The Big Piece, preserved in an even bigger pyramid

I’ve been in Las Vegas this week, which gave me the chance on Wednesday to re-visit the Titanic exhibition in the Luxor hotel. What an extraordinary venue for the world’s only permanent display of items retrieved from the Titanic – a colossal black-glass pyramid, guarded by an enormous Spinx. Come to think of it, though, pyramids are supposed to be good places to preserve things, so maybe it makes sense…

For me, after being so caught up with the Titanic story for the last couple of years, it was a profoundly moving experience to come face to face with the centrepiece of the exhibition, the so-called Big Piece of the Titanic herself.

When the Titanic broke in two, as she sank, various smaller chunks crumbled away along the line of the break. The Big Piece was the largest of these. Measuring 12 feet six inches by 26 feet six inches, it was spotted by an expedition organized by RMS Titanic, Inc, in 1996, and brought to the surface in 1998. It originally formed part of the outer wall of two starboard cabins on C Deck, and is now displayed so visitors can see both its inward- and outward-facing sides. Much of the glass in the portholes is still in place.

The exhibition also features the actual wheel of the Titanic – or what’s left of it – still in place on the telemotor stand, as well as a reconstruction of the ship’s Grand Staircase.

Photography is not permitted inside the exhibit; to see images of Big Piece and its recovery, follow the links on the official webpage.

The mystery of the Money Boat, part 2: what became of the Duff Gordons?

My post of April 10, The mystery of the Money Boat, told how Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife, Lady Lucy, escaped the sinking Titanic in lifeboat 1.

Since then, you may have seen Julian Fellowes’ version of what happened on Boat 1 as the ship actually went down, in the final part of his increasingly muddled and disappointing Titanic TV series.

I’ll now take up the story once more. The day after the tragedy, when all the survivors were safely aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Sir Cosmo wrote each of the sailors and firemen who had been aboard Boat 1 a cheque for £5, and they all posed together for a photograph.

When that photo was subsequently published in the world’s press, its incongruous smiling faces seemed to suggest the Duff Gordons’ callous indifference to the tragedy. Lady Duff Gordon nonetheless insisted that Sir Cosmo had simply made a generous gesture to men who were in financial difficulties, and that the real mystery was why other survivors had not done the same.

The World, New York, May 9 1912

At the British inquiry, none of those aboard Boat 1 pretended that they had made the slightest effort to help their fellow passengers. Their evasive testimony left the impression that as the Titanic was going down, they had simply rowed away. Lady Duff Gordon said she was too seasick to know what was going on; Sir Cosmo, that he was too concerned about his wife to notice. Fireman Charles Hendrickson, on the other hand, said he had wanted to go back, but the Duff Gordons had begged the crew not to do so.

Lookout George Symons insisted “I never heard anybody of any description, passengers or crew, say anything as regards going back” – in fact he claimed that he had heard nobody say anything at all, for the entire five hours they were in the boat. Referring repeatedly to himself as the “master of the situation”, he argued that “I used my own discretion”, fearing that desperate swimmers might swamp the boat and drown them all.

Under cross-examination, however, Symons admitted that a “gentleman” acting on behalf of the Duff Gordons had come to his home the previous weekend. Talking him through his impending evidence, the “gentleman” had invited him to agree with a number of statements that included the phrases “master of the situation” and “used my discretion”.

The Attorney General summed up Symons’ testimony in damning terms: “Your story is; the vessel had gone down; there were the people in the water shrieking for help; you were in the boat with plenty of room; nobody ever mentioned going back; nobody ever said a word about it; you just simply lay on your oars. Is that the story you want my Lord to believe?” Symons replied: “Yes, that is the story”.

New York Tribune, May 18 1912

Sir Cosmo himself, confronted on his failure to help the mass of drowning victims, blustered and flailed: “It is difficult to say what occurred to me… I was minding my wife, and we were rather in an abnormal condition, you know. There were many things to think about, but of course it quite well occurred to one that people in the water could be saved by a boat, yes.” At one point, he expostulated: “We had had rather a serious evening, you know.”

Asked, “Was not this rather an exceptional time, 20 minutes after the Titanic sank, to make suggestions about giving away £5 notes?”, Sir Cosmo replied, “No, I think not. I think it was a most natural time.” Another lawyer pursued the issue: “Why do you suggest that it was more natural to think of offering men £5 to replace their kit than to think of those screaming people who were drowning?” “I do not suggest anything of the sort”, responded Sir Cosmo.

