Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The enduring legacy of RMS Titanic

There has hardly been a catastrophe at sea which has endured so vividly in the public memory as the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic. a 46,328 ton vessel that was supposed to be unsinkable.

One hundred years ago today, on Thursday, 11 April 1912 the liner arrived in Queenstown (now Cobh, Co. Cork) having sailed from Belfast to Southampton via Cherbourg.  Eight passengers disembarked at Cobh, seven of whom were first-class passengers, the eighth a fireman. The disembarking passengers included Fr Franics M Browne SJ who at at that time was studying to be a Jesuit priest in Milltown Park, Dublin and his were the only photographs that survived.

The 120 who boarded, of whom 38 survived.  These mostly travelling steerage (3rd class) and between £7 and £8 for a ticket while some of the first-class tickets cost over £200.  A 3-bedroom house in Dublin in that era sold for approximately £700.  A small number of those who embarked in Cobh travelled second class but these were in the main Irish-Americans who had been on short visits to Ireland.  Approximately 280 Belfast-based crew members delivered the Titanic to Southampton. The designer of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews (39) was one of the first-class passengers who travelled onwards but lost his life.  Andrews was from Comber, Co Down and was a nephew of the owner of Harland & Wolff, Lord Pirie.

Titantic had been build by Harland and Wolff in Belfast at a cost of £1.5 million.  It could accommodate 2,599 passengers and a crew of 903 persons. The Chairman of The White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay inherited the business in 1899 from his deceased father Thomas, who had originally acquired the then bankrupt business in 1868 for £1,000.  Ismay senior had struck a friendship with Gustav Wolff shortly after he acquired The White Star Line. The cusp of the twentieth century was a time when steam ships were replacing sailing ships and he intended and Bruce Ismay envisioned transatlantic travel becoming a luxury experience.  Between 1901 and 1907 he brought four large ships into service (Adriatic, Baltic Cedric and Celtic).  Each could accommodate 400 first-class and second-class passengers; 2,000 in third-class and had a large cargo capacity.

The Titanic was one of 13 ships that carried passengers, cargo and mail across the Atlantic but it was intended to replicate the exceptional luxury and grandeur of an English country house. It was owned by the White Star Line was sold to Hartford CT native JP Morgan (1837-1913) in 1902 although the Chairman of White Star Line, Bruce Ismay became its President and the firm operated 29 steamers and tenders and had an ownership interest in 13 other steamers. Morgan’s shipping conglomerate, International Mercantile Marine Co was set up to monopolize the shipping trade but the sinking of the Titanic caused it to cash-flow problems in 1914 which led to it missing a bond payment and receivership and dollops of US federal funding followed in 1915.  The White Star subsidiary was eventually sold in 1926 to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.

Transatlantic liners of that era typically followed specific routes that varied somewhat by season in order to avoid the hazards of fog and ice but apparently made ad-hoc diversions in the interest of speed and cutting voyage time.  The usual route, prior to the Titanic catastrophe, would have been on an arc from the Fastnet Lighthouse in West Cork to a point 42N and 47W  - east of Cape Cod and from there to pass to the south-east of Nantucket. Shoals, an area of perilous shallow waters that extends 40 kilometres to the east of the island  The route passes about 45 kilometres south of an area known to be prone to ice between March and July. 

Bruce Ismay, (1862-1937) and Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (1862-1931), a Scottish landowner and fencing competitor in the 1906 Olympics, were first-class passengers who survived the tragedy but were alleged to have bribed the crew in their lifeboat not to rescue people in the water.  They were exonerated in the two official enquiries but the number rescued was several hundred less than the wholly inadequate lifeboat capacity on board the Titanic

It also transpired that instead of having 48 lifeboats with sufficient capacity for all passengers and crew that the Titanic only had 14 thirty foot long each capable of carrying 65 passengers; two 25 foot cutter capable of carrying 40 passengers.  Lifeboat capacity was based on a formula related to tonnage rather than passenger capacity.  There were four other collapsible boats which brought the overall life-saving accommodation sufficient for 1,178 persons. There were 2,208 passengers and crew on board and 1,500 of these lost their lives.

The Titanic travelled at 21.5 knots for the two hours prior to the collision with the iceberg that sank it and it was alleged that Ismay has urged to skipper to undertake some speed tests.  Despite warnings about ice in the vicinity the skipper neither reduced speed nor materially altered course by sailing south rather than west.

There had been several warnings of icebergs in the vicinity from other ships. Titanic hit the iceberg on its starboard but some commentators have suggested that had it struck the iceberg head on there would have been less damage to the vessel.  The weather was described as being perfectly clear and mild.

The collision occurred at 11.40 PM on 15th April and the vessel foundered 2.20 AM.  The nearest potential rescue boat was approximately 100 kilometres away. That was the SS Carpathia owned by Cunard which was on a voyage from New York to Liverpool but was almost 100 kilometres away.  Marconi radio communications were in their infancy then but proved vital to securing the aid of Carpathia which arrived four hours later and two hours after the Titanic foundered.

Titanic was travelling too fast in dangerous waters.  A rib of ice cut the whole of her belly and cut open four of the bulkheads which were supposed to be preserve the safety of the vessel.

Ismay was slated by the British media and ostracised by British society.  He departed White Star Line in 1913 and he retired to Costelloe Lodge Co. Galway.  He died in London in 1937 having suffered the amputation of a foot following complications with diabetes.

Both the British and the American authorities conducted inquiries into the disaster.  Lord Mersey was appointed Wrecks Commissioner by the British Board of Trade while the American inquiry was led by Senator William Alden Smith (R-Michigan) (1859-1932) and Senator Isidor Rayner (D-Maryland) (1850-1912) and conducted at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York in the days immediately after the catastrophe.

The human cost of the catastrophe can be summarised as follows:


  Total Listed Survived Lost
First Class 329 199 130
Second Class 285 119 166
Third Class 710 174 536
Crew 899 214 685
TOTAL 2,223 706 1,517






The House of Commons debated the Mersey Report in July 1912 and one of the outcomes was a regulation to have sufficient life-saving accommodation for all passengers and crew.

Leslie Scott MP represented the interests of nine-tenths of the total tonnage of the United Kingdom through the Shipowners’ Parliamentary Committee in the debate.  He was anxious to disabuse the public that ship owners make money while disregarding the risk to human life by pointing out that ‘wrecks and loss of life alike, are bad for business.  The foundation of a ship owners’ prosperity is to win a reputation for safe ships and for not losing human lives.’

The character of the mercantile industry has been through a period of dramatic change.  There were 15,000 sailing ships in 1880 but by 1910 there were 5,000.  The 15,000 ships were manned by 152,000 sailors while the 5,000 were manned by 35,000 sailors

There were 3,700 steamers in 1880 with a gross tonnage of 2.5 million manned by 18,000 sailors.  This number mushroomed to 9,400 steamers by 1910 with a gross tonnage of 10.5 million manned by 250,000 sailors.  The MPs pointed out that only 118 lives had been lost their lives crossing the Atlantic in the 20 years before 1912, but what consequence does this statistic have if over 1,500 lives are lost in a single incident?  The Titanic sank having only completed 2,418 kilometres of the 3,170 kilometre voyage. Its wreck is located in in 1985 in 3,900 metres of water some 750 kilometres to the south-east of Halifax Nova Scotia.

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