Steven veerapen

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Top 10 Titanic Myths, Mysteries, and Misconceptions

The sinking of the RMS Titanic remains one of the most recognisable disasters in world history – certainly, it is the most notorious maritime disaster (even if it didn’t cost the most lives, even in peacetime). Still, with numerous screen versions of the shipwreck and countless books telling and retelling the story, the Titanic continues to cast a spell. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a huge body of mythology and legend, some of which hardly merits consideration (the ridiculous notion of a cursed ancient mummy being aboard, for example, or the ludicrous and discredited idea that the ship was switched with its damaged sister as part of an ill-defined insurance scam). There are stories, also, which have long been debunked. We might consider, for example, the anachronistic notion that there was a ‘Captain’s Table’, where the venerable E. J. Smith held court (there wasn’t; he dined privately or at the invitation of guests to their parties); that the ship sent the world’s first SOS call (she didn’t; the first ship we know that did was the RMS Slavonia); or the smug claim sometimes made that the ship was never really called unsinkable until after she sank – a notion disproven by the publication of numerous pre-1912 articles hailing her as (at least ‘practically’) just that. It’s also untrue that the fourth ‘dummy’ funnel vented no steam or smoke; it did, but from passenger service areas rather than from the boilers. Others, however, are worth some reconsideration – so here are my Top 10 Myths, Mysteries, and Misconceptions about the Titanic.

10. NO. 124 – MALE – ESTIMATED AGE 50: The state of John Jacob Astor’s body

As anyone who has seen any Titanic movie or TV drama will know, John Jacob Astor IV was one of the most famous men on the ship. As the son of the inimitable Caroline ‘Lina’ Astor, the queen of New York society (currently being played by Donna Murphy in “The Gilded Age”), Astor was the scion of the American branch of the wealthy clan. He is primarily known for his ending, thanks to portrayals in “Titanic” (1953), “SOS Titanic” (1979), “Titanic” (1997), and more. We generally meet the 47-year-old Astor aboard the ship, on which he was travelling with his new bride, the eighteen-year-old Madeleine (whom he’d wed after finally escaping an unhappy previous marriage, on the 1908 death of his formidable and very conservative mother). Yet Astor was an interesting figure beyond the Titanic; he was an amateur inventor, a novelist (who wrote science fiction, predicting in his “A Journey in Other Worlds” futuristic solar power and air and space travel). He was lost in the sinking, after seeing the pregnant Madeleine into Lifeboat No. 4. His body was recovered on April 22nd by the CS Mackay-Bennett (which had been chartered to recover the dead), and since then a story has persisted that it had been partly crushed and was covered in soot, the implication being that Astor had been struck by a falling funnel. Is it true?

No. Astor’s body was indeed found and identified. On his person were a gold watch, gold-and-diamond cufflinks, a diamond ring, £225 Sterling, $2440, £5 in gold, 7s in silver, 5 ten-franc pieces, a gold pencil, and a pocketbook. The idea that he was crushed and soot-stained is a myth, probably arising from an electrician on the Mackay-Bennet who noted that the face was swollen and the jaw damaged (rather horrifically, broken jaws were commonly reported – many who jumped from the sloping decks suffered them as their heads collided with the stiff, cork-filled lifebelts). Survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie, who wrote his own account of the sinking in 1912, immortalised the ‘crushed’ theory by noting that he’d heard the rumour second- or third-hand. Since then, it has been recounted as fact, even in nonfiction books about the disaster. However, the truth is simpler, if no less tragic. Astor only suffered injuries in keeping with many who took their chances and leapt from the doomed liner, and there was no trace of soot reported on him.

9. “Iceberg, Right Ahead”: The Titanic would have survived a head-on collision

This theory has been around since the inquests into the sinking – and it continues to provoke debate and discussion. The argument goes that First Officer William Murdoch, on the bridge at the moment of impact, should not have given the famous ‘hard-a-starboard’ order; in fact, he should not have taken any evasive action at all, but ploughed head-first into the iceberg. Doing so would have instantly killed crew and passengers in the bow of the ship (primarily, third-class men were quartered there) – but the berg would then have breached only the forward watertight compartments. The Titanic would have been grotesquely disfigured, but she would have survived. Does the theory have any merit?

