41N 50W – the Titanic on stage in London

I’m looking forward to seeing a new play about the Titanic disaster, which is being showcased in London later this week.

Written by Robert Neal Marshall, the American actor and director, 41N 50W tells the story of the tragedy through the eyes of witnesses and survivors.

Their words are taken from the US Senate inquiry into the disaster, which opened in New York on Friday April 19, 1912, just four days after the sinking itself.

41N 50W is in the Studio at St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, London SW1, with performances on Thursday October 4 at 3pm and 8pm, and Friday October 5 at 6pm and 8.30pm.

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; 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

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