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.

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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.

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.

Did anyone really think the Titanic was unsinkable?

Whether the Titanic was unsinkable was settled once and for all on April 15, 1912. A hundred years later, however, two related issues are still being debated. Did her makers, the White Star Line, claim that she was unsinkable? And did the world at large – and above all, her passengers – believe her to be unsinkable?

The Olympic and Titanic under construction, Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast.

Only the faintest of pre-tragedy references to the Titanic’s supposed unsinkability have been discovered. Describing the system of watertight compartments used in both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, a 1911 White Star Line brochure explained how in the event of an accident the captain could close the watertight doors, thereby “practically making the vessel unsinkable”.

In the Shipbuilder magazine, later that year, the crucial phrase was truncated to become “practically unsinkable”. Far from singling out the Titanic, however, the author referred to such watertight compartments as being “usual in White Star Lines”.

On the very day that the Titanic sank, the word “unsinkable” seemed to rise to the surface. The man largely responsible was White Star vice president Philip A.S. Franklin. When the first rumours of the sinking reached New York, he responded “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable”. He later told the New York Times “I thought her unsinkable, and I based [my] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it”.

Philip A.S. Franklin (left) and J. Bruce Ismay (right) during the US inquiry into the disaster.

The arrogance of imagining any ship to be unsinkable tied in perfectly with the notion of the Titanic being destroyed by hubris. Early reports of the disaster were peppered with the word, and survivors swiftly started to use the term. Less than a month later, White Star’s president J. Bruce Ismay, who had himself survived the sinking, testified at the British inquiry that “I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself”. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who was on the deck of the Titanic as her fate became horribly apparent, described the male passengers as seeking to “reassure the ladies” by repeating “the much advertised fiction of ‘the unsinkable ship’”.

In his stimulating book, The Myth of the Titanic, author Richard Howells concluded that the idea was “an essentially retrospective invention”. He argued that the Olympic was all but identical to the Titanic, built in the same shipyard at the same time. The Olympic sailed on her maiden voyage less than a year before the Titanic, on the same route and even with the same captain.

At no time however was the Olympic hailed as being unsinkable; only the Titanic became known as the “unsinkable ship”, precisely because she did in fact sink. No one would dispute that the Titanic’s passengers, and for that matter her captain and crew, thought they were aboard an exceptionally safe ship. Few appreciated that she was in fact considerably less safe than such predecessors as the Great Eastern.

While that over-confidence may not have caused the collision itself – racing at breakneck speeds towards dangerous icefields was pretty much standard practice at the time – it did ultimately cost lives, because it was surely the main reason why so few passengers came forward to board the earliest lifeboats.

Only once the Titanic sank, perhaps, did people realise quite how invulnerable they had imagined themselves to be, a blind faith they then simply articulated by using that one small word – “unsinkable”.

All text © Greg Ward

The French Connection – Cherbourg remembers the Titanic

I was lucky enough to get an advance preview this afternoon of the new Titanic exhibition in Cherbourg, France, which is due to open next month.

The Titanic called at Cherbourg for two hours on the evening of the day she sailed from Southampton – Wednesday April 10, 1912. Just under 300 passengers joined the ship here, including such famous names as John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.

One hundred years later, to the day, the Titanic exhibit will open in Cherbourg’s former Transatlantic terminal. It’s a new addition to the Cité de la Mer, an already huge facility that incorporates a decommissioned nuclear submarine, the Redoutable; an extensive history of underwater exploration; and several large aquariums.

Only a small proportion of the Titanic displays are currently in place, but it’s clearly going to be a must-see atraction. Without trying to rebuild the ship herself, the designers have set out to evoke several of her most important features. Each visit is intended to offer an “immersive experience” – albeit not in the same sense as the original voyage!

Visitors reach the new exhibit via parts of the Transatlantic terminal that have until recently only been accessible to cruise passengers. Strictly speaking, this glorious Art Deco structure post-dates the Titanic, but you only have to glance outside to see the spot where the great liner anchored, beyond the harbour walls.

You enter the exhibition proper to find yourself standing at a re-created segment of the ship’s rails, watching a huge screen that displays first a panorama of Cherbourg as seen from the Titanic, and then her next and final port of call, Queenstown in Ireland (now Cobh). From there, you can choose whether to move into the first-, second-, or third-class areas of the ship.

Sections that I was able to see today included a meticulous re-creation of the Titanic’s mailroom, and a mock-up of a first-class cabin. Those that have yet to be installed, but will be ready in time for the opening, include a “wireless room” where children can learn Morse code, and Captain Smith’s own quarters. The exhibition also broadens its scope to explore twentieth-century European emigration to the United States.

With many thanks to Laure Anne Forti de Marthe for her hospitality.

Top Ten Titanic toe-tappers no. 4: Blind Willie Johnson’s God Moves On The Water

Worthy of a place in any Top Ten of Titanic songs – though admittedly not everyone might consider it to be a “toe-tapper” – God Moves On The Water was recorded by the itinerant Texan street preacher Blind Willie Johnson in 1929.

To listen to it, click on the link below.

Despite the fact that he didn’t actually play the blues, blues aficionados have long regarded Johnson as a sort of honorary bluesman. That’s largely due to his astonishing virtuosity as a slide guitarist; on first acquaintance, on the other hand, some listeners find the gruff, leonine roar of his voice off-putting.

Johnson only ever recorded thirty sides, in three sessions between 1927 and 1930. Consisting of hymns, gospel tunes and moralistic ballads, they’re still guaranteed to send shivers down the spine. When Johnson was posthumously “rediscovered” during the 1960s’ blues revival, many of his new champions assumed that he’d written his own material; for his original  audience, however, most of his songs would have been familiar from church. Hence his repeated use of his guitar as a substitute for his voice – with the words already known, he often sang only half of each line, completing the phrase on the guitar instead.

Although this is the earliest known recording of God Moves On The Water, Johnson is thought to have acquired the song as sheet music from a street evangelist. The fact that he never sings the entire phrase “God moves on the water” suggests it was already well known.

The song is often described as expressing the belief that the sinking of the Titanic was divine retribution for its owner’s supposed boast that even God couldn’t sink the ship. However, although the lyrics include such details as “many gunshots were fired”, and they mention Captain E. J. Smith by name, they never actually say that God sank the Titanic as a judgement. The suggestion seems to be more that God moves in mysterious ways, among which “over water” is simply one of His many options.

After the Depression put an end to his career, Johnson returned to a life of poverty in Beaumont, Texas. He died in 1947 when he caught pneumonia after his shack burned down, and he was confined to bed with only damp newspapers for blankets.

All Johnson’s recordings, including his masterpiece, the extraordinary free-form Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, are collected on the twin-CD set The Complete Blind Willie Johnson.

To buy it in the US, click here; in the UK, click here.