Not really. The most salient point is that Murdoch would have been pilloried for wilfully ramming an iceberg head-on in the middle of the Atlantic at night. This would’ve been the action of a reckless madman, had there been the slightest chance that the ship could have avoided danger entirely. He acted quite correctly in attempting to evade the threat. But, even if we put that obvious point aside and consider whether, purely theoretically, he had judged there to be no chance of evasion and had struck the berg head-on, can we be confident she would’ve stayed afloat? The answer to that can only ever be ‘maybe’. The Titanic was certainly designed to survive damage to her bow, and it in fact seems likely that she might have limped to port (or been towed) with her forward section obliterated. However, there remains a significant unknown: the nature of the berg itself. As any schoolkid knows, the greater mass of an iceberg lies below the waterline. We have no way of knowing how the infamous Titanic iceberg was formed beneath the ink-black sea. It is entirely possible she was a mass of projecting spurs below the surface, capable of tearing at the keel and destabilising the ship. Thus, whilst it’s likely a head-on collision would not have inflicted the fatal damage of the side-swipe, we can’t say so with absolute confidence.

8. Full Speed Ahead: Did the Titanic sail full-speed through an icefield?

This one is a favourite of TV dramas, especially as it allows a ‘villain’ to be made of J. Bruce Ismay, president of the International Mercantile Marine and chairman of the White Start Line (which Ismay’s father had built up, and which Ismay had sold to J. P. Morgan’s conglomerate IMM). In the 1997 movie, Ismay is depicted as eager to make headlines by having the Titanic arrive in New York earlier than expected – certainly in better time than her sister ship, the RMS Olympic (launched in 1910), had managed on her 1911 maiden voyage. To this end, he pressures Captain Smith to keep the ship going. The 1996 miniseries starring Roger Rees as Ismay is even less equivocal, showing Ismay descending to the boiler rooms to demand the last boilers be lit. In most versions, Captain Smith is generally shown as passive, and quite willing to let the hectoring Ismay have his way.
So, was the Titanic speeding?

No. It is a point of fact that the ship did not have every boiler lit and was not going at her top speed at any point during the voyage. The idea that Ismay pressured Smith to speed up is also problematic: the chief accusation comes from a passenger, Mrs Elizabeth Lines, who recalled sitting in the reception room (outside the first-class dining saloon), when Smith and Ismay sat down nearby and began talking about the possibility of having the final boilers lit. This was supposedly overheard by enough passengers to become a talking point – accommodation and travel plans might, after all, have to be amended if an early arrival were on the cards. But whatever the truth of that conversation, those boilers weren’t lit. Ismay, it’s true, was an excitable man – he was habitually shy and sensitive, and overcame this with brusqueness, often blurting things out regardless of the drift of conversation (witness, for example, his announcing talk of ice to passengers, who had no interest in conversing with him, on the Sunday afternoon). He probably did hope the Titanic would arrive early, and that hope might have communicated itself to the captain and encouraged him to keep the Titanic moving swiftly – though not as swiftly as she was capable. Ismay didn’t, however, actually demand or suggest it. He was not the captain, and he was not giving orders. Moreover, although the Titanic kept up her speed on the fateful Sunday night, this was neither, as noted, its full speed – and nor was it unusual. The prevailing attitude of commanders in 1912 was that it was better to keep a sharp watch and pass through danger zones as quickly as possible. Smith adhered to this dubious wisdom (and there is no good evidence that he, as is sometimes claimed, deliberately altered the route mid-voyage, for safety’s sake, from its already southerly course).

