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One Voyage, Two Thousand Stories

by John Welshman


Downton Abbey opens with the telegram announcing that the Earl of Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick, have perished in the sinking of the Titanic. Since Lady Mary was supposed to marry Patrick, the succession plans go awry, and this sets off a chain of events.

But how likely is it that an English aristocrat would have perished in the disaster? The British Inquiry (1912) found that those saved represented 203 out of 325 passengers in First Class (62.46%); 118 of 285 in Second (41.40%); 178 out of 706 in Third (25.21%); and 212 of 885 members of the crew (23.95%). Overall, 711 passengers and crew were saved of the 2,201 on board (32.30%).

Not surprisingly, with the emphasis on ‘women and children first’, the proportion of women passengers saved in First Class (140 out of 144, or 97.22%) was higher than that for men. But 57 of the 175 men were saved, or 32.57%. In fact if you were a male passenger in Second Class your chances of survival were very slim indeed – only 14 of 168 were saved, or 8.33%. And in Third Class your chances were only slightly better – 75 of the 462 were saved, or 16.23%. It was these figures which reduced the overall odds for men, since for men overall – both passengers and crew – only 338 of a total of 1,667 were saved, or 20.27%.

The opening of Downton Abbey suggests that the Titanic was a potent symbol of luxury and privilege. To be sure, there were English aristocrats in First Class, figures such as Lucy Noel Martha Dyer-Edwards, born Kensington on 25 December 1878, who had married Norman Evelyn Leslie, the 19th Earl of Rothes in April 1900. The Eton-educated Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, fifth baron, was travelling with his wife Lucy, the well-known fashion designer. He was a talented fencer, and had represented Great Britain at the 1908 Olympics. This was a world where wealth was derived from land, and where deference was the norm. But their fellow travellers in First Class were more likely to be American or Canadian. Among them were the property developer John Jacob Astor; the businessman Benjamin Guggenheim; John Borland Thayer, Second Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad; George Widener, son of P. A. B. Widener, a member of the board of the Fidelity Trust Company of Philadelphia; Charles Hays, General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway; and Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s Department Store in New York.

Much of the fascination of the Titanic is that the personal narratives of individual passengers and crew provide insights into the worlds they came from. In First Class, we can find businessmen, their families, and the maids and governesses who travelled with them, privileged certainly, but predominantly men whose wealth was based on the new commercial opportunities offered in the United States and elsewhere. In Second Class, there were the teachers, clerks, minor businessmen, clergymen, small time inventors and others who represented the trades and the growing middle class that relied on them. In Third Class, we see the poor and under-privileged, the ironworkers, bricklayers, farmers, labourers, bakers, gardeners, fitters, butchers, carpenters, grocers, butlers, shop assistants, toolmakers, valets, and blacksmiths. Many of them were migrants, not only from Britain, and especially Ireland, but from Belgium, Finland, Sweden, the Lebanon, and a host of other countries, leaving poverty or oppression for a better life in the United States. And among the crew, the Captain, ship’s officers, surgeons, stewards, stewardesses, waiters, engineers, lookouts, firemen, cooks, and plate washers. This then, is the real world of 1912: one of class conflict, religious sectarianism, mistrust and suspicion, leisure for some but grinding poverty for others, racism and prejudice, faith in technology tempered with scepticism, and optimism mixed with anxiety about the future.

In fact, the reality of life on board the Titanic is better captured by the human detail of more anonymous figures – among both passengers and crew. Lawrence Beesley, originally from Wirksworth in Derbyshire, was an English science teacher and widower, travelling to visit his brother in Toronto. Elin Hakkarainen, a domestic servant from Finland, was travelling with her husband Pekka to Monessen, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth Shutes, originally from Newburgh, New York, was only in First Class because she was the governess to her charge Margaret Graham. Hanna Touma was a mother and migrant from Tibnin, a village in the Lebanon; accompanied by her children Maria and Georges, her husband Darwis was already working in the United States, in Dowagiac, Michigan. Harold Bride, born Deptford, London, was the young Assistant Wireless Operator. And Violet Jessop, born in Argentina of Irish parents, was one of the Stewardesses. The Titanic did represent the last night of a small town, a cross section of Edwardian society. But it was a world of migrants as well as millionaires.

Dr. John Welshman is Senior Lecturer, History Department, Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town.

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