Sunday, 15 April 2012
"A seaman and an officer who died most manfully at his post of duty", these words were written in June 1914 in a letter of protest. The writer Rev. William Fuller was objecting to the erection of a statue in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England (pictured above) of Commander Edward John Smith RD RNR. Fuller's argument was, "what are we going to memorialise?"
Captain Smith, or "E.J" as he was known throughout the shipping world, entered the annals of history at 2.20 a.m. on Monday, April 15th 1912, the approximate time his ship sank. His last commmand was RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York.
Born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, he began his apprenticeship in sailing ships. On gaining his master's ticket, not only had he earnt the respect of his employers, but also the confidence of the men under his command. Rising to the rank of Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, he received the RD award in 1910. Also, he held the Transport Medal and clasp for the South African War 1899-1901. But it was with the White Star Line that he sailed over two million miles during 31 years service, 25 of them as captain, finally rising to the covetous rank of Commodore of the Fleet.
Smith's reputation as one of the safest master's afloat spanned the Atlantic. In the flamboyant days before the Great War competition was fierce for the transatlantic passenger traffic. Registered in England and staffed by British crews, White Star was the line most favoured by the new wealth of America. Regular transatlantic passengers often preferred to sail with "E.J.", such was their confidence in him.
An important part of a liner captain's job, weather permitting, was to cultivate the passengers, especially the wealthier ones. There was a level of prestige to be gained among regular travellers on being recognised and remembered by the captain. In order to command such a role, he had to look the part.
Newsreel film of 1912 allows us a glimpse of E.J. A grey bearded, large broad-shouldered man, uniform frock coat, four gold rings emblazoned on each sleeve, he looks dignified, fatherlike, reminiscent of the late monarch King Edward VII, but above all, dependable. It wasn't surprising that the company requested their most respected captain to ccommand their 'largest and most luxurious' liner. It was to be his last command before he retired.
The whole myth of Titanic was one of confidence. In a much quoted interview given to the New York Times in 1907, Smith said that he had never been in trouble at sea in all his long career, except storms and fog, "Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that," he is quoted as saying. Beyond what? If that question was asked of him, the answer was not reported, so we don't really know what he meant.
Smith's sea-going career didn't remain entirely untarnished. Before Titanic he commanded Olympic. Whilst taking her out of Southampton on her sixth Atlantic crossing she collided with HMS Hawke. The cruiser's bow tore a gash ten feet deep in Olympic's starboard quarter. The Admiralty Court found Olympic had gone too close to the cruiser. White Star, and hence Captain Smith, were blamed for the collision. Smith was displeased. White Star appealled, but the verdict was upheld, however, it was thought that the huge bulk of the Olympic may have drawn the smaller ship towards her.
A similar incident happened again in Southampton when Titanic sailed. Her wash caused ropes holding the liner New York to snap, but this time the collision was averted by Smith cutting his engines in the nick of time. I use this incident in my novel, Tomorrow Belongs to Us: A Titanic Novel as a taste of danger.
Was Smith a risk-taker? Perhaps of all the characters involved in the Titanic disaster, Smith is the most difficult to understand. He had the respect of his senior officers, all had sailed with him before. The senior surviving member of the crew, Second Officer C. H. Lightoller remembered him as the best captain he had ever known. Commendable words, however, people tend to be generous in obituaries.
Undoubtedly, Lightoller admired Smith's fortitude, the way Smith pressed on despite high seas and fog to make port on time. Such was the rivalry between the steam ship companies, captains had to be bold. Smith's route was the normal one and he wasn't going for a record crossing. Did he believe the dangers of the sea had been overcome by technology? Much had been made of Titanic's water-tight compartments. It was because of these she was considered "virtually unsinkable".
Smith knew the sea, he respected it, surely he would never have underestimated its force? So why did he not reduce speed having entered a reported ice-field? It was an unusually clear night. He expected the look-outs to spot an ice-berg and the bridge to steer around it. That was normal practice.
Smith wasn't on the bridge when the collision occurred but soon he knew of it and its consquences. We have only reported glimpses of the Smith in those last two hours when his ship was sinking. Reports, some inevitably inaccurate, have him muttering "My God!" when he saw the commutator registering a five degree list to starboard, shortly after the collision. Other accounts have him giving Lightoller permission to uncover the lifeboats, telling the Marconimen to signal for help, issuing arms to the officers - present day opinion has Smith suffering some kind of mental breakdown when he realised the significance of his ship's situation.
