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.

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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.

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.

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.