Her and her sisters: Poignant, relevant and more than just a movie
James Cameron has done much for the story of RMS Titanic. Pre 1997, it was already the subject of several films and books and lingering in the public consciousness as one of the deadliest peacetime seafaring disasters of all time.
Post 1997, it was enshrined in everyone’s memory as the scene of a saccharine romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (and a cracking Celine Dion concert.) It’s a phenomenon easily compared to what some Scottish newspapers have termed the ‘Outlander’ effect. The use of famous landmarks as movie sets has sparked huge international interest in them, although a good deal of this interest is motivated by the film aspect rather than the historical aspect. In this article, I’ll address why it’s worth keeping the memory of the original ship alive.
A little background to get you satiated – In 1912, Titanic was born at a time of fierce competition in the world of international cruise liners. Titanic’s owners, White Star Line, were perpetually at odds with rivals Cunard over who could ferry passengers across the Atlantic with the most speed, style and luxury. Cunard’s vessel RMS Mauretania (launched 1909) had been nicknamed a ‘greyhound’ for how fast it had managed to traverse the Atlantic.
No mean feat for the largest ship in the world. These voyages attracted business primarily from two very dichotomous groups – wealthy elites wanting to flaunt their status in transatlantic style, and deprived or jobless families seeking a new life in the ‘new world.’
Desperate for the larger share of these emerging markets, J Bruce Ismay (chairman of White Star Line) ordered three new vessels. To be built at Harland and Wolff’s Belfast shipyard (now immortalised as ‘Titanic Quarter’), these three ‘Olympic’ class vessels would be the largest, fastest, most luxurious and (damningly) most unsinkable ships the world had ever seen. That exact fate would befall two of the three sisters.
Titanic and her two sister ships, Olympic and Britannic, were to be Harland and Wolff’s 401st, 400th and 402nd hulls respectively. Despite being a widely respected shipbuilder and still in operation to this day, their construction remained a mammoth task for which specialist equipment was required to be constructed. The firm brought in to install a giant frame for the ships was the same that built the Forth Rail Bridge. The 1997 film gives a good impression of the astonishing size of Titanic by juxtaposing it with a small sailing ship as it leaves port in Southampton – though she would essentially be dwarfed by 2020’s largest ships, most ports in 1912 were built to accommodate ships less than half her size.
Titanic’s enormous size allowed for rich appointments in her state rooms – these were more akin to those found in a country manor than what was, at its core, a big set of steel boxes. First class passengers also had access to several ballrooms, a gymnasium, heated pools, private baths drawn on request, electric bed warmers and reading lights, individual electric heaters in rooms (as well as central heating), private promenade decks for walking, Turkish baths, a barber, several extremely high end restaurants… essentially, it had all the trimmings of a mid-sized cosmopolitan town.
The more expensive rooms on A Deck (closest to the main deck) were fitted out in the style of 11 different historical periods; it cost the White Star Line $7.5 million ($400m in today’s money) to complete the ship. Whilst facilities for second class and steerage were more limited and intended to be more communal, the Titanic was a more appealing choice than its competitors in that it offered meals, held dances and provided instruments for lower-paying passengers, rather than requiring them to make their own provisions for journeys that could take weeks or more.
Yet societal hierarchy was present in a very visceral, physical form: third class passengers were accommodated in the bowels of the ship, near the furnaces. These constantly needed to be stoked and there was no shortage of clatter from boilers the size of buildings. This would also prove fatal for many – third class passengers were accommodated below the watertight bulkheads; 16 compartments in the ship’s hull intended to be sealed off from each other to preserve buoyancy in the event one or more was pierced and filled with water.
Therein lies the fatal flaw – for all her expensive wood panelling, gymnasiums, Turkish baths, Michelin star worthy restaurants – people thought her infallible. As such, adequate safety protocols were never truly thought necessary. Titanic’s lifeboats had capacity for less than half of the passengers on a fully booked voyage. Crew were unfamiliar with the types of lifeboats on board, or how to fill them. Passengers were convinced the ship was too large and strong to sink, even if it did hit an iceberg.
A famous story recounts how one rich passenger cut open a life jacket just to show their companion what was inside. Studies have suggested the rivets sealing together Titanic’s hull were poorly produced, negating the strength of the sheet metal itself. Titanic’s 16 bulkheads did not meet the decks and weren’t sealed at the top, making each bulkhead that filled an onboard anchor willing the bow of the ship under. Hundreds of passengers, some young families, were working, sleeping and eating below the waterline. The innovative Marconi wireless room was used primarily for the exchange of trivial messages between rich passengers and their friends, which meant SOS calls fell on deaf ears. White Star Line and Harland and Wolff’s complacency, prioritisation of luxury over safety and rejection of the potential incident killed almost 1600 people.
The ship’s chief builder, a Mr Thomas Andrews of Belfast, had proposed a quota of 40 lifeboats on board, but this suggestion was rejected by the board. The deck might have looked too crowded and caused undue concern to passengers on the world’s most ‘unsinkable’ ship. Some of these issues were to be addressed during Britannic’s construction – but only in the wake of Titanic’s doomed voyage.
Why hasn’t the world forgotten about Titanic? Few people remember her sister ships; their heroic efforts in wartime after requisitioning by Allied governments well documented but free from the eyes of popular culture. In Liverpool and Belfast, Titanic’s ports of registry and construction, huge monuments stand to remind visitors of those who gave their lives. No such celebration is afforded to Olympic, the site of her demolishing in Inverkeithing now home to a metal recycling facility.
But all three were the work and home lives of thousands of people. Titanic and Britannic remain steadfast in their resting place as poignant graves to many people who died quickly and in fear of the unfamiliar sensations that would prove their undoing. The Olympic is no longer there for us to pay our respects. To me, watching the documentaries or the movie feels like walking through a graveyard. When approaching subjects that caused lasting effects on thousands of families, and transcend social hierarchy, we should do so with a touch of solemnity. Lessons were learned in the wake of the Titanic disaster and the wartime demise of Britannic. Let us not forget the real people that gave their lives for us today.