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Women and children first? The enduring myths of the Titanic

By Sarah Gregson


It is often said of military wars that the first casualty is truth. As we approach the centenary of the sinking of RMS Titanic and the war of ideas that often surrounds this tragedy, it is to be hoped that the truth will at least take a few prisoners. Titanic myths have had extraordinary longevity and, as Cox put it, ‘virtually everything that people know, or think they know … can be traced to the press coverage of April-August 1912’. In the lead up to the centenary, however, perhaps some commentators will read some of the work that has been done to challenge these misconceptions.

Richard Howells’ work, for example, argues convincingly that there was no widely disseminated claim that the Titanic was ‘unsinkable’ … until after the ship sank. When the Titanic was launched, far more ink was expended on its luxurious appointments than on its supposed indestructibility. According to Howells, a White Star Line executive uttered the first clear reference to Titanic as ‘unsinkable’ upon hearing the news of the tragedy. In possibly the first global media event, his words were quickly telegraphed around the world and a myth was born. If the Titanic was thought unsinkable, how could company management be condemned for too few lifeboats? That seems a far more likely scenario than one where, we are led to believe, people all around the world already knew that the boat had been pronounced impervious to natural forces, even before it embarked on its maiden voyage.

Perhaps others will question the likelihood that a group of bandsmen standing on the deck, playing light tunes to keep people calm, would play ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, a song associated with imminent death and so surely more likely to induce mass panic? Perhaps the overwhelming focus on the rich men who helped women and children of all classes get into lifeboats will shift a little onto the more than 30 per cent of men with first-class tickets who survived?

New York Herald front page about the Titanic disaster.

My own research was prompted by a myth of much smaller proportions. My great-grandfather, William Edward Bessant, was a stoker on the Titanic. Aged 39, he left his home in Henry Road and went to work. He never returned. From as far back as I can remember, the family story was that my great-grandfather perished as one of the much heralded Titanic engineers. It was only when my aunt wrote to Titanic historian, Brian Ticehurst, for more information that the disparity between family ‘memory’ and historical record was discovered. Clearly, the family story had been sanitised in the years after William Bessant’s death. While Titanic stokers were reputedly an unruly bunch and some had even had the unmanly temerity to survive, the engineers were lionised around the world as heroes who died at their posts, trying to maintain power to the stricken ship for as long as possible.

While I was quite happy that my great-grandfather was one of the ‘black gang’, it was another family story that prompted me to go into the local Southampton archives. My grandfather, William’s second son, had always believed that the very large British fund collected to support the victims’ families had been maladministered and that large sums had been squandered, misappropriated or passed onto the Crown. He was convinced that families like his had been denied the money collected in their names. Whatever the truth of his suspicions, I was curious to know what life had been like for my great-grandmother, raising five children on ‘the Fund’. Would I find traces of her in the fund records?

While ‘women and children first’ was observed to a large extent at sea, a little more of that sentiment might have gone a long way on land. More than £414,000 was collected for the victims’ families in the major British fund, an outpouring of public sympathy unparalleled before or since. A vast majority of the  crew had lived in Southampton and so much of this money was disbursed there. However, the local Titanic Relief fund records reveal that, despite the massive sum at fund trustees’ disposal, many widows and children lived on meagre pensions that did not relieve their poverty. The trustees, drawn from banking, judicial, government and church circles, assumed that working-class people, and women in particular, were incapable of managing money responsibly and would only waste what was given them. Like those receiving other forms of charity, Titanic widows and family members were adjudged ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ and treated accordingly.

Disbursement of the fund was based upon four key principles – that the fund last until the last dependant had died, that no large residual amount be accrued, that dependants’ living standards be supported but not improved, and that child dependants be found gainful employment and financial independence as soon as they came of age. Widows received half the weekly wages paid to their deceased husbands, and a separate amount was paid for each child. To keep even these meagre pensions, recipients were subject to ‘moral’ surveillance and patronising treatment from fund administrators. A lady visitor was appointed to check up that recipients were not frittering away the money and did not have other forms of support. During the life of the fund, some recipients spent time in workhouses and other institutions. Families were broken up and many dependants suffered forms of ill-health associated with poverty.

In the end, I didn’t find much about my great-grandmother. She received her Titanic pension until her death in 1935. However, I did get a sense of the poverty-stricken lives many of the widows lived if they were unable to escape reliance on the relief fund through work, family support or remarriage. There was no evidence to support my grandfather’s suspicion that the families had been swindled – simply that the governing principles applied to welfare distribution at that time did more to entrench poverty than to relieve it.

Sarah Gregson teaches industrial relations in the School of Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Aside from her obsession with all things Titanic, she publishes in the area of labour history, with a particular focus on race relations. She is currently working with aviation unions and employers on an ARC Linkage-funded project about aircraft maintenance work. Her recently published article, “Women and Children First? The Administration of Titanic Relief in Southampton, 1912–59,” can be accessed for free for a limited time in The English Historical Review.

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  2. Andrew Williams - United Kingdom

    To Sarah Gregson,

    A superb piece of history into this famous Fund. I can find no fault whatsoever and the level of research isn’t only remarkable, but highly rewarding.

    Very best wishes

    Andrew Williams

    Titanic historian whose area of personal research focuses directly upon the Southampton Titanic Relief Fund. Committee.

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