Little Waldingfield History Society was absolutely delighted to welcome James Hayward to the Parish Room to hear the personal stories of East Anglian survivors of the Titanic disaster, along with many obscure facts concerning the ship and the sinking. James' talk was a real tour de force and our 35 person audience was completely enthralled from the first minute of the talk to the last.
James began his talk with some background on the Titanic - the second of a trio of superliners intended to dominate transatlantic travel business. Owned by the White Star Line and built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, she was the largest passenger steamship in the world at the time of her launch. She was 269 m long and 28 m wide, with a gross weight of 46,328 tons; the height from the water line to the boat deck was 18 m. There were 2 four-cylinder steam engines and a steam turbine to power 3 propellers; 29 boilers fired by 159 coal burning furnaces gave her a top speed of 23 knots (about 27 mph). The four funnels were 19 m tall, the fourth added to make her look more impressive serving only as a vent. Titanic could carry 3,547 passengers and crew.
The first connection to Suffolk came the day before she departed Southampton, when a surveyor compared the size of the ship to the then well known William Pretty corset factory in Ipswich - apparently Titanic was three times longer and one and a half times higher!
During her maiden voyage, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 PM ship's time on Sunday evening April 14, 1912, sinking two hours and forty minutes later at 2:20 AM Monday morning. More than 1,500 people perished, making it one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history and the most famous by far, despite there subsequently being even greater maritime losses, particularly during the two world wars. Titanic used the most advanced technology then available and was popularly believed to be unsinkable; the impact of her demise, which incredibly James informed us was spread around the world in just a couple of days, was a profound shock to many.
James then told us the disaster was the sad culmination of a whole series of small incidents, any one of which, if different, could have either prevented the disaster or greatly reduced its impact:
- Titanic's original Second Officer David Blair, had been with her during seaworthiness trials and final journey from Belfast, but was reassigned just before the maiden voyage. As a result of the hasty departure, he sadly kept a key to a storage locker believed to contain the binoculars intended for use by the crow's nest lookout.
- On the night of the sinking there was no moon and the ocean was said to be like a millpond, there were therefore no waves breaking round the iceberg, making it far less visible.
- Titanic had three screws with the centre one directly in front of the rudder driven by a non-reversible turbine. On spotting the danger, this screw was stopped, sadly reducing rudder effectiveness so that Titanic could not turn quickly - a collision then could not be avoided.
- Titanic's hull was divided into 16 ‘watertight compartments' by 15 transverse bulkheads. Despite not extending all the way up, because of the impact on passenger movement round the ship, this innovation allowed four compartments to be flooded without the ship sinking - poignantly the 300 foot gash from the glancing impact caused five compartments to flood.
On her maiden voyage, it seems there were a number of very well known stars, including:
- John Jacob Astor IV
The richest man onboard didn't survive, leaving $85 million in his will, circa £2 billion today. He requested a place on a lifeboat with his new 18 year old wife, but when he was turned away, by all accounts calmly accepted his fate. The couple had been on an extended tour of Europe to wait for the gossip columns to calm down, returning home via the Titanic.
- Benjamin Guggenheim
Having helped rescue the women and children, he dressed with a rose at his buttonhole and prepared to die. He was seen heading into the Grand Staircase and heard to remark "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”. He left a message Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, that I played the game out to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward. He and his valet were last seen seated in deck chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase, sipping brandy and smoking cigars; both went down with the ship.
- Isidor and Ida Straus (of RH Macy fame)
Ida refused to leave Isidor and wouldn't get into a lifeboat without him. Isidor was offered a seat to accompany Ida, but refused whilst there were still women and children aboard. Ida insisted her newly hired English maid, Ellen Bird, got into lifeboat #8, giving her a fur coat which “she would not be needing“. Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm, eyewitnesses describing the scene as a "most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion."
- Margaret Tobin Brown
Known to the world as “the unsinkable Molly Brown”, Margaret was the estranged wife of the Colorado mining kingpin J.J. Brown. She took charge of Lifeboat 6 and threatened to throw Quartermaster Robert Hichens overboard when he refused to allow her and the other women to row back to the site of the Titanic's sinking to look for survivors in the water.
