Monday, April 16, 2012

Titanic - romantic tragedy and last bastion of true class division

I have been fascinated by RMS Titanic all my life

Indeed in my sitting room I have a reproduction of an old promotional poster advertising tickets for the maiden voyage, a gift from my step-father, alongside a small painting of the White Star Line building on the Strand - the streaky bacon building which my good friend Caci  bought me for my birthday last year.

As an avowed lover of Art Nouveau (and Art Deco which was to follow), I know that I would have been in raptures over the interior of this beautiful ship, should I have been able to take a stroll around the magnificent rooms inside.

And who doesn't love the idea of Atlantic crossings. Very rich people taking the sea air and crossing to their New York homes in the most palatial and lavish accommodation. Middle class people, loving the chance to observe their betters, aping their dress and dreaming of dining with the captain. And the steerage passengers in third class, clutching each other in anticipation of a new life and wealth in a new country where everyone could be equal, depending only upon their propensity for hard and profitable work.

The idea of the Titanic is irresistible, a truly huge ship, the largest man made moveable structure in the whole world, on the day of its launch in April 1912. Titanic because it was named after Titan, enormous, colossal and immense.

And so they set sail, on 10th April, from Southampton, heading to Cherbourg in France and then on to Cobh, Cork, Ireland to pick up the final set of 123 passengers before the cross-ocean trip to New York, USA. They left Cobh at 2pm on the 11th April on the trip of a lifetime, sadly that was the literal truth.

The sun set on the 14th, people went about their business on board, the first class passengers dined with the captain, before going off to bed. The second class passengers ate in some of the ship's many restaurants, and the third class passengers in steerage counted their blessings and danced together in their community hall below decks, thinking of their friends and family left behind, but looking forward to the possibilities that the new world would bring to them.

It is a matter of very familiar record that at 11.40pm, the "safest steamer in the world" hit an iceberg and then sank below the waves a few hours later.

We all know that at least 1500 people died on the ship (some estimates put that figure at 1600) and that 710 were saved.

What is not always clear is just how the class system came into play as the ship went down. Class generally determined where on the ship passengers should sleep, how much they paid, what they ate and how important they were deemed to be, not just to the efforts that the crew might expend upon them during the crossing, but in the end, as we shall see, to those with the power of life and death.

Because of cost-saving, the ship was equipped with only about half the number of required lifeboats, a capacity of 1300 for 2200 passengers, and even when launched and put to sea, there were approximately 500 empty seats that could have been taken - so the huge death loss was inevitable. This was the first and most obvious failing in any rescue attempts.

Add to this the fact that the water was freezing (hence the ice-bergs) so those who jumped or found themselves on the surface of the sea during or after the sinking, lived for only a few minutes at a time, dying almost instantly of heart attacks and hypothermia. This meant that unless you had a seat in a lifeboat, you had almost no chance of survival. Only 13 of those in the water were helped into life-boats. It is a bitter irony that the half-empty lifeboats that had rowed away from the ship and sat on the water watching it sink, were extremely reluctant to come back and fill up those empty 500 places because they feared that the survivors in the water would swamp the boats. Had they acted more quickly, they could have saved more, without the swamping fears they were so worried about.

Given the limited number of seats available in the life-boats, the senior members of the crew decided that they needed to give those places to women and children.  So a look through a list of those who were lost and those who were saved, clearly shows that women and their children were in a much stronger position than their menfolk.

97% of women in first class were saved, but 67% of their menfolk perished.

But the evacuation into the lifeboats was not quite as "women and children" friendly as this headline might suggest. 54% of third class women perished, along with 66% of their children.

And the upper class men did considerably  better than their counterparts elsewhere on the ship, 33% of first class  men were saved but only 8% of second class male passengers and 16% of the third class male passengers. 

The lifeboats were stored on the upper decks of course, in an area of the ship ordinarily out of bounds for steerage passengers and it is also a matter of record that gates that would allow passage throughout the ship, between decks, remained locked for the journey to keep the classes apart. Some of these gates were opened, but many were not, as crews were focussed on waking and alerting the first class passengers while the steerage passengers slept on, unaware.  

Consequently, when the decision was made to launch the lifeboats, the first class passengers were in a good position to take advantage of them. All the evidence shows that senior crew members encouraged the saving of not just women and children, but first class passengers first. 

Of particular note amongst those who perished were the Italian waiters led by Mr Gatti,  none of whom survived. These 50 crew members were hand picked from the finest restaurants in the country, to serve on this most impressive ship in its prestigious restaurants.

And then we must pay homage to the 549 crew members from Southampton who perished. This brought devastation and loss to hundreds of families in the city who depended on them for family income and who were brought low into poverty as a result of their loss. It is hard to imagine a loss of this scale, we lost 96 fans in Hillsborough, not all of them from the city of Liverpool, imagine 6 times that number, all from one place, bread-winners all.

It has been alleged that even in death the class system held sway. When it came to retrieving the dead from the sea in subsequent days, there was insufficient embalming fluid and kit for all of the dead bodies, so when the supplies were overwhelmed, it has been reported that a decision was taken to embalm the first class but bury the third class at sea or bring them to shore untreated. There are those who dispute this, but it has been generally reported that the first class passengers were embalmed, second class were sewn into shrouds and third class passengers were simply gathered together.

What the Titanic owners, crew and passengers could not have known was that this prejudicial class system was only a tiny few years away from being blown apart. The First World War saw the end, for most, of the Upstairs, Downstairs system of service, servants, cow-towing, fore-lock tugging and deference. This may be an over-simplication of the effects of the war, and undoubtedly it merits an essay of its own, but it is true to say that after fighting and perishing in huge numbers, at the hands of ineffective and poorly organised staff officers with hopeless campaign plans, the natural order of the working classes taking blind instruction from their betters would never be accepted again.

The most reported outcome of the sinking of the Titanic was that, in future, laws would dictate that all ships that set sail should include a number of lifeboats equal to the maximum number of passengers. But it is also true to say that never again would a system be accepted where your chance of rescue would be dependent upon the colour of your money or your title.

It was an honour to attend the civic memorial service to the lost passengers (and their families and friends) in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on Sunday night, the 100th anniversary of the sinking. The most famous ship in the world may have been built in Belfast and launched in Southampton, but it was Liverpool that she carried on her stern.

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