The inquiry concluded that: “The very gross charge against Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon that, having got into No.1 boat he bribed the men in it to row away from the drowning people is unfounded … The members of the crew… might have made some attempt to save the people in the water, and such an attempt would probably have been successful; but I do not believe that the men were deterred… by any act of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon’s. At the same time I think that if he had encouraged to the men to return to the position where the Titanic had foundered they would probably have made an effort to do so and could have saved some lives.”

While Sir Cosmo was cleared of the worst allegations, the inquiry’s verdict upon his character was hardly complimentary. An extraordinary array of society figures and minor royalty, including the wife of prime minister Herbert Asquith, had queued to watch his public humiliation. Although Sir Cosmo was to live another twenty years, according to his wife “he never lived down the shame”.

The Washington Herald, May 19 1912

All text © Greg Ward, and adapted from the Rough Guide to the Titanic.  Some of this post also appeared in an article I wrote for msnbc.com.

The Titanic disaster in figures

It’s one hundred years to the day since the Titanic sank. I’ve decided to mark the centenary by posting this statistical summary of the appalling death toll, which I prepared for the Rough Guide to the Titanic.

These figures should be taken as a general guide only. There will never be a definitive total either for survivors or victims of the Titanic disaster; no one knows for sure exactly how many people were on board, and there are further discrepancies between the various lists of survivors. The above tallies are based on the official statistics published by the British Inquiry, with adjustments for known errors.

Just over two thirds of all those on board, passengers and crew, died in the disaster. The survival rate for men travelling first-class was well over three times the rate for those travelling second-class, and double that for men in steerage.

All those listed as children above were aged fourteen or younger, but some fourteen-year-olds have been counted as adults, including crew members and a newly-wed Lebanese girl who was travelling with her husband. The youngest “adult” first- or second-class passenger to lose his life was farm labourer George Sweet, who died the day before his fifteenth birthday.

The only child travelling either first- or second-class who did not survive, two-year-old Loraine Allison, died because her parents remained aboard searching for their baby son Trevor, not realising that he’d left with his nurse on lifeboat 11.

More than half the women, and an even higher proportion of the children, travelling third-class failed to find a place in the lifeboats. The death rate is thought to have been especially high among those passengers who did not speak English.

John R. Henderson of Ithaca College Library has prepared a comprehensive in-depth summary of survival rates among passengers of different origins, which you can see by clicking here. I should point out that I had not seen Mr Henderson’s work myself when I prepared the chart above.

For the crew as for the passengers, survival rates correlated with their location on the ship. All seven of the Titanic’s quartermasters, and all six of her lookouts survived, as did two thirds of her deck crew, whereas only around 22 percent of those who worked in the engine rooms managed to escape. Out of the 68 restaurant staff, three were rescued. All eight of the ship’s musicians, and all five of her postal workers, died in the sinking. Twenty out of the ship’s 23 female employees survived.

Several families travelling third-class were entirely wiped out. John and Annie Sage from Peterborough perished alongside all nine of their children, aged from four up to twenty. Frederick and Augusta Goodwin, from Fulham in London, died with their six children, while two women with five children each also failed to survive, Mrs Maria Panula from Finland, and an Irish widow, Mrs Margaret Rice.

Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers no. 6: The Titanic, or, It was sad (it was sad)

Number six in my Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers is probably the best known of them all. It’s that staple of a thousand scout camps, the song that tells how “It was sad when that great ship went down”.


Click on the audio player above to hear Ernest V. Stoneman perform it in 1924, as released under the simple title The Titanic. Although this was the first known recording of the song, an early version of the lyrics is said to have been circulating as sheet music within a week of the disaster.

Stoneman, a bluegrass musician from Virginia who accompanied himself on autoharp and harmonica, is reported to have sold over a million copies. It has to be conceded that, like many of those who have sung these words over the past century – or like many of the scouts, at any rate – he doesn’t actually sound all that sad about the tragedy.


Click on the second audio player above, and you’ll hear a much wilder blues version, cut three years later in 1927, by William and Versey Smith, under the more familiar title of When That Great Ship Went Down. A husband and wife duo, they’re thought to have come from Texas. William was a gospel singer in a similar vein to Blind Willie Johnson; Versey accompanies him on the washboard, while also banging various other household implements she seems to have had to hand.

The Ernest Stoneman recording comes from the excellent compilation People Take Warning, available on Amazon and iTunes.

The William and Versey Smith track is from the more diverse but equally interesting box set Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice, also available on Amazon and iTunes.

To listen to the previous selections in my Titanic Top Ten, click here.

The mystery of the Money Boat; how did the Duff Gordons escape from the sinking Titanic?

You may have noticed a somewhat glacial pair of first-class passengers, clearly endowed with a huge sense of entitlement, commandeer a lifeboat in episode 3 of Julian Fellowes’ Titanic mini-series.