It was the belief that Titanic wouldn't sink despite being holed that prevented many passengers from taking to the lifeboats. In my novel I have the heroine Lucy asking Captain Smith if a rescue ship was coming. He tells her Carpathia is on her way but not that Titanic will sink before rescue arrives. Researching Smith's final moments I have found five accounts of his death, possibly they are all conjecture. However, as the captain of a sinking ship where there is no chance of saving all those for whom he is responsible, Smith took the honourable option and went down with his ship. One imagines him on the bridge when the liner reared her stern and slid beneath the icy water.
There were fifteen hundred deaths that night including Captain Smith. His body was never recovered. Two enquiries followed. The American one commented on Smith's indifference to danger as a direct cause of the disaster claiming he was overconfident. The British Inquiry did not find Smith or the White Star Line guilty of negligence because by maintaining speed despite the presence of ice, Smith was following a long established practice of North Atlantic crossings. Many have since described the latter inquiry as a white-wash.
As a result of the tragedy the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea was held in 1913. Afterwards, ships were required to have sufficient lifeboat space for those on board. Lifeboat drills became compulsory, ships were required to maintain 24-hour radio watch and the International Ice patrol was established to warn ships of icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping routes. Lessons had been learnt.
Rev. William Fuller's letter of protest did not sway Lichfield District Council. Kathleen Scott, widow of the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott, was commissioned to produce a slightly larger than life-size statue of Smith. Subscribers and those who attended the unveiling represented the upper echelons of British Society. In his tribute at the ceremony Lord Charles Beresford recalled Captain Smith's career, his patriotism, his unrivalled skill as a seaman and his heroic end. But the Great War followed within days of the unveiling and there would be very many more heroic ends. Smith was forgotten.
The law hadn't finished with Titanic. Cases claiming negligence were brought against White Star. The company was found culpable and paid out compensation. In 1985 the final resting place of Titanic was exposed to the world. Technology had again triumphed and allowed us to peer into a lost world. But what of Smith?
"He paid the penalty," wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1912, "and so did most of those for whose lives he was responsible. Had he brought them and the ship safely to land, nobody would have taken the smallest notice of him."
Captain Smith's statue stands to this day in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. It is the only memorial to him and perhaps the most controversial of all the Titanic memorials.
Saturday, 14 April 2012
At the beginning of Chapter Nine of Tomorrow Belongs to Us Lucy writes in her journal:
Sunday April 14th,
We have been at sea for three days. The mornings are bright, but I am missing my newspapers. Daily bulletins via the Marconi Service are posted, but only in the first-class smoking room! Ladies are not allowed, so I have to pester Edwin or Marshall. I daren't ask Uncle Leyster for the daily snippets. The gentlemen must think I'm an egghead. Times passes quickly with dinner parties, dancing and concerts. Everywhere I hear words of admiration for the ship. I agree. She is all the designers and builders claimed – comfortable, secure and safe.
Cecilly has recovered from her malady. She attributes the restoration of her health to Dr. O'Loughlin's medicine. She now joins us for meals, however, she eats very little. We are meeting Edwin and Marshall, shortly, who have promised to escort us up to the Boat Deck to watch the captain's inspection.
Sunday on board Titanic was different from the other sea days. A religious service was held in all the class areas of the ship. The first-class interdenominational Christian service was conducted by Captain Smith. I use this time in my novel to explore the thoughts of my heroine, it provides a useful balancing point for an author, enabling the reader to understand the heroine better. Services are still held on British cruise ships at sea and they are usually taken by the Captain or one of the senior officers. The hymns used are very traditional, as those that would have been sung aboard Titanic. If there is a Catholic priest on board then he will usually offer a communion service for those who wish to attend. It is known that an Irish Catholic priest said mass in Third Class on Titanic on April 14th 1912.
