History of the Merchant Navy

Painting by Ken Marshall

Captain Edward Smith was, in 1912, the senior master of the White Star Line. At 59 years of age he had served with company for almost 40 years and twelve months earlier had commanded the first of the three sisters, the Olympic. On 2nd April 1912 he stood on the bridge of the newer and larger Titanic as it slipped its mooring at the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff and steamed towards Southampton at her maximum speed of 25 knots. With a gross registered tonnage of 46,328 tons and measuring 882 feet in length R.M.S. Titanic was the largest vessel afloat anywhere in the world.

The White Star Lines policy was directed towards passenger comfort and in this respect the Titanic was a magnificent ship, one which Captain Smith could well be proud to command. She was far more elaborately fitted out and luxuriously furnished than the Olympic. To quote an example, the Olympic was uncarpeted in the dining saloon whereas the Titanic was fitted with a deep pile carpet. The design of the Titanic incorporated the latest developments in ship construction. She had a double bottom and was sub-divided by 15 transverse bulkheads creating a series of watertight compartments which would enable the ship to stay afloat even if two adjacent compartments were holed in an accident. Bearing in mind the size of the Titanic no one could envisage a maritime accident large enough to inflict a greater degree of damage. In the minds, of the public and the Master, she was unsinkable.

At noon on Wednesday, 10th April 1912 Captain Smith gave the order to the crew stationed at the bow and stern of the ship to ‘let go fore and aft’ and R.M.S Titanic, with the aid of tugs, moved away from her berth in Southampton to begin her maiden voyage. Even at this very early stage in the voyage the Titanic had a close shave involving the steamship New York. As the Titanic was moving through the dock the New York’s mooring lines parted causing the ship to swing away from the quay to within a few feet of the White Star liner. However, a collision was averted and the Titanic steamed down Southampton Water passing Spithead en route for Cherbourg where French passengers were embarked. From Cherbourg she proceeded to Queenstown (Cobh) in Eire where more passengers boarded and about 3,444 bags of mail loaded. When she finally set sail for New York the Titanic carried 1316 passengers and 891 crew members, a total of 2207.

Based on the palace at Versailles

RMS “Titanic” departing

The after Grand Staircase


Capt. Edward Smith

Thomas Andrews

Of the 1316 passengers Britains and Americans predominated with Who’s Who and the Social Register being well represented. The first class passenger list included Colonel and Mrs Astor, Lord Ashburton, The Countess of Rothes and Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon,Bt. Also travelling in the first class saloon, representing the owners and shipbuilders, were Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line and Thomas Andrews, managing director of Harland & Wolff. The third class consisted of mainly Irish emigrants. The Titanic also carried cargo which, while not sizeable, was extremely valuable and included a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

For three days the Titanic steamed westward at full speed and by midnight on 14th/15th April she was about 300 miles south-east of Newfoundland. Captain Smith was not attempting to break any records. Bruce Ismay had agreed that a morning arrival on the 17th would be more convenient for the passengers than a late arrival on the previous evening. Back home in Britain people were eagerly awaiting the news of the safe arrival of the Titanic in New York; an arrival which would be greeted with the customary firefloat and siren welcome.

The weather on Sunday,14th April was cold but calm. During the morning the ship’s radio officer intercepted messages from the Caronia, the Baltic, the Amerika and the Californian warning of icebergs in the area through which the Titanic would pass. No evidence of ice was seen from the bridge and Captain Smith refused to believe that icebergs would be present farther south than normal at that time of the year. Although the air temperature fell from 43 deg F at 19.00 hours to 33 deg F in the space of two hours Captain Smith did not reduce speed when darkness fell. The Titanic continued on her course at her service speed of 22 knots.

Lord Ashburton

Countess of Rothes

Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon Bt.

Mrs JJ Astor

Col. JJ Astor

By 23.30 most of the passengers had retired to their cabins leaving a handful in the first class smoking room and the third class saloon. Just before 23.40 the lookout in the crow’s-nest high up on the foremast was shocked to see an iceberg looming out of the blackness ahead and immediately .reported “iceberg right ahead” to the officer on watch, First Officer William Murdoch. Murdoch peered into the darkness and saw the glistening white shape ahead and immediately gave the order “hard-a-starboard” and telegraphed “full astern” to the engine room. The bow of the ship fell away to port and Murdoch thought that he had successfully brought the Titanic around in time to clear the iceberg. However, there was a grinding noise as an underwater spur of ice ripped a gash in the ship’s starboard side which extended for some 300 feet, over a third of her length, and opened the six forward compartments to the sea.