Unlike many of their TV shipmates, the couple really did exist – he’s Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, and she’s his wife, Lady Lucy Duff Gordon, a celebrated fashion designer known also as Madame Lucile.

The lifeboat itself was one of the Titanic’s two emergency cutters, which were always kept ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. Officially numbered as Lifeboat 1, it was also known as the “Captain’s Boat”, but thanks to the suspicion that surrounded the escape of the Duff Gordons, it became notorious as the “Money Boat”.

Gossip suggested that even though just twelve people were on board when it was lowered into the water – it could have held forty – Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon bribed its crewmen to row away from the sinking ship, rather than return to pick up survivors. It was even alleged that they had bribed their way off the Titanic in the first place.

While all the witnesses agreed on the general circumstances of the launch of Boat 1, ninety minutes before the Titanic finally sank, their stories diverged widely. Lookout Symons, one of the crew deputized to man the lifeboats, was astonished that First Officer Murdoch allowed it to be lowered less than half full: “I could not tell why he gave the order. I could not criticise an Officer. He gave the order to lower away, and I had to obey orders.”

As for how the Duff Gordons came to be aboard in the first place, Lady Duff Gordon described an implausibly civilized exchange: “My husband went forward and said, ‘Might we get into this boat?’, and the officer said in a very polite way indeed, ‘Oh certainly, do; I will be very pleased’”.

Lifeboat 1 was stationary in the water, either 200 yards (according to the sailors and firemen on board) or half a mile (as Sir Cosmo insisted) from the Titanic when the great ship disappeared beneath the waves. Everyone on the lifeboat subsequently agreed that shortly afterwards, Lady Duff Gordon consoled her maid for the loss of her possessions, saying “there goes your beautiful nightdress”. A fireman retorted “Never mind about your nightdress madam, as long as you have got your life”.

According to Sir Cosmo, another fireman then said “we have lost all our kit and the company won’t give us any more, and what is more our pay stops from tonight. All they will do is to send us back to London”. Sir Cosmo replied “You fellows need not worry about that; I will give you a fiver each to start a new kit”. The next morning, he kept his promise, writing each man a cheque for five pounds.

Rumours subsequently charged that Sir Cosmo had forbidden the crewmen to row back to help the swimmers in the freezing ocean. By that reckoning, the £5 was either a payment not to go back, a reward for not doing so, or a bribe to keep their mouths shut. There were hints too that Sir Cosmo had paid Murdoch for his seat on the boat, and for launching it as soon as he was aboard.

So when exactly did the fateful conversation take place, and what precisely was being agreed?

Watch this space . . . I’ll continue the story in a future post.

If you can’t wait, you could always buy the Rough Guide to the Titanic.

Did the band really play on?

One of the few facts that everyone “knows” about the Titanic is that the band went down with the ship, playing Nearer My God To Thee as she slipped beneath the dark waters. The story holds a substantial kernel of truth, mixed in with a great deal of myth.

Although the Titanic didn’t have a “band” as such, an ad hoc group of musicians did indeed play as the lifeboats were loading. None survived, and it’s not known what they played, or at what point they finally stopped.

The great problem is that so few survivors witnessed the Titanic’s final moments. For those who escaped before the end, the musicians may well have provided their last memory of the ship. However, they were in no position to know what happened later on.

Washington Herald, April 19 1912

The eight musicians aboard the Titanic played in two separate combinations. The man later eulogized as the bandleader, violinist Wallace Hartley, in fact led a quintet, made up of two violins, one cello, one double bass and a piano. There was also a trio of violin, cello and piano.

It seems likely that not all eight were in the group that assembled half an hour after the collision. After playing atop the grand staircase on the Boat Deck – where they would have had use of a piano – they moved out on deck as the first lifeboats were lowered.

As for what they played, Colonel Archibald Gracie remembered, “I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and were not hymns.” Other witnesses described a mixture of popular styles – ragtime, jazz and waltzes – that included the biggest hit of 1911, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Second Officer Charles Lightoller later wrote “I could hear the band playing cheery sort of music. I don’t like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all.”

The legend that the band played Nearer My God To Thee is based on very flimsy evidence – a newspaper interview with a Canadian first-class passenger, Mrs Vera Dick. Although she left on lifeboat 3 at 1am, she claimed to have heard the tune at the crucial moment – a time when the Titanic was breaking apart, and the air was filled with screams.

Gracie was adamant the hymn was never played “If Nearer My God To Thee was one of the selections, I would assuredly have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all … all whom I have questioned or corresponded with … testified emphatically to the contrary”.

Adapted from the Rough Guide to the Titanic; all text © Greg Ward

Bisbee Daily Review, April 19 1912

What Sank The Titanic?

