The Unsinkable Titanic
On 1 September 1985, a Franco-American expedition led by Robert Ballard discovered a wreck lying 12,500 feet below the surface, 600 kms south-southeast of Newfoundland. The bow was still recognizable with many preserved interiors, despite deterioration and damage sustained after splitting in two and hitting the sea floor. Since its discovery, the wreck of Titanic has been revisited on numerous occasions by explorers, scientists, filmmakers, tourists and salvagers, who have recovered thousands of items from the debris field for conservation and public display. But for me, it's the history of Titanic that is mesmerising.
At 12.15pm on 31st May 1911, the Titanic slid down slipway number three into the water of the Victoria Channel in Belfast Lough to a great deal of excitement. 22 tons of soap and tallow were spread on the slipway to lubricate the ship’s passage into the River Lagan and around 100,000 – about a third of the city’s population – turned out to watch. Titanic’s 62-second descent into the water was in preparation for the fitting-out over the course of the next year where her engines, funnels and superstructure would be installed, and her interior would be fitted out. The massive project of fitting the Titanic took just under a year because no one had ever before attempted to construct vessels of this size. The rudder was so large - 23.98 metres high and 4.65 metres long and weighing over 100 tons – required steering engines to move it. Two steam-powered steering engines were installed though only one was used at any one time, while the other one was kept in reserve. She was equipped with a double-plated bottom, sixteen watertight compartments on the hull of the ship which would close if water entered them, allowing the Titanic to stay afloat. All of these technological advancements were primary reasons why it was believed to be unsinkable. Later on, a crew member is said to have told a nervous boarding passenger that "God Himself could not sink this ship!"
From beginning to end, the construction took about 26 months to build. Every attention to detail had been taken and on 2nd April 1912, with its paint barely dry, Titanic left Belfast Lough and set sail for Southampton to pick up its first passengers. On board were 724 crew members hailing from the Hampshire port, employed in a variety of roles from boiler-room stokers and greasers, to musicians and postal clerks. Also on board was naval architect Thomas Andrews and a troubleshooting team of skilled workers called The Titanic Guarantee Group, tasked with making essential repairs and identifying potential improvements. The ship’s captain was 62-year-old Edward Smith, a long-serving commanding officer of the White Star Line with a string of high-profile commands behind him and bound for retirement in the very near future.
There was no air of foreboding as Titanic left Southampton on 10th April, waved off by throngs of excited bystanders, as it headed to Cherbourg in France where the majority of the first-class passengers embarked. Many had travelled by train from Paris to board the luxury liner, sure in the fact that they would experience the same sort of luxury they were accustomed to on land. And they were not disappointed. The ship boasted four restaurants, electric lifts, a 7 foot deep swimming pool, a gymnasium, a massage room, a squash court and Turkish baths and private suites were costing them an astronomical £870 – and equivalent of £66,000 by today’s standards. First class passengers could enjoy the finest French haute cuisine in the luxurious surroundings of the 114 foot long and 92 foot wide Dining Salon which could seat almost 600 passengers at a time. One of the most distinctive features was the Grand Staircase, built of solid English oak and capped with a dome of wrought iron and glass that admitted natural light to the stairwell. Its sweeping curve descended seven decks of the ship between Boat Deck to E deck terminating in a simplified single flight on F deck. At the uppermost landing was a large carved wooden panel containing a clock with figures “Honour and Glory Crowning Time” flanking the clock face. All of it was well worth the money, everyone agreed.
The White Star Line wanted to give the ship a feeling of being a floating hotel and to reflect the atmosphere of grand hotels of the time. But if you look closely at photographs of the ship’s interior, you can often see tiny elements that weren’t quite finished – something not painted here or a missing handrail there.
The mere size of the ship meant it was unable to dock at Cherbourg so it was moored in deeper waters offshore and the White Star Line’s tender ship, SS Nomadic, built alongside Titanic and a quarter of its size, was used to ferry first and second-class passengers to the waiting ship.
After a further stop at Queenstown in southern Ireland, a large proportion of the ship’s third-class passengers embarked and excitedly leaned over the railings to watch as the Titanic set out into the North Atlantic taking them to a promising new life in America.
Four days into the crossing and 600 kms south of Newfoundland, at 11.40pm on 14th April, an iceberg was spotted immediately ahead of Titanic and the bridge was alerted. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship to steer around the iceberg and the engines to be stopped, but it was already too late. The ship was travelling at an incredible 20 knots (about 23mph) and the Titanic struck the iceberg.
In the cabins below, it would only have felt like a shudder but hull plates had buckled inwards along her starboard side and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea, ripping its hull open below the waterline to a length of about 200-300 feet. Within 10 minutes, the ship’s five forward compartments had flooded to a height of 14 feet above the keel and fireman and stokers were furiously working in the bowels of the ship as water poured in. Distress signals were sent by wireless and rockets, but none of the ships that responded were near enough to reach Titanic in time. Passengers described being in the middle of a vast white plain of ice, studded with icebergs. This area is now known as Iceberg Alley.
As she broke apart at 2:20am, over one thousand of the people still aboard, unable to climb into a lifeboat, screamed in terror as the stern rose out of the water, exposing the propellers, and the ship slowly split in two and sank below the surface to a dept of 12,415 feet. Two hours later, the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia arrived and brought aboard an estimated 705 survivors. Of the 328 bodies recovered from the wreck site, only 209 were brought ashore, those too badly disfigured to identify were buried at sea.
Carpathia docked at 9.30pm on 18th April at New York’s Pier 54 and was greeted by some 40,000 people waiting at the quayside in heavy rain. Relief in the form of clothing and shelters were provided but many of the surviving passengers did not linger long. They headed home to relatives, sure in the fact that they would be suing the White Star Line for damages connected to loss of life and baggage. Later, in 1914, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the causes of the ship’s sinking were largely unforeseeable, rather than due to negligence.
There is still speculation and many unanswered questions about the sinking. We know radio messages were sent from other ships, but these were perhaps overlooked until it was too late. Priority over the ship’s Marconi wireless set was given to first-class passengers wishing to send radio messages home. Then there’s the number of lifeboats on board. The minimum legal requirement for the day was 20 with a capacity to carry 1,178 people but that meant more than 1,500 people would lose their lives if the impossible happened and ‘The Unsinkable Titanic’ perished.
After an inquiry, blame was heaped on White Star Line’s managing director, Bruce Ismay, who was a passenger on board the ship. He was vilified for the inadequate number of lifeboats, the speed at which the ship was travelling and for having escaped the sinking in a lifeboat designated for woman and children only. It came to light that at the last minute of fitting-out, he had made a personal request to include two opulent parlour suites with their own private promenade space, delaying the completion of the fit-out. The 'what if' was that if the Titanic had been finished on time, she might well have missed her collision with the iceberg.
More than a century later, our fascination with the Titanic has not abated. The ship was the epitome of Edwardian society representing a period of history that was about to come to an end with the onset of the First World War.