7. J. Brute Ismay: Ismay demanded and was given special treatment on the Carpathia

Ismay again! From almost the moment the Titanic slipped beneath the waves, poor old Ismay was being spoken of darkly. Not only did tales about his (supposedly) ordering the last boilers lit begin to gain currency, but his fellow survivors on the Carpathia were apparently horrified that he demanded, and was given, the best cabin on the rescue ship (whilst many of them were forced to bunk down on tables and settees in assorted lounges). The yellow journalism of the era had a field day – not least those papers owned by William Randolph Hearst (who already considered Ismay a cold fish), which wittily dubbed the chairman ‘J. Brute Ismay’. Could the man really be so monstrous?

Absolutely not. Ismay, when he was taken about the Carpathia, was in a state of shock. He refused coffee and soup and reportedly said he wanted only to be left alone. Accordingly, he was hustled into a cabin belonging to the ship’s doctor (according to Ismay himself, his berth was in the medic’s large storage cupboard – a tight fit for a lanky six-footer). There, he slipped for a time into an almost catatonic state. Survivor Jack Thayer would visit him but was unable to get much of a response. The crew of the Carpathia would similarly try to nudge the distressed man into activity – if for no other reason than to get some sense of what was to be done about the Titanic’s survivors when they reached New York. Ismay would be roused only enough to begin a Marconi conversation with the vice-president of the IMM, Philip Franklin (who had publicly voiced doubt that the ship had sunk when news first began to filter in over the airwaves). Signing himself ‘Yamsi’ in a weak attempt to conceal his identity from telegraphic eavesdroppers, Ismay wrote, ‘Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision iceberg, resulting serious loss life’. Ismay essentially then handed over immediate organisational details in New York to the hapless Franklin, advising him only to retain the ship Cedric to act as a return transport for himself and the surviving Titanic crew (something which couldn’t be done, as the U.S. Inquiry swung into action to keep Ismay and co. in New York for questioning). Ismay was not responsible for the Titanic’s sinking, nor was he a self-aggrandising prima donna. In truth, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he cut a tragic and haunted figure. History – and countless screen versions of the story – have treated him shabbily.

6. Job’s a Bad ‘Un: Was the Titanic badly built?

A theory which really gained traction in the latter part of the twentieth century holds that the Titanic was doomed almost from the moment she was launched. The reason? She was badly built. This does not necessarily refer to her major design flaw – that she was constructed with fifteen transverse bulkheads, creating sixteen compartments which could be isolated from one another by watertight doors, with the majority of these going only as high as E-Deck (the flaw being that no disaster was envisioned in which enough compartments would be breached to sink her enough to allow water to flow over these doors and drag her down, as ended up happening). In fact, this design actually exceeded the Board of Trade’s requirements about the safety of liners. Rather, the claim has been that the builders, Harland & Wolff, used inferior steel-and-slag-iron rivets in constructing the ship’s hull plates. The argument runs that this cheap build resulted in the vessel’s plates buckling more easily under pressure from the iceberg, and thus dooming the liner – and it was supposedly proven by tests run on recovered rivets. Is it true?

No. The Titanic was a superior vessel built by experts, at least according to the standards of her day. The damage inflicted on her was simply fatal. There is really no need to denigrate the shipbuilders; indeed, we need look no further than the Titanic’s sister the Olympic, which had an extraordinarily long and successful record of service (at one point running over and sinking a German U-boat and sailing on quite the thing) to see that the quality of the ship’s construction was not to blame for her fate. Further, whilst it is true that a coal fire was burning onboard the Titanic during her maiden voyage, this was controlled, and it did nothing to threaten her structural integrity (which again says much about her seaworthiness). Titanic was a solid, well-built ship. She simply met a force of nature which was stronger and more unforgiving.

5. ‘We all called her Molly’: Did ye, aye?

Margaret Brown of Denver, Colorado, is one of the most famous personages associated with the Titanic disaster. Not only has she been played by Kathy Bates, Debbie Reynolds, Chloris Leachman, Marilu Henner, and Linda Kash, but in 1958’s superlative “A Night to Remember”, the unnamed character played by Tucker McGuire is instantly recognisable as Mrs Margaret Brown. Why, though, is she so often called ‘Molly’?