As it was Sunday on Titanic there would be no dancing. This wouldn't seem strange to passengers, as it was the custom on land during the period. Also, theatres all were closed on Sundays in Britain, but Titanic didn't have a theatre. On board entertainment hadn't been developed to the level enjoyed by trans-Atlantic passengers today. However, there was a concert on Titanic where the band played a selection of music including some of the works of Offenbach. To-night in Belfast there will be a commemorative concert commencing at 8.00 pm (BST) which will be broadcast by BBC One TV.
Tomorrow I shall be reflecting on the aftermath of the disaster and including my thoughts about Captain Edward Smith.
Friday, 13 April 2012
On board Titanic there were three classes of dining. First Class Dining had the most extensive range of menu choices whether it was breakfast, luncheon or dinner. However, it was the dinner menu that was the most impressive. Edwardian dinning comprised several large courses, each with choices of the finest foods available at the time. On board Titanic was no exception to this practice. An example of a first class dinner menu can be seen at www.encylopedia-titanica.org . This is the menu that has been copied by several memorial dinners held during the past one hundred years.
First-class passengers could also dine at the Ritz restaurant – where an superb a la carte menu was offered. Under the control of the White Star Line, Mr Luigi Gatti was the appointed manager. The rest of the staff were mainly Italians, French and a few English, Swiss plus a Belgian, Dutchman and a Spaniard – very continental. There was a dining supplement to pay – just as there is today on modern cruise liners - but the first class passengers obviously thought the extra was worth paying as the restaurant was full most days, and tables greatly sought after. Perhaps it was the quality of the food or possibly the kudos of dinning a la carte that drew them.
For a full view of all the menus in all classes on the final day of Titanic's voyage then visit: http://www.webtitanic.net Here the extensive menus served in the three dining rooms are listed for April 14 1012. Third Class is interesting in that Breakfast, Dinner (served at lunch time), Tea (late afternoon) and Supper are listed. Perhaps this was regarded as the "working man's" fare – after all, it was Sunday.
The Second Class Dinner Menu had three courses but the First Class was... well let me see, what would I have chosen?
Hors D'Oeuvre Varies or perhaps oysters
Saute Chicken with Chateau potatoes, green peas and creamed carrots
Waldorf Pudding or perhaps Chocolate and Vanilla Eclairs
Yes, that would have been sufficient, otherwise my corset might be feeling somewhat tight.
There aren't many dinner scenes in my novel Tomorrow Belongs to Us but I do have one where the family celebrate a wedding anniversary and, of course, there is some very interesting dinner conversation, especially as the ship's designer and senior doctor are guests.
Thursday, 12 April 2012
I adore cruising and spend most of my vacations on board large ocean-going ships. You have to love the sea days to really get the most out of cruising. A century ago on board RMS Titanic life would have been very different from today's experience. Firstly, the rigid class system adopted on board meant that certain areas of the ship were restricted by passenger grade. This only applies to dining arrangements and exclusive bar areas on some modern vessels, notable the Queen Cunarders. Today, passengers can go in any of the public areas on cruise ships regardless of their cabin grade – ships reflecting society have adopted a one class system.
Moving between class grades on Titanic wouldn't have been very easy, certainly not as simple as the current mini serial "Titanic" penned by Julian Fellowes would have us believe. Why even Jack Dawson in the film "Titanic" had a few difficulties crossing the class barrier. Class aside, what would the sea days have been like? Certainly not filled with the entertainment to be found aboard modern cruise ships, where a variety of tastes, interests and activities are designed to keep passengers happy. Titanic carried children, but there was no nursery provision, not like today's Kids Clubs spanning a range of age groups. First-class children had nannies, or other domestic servants to look after them, second-class children might have been supervised by a stewardess and third-class families were expected to fend for themselves, keep their children close and amused, whilst providing their own entertainment.
Ship life was geared to adults, as to be expected on board Titanic, where a reading and writing room, (used by ladies) and a smoking room (men only) was available for the upper two classes. Today's ships do have their quiet areas, libraries and computer rooms but the days of the gentlemen's only rule has gone. Likewise the "women and children first rule" for abandoning ship has been set aside, however, usually children are placed at the head of the queue for a lifeboat. Terminology has changed too, politely modern ships call their small boats tenders when they use them to ferry passengers ashore at ports where there is insufficient facilities, or the ship is too large for the berthing. There was dancing on board Titanic, but not on Sunday... but more about Sunday on my next blog. Music was played by the band comprising several musicians, who all sadly perished. To keep wealthy passengers in touch with the world, Titanic had the new Marconi service, whereas, today ships have satellite communication but still charge a premium for usage.