- Dorothy Gibson
A pioneering American silent film actress, artist's model and singer who was active in the early 20th century. She is survived the sinking and starred in the first motion picture based on the disaster, called ‘Saved from the Titanic', which was released on May 14, 1912, one month after her rescue. In the film she wore the same dress, sweater, gloves, and black pumps which she had been wearing when pulled from Lifeboat 7, the first boat launched.
- J. Bruce Ismay
The chairman and managing director of White Star Line who sketched the first plans for the Titanic on a dinner napkin in 1907. Some people believe Ismay behaved like a scoundrel on the night she sank because he left on board one of the last collapsible lifeboats, shirking his responsibilities as a gentleman and White Star executive by leaving the ship when hundreds of passengers, many women and children, were still on board. Ismay swore there were no more passengers on the deck when he was offered a place in a lifeboat.
A really sad thing James told us was the differing policies followed by the officers in charge of the Port and Starboard embarkations - one of whom rigorously enforced a policy of women and children only, even when there were available spaces in lifeboats with men ready to take them - they were simply turned away.
James then explored some of the East Anglian connections, notably the following:
- Violet Constance Jessop
Miss Jessop retired to a 16th century thatched cottage in Great Ashfield, filling her home with mementoes of 42 years at sea. She was interviewed for Woman Magazine when the film ‘A Night to Remember' was released in 1958.
She had a great story to tell as the following interview quotes attest:
I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Some time after, a ship's officer ordered us into the boat (16) first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: 'Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.' And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.
After eight hours in the boat Violet and the others were picked up by the Carpathia:
I was still clutching the baby against my lifebelt when a woman leaped at me and grabbed the baby, and rushed off with it, it appeared that she put it down on the deck of the Titanic while she went off to fetch something, and when she came back the baby had gone. I was too frozen and numb to think it strange that this woman had not stopped to say 'thank you'.
- Julia Florence Cavendish
Julia Florence Siegel was the daughter of Henry Siegel, one of the wealthiest men in New York who opened the famous Siegel-Cooper department store on Lower 6th Avenue. She married Tyrell William Cavendish and moved to Suffolk in 1907, renting Battlies House on the Rougham Estate. In 1912 Tyrell hoped to go into politics and actively sought nomination for a parliamentary seat with a trip to the USA to obtain sponsorship from his father-in-law.
Julia described their parting: My husband kissed me and put me into a boat in which were 23 women. He told me to go and that he would stay on the ship with the other men. They were happy to see us lowered away in the boats and kept telling us they would be alright as the ship could not sink. Most of the women in the boat I was in were in their bare feet. I can still see those husbands kissing their wives and telling them goodbye. I can see the sailors standing by so calm and brave. The sight of those good men who gave their lives for others will always be with me. Words can't tell the tale of their sacrifice. The hours we spent in that small boat after those heroic men went down were hours of torture. When we got on the Carpathia we were treated with the utmost consideration. I am prostrated by the loss of my husband, but rejoice in the fact that my children are safe, having been left at home.
Julia and her maid were saved, but Tyrell died. After the tragedy, Julia never stayed at Thurston House, which was sold soon after. Thurston was then given a new village hall in 1915, known as the Cavendish Hall. An inscription inside reads: “This hall was built and given to the People of Thurston by Julia F Cavendish in Memory of her husband Tyrrell William Cavendish who lost his life on the SS Titanic, April15 1912.”
It's fair to say that our audience were spellbound from the first moment to the last by James' thoughtful, poignant and incredibly informative talk, which was liberally sprinkled with photos and extracts from newspapers of the time - a truly excellent performance all round.
Our next event will be on 15th April at 7.30 in The Parish Room Little Waldingfield, when Sarah Doig will regale us with her talk “Youth must have some dalliance” - A romp through Henry the Eighth's life through the eyes of his wives and mistresses - it should be an absolute riot!
A professional genealogist, local historian and accomplished musician (Ancestral Voices), Sarah specialises in research in East Anglia and London, and presents on a wide range of talks on local / family history and on selected historical subjects.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 19th March 2015
Titanic under way
William Pretty's Ipswich Factory
New York Times headline