The answer lies in the pens of biographers and screenwriters working after her death. During her lifetime, Margaret was never called ‘Molly’, but rather ‘Maggie’. However, after her death, ‘Molly’ was deemed a more colourful name – especially when it came to resurrecting the late Margaret’s life on stage. Thus was born “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” – a 1960 musical which was filmed in 1964. Reality no longer mattered – what mattered was a rags-to-riches story of a plucky woman who was rejected by high society but rose above the sneers to become a heroine. Unfortunately, this was Hollywood simplification. Margaret’s life is more interesting than Molly’s (even if it probably involved fewer people around her breaking into song and dance for no good reason). Margaret Brown (née Tobin) did indeed come from humble beginnings. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants (her father worked as a labourer), and she began adult life as a seamstress. Living in Leadville, Colorado, she met and married James Joseph (J. J.) Brown, an aspiring mining engineer with whom she had a son and daughter. J. J.’s aspirations paid off. In 1893 he struck gold, literally. The Browns were rich. This allowed Margaret to follow her own aspirations. Though at first high society in Denver did, according to the lady herself, deny her entry, Margaret made it her mission to acquire the polish and elegance then expected of a great lady. This she did with aplomb – and it was not in the interests of social climbing. Margaret had an enormous social conscience and held political causes (such as women’s suffrage) close to her heart. She was interested in travel and her horizons were wider than Denver. She eventually became friends with such figures as John Jacob Astor IV and Emma Bucknell (with whom she was travelling on the Titanic). This, however, drove her away from J. J. They would separate officially in 1909. In April 1912, the polished, well-spoken Margaret was travelling home after receiving news that her grandson, Lawrence, was ill. She would claim after the sinking that she’d been hustled into Lifeboat 6 much against her will, and there she showed a stout resolve in organising her fellow female passengers to row (this despite the oath-laden whining of the boat’s repellent seaman, Quartermaster Hichens, who apparently enjoyed telling the women that no rescue was coming and they were all going to die, whilst discounting the screaming people in the water as ‘stiffs’). On board the Carpathia, she set about organising relief efforts for steerage survivors, and she would be instrumental in rewarding Captain Rostron of the rescue ship for his heroic efforts. Margaret’s behaviour that night (and her efforts, social and political, afterwards) give the lie to the embittered J. J.’s reported words on hearing about her survival: ‘she’s too mean to sink!’

4: “All the boats are gone!”: Would more lifeboats have saved more lives?

The obvious answer here would appear to be ‘yes’. It is well known that the Titanic had nowhere near enough boats for the number of souls on board, though more than enough to satisfy the outdated regulations codified by the British Board of Trade (the government body then in charge of overseeing such matters). It is certainly true that, following the disaster, these regulations were hastily rewritten and it was laid down that all ships must carry more boats (though, surprisingly, lifeboats for all are still not legally required – only space for 75% of souls is necessary, with rafts acceptable for the rest). Conventional wisdom runs, however, that if the Titanic had carried lifeboats for all passengers (and she was not filled to capacity on her maiden voyage), all or most of the c1500 who died that night might have survived. Is it true?

This is a contentious one. The answer is ‘probably not’. If we look at the timings of when the Titanic’s lifeboats were launched, we find that even as the final plunge began after 2am (she would disappear at 2:20am), the crew were still struggling to get the remaining collapsible boats off the ship. Indeed, they had to resort to trying to float them off as the ship sank around them. The problem wasn’t that the lifeboats were too few (although this hardly helped), but rather that the evacuation was begun too late. Questions also arise as to how extra lifeboats would have been stowed; would they, for example, have been permanently swung out and ready to go, or would more time have been taken up trying to get them out of storage and into the davits? It’s thus not simply a case of more lifeboats saving more lives: more time would have been needed and a speedier and more organised evacuation planned to really make a dent in the numbers of those who perished. The crew did their best, but their levels of preparation for the horror of that night varied wildly, communication with passengers was poor, and, again, time was not on the Titanic’s side.