Titanic was a trans-Atlantic liner, although the most luxurious of her time, she was not a cruise ship as we know today. Her job was to transport passengers across the Atlantic, regrettably she never achieved her allotted task.
Tomorrow on the 4th day of my Titanic voyage, I shall be discussing food served on board.
Wednesday, 11 April 2012
Yesterday one hundred years ago RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton, by evening she had called briefly at Cherbourg, France but as the berth had not yet been constructed to accommodate large liners the size of Titanic tenders were used to ferry passengers who were only crossing to the Continent and to collect passengers bound for either Ireland or the US.
Today approaching Queenstown would have been the last opportunity for passengers to send mail. Ireland was part of Great Britain in 1912, so letters would have been carried by the Royal Mail using stamps bearing King Edward VII's head.
This is an illustration of a postcard sent from the ship. It is part of the Mary Ann Perreault collection which was sold at auction in London on Wednesday April 28 1999. The message reads: 4/11/12 D.B. Had a very smooth night expect to arrive Queenstown in 1/2 hours, feeling much better this morning., love a
I believe we are interested in the stories of the ship because of the people's stories. Although they lived in a different age from ours, they are like us. They came from all ranks of Edwardian society but still had to face the same dilemma. It is that question, even today we can relate to, by asking ourselves what would we have done?
When I was writing my novel Tomorrow Belongs to Us I included a Queenstown scene including the lace-sellers who were allowed on board with their Irish souvenirs. I found that the gift of lace provided a very useful part of my plot, although I do have the Astors buying some. I have no evidence, nor have I ever found any to corroborate that assertion. Like many novelists, my work is fiction based in an actual setting. The ebook is available from www.musapublishing.com and www.amazon.co.uk .
Tuesday, 10 April 2012
Today one hundred years ago RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage. The story of the ill-fated liner is probably the most well-known story of any ship in the world. One hundred years later we are still listening to the tales of the people who sailed, worked and died when she sank. Descendents relate the outcome of their unfortunate ancestors. Some stories are emotional, others heart-warming and many tragic. But why are we so fascinated by this single ship?
I have to admit I, too, have held a long interest in Titanic's fate. Not because I could claim any connection with any of the two thousand plus souls who embarked upon the White Star's largest and finest ship. No, I have no such claim. My interest began as an impressionable child. I was taken to the cinema to see, A Night to Remember. A black and white film made in the late 1950s. I certainly didn't see the movie on first release; it must have been several years later in the 1960s before I got to a viewing but the story stuck with me. Several years afterwards I found Walter Lord's book of the same title sitting on a library shelf, borrowed the volume, and I was hooked.
As the years passed, I read whatever I could find about the ship including Archibald Gracie's accounts, Titanic: A Survivor's Story and The Truth About the Titanic - I also added Lawrence Beesley's book The loss of the S.S. Titanic. From those early days, I read any book with Titanic in its title and always marvelled at the differences in the accounts. Hence it is easy to see how the many myths arose about the ship, witness accounts rarely tell exactly the same story. We would be suspicious if they did. But I would challenge any reader not to ask themselves, what if? What would I have done if I had been aboard?
The most significant period of Titanic interest came with the discovery of her wreck by Bob Ballard in 1985. Technology had advanced and with the help of a state-of-the-art submersible some of Titanic's secrets were revealed. The photographs and film footage shot by Ballard's team was sensational. After 73 years the world gasped at the sight of the giantess lying upright and majestically at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Over the years, the ship has been used in many films, books, both fact and fiction, and, of course, James Cameron's box-office blockbuster Titanic kindled the interest of youth with the love story of fictional characters Jack and Rose. Fired by the media, the liner's fame grows until today exactly one hundred years after she left Southampton we have a plethora of Titanic related material: television serial, documentaries, passenger accounts, concerts, exhibitions, memorials erected around the world, commercially produced memorabilia and novels.
Who can explain it, who can tell us why? I shall be giving my take on those two questions – Day Two Titanic on her way to Queenstown on this blog tomorrow.