Captain Smith arrived on the bridge as Murdoch rang the telegraph to “stop engines” but in the first instance saw nothing amiss but immediately gave the order to “close emergency doors”. Fourth Officer Boxall was immediately dispatched to arrange for soundings to taken of the forward hold but before he could do so carpenter Hutchinson arrived with the breathless report “Sir, she’s making water fast’.

Most of the passengers below deck were unaware that anything had happened. Some felt a slight shudder and ventured on deck where they glimpsed the iceberg but the Titanic was unsinkable, solid and safe; they thought they had nothing to fear. But deep down in the bowels of the ship it was a different story. In the forward boiler room the firemen heard a deafening crash and only had seconds to escape into the adjacent boiler room before they were engulfed by the inrushing sea. That boiler room was also flooding but fortunately the next one, No.4, was dry the only problem having been the avalanche of coal brought down from the bunkers by the collision.

By now the ship had come to a complete stop and the passengers were still not aware of the emergency situation that they were in. Captain Smith had not made any announcements to avoid the risk of panic but, although questioning stewards were given assurances that the ship would proceed in a few hours, below decks the situation was desperate. Water was now pouring into the six exposed compartments. Captain Smith soon realised that his ship was seriously damaged and told Bruce Ismay so when he arrived on the bridge. Thomas Andrews was summoned and immediately went below to inspect the damage. The ship was now listing and from a quick inspection of the damage returned to the bridge to inform Captain Smith that the Titanic must sink. As the compartments continued to flood the ship settled down by the bow with the consequence that the water then flooded over the transverse bulkheads which only extended upwards to D or E decks.

At 00.05, twenty five minutes after the Titanic had struck the iceberg Captain Smith ordered his officers to ready the lifeboats for lowering. It was a further ten minutes before he ordered his radio officer to transmit a distress signal and to fire off rockets. Meanwhile, the stewards were instructing the passengers to put on warm clothing and go onto the upper decks with their lifebelts. On deck First Officer Murdoch and Second Officer Lightoller were ordering the women and children into the lifeboats which had now been swung out ready for lowering. Some men tried to defy the orders, men with young families, or men with wives who refused to go without them, but initially they were restrained. However, many people still believed that the Titanic would not sink and wished to remain on board, so at 00.30 men were allowed into the boats. It was only then that the third-class passengers were allowed onto the upper decks. Their accommodation was in the forward part of the ship and the trim of the ship made it difficult for them to climb the ladders.

Captain Smith delayed ordering the boats into the water for as long as practicable. He was aware of their limited capacity and that no one could survive in the near freezing water for more than a few minutes. He dearly hoped that another ship could reach them before the Titanic finally sank. The distress call had been acknowledged but by ships which were all 150 to 500 miles away. The Frankfurt had replied at 00.18 followed by the Mount Temple, the Virginian, the Burma and the Olympic but the nearest could only hope to arrive in 10 hours or so. At 00.25 there was a glimmer of hope, the Cunard steamship Carpathia was only 60 miles away. Her captain, Arthur Rostron, altered course, increased speed to a maximum of 14 knots and hoped to arrive within four hours. But would the Titanic stay afloat that long?

By 00.45 Captain Smith realised that he could no longer delay the lowering of the boats. The ship was considerable down at the bow and Thomas Andrews had calculated that the ship could only stay afloat for another hour or so. Murdoch and Lightoller were still having difficulty in getting passengers into the boats and as there was a shortage of available seamen to lower the boats it took along time to get them away. the four collapsible boats were not launched until 02.05.

4th Officer Boxall

2nd Officer Lightoller

John Phillips & Harold Bride

Bandleader – Wallace Hartley

At around 01.00 a light was spotted on the horizon. More rockets were fired and wireless signals were sent, but to no avail. The light moved away and disappeared. Survivors of the disaster later described the scene:’ The sea was as calm as a pond, just a gentle heave as the boat dippled up and down in the swell. It was an ideal night except for the bitter cold. In the distance the Titanic looked enormous. Every porthole and saloon was blazing with light. It was impossible to think that anything could be wrong with such a leviathan were it not for the ominous tilt downwards in the bows, where the water was by now up to the lowest row of portholes.’ From a distance of 15 or 16 miles things could have looked fairly normal to an observer.