3. “Aren’t you going to try for it, Mr Andrews?”: The Last Position of Thomas Andrews

The image of the Titanic’s designer standing, utterly forlorn, at the mantelpiece clock in the first-class smoking room is iconic. It is so iconic that it has been replicated time and again on film. Having him there, in that pose, as the ship readies for its final plunge is not without evidence. The problem is that it is based on one piece of questionable evidence: John Stewart, a steward in the ship’s first-class Palm Court and Veranda Café, claimed to have seen Andrews standing thus, with his lifebelt lying forgotten on a chair. Yet Stewart left the Titanic in Lifeboat 14 (though he claimed it was Lifeboat 15), which was launched at about 1:40am. Still, the legend was born of Andrews calmly awaiting death in the smoking room, and this has become the definitive ‘last position’ of the genial designer.

However, there are in fact reports of Andrews being spotted closer to the final plunge – and not in the smoking room. Another steward, Cecil Fitzpatrick, stated that Thomas Andrews had joined Captain Smith on the bridge before the ship sank, and that the two men, captain and designer, leapt into the water together. The idea of Andrews falling into shock and waiting for death in the smoking room is thus one that requires reassessment.

2. And the Band Played On: What was the last song played on the Titanic?

Those familiar with either “A Night to Remember” (1958) or “Titanic” (1997) will know that the answer is the haunting hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee’. Yet it has long been argued that this was mere invention: sentimentalism created by the yellow press, or even by passengers too far away to actually have identified the tunes drifting into the starry night. What is not in doubt is that the band, led by Wallace Hartley, did indeed play music in an effort to calm the passengers (at least as the evacuation was taking place). Do we really know what song was played last, though? Not really. However, it is worth noting that ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ is not mere invention: several survivors aboard the Carpathia (and thus not too distant from the event) recalled hearing exactly that, even if in some cases it’s difficult to imagine they could have heard the final selection of music. Confusion arises from wireless operator Harold Bride, who survived (with badly frostbitten legs) and claimed to have heard a tune called ‘Autumn’ being played, which has been variously interpreted as a hymn of that name or a popular waltz whose full title is ‘Song d’Automne’. Yet Bride’s recollection is outweighed by those who heard ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, and a former colleague of Hartley’s would claim that the musician (who perished, along with all his fellows) had once stated that he would play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ or ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’ if ever caught on a sinking ship. Adding complication to complication is that we don’t know which version of ‘Nearer My God’ Hartley would have used. However, given the weight of evidence, we can be relatively certain that the famous hymn was indeed played that night – and it would have been a fitting choice for the final song.

1. Trapped Below Decks: Were steerage passengers really locked up and left to die?

An enduring – indeed, an abominable – image presented in several screen versions of the sinking is that of third-class (or ‘steerage’) passengers kept locked up below decks, whilst the higher classes had privileged access to lifeboats. It’s a striking idea – the notion that class mattered so much that the lower orders were literally confined and consigned to death so that their social superiors might live. But is it true?  

This is a difficult issue. The claim of gates being used to confine steerage passengers comes mainly from survivor Daniel Buckley, who managed to get into a boat and thereafter used a shawl, given to him by a female passenger, to hide his gender (from which quick thinking was spun a raft of false accusations against numerous males who had supposedly escaped the liner by dressing as women). The 21-year-old Buckley, whose berth was located in the forward part of the ship and thus flooded early, reported at the American Inquiry that later in the sinking he was ‘down … in the lower part of the steamer, in the after part of the ship, at the back’.

The back-and-forth between Buckley and Senator Smith, who led the Inquiry, runs as follows:  

Senator Smith: Was there any effort made on the part of the officers or crew to hold the steerage passengers in the steerage?  

Mr Buckley: I do not think so.  

Senator Smith: Were you permitted to go on up to the top deck without any interference?  

Mr Buckley: Yes, sir. They tried to keep us down at first on our steerage deck. They did not want us to go up to the first class place at all.  

Senator Smith: Who tried to do that?  