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

On the night of April 11, 1912, a mighty ocean liner steamed straight into an iceberg in the icy north Atlantic. Passengers were thrown from their chairs and rushed in terror to the decks. Although her bow was badly buckled, however, no one was hurt, and the ship limped onwards, to reach New York in safety.

The clue there is in the date, for the ship in question was a French liner, the Niagara. It was three nights later that the Titanic met her fate near the same spot.

So why did the Titanic, despite warnings of ice ahead, hit an iceberg herself, and why did she fail to survive the collision? The basic answer is clear: she was going too fast. The conclusion of the official British inquiry remains self-evident. However far away the iceberg was when the lookouts saw it – their testimony was evasive to say the least – there was too little time to avoid it.

It’s often suggested that Captain Smith was trying to set some sort of speed record. He could never have captured the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing; the Titanic simply wasn’t built to outpace sleek rivals like Cunard’s Mauretania. Smith knew however that for the Titanic to arrive ahead of schedule would attract favourable publicity, and the presence on board of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay may well have spurred him on. In fact, though, it was standard practice for liners to race at top speed through the night, and only take evasive action if confronted by an obstacle.

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

Not that it was freakish bad luck for an iceberg to be in the Titanic’s path. While icebergs were not usually expected that far south, the sea that night was full of them. When the sun rose the next morning, “dozens and dozens” were in sight. Even more to the point, barely three miles ahead the ocean was covered by a colossal unbroken ice field, seventy miles long by twelve miles wide. And the Titanic had been warned, by wireless messages from nearby ships.

When First Officer Murdoch, on duty on the bridge of the Titanic, did take evasive action, he did entirely the wrong thing. His attempt to steer around the iceberg, while throwing her engines into reverse, producing the nautical equivalent of a skid. As the leading manual on seamanship, Austin M. Knight’s Modern Seamanship, advised, “this course is much more likely to cause collisions than to prevent them”. On top of that, there’s plausible evidence that the helmsman initially turned the ship’s wheel the wrong way, losing crucial seconds.

Had the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, she would probably, like the Niagara, have survived. Instead, she scraped along the side of the berg, which had the twin effects of slicing her open, and weakening the rivets that joined the plates of her hull, which effectively “unzipped”. Her much-vaunted watertight compartments had been designed to protect her against sharp impacts; no one had considered the effects of a prolonged scrape.

J. Bruce Ismay.

So what was to blame? Rather than the very existence of the iceberg, or the unusual conditions that made it hard to spot – hazards the world’s greatest liner should have been able to cope with – it seems fair to blame the design of the ship, and the inadequate response of her crew. And to add a special word of condemnation for J. Bruce Ismay, the man who decided not to equip the Titanic with enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

All text © Greg Ward.

This post also appears as an article on the Rough Guides website, www.roughguides.com.

Women and children last: murder runs riot on La Bourgogne

The Call, San Francisco, July 7 1898

As the Titanic was sinking, her officers were so keen to avoid a panic among the passengers that they underplayed the danger, and allowed many of her lifeboats to leave barely half full. A major reason for that may have been memories of another North Atlantic shipping disaster, just fourteen years earlier.

In July 1898, the French liner La Bourgogne, carrying almost five hundred passengers and over two hundred crew, was crossing from New York to Le Havre. Early one morning, in thick fog off Nova Scotia, she collided at full speed with the sailing ship Cromartyshire. While the Cromartyshire remained afloat, La Bourgogne passed from view, and sank within an hour. At daybreak, a motley assortment of lifeboats and rafts emerged from the fog. A total of 165 survivors from La Bourgogne were helped aboard the Cromartyshire; more than five hundred people had drowned.

What alarmed the crew of the Cromartyshire was that there was only one woman among the survivors. The remainder were very largely crew, along with a few men from steerage. Lurid tales soon circulated that as La Bourgogne went down, her decks had been the scene of a pitched battle. Using knives, boat hooks, oars and whatever else came to hand, her crew had fought with passengers for places in the few lifeboats that survived the collision. They’d ignored all orders from their officers, of whom only three out of eighteen survived, and once the boats were in the water, they’d beaten off and stabbed swimming passengers who had tried to clamber aboard.

The entire incident was hushed up by the French maritime authorities, who refused to hold a proper investigation. That experience helped prompt the US Senate to stage its own inquiry into the Titanic disaster.

During that inquiry, first-class passenger Charles E. Stengel testified that one of the Titanic’s officers had explained to him aboard the Carpathia: “Suppose we had reported the damage that was done to that vessel; there would not be one of you aboard. The stokers would have come up and taken every boat, and no one would have had a chance of getting aboard of those boats.”

The Herald, Los Angeles, July 14 1898