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Lost Voices from the Titanic
The Definitive Oral History
By Nick Barratt
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Nick Barratt
All rights reserved.
THE WORLD IN 1912
I think it is not untrue to say that in these years we are passing through a decisive period in the history of our country. The wonderful century, which followed the battle of Waterloo and the downfall of the Napoleonic domination, which secured to this small island so long and so resplendent a reign, has come to an end. We have arrived at a new time. Let us realize it. And with that new time strange methods, huge forces, larger combinations—a Titanic world—have sprung up around us.
—Winston Churchill as quoted in The Times (London), May 24, 1909
Before the story of the Titanic can be told, it is important to consider the period of history in which this iconic ship was conceived, simply because that world was so different from the one we know today. What life was like for everyday folk in 1912, the year of the disaster, is very difficult to imagine, especially from a technological point of view, given our familiarity with instant means of communicating with one another, access to information at our fingertips via the Internet, and the ability to travel to the other side of the planet in twenty four hours. Plans to design a giant luxury vessel that would transport its passengers across the Atlantic in seven days, traveling at a speed of 23 knots (around 26 mph), may appear quaint to someone used to the concept of space tourism in the twenty-first century. It is easy to forget that in the first few decades of the twentieth century, affordable long distance travel was limited to rail or sea and was not something to be rushed. Motor cars were still very much a novelty on city streets, as large-scale production had only gotten underway in 1902. Mechanized flight, while a reality by 1912, was still very much in its infancy and largely restricted to air shows and military applications—the Royal Flying Corps was formed in this year, and a commercial application for airline travel was still a distant dream.
In 1912, Queen Victoria had been in her grave only eleven years and her grandson, George V, was on the throne; Herbert Asquith was the Liberal prime minister; women were not allowed to vote unless they were property owners (indeed, many men were also excluded from the democratic process), although the movement to extend the suffrage was gradually gathering support; and strict class divisions still existed in British society. The Labour Party had only been formed in 1900, the result of decades of struggle by working people and trade unions to gain representation in the electoral system. Strikes and riots featured prominently during this period, with coal miners and dockers protesting on the streets. Tensions were also growing in Ireland, with nearly a quarter of a million loyalist men signing the Ulster Covenant (and a similar number of women signing the parallel Declaration) to reject the idea of Irish home rule and a separate Irish parliament. In so many ways, 1912 was to prove a monumental year in history.
For ordinary folk living at the start of the twentieth century, a real sense of change and modernity could be perceived sweeping across the nation. Concerns about the political situation in Europe and the escalating arms race fueled by the German empire's plan to create an Atlantic fleet to challenge British naval power were felt by all levels of society, but those outside the political and industrial elite were increasingly concerned with the acquisition of wealth and reaping the rewards of Britain's economic success over the previous half-century. An integral part of this process of material aspiration and economic growth was Britain's status as an island nation, reliant on the ocean as a means of communication with the rest of the world and free from borders and other physical barriers to trade.
Across the Atlantic, in 1912 Woodrow Wilson defeated William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt to become the twenty-eighth president of the United States. Progressivism had reached its peak, with regulation introduced to protect workers, attack corrupt local political "bosses," and remove abuses in the railroad system; indeed, Wilson's presidency was marked by a campaign against tariffs and privilege.
BRITANNIA RULES THE WAVES
In 1877, Mr. Ismay offered to place the whole of the White Star fleet of steamships, then—as now—among the swiftest in existence, at the disposal of her Majesty's Government for service as cruisers or transports in event of war.
—Liverpool Daily Post, December 1, 1899
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British Empire stretched around the world, and maritime trade was at the heart of its success. Traditionally, London had dominated trade and it continued to play a major role, but the increasing size of vessels required to carry goods to places such as India, the Far East, and Africa and the sheer volume of trade meant that the Pool of London, the docks where ships would unload cargo (equivalent to modern Docklands), and its associated dock were near to capacity. Western provincial ports such as Liverpool enjoyed a boom during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, based predominantly on transatlantic trade—raw cotton, meat, corn and cereals, India rubber, wool, live animals, copper, and timber.
Transatlantic sea freight was not restricted to cargo and goods—it's easy to forget in our age of mobile phones, text messages, and emails that written correspondence was the main means of communication, with letters, parcels, and packages carried around the world in steamships. Telephone technology was still in its infancy, but long-distance messages could be communicated by telegraph, as cables had connected Britain and America since the mid-nineteenth century. Ironically, the Great Eastern, a predecessor to the Titanic for the title of the world's greatest steamer and famous for its own construction problems, laid the first successful transatlantic cable in 1865 and 1866. Most people with relatives abroad, or whose business relied upon the transportation of packaged items, were therefore reliant on written communication, and mail packets—as the ships carrying transatlantic mail were known—formed a regular and intricate network of sailing routes across the globe.