Mr Buckley: I cannot say who they were. I think they were sailors.  

Senator Smith: What happened then? Did the steerage passengers try to get out?  

Mr Buckley: Yes; they did. There was one steerage passenger there, and he was getting up the steps, and just as he was going in a little gate a fellow came along and chucked him down; threw him down into the steerage place. This fellow got excited, and he ran after him, and he could not find him. He got up over the little gate. He did not find him.  

Senator Smith: What gate do you mean?  

Mr Buckley: A little gate just at the top of the stairs going up into the first class deck.  

Senator Smith: There was a gate between the steerage and the first class deck?  

Mr Buckley: Yes. The first class deck was higher up than the steerage deck, and there were some steps leading up to it; 9 or 10 steps, and a gate just at the top of the steps.  

Senator Smith: Was the gate locked?  

Mr Buckley: It was not locked at the time we made the attempt to get up there, but the sailor, or whoever he was, locked it. So that this fellow that went up after him broke the lock on it, and he went after the fellow that threw him down. He said if he could get hold of him he would throw him into the ocean.  

Senator Smith: Did these passengers in the steerage have any opportunity at all of getting out?  

Mr Buckley: Yes; they had.  

Senator Smith: What opportunity did they have?  

Mr Buckley: I think they had as much chance as the first and second class passengers.  

Senator Smith: After this gate was broken?  

Mr Buckley: Yes; because they were all mixed. All the steerage passengers went up on the first class deck at this time, when the gate was broken. They all got up there. They could not keep them down.  

We thus arrived at a somewhat complicated, contradictory answer to the question of whether or not steerage passengers were trapped below decks. Confusion arises especially from the definition of ‘gates’. On film, we usually see tall, securely locked ‘Bostwick gates’, but it has been argued that the Titanic had very few of these, and even those were generally used not to keep the classes apart but to keep passengers from crew-only (generally dangerous) areas of the liner. The ‘little gate’ mentioned by Buckley suggests rather one of the hip-high gates that were indeed used to separate classes. On the other hand, the idea of a crewman forcibly throwing a passenger back down into steerage is damning. If we discount the idea of high locked gates being used to completely seal steerage passengers below decks, the sheer difference in survival rates between the classes remains controversial: how could only one first-class child perish and all second-class children be saved, and yet fifty-seven third-class children were lost? How could all but four first-class women die whilst 91 women in steerage perished? How could first-class men have a 62% chance of survival, second-class a 43% chance, and third-class only 25%?  The truth is, we don’t need locked gates to give us an answer here, and certainly we don’t need to imagine those passageway-blocking metal grilles beloved of filmmakers. It wasn’t malicious design that led to such outrageous discrepancies in survival rates. It was neglect. First-class passengers were certainly prioritised in the evacuation, not due to active classism on the crew’s part, but because the layout of the ship encouraged it; the boat deck was, quite simply, in closer proximity to those of the higher classes. Beyond that, a combination of poor communication between crewmembers and poor coordination of the evacuation doomed far too many steerage passengers. It is not at all clear that the entire crew really knew what was going on, certainly in the first hour or so of the disaster. Those in steerage were thus largely abandoned, or told simply to congregate in public areas (and far from all of them could even speak English). On the boat deck, it was first come, first served, and first-class passengers were politely roused and asked to dress and come on deck by their allotted stewards. Below decks, stewards had no clear idea of what they were supposed to do, and thus did very little (probably with some thinking they were supposed to keep their charges downstairs until explicitly called to do otherwise). Up top, boats were launched and called back, only for them not to return. Men were sent to open gangway doors for the ease of evacuation of those below decks; those men simply disappeared. Like so many things about the loss of the Titanic, the issue of survival comes with a ‘but’: the crew worked hard to get those boats they had away, but they didn’t fill them all. The crew up top laboured to evacuate the ship, but those below weren’t kept in the loop. The officers gave orders, but those orders weren’t always obeyed. The steerage passengers weren’t locked down below high gates, but nor were they helped up. Nor does the neglect of third-class end with the sinking. Three steerage passengers were called to give evidence at the American Inquiry (including Daniel Buckley), but when the first two mentioned being kept away from the boats, the third was dismissed. At the British Inquiry, no steerage passengers were called to testify at all; the lawyer hired to represent them simply stated that no evidence of discrimination could be found. At this, we can finally abandon those locked metal grilles. The institutional prejudice shown towards third-class passengers was bar enough to their chances of survival.

Bonus: The Millionaire’s Lifeboat

One lifeboat – Lifeboat 1 (so-named because it was one of two emergency cutters permanently swung out, though it was not launched first but fifth) – stands out as notorious in Titanic history. Its infamy stems from its dearth of passengers: out of a capacity of 40, it carried 12 people. Among its tenants were Sir Cosmo Duff Cordon; his wife Lucie; her secretary, Laura Francatelli; two first-class businessmen; and seven crewmen. Evidently, First Officer Murdoch had trouble getting passengers to hop over the gap and enter the boat. At this stage, many were reluctant to leave what seemed the relative safety and stability of the ship, especially if leaving involved leaping onto a boat swinging out over a 60-foot drop to the North Atlantic. Yet, thanks to its small number of passengers, Lifeboat 1 would go down in history as ‘the millionaire’s lifeboat’: and further controversy would arise when it was suggested that Sir Cosmo had paid the crewmen a fiver apiece to refrain from rowing back to help those struggling in the water. This was depicted as accurate in the 2012 miniseries, in which Lucie was portrayed as a monstrous snob and Sir Cosmo a coward. In 1958’s “A Night to Remember”, fictionalised versions of the two are shown: “Lord and Lady Richard”, who are likewise portrayed as a toffee-nosed snob and a hen-pecked weakling.

History has been unkind to the Duff Gordons – a fact which distressed Sir Cosmo and did little to Lucie, a pioneering businesswoman, but encourage her to take advantage of the publicity. What happened is this: the boat pulled away from the ship and, like others, stayed away. At some point after the sinking – probably fairly late on – Lucie made a remark to her secretary, Miss Francatelli, often given as ‘there is your beautiful nightdress, gone!’ Immediately, a crewman pointed out that he and his fellows had lost everything, after which Sir Cosmo promised them each £5 for their labours that night: and, indeed, on the Carpathia he, Lucie, and Miss Francatelli proudly posed for a photograph commemorating their gift (which was tactless, but indicates the presentation was not a cloak-and-dagger bribe). Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, was not a snob but a self-made woman who had risen from dressmaker to elite fashion designer. She was, however, rather outré, Bohemian, and possessed of an awkward, tone-deaf sense of humour (her autobiography bears this out, at times presenting her as a bit of an oddball); today we’d call her ‘kooky’ or ‘eccentric’, and anything but cold. Quite separately from the £5 gift-giving (which was rewritten by hostile sources as a bribe) came a discussion in Lifeboat 1 regarding whether or not to return for survivors. Lucie claimed to have been violently sick and thus to have taken no part in the conversation. Whether she was being honest or not in that assertion, we can confidently say that similar discussions happened in nearly every lifeboat, and the result was the same in most: the survivors ummed and ahhed as the darkness around them erupted in disembodied, agonised screams. And most did not return. Sir Cosmo and Lucie Duff Gordon were guilty of nothing more than many other passengers in lifeboats that rowed away. They were guilty only of trying to reward the crew who had saved them – a thing Sir Cosmo was pathetically proud of doing – in a way that could be misconstrued by those seeking a scandalous reason why the boat had left with so few souls aboard.  

I make no pretence of being anything more than an amateur Titanorak. For anyone interested in reading more about this fascinating story, I’d recommend Hugh Brewster’s “Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage”, Gareth Russell’s “The Ship of Dreams”, Andrew Wilson’s “Shadow of the Titanic”, Bill Wormstedt, Tad Fitch, and J. Kent Layton’s “On a Sea of Glass”, and Charles A. Haas and John P. Eaton’s “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy”.