A stunned Thomas Andrews remained on board, last seen in the smoking room, but Bruce Ismay found a place in a boat and, as a result, faced years of criticism which eventually forced him to resign from the White Star Line and withdraw from public life. With the exception of the seamen detailed to man the lifeboats the ship’s crew stayed on board with the passengers who were left on board and could only watch as the boats pulled away from the ship. Engine-room officers and crew remained at their posts keeping steam up for lights and pumps until the rising waters forced them move upwards onto the open decks. Radio Officer Phillips and his assistant Bride continued to send messages to the Olympic, the Frankfurt and the Carpathia urging them ,’to hurry….hurry’. It was only when the transmitters failed at 02.10 were they forced to give up.

Just before 02.10 Captain Smith gave the order to ‘Abandon ship. Every man for himself.’ He remained on the bridge and was never seen again. At 02.20 the Titanic finally sank to her final resting place in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. A survivor described the final scene. ‘At about 2 o’clock we observed her settling very rapidly with the bows and bridge completely under water. She lowly tilted straight on end with the stern vertically upwards. The lights in the cabins and saloons died out, flashed once more then went out altogether. At the same time the machinery roared down through the vessel with a groaning rattle that could have been heard for miles. It was not quite the end. To our amazement she remained in that upright position for five minutes. We watched at least 150 feet of the Titanic towering above the sea, black against the sky. Then, with a quick dive, she disappeared. Our eyes had looked for the last time on the gigantic vessel which had set out from Southampton. Then there fell on our ears the cries of hundreds of our fellow beings struggling in the icy water, crying for help we knew could not be answered.

A total of !,503 passengers and crew perished in the disaster. When the Carpathia arrived on the scene at 03.20 around 712 persons including 393 women and children had been lowered in the boats or subsequently picked up. (Various sources differ on the final number saved.) The recovery operation commenced at 04.10 and continued until 08.30 when the last boat load were finally taken on board. During this time the Californian arrived and the two ships did all they could for the survivors and eventually set course for New York where they arrived on 21st April.

On the morning of the 16th April British breakfast tables were stunned into silence when the following brief announcement appeared in The Times. ‘An ocean disaster, unprecedented in history has happened in the Atlantic. The White Star liner Titanic, carrying nearly 3000 people, has been lost near Cape Race, and there is grave reason to fear that less than 700 of the 2358 passengers have been saved.’ The Daily Mirror was more informative with the headline ‘ Disaster to the Titanic: World’s largest ship collides with an iceberg in the Atlantic during her maiden voyage’. That edition carried photographs of the ship and some of the passengers and crew. The subsequent four editions kept the public fully informed of the catastrophe as the story unfolded, the story of a catastrophe so devastating that King George V and President Taft and exchanged messages of sympathy on behalf their respective countries.

Why did it happen and who was to blame for the heavy loss of life? Two enquires into the sinking blamed the captain of the steamship Californian for ignoring the rockets but evidence indicated that the Californian could not possibly have been the ship which turned away. Captain Smith was not blamed as it was normal practice for ships to proceed at full speed when the weather was calm and clear. As for not spotting the iceberg sooner; it was possible that the iceberg had recently turned over and was showing a dark side. There was no wind or swell to produce ripples close to the iceberg which would have been noticed sooner. Although scapegoats were sought at the time the Titanic disaster was an unfortunate accident. Some good did emerge, however, and new regulations were introduced requiring ships to carry sufficient life boats to carry all the passengers and crew and vessels were required to steer a more southerly course across the Atlantic to keep well clear of icebergs. Another regulation was introduced requiring ships not keeping a 24 hour radio watch to fit an alarm on the bridge which would automatically ring if a distress call was received. Furthermore, an International Ice Patrol was formed to track and report on the ice situation to trans-atlantic shipping.

There are many books about the Titanic and we have bookmarked three-
Anatomy of the Titanic
by Tom McCluskie
The Complete Titanic: From the Ship’s Earliest Blueprints to the Epic Film
by Stephen J Spignesi
Ken Marschall’s Art of Titanic
by Ken Marschall