Yet it was not only letters and telegraphs that found their way around the world on a regular basis. Transatlantic shipping catered to a burgeoning passenger market, one that had existed since Britain had founded its North American colonies and then repaired its relationship with the United States after the Revolutionary War. The formation of companies—such as Cunard in the mid-nineteenth century—that ran regular steamship services across the Atlantic from western and southern ports in Britain and Ireland to America's East Coast was crucial. Speeds across the ocean gradually increased, cutting the journey time from months to weeks, so that by the end of the century it was possible to reach America in less than two weeks. Many people sought to leave Britain's shores permanently, to start a new life in the land of opportunity. Some were being squeezed out of traditional lines of work— agriculture, for example—while others were more opportunistic, seizing upon the expansion of America into its western states via the growing railroad network to travel to the California goldfields to find their fortune. Still others simply signed up on one of the construction gangs building the railways, cities, and heavy industrial plants springing up all over the continent.
America was also seen as a place to escape hardship and persecution. In the 1840s, many thousands of Irish fled the ravages of the potato famine in "coffin ships," so called because of the very real chance passengers would die during their voyage from disease—cholera and typhus were rife on sailing vessels and steamships—or from drowning when overcrowded ships were lost at sea in storms. Other dangers included fire, starvation, and even murder. Many families held "living wakes" before the ships set sail, certain that they would never see their loved ones again even if they did make it across the ocean to a new life.
By the end of the century, other waves of immigrants were heading for America via British ports. East European Jews, fleeing the pogroms in the Russian empire in the 1880s, often stopped off in Britain, joining the growing transatlantic passenger trade with their few remaining possessions grabbed at the start of their flight months or even years before. The numbers heading to America from Britain and Europe grew so large that in 1892, the United States opened Ellis Island in New York to process the hordes of applicants who arrived hoping to take up residency. In 1907, over 1.25 million people passed through the "Island of Tears."
The growth of passenger freight between Britain and America was not restricted to people seeking a new home. The globalization of trade, culture, and politics, and the close relationship between the two countries saw increasing numbers of wealthy passengers crossing the Atlantic on a regular basis. They desired not only speedy transportation but also comfort and luxury, and they were prepared to pay for the privilege. Consequently, shipbuilders focused on providing new ways of transporting passengers from all walks of life as quickly, yet profitably, as possible, and the ocean-going liner was developed, with different standards of accommodation priced according to status and the size of one's wallet.
First-class passengers could expect to enjoy the height of comfort on their journey—a floating top-rated hotel experience—with quality entertainment, spacious cabins, and only the best food and drink, while second-and third-class customers could reserve a small berth or cabin and enjoy a reasonable standard of accommodation. However, for those heading overseas because of poverty or persecution, necessity meant the cramped conditions of steerage—rooms situated between the passenger decks and the cargo hold, holding as many bunks as possible, with only the basic requirements for survival, often without heating, light, or even proper ventilation. Even on the most luxurious liners, deaths occurred among the poor souls crammed below decks, who usually made up the majority of people on board.
In addition to commercial requirements, another factor lay behind the development of large-scale vessels during the first decade of the twentieth century—the arms race. Britain's international pre-eminence was largely due to its dominance of the seas through the Royal Navy, which had gone largely unchallenged since Admiral Nelson's legendary victory over Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. A century of ruling the waves, however, had not led to complacency, and the Admiralty was involved in extensive research and development to ensure that its ships were at the cutting edge of naval technology. An important relationship had developed between the commercial sector, where shipping magnates had invested vast sums of money building up the merchant marine, and the British government.
A navy capable of spanning the globe was incredibly expensive, so the Admiralty needed to be able to command suitable merchant class vessels to support, and on occasion take part in, its operations during times of war. The government was sometimes prepared to subsidize the development and commissioning of mercantile vessels that were capable of adaptation for naval use. The benefits were considerable for both sides—shipping companies involved were able to afford larger and faster vessels with the capability of armed defense, and the government could point to the tax revenue advantages of supporting a key economic sector while growing its reserve of ships for use during times of national crisis. Cunard, the main rival of the Titanic's builder, the White Star Line, was to benefit from this strategy, as the Times of London reported on February 26, 1903:
THE NEW SUBSIDIZED STEAMERS FOR THE CUNARD LINE
It was announced last year that the Government was prepared to advance money on terms advantageous to the Cunard Company if they constructed two large vessels of exceptional speed for the Transatlantic service, and further to add a large annual subsidy, conditional on the designs and tests meeting with the approval of the Admiralty. It was conclusively proved during the Cuban war that fast mail steamers with light armament but of great coal capacity were desirable adjuncts to a fighting fleet; it is possible that further consideration might have caused the vessels that were hired to have been employed during that war on more useful service than cable cutting; but the enormous disparity on the scene of action between two contending fleets is not likely to be reproduced in any coming war between two great European Powers ... The Germans now have several large and fast steamers whose capabilities meet the views of their owners and of their Government, and they are faster over an ocean journey than any owned in this country at the present time ... These would form admirable ocean scouts in war, and if loaded to their utmost coal supply would have an extended range at reasonable speed.
Designs for the new Cunard ships are nearly complete and model experiments have reached finality, but the vessels are so much beyond precedent in size and contemplated speed that an element of uncertainty causes anxious consideration. They will be approximately 760 feet on the water line with 80 feet in beam ... The engines of the new vessels are contemplated for over 60,000 horse power and are expected to drive the vessels at a sea-speed of some 25 knots on a coal consumption of 46 tons per hour. The vessels will be luxuriously fitted in every way and will carry a whole colony of crew and of passengers, and each vessel will cost about a million and a quarter pounds sterling. Few existing firms of shipbuilders have plant adequate for constructing vessels of such unprecedented dimensions.
—The Times (London), February 26, 1903
Subsidizing the construction of merchant vessels to supplement the fleet freed up money to develop a new category of ship that would change the world. The first decade of the twentieth century was a time of escalating tension between Germany and Britain, particularly regarding competing colonial interests in Africa. Germany had been fiercely critical of Britain's handling of the Boer War, and in order to protect and expand its own influence on the continent, it needed a fleet to rival Britain's. This resulted in the first arms race of the twentieth century, fought in the offices of naval architects and realized in shipyards across the British Isles. In 1905 the Admiralty confidently announced that it would take only a year and a day to commission and construct a new supership, and—true to its word—HMS Dreadnought was ready to set sail at the end of 1906.
This was the first in a new class of battleships that transformed naval warfare and directly led to the escalation in weaponry that would prove so devastating when global conflict finally broke out in August 1914. Having studied the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, in particular the way long-range guns decimated the Russian fleet, the British opted for an all-big-gun battleship with a top speed of 21 knots—faster than any contemporary military ship of comparable size, with screw shafts driven by steam turbines as opposed to conventional screw propellers—and thick armor plating covering the entire external structure, providing protection against similar weaponry. This made every other large military vessel obsolete overnight. The race was on to construct a new generation of warships, and as a result the high seas had suddenly become more dangerous.
THE HISTORY OF THE WHITE STAR LINE
The White Star Line at once leaped to a foremost place in Atlantic enterprise, and other companies, in their own interest, promptly imitated them in regard to that luxurious and complete comfort which to-day marks the Atlantic liner.
—Liverpool Daily Post, December 1, 1899
These were the main political, social, and military circumstances in which the Titanic was conceived. It is easy to view the struggles taking place for control of world trade as essentially nation against nation, but this is an oversimplification given the fierce rivalry that existed among the three leading British shipping companies that had emerged in the nineteenth century. The most venerable of the trio was the Cunard Steamship Company, whose origins can be traced to the business founded when Samuel Cunard was awarded the first British contract to carry mail via steamship across the Atlantic in 1839—the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company. It held the Blue Riband—an unofficial accolade for the ship that completes the fastest transatlantic voyage—for the best part of thirty years, then fell behind its rivals, reformed as the Cunard Steamship Company Limited to raise capital funds, and embraced the emerging new technology—mainly screw propulsion that allowed ships go faster—to regain its position of prominence. Two lines in particular rivaled Cunard in terms of size and ambition. The Inman Line began operating in 1850. Inman outperformed Cunard in the 1860s with the construction of faster ships and began to win mail contracts that had previously gone to its elder rival. By the 1870s, Inman ships were carrying more passengers to New York than Cunard, offering quicker journey times, and winning the Blue Riband on several occasions.
Excerpted from Lost Voices from the Titanic by Nick Barratt. Copyright © 2010 Nick Barratt. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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