent doom in the case of both ran the gamut; from disbelief to total denial. From the streets of Pompeii, the clouds of slowly rising, noxious ash issuing from Vesuvius seemed miles and miles away, as indeed they were at first. Aboard Titanic,  few people at first could be coaxed into the lifeboats to drop into the ocean, so far below. Yet both ash cloud and icy ocean encroached on their respective prey with an awful, unstoppable certainty. Within the confines of both, fear and anxiety rose like a tidal wave.

Titanic; Pompeii on sea?

Titanic; Pompeii on sea?

For the terrified people flooding the streets of Pompeii, the sea offered the only direct avenue of escape, just as it did to the increasingly worried throng that milled nervously around the sloping decks of the Titanic. And, ultimately, the sea would deny salvation to the great majority on both occasions.

In the case of Pompeii, a tsunami triggered at the same time as the eruption of Vesuvius negated any hopes of a safe evacuation for even a few. As it happened, there were pitifully few boats available, in any event.

Aboard the Titanic, a similarly pathetic lack of lifeboats meant that most of her terrified throng would ultimately be upended into a freezing sea. While there were lifebelts for all, the cold killed most within minutes. Some expired without even getting their heads wet.

The destruction of both Pompeii and Titanic echoed down through time as salutary lessons against placing too much faith in perceived human ingenuity. And, eventually, the rediscovery of each would produce a tidal wave of awed, retrospective musings. This piece is probably just the latest example.

Today, the stunted Doric columns of Pompeii glint eerily in the mid day, Neapolitan sun in what looks- and feels- like a vast, sixty six hectare boom town that died screaming. Two and a half miles down in the dark fastness of the Atlantic, the shattered corpse of Titanic sprawls across the ocean floor like the remnants of a wrecked skyscraper.

The booms of her cranes are folded across the forecastle like the crossed arms of  a deceased pharaoh, frozen in space and time, just like the ruts made by hundreds of chariot wheels that once clattered through the streets of Pompeii. The giant, eight ton port and starboard anchors  hulk in their recesses like moss covered tombstones in a vast underwater cemetery. A torn, jumbled, totally humbled cathedral of the dead.

Lowering lifeboats and rising panic

Lowering lifeboats and rising panic

Pompeii. Titanic. Separated by centuries, and joined by violent, natural death. Deaths so implausible and overwhelming that it hid each from view for years, while at the same time gestating their imperishable legends. For the denizens of both, everything possible was done for their comfort, ease, and luxury, and almost nothing whatsoever for their safety. That is their true, mutually appalling legacy.

Today, we know what both looked like at the height of their glory. Their obvious, total ruin is there for all of us to see as well once more. If progress is, indeed, measured in years, what are we to make of these twin follies of once gilded grandeur today?

THE NOMADIC; WALKING AMONG GHOSTS

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

My first encounter with the Nomadic was as soulful as it was sobering. For any ship lover, she is nothing less than hallowed turf; a diminutive yet very tangible link to that most famous, feted, ill fated ocean liner of them all- Titanic.

I’ve been fortunate enough to sail on more than my fair share of storied, fabled legends; Norway, Canberra, Rotterdam, Queen Elizabeth 2. But this was something else, and it is not easy to really describe. That said, I am going to try and put the story into some kind of context.

When, in 1907, the White Star Line decided to shift its first line Atlantic express service from Liverpool to Southampton, they also made the very shrewd decision to start including outward calls at the French port of Cherbourg. With proximity to such must see European gems as Paris and the French Riviera, Cherbourg became a hugely popular embarkation port for wealthy Americans at the end of their European tours.  But operations at Cherbourg presented one huge logistical problem.

The port back then simply did not have a pier capable of accommodating the largest Atlantic liners. So the big ships had to anchor out in the bay, the Grande Rade, and embark passengers and mail via tender boats. It was a time consuming, awkward job but, without a pier, there was no other option but to carry on.

By this time, White Star had also committed to the building of the gargantuan Olympic and Titanic, by far the largest liners that the world had ever seen. For their intended visits to Cherbourg, White Star realised that a huge upgrade in the local tender service would be needed.

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

So, even as the two new giant liners began to rise like skeletal twin cathedrals against the Belfast skyline, Harland and Wolff simultaneously began construction of a pair of specially built tenders; the Nomadic and the Traffic.

As built, the Nomadic was intended to carry the first and second class passengers out to the Olympic and Titanic. So the owners created a kind of ‘mini me’ version of the two sisters, to give the passengers a kind of appetiser to the main course. At 1,200 tons and crowned with a single funnel, painted in the company colours of buff and black, the Nomadic had elegant interiors, including a saloon and a bar. She was a spiffy, sparky little creation; a workhorse with a veneer of polite aristocracy. She would continue serving liners arriving off Cherbourg right into the 1960’s.

She was handed over as completed in Belfast on that memorable May 31st, 1911, when the Titanic took to the water and the Olympic was officially handed over to the White Star Line. Together with the newly completed Traffic, she left Belfast for Cherbourg that same day, parting company with the Olympic as the huge liner headed for a courtesy call at Liverpool. They would not be separated for long.

The June, 1911 debut of the Olympic was a worldwide media sensation. She was the first of the great liners ever to sail from Southampton at the start of her career, and would remain a ‘Southampton ship’ throughout her near quarter century of service. And she would also inaugurate the new tender service at Cherbourg, where some very prominent and well heeled patrons were awaiting the arrival of the much touted new wunderschiff with more than a little anticipation.

They would have to wait a little longer.

The Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

The Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

The Olympic arrived in the bay of Cherbourg exactly on time on the evening of June 14th, 1911, and the doughty duo, Nomadic and Traffic, duly loaded up with passengers and cargo, and waddled proudly out to the breathtaking new liner. But there was some problem with getting gangways up between tenders and parent ship; a not totally surprising incident considering that cross decking onto a ship of this size had never been attempted before. It was eventually sorted out, but a number of the more forthright first class passengers were left cooling their heels- while not curbing their tongues- as the people on Nomadic and Olympic worked awkwardly to sort out the glitches.

But this was a one time fail; ever after, the tender service at Cherbourg worked like clockwork. For generations of Americans, the end of their European vacation would be confirmed by their first sight of the Nomadic alongside the quay, smoke curling from her funnel, as mountains of baggage and mail were hauled aboard. She was, quite literally, the portal to the New World.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912, the Nomadic got up steam and headed out into the bay for her first, and as it turned out last, appointment with the second of the giant sisters- the Titanic.

Thanks to a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton, the Titanic was a full hour late arriving off Cherbourg, and the passengers already aboard Nomadic fumed quietly at the delay. Among them was the American multi millionaire, John Jacob Astor and his pregnant teenage bride, Madeline.

Porthole on the Nomadic, the 'mini-me' version of Olympic and Titanic

Porthole on the Nomadic, the ‘mini-me’ version of Olympic and Titanic

Millionaire and merchant seaman alike must have caught their collective breath at the awesome spectacle of the Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as she loomed ever larger into their field of vision. For the embarking passengers, there would have been that time honoured sensation of leaving the biting cold for the warm, welcoming interiors of the sparkling new liner. Job done, the Nomadic backed away from her huge new client like a courtier bowing to a queen. As she bumbled back into safe harbour, all eyes on the tender were on the Titanic as the giant liner slowly gathered way. Ablaze with light, she slowly receded into the distance, bound for Queenstown and New York.

Of course, they never saw her again.

The rest of the story is well known. How the Nomadic fell into decades of neglect and near destruction. And how, incredibly, she came to be brought back home to her place of birth in Belfast. As the last surviving, intact ship of the White Star Line still in existence, the Nomadic was to be restored to her original. pristine appearance. Now lovingly maintained and open to visitors, the Nomadic provides the eternally curious with a spellbinding trip back in time. People flood aboard her today with as much palpable excitement as the hordes she once carried out to embark on the Olympic, the Majestic, or even the Queen Mary.

But my encounter with her had more than a little nostalgia.

Through one of those quirky fates of history, I toured the Nomadic in Belfast on May 31st, 2011. The ship was nowhere near ready to open to the public yet. More to the point, it was exactly a century to the day since she had been completed. Just a few yards away was the crowded former slipway from which Titanic herself had taken to the water on that same, memorable day.

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

The stone grey day gave way to pale blue sunny skies. Fleets of plump white clouds flitted across the skyline like so many ghostly galleons. Covered in a layer of grey primer paint, and without her funnel, the Nomadic crouched in her dry dock, shrouded by a massive, overhead tent. As this was  a working area, I had to put on a hard hat and hi-viz jacket before walking aboard her.

To call the mood ’emotional’ would be an epic understatement. The adrenaline was running like tap water. Inside, working lights reflected on the ghostly, newly uncovered wall sconces and decorations that had once made the Nomadic such a tempting advert for the Olympic. In the spartan, chaotic half light, the ghosts of earlier times seemed to wander through their own memories, looking for once familiar touchstones, or maybe a pre embarkation Martini.

There was the palpable feeling of having stepped back through a time portal. Outside, I touched the vast, cast iron bollards that had once tethered Nomadic to Titanic with as much reverence as a fragment of the ‘one true cross’. And my mind wandered back to that cold, starlit evening in Cherbourg, way back in April of 1912.

I wondered if Astor had admired those same elegant wall sconces just inside, musing idly that some might look good in one of his Newport mansions. Perhaps he asked for a blanket for the delicate, five months pregnant Madeline? On the fantail, I pondered whether old Isidor Strauss had maybe pulled a shawl tighter around the shoulders of his beloved wife of many years,  Ida, shielding her from the cold as they stared up at the awesome bulk of the floodlit Titanic, waiting for them out in the bay.

What of Molly Brown? Under the fulsome cover afforded by one of her huge, famous hats, had she discreetly scoped out the other first class passengers waiting to board Titanic, slowly working out who to cultivate on the crossing and, more to the point, who to avoid….

And, of course, there are the shades of many more famous people that walked these same, hallowed decks. Charlie Chaplin. Marie Curie. Even Burt Lancaster. The Nomadic is nothing less than living history, returned to the place of her birth in one of the most perfectly exquisite pieces of irony ever, in my humble opinion.

Nomadic. Compulsive, compelling time travel. A wondrous voyage. Enjoy.

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck

TITANIC CUISINE- CATERING AND FEASTING ABOARD THE ‘FLOATING RITZ’

White Star Line crockery of the sort used on Titanic

White Star Line crockery of the sort used on Titanic

What did it take to provide first class food and service aboard a ship like the Titanic?

The first thing to remember is that the Titanic- at least in first class- was staffed and run like the Ritz. That mentality suffused every aspect of the food and beverage operation on board. Only the very best was even considered, and even then not always accepted.

Among the other goodies embarked for the maiden crossing were some 1,500 cases of wine, 20,000 bottles of stout and other beers, and some 850 bottles of spirits. In addition, some seventeen cases of cognac found their way into the ship’s cavernous cellars. Much of the wine was loaded aboard months before her propellers ever turned, in order to allow it to settle properly.

As well as this tidal wave of booze, an additional, reserve cellar held another seventy cases of wine, and another one hundred and ninety one cases of hard liquor. No less than 1500 wine and champagne glasses went into the mix.

As regards food, a great deal was taken on board the ship in Belfast, before the liner even reached Southampton. The Irish city was- and still is- famous for the quality of the seafood, especially for the Mourne Bay Oysters. That said, the bulk of the foodstuffs were taken aboard during the week that the Titanic spent tied up in Southampton, prior to her first sailing on April 10th.

The Titanic would also have taken on extensive provisions during her four day scheduled stay in New York. The big liner was due to sail from Manhattan on her first eastbound crossing to Europe on April 20th, and she was booked solid.

We looked at the first class dinner menu in the last blog, but the Titanic also required a vast amount of crockery and cutlery in first class. And again, it had to be absolutely top quality.  In all, the Titanic had something like 57,600 items of crockery on board, 44,000 pieces of cutlery, and some 29,000 items of individual glassware. The crockery was specially commissioned for the White Star Line, and delivered by companies such as the Stoke based Stoniers & Co.

Filet Mingon Lili, served as a main course on the last night aboard Titanic

Filet Mingon Lili, served as a main course on the last night aboard Titanic

The first class main dining room aboard Titanic stretched for the full width of the ship, and had a curved, moulded Jacobean style ceiling. It could seat some 518 first class passengers at one sitting, and had floor to ceiling windows running down both sides of the full length. It also featured the first ever carpet to go into the dining room of an ocean liner, and individual chairs at table, each one upholstered in green leather. In its day, this was easily one of the most sumptuous and palatial rooms anywhere on either land or sea.

The cuisine was under the direction of French born, 49 year old Pierre Rousseau, who had previously honed his craft on the Olympic, the earlier twin sister ship of the Titanic.  The story goes that Chef Rousseau declined to jump into a lifeboat on the night of the disaster, on the grounds that he was too fat, and might have injured somebody else in the boat. Either way, monsieur le chef went to the bottom with the ship, as did most of his catering department.

I think statistics as a rule tend to pale in the reading, but in this case they provide a perfect entree to the mentality that conceived, created and, indeed, permeated the Titanic during her abortive maiden voyage.

I mentioned at the start that the Titanic was staffed and run like the Ritz. And therein lay the entire problem. Because the Titanic, for all her fabulous adornments and opulent luxury, was still a ship. And if she had been run more like a ship, and less like a five star hotel, then perhaps the tragedy of April 14th-15th, 1912, might have been averted.

Everything imaginable was done for the comfort, luxury and leisure of her passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety. That is their real epitaph.