It seems safe to say that most people in the Western world have heard of the RMS Titanic – namely due to a little movie called ‘TITANIC’, that grossed nearly $2.2 billion at the box office and saw women the world over fall head over heels with a young Leo DiCaprio (my eight year old self very much included).
There are certain stories about the disaster that have been etched into public cultural consciousness – the band that played on, the cries of ‘Women and children first!’ and, of course, the terrible truth that there were not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on board. But here are ten things that you might not know about the disaster…
1. Violet Jessop, one of the stewardesses on board, not only survived the infamous sinking – but also survived the disasters experienced by the Titanic’s two sister ships.
In 1911, Jessop was on board when the Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke (there were no fatalities and the ship was able to make it back to port without sinking). Then, bravely returning to sea after the sinking of the Titanic, Jessop was working as a stewardess on the Britannic, which was serving as a hospital ship during the First World War. The ship sank in the Aegean Sea on 21 November 1916, due to an unexplained explosion. Incredibly, the ‘unsinkable’ Jessop continued to work as a stewardess for the White Star Line after this third and final disaster.
2. The ship’s fourth funnel did not actually work, as only the first three were connected to the furnaces.
At this time, four funnels were symbolic of speed, safety and power; the White Star Line added a fourth funnel to the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic in order to compete with rival companies such as the Cunard Line.
3. The Titanic was not at full capacity on her maiden voyage.
There were 2,228 passengers and crew on board the Titanic when she struck the iceberg and sank the night of April 14th 1912. At full capacity, she could carry 3,547 – meaning that, if this had been the case that night, there would only have been enough lifeboats for a third of those on board (assuming each boat was filled to capacity).
For context, if the lifeboats had been filled to capacity, just over half of the 2,228 on board could have been saved. In reality, just 31% survived.
3. Just 37 seconds passed between the sighting of the iceberg and the fatal collision.
The iceberg would likely have been spotted earlier – giving the crew more time to react – had the lookouts had binoculars. Sounds obvious/ridiculous? It gets worse. When Second Officer David Blair was removed from the ship’s crew just days before the Titanic set sail, he forgot to give his more experienced replacement (Henry Wilde) the key to the lookout’s locker, which contained the binoculars.
4. It is likely that, had the Titanic hit the iceberg straight on (rather than attempting to swerve round it), she would not have sunk.
The Titanic was built with sixteen ‘watertight’ compartments in her bow, designed so that the ship could stay afloat even with the first two to four flooded. Because the Titanic turned, the iceberg came into contact with her starboard side, rupturing six of these compartments. The bulkheads (watertight walls in the compartments meant to keep water from flooding the rest of the ship) weren’t high enough to contain the amount of water that surged into these damaged compartments. As a result, in just over two and a half hours, the Titanic filled with water and sank to the bottom of the ocean.
However, if the ship had struck the iceberg straight on, it’s predicted that only the first three or four compartments would have been flooded, meaning that the ship could have stayed afloat – at least in time for help to arrive. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the number who would have likely died on impact, given how fast the ship was travelling, but the total number of casualties may not have been quite as severe.
5. There really was a Jack Dawson on board.
But, no, sadly he wasn’t a handsome penniless artist doomed to fall in love with a First Class girl who TOTALLY COULD HAVE MADE ROOM FOR HIM ON THAT DOOR.
Seriously, though – after the film, people stumbled across a grave stone for a ‘J. Dawson’ who died on the Titanic and, of course, hysteria ensued, with fans of the film visiting the Fairview Cemetery in Halifax to leave flowers and ticket stubs at the star crossed lover’s grave. Of course, this wasn’t actually the grave of Jack Dawson of Chippewa Falls (because he’s fictitious), but of an Irishman named Joseph Dawson, who worked as a coal trimmer in the ship’s boiler room.
James Cameron, the film’s director, has since confirmed that the character’s name was not inspired by this man, but was merely a coincidence.
6. Nine dogs were also travelling on the Titanic (all First Class, of course).
Two of these even survived the sinking – a Pomeranian and a Pekinese.
7. There was a ship less than 20 miles away from the Titanic when she sank.
The SS Californian was a steamship on her way from Liverