Sunday, April 15, 2012

Class and the sinking of the RMS Titanic

This week we have been treated to the story of the RMS Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic 100 years ago on 15 April 1912. The Titanic has gripped the popular imagination for decades – the story filling books, radio plays and, more recently, even a 3D film. For some, the story resonates because it involved so many aspects of human behaviour from heroism to cowardice, sacrifice and selfishness.

Interest in the Titanic surged when, on 1st September 1985, the wreck was finally located. Thereafter, intensive investigations in dangerous waters, allowed a range of scientists, including social scientists to reconstruct her last journey. As such, another story has emerged.

We can now be certain, for example, that working class voyagers faced a greatly reduced chance of leaving the sinking Titanic alive.

For many, the tragic loss of the Titanic is based on snippets of history learned at school or garnered from films.

Legends persist that: ‘the band played on’ as the ship sank; the Captain went down with his ship and ‘women and children first’ was the overriding principle in filling the lifeboats.

While the first two are true, the women and children first policy was not adhered to. In fact it was class that determined if one lived or died on that freezing and frightening night.

When the “unsinkable” Titanic hit the iceberg at 20 to midnight on 14th April 1912, she was approximately 400 miles east of Newfoundland, but by then class had already played it’s part.

The Titanic ship had been built at Harland & Wolf shipyard at Belfast, at a cost equivalent to £100m today, but by a workforce divided by religious bigotry.

Eight shipbuilders died during the three years - 1909-1911 it took to build. The first to die was Samuel Joseph Scott at just 15 years of age. Some 246 were injured during the same period with 28 severe, involving loss of a limb.

Harland and Wolff factored into its shipbuilding contracts deaths such as Scott’s by building in a death fatality rate of one per 10,000 tons of ship. She was to be built, according to the agreement between owners White Star and Harland’s “barring no expense”. This included loss of life and limb for those who built it.

She finally set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York having cost the equivalent of £250 million pound at today’s values. The Titanic was an impressive achievement nonetheless weighing 66,000 tons and extending 285 metres long. She was lit by 10,000 light bulbs. The crew of 918 was drawn predominately from the ports of Southampton (4 out of 5) and Liverpool, while many of the restaurant staff came from France and Italy.

The 1,315 strong passenger list was similarly diverse. It included some of the wealthiest people in the world, with a first class suite costing up to £870. Below decks were over one thousands emigrants, mostly in Third Class steerage. They paid £7 a ticket with the aim of emigrating to America having sold all they had to afford the passage. Many of whom were Irish (113) Swedish or Syrian. These steerage passengers had births on decks F and G in the hull of the ship and shared two baths.

Such were the class divisions on board that the doors between the various levels and classes were permanently locked.

When the Titanic hit the Iceberg, which brought her down, the crew were instructed to began evacuation into lifeboats from both sides of the ship. Those into the first six lifeboats were exclusively first class passengers. Whilst on the port side first class women and children were given priority, on the starboard, it was reported that first class men made their way into the lifeboats regardless of rule or myth.

Shockingly, the third class, steerage passengers, deep inside the ship were not woken or informed of events. No alarm was ever raised in third class. Those third class passengers that attempted to ascend to the deck were told according, to witness Annie Kelly (who later became a nun) to return to their births

Those who did manage to make it out and up onto the deck found gates locked against them and there were even reports of crew members with guns obstructing progress to the lifeboats.

It is clear from the evidence, that the third class passengers who did survive, were only able to do so by by jumping from the ship and scrabbling on board the last (often full) lifeboats then edging towards the sea.

Colonel Archibald Gracie testified at the American inquiry that a "mass of humanity" from steerage poured up onto the boat deck, but only after all the lifeboats had gone.

Those who question whether Class played a part in the survival chances of passengers on the Titanic simply need to consider the facts now known. Thirty seven per cent of the first class passengers perished in the freezing waters whilst 63% survived. Of the 440 male third class passengers onboard, just 59 survived [13%].

While five out of six children from first class survived, less than a third of the children of third class passengers survived.

Compare these statistics to the plight of the nine pampered dogs on board, two of whom were saved, statistically proving you had more chance of survival as a dog on the Titanic than a working class male passenger.

The Class nature of the tragedy is also reflected in the plight of the crew. Of the 918 members of the staff and crew only 215 survived,

Just one lone restaurant worker survived and maybe highlighting attitudes to foreign workers, not one of the thirty-seven Italian waiters survived.

The White Star Line that owned the ship and employed the crew who had done their best to evacuate, had even less regard for their staff after the tragedy. They not only sacked all the workers on arrival in New York, but incredulously back dated their dismissal to the 15th April the actual time of the sinking. This left many penniless and some were forced to beg.

When the list of those who died was posted it would be the working class areas of Southampton that would be hardest hit.

Two Inquiries were convened to examine the event. They concluded that excessive speed was to blame for the sinking. Class bigotry was once again to hand as not a single third class passenger was called to give a testimony.

Michael Walker

Hayes People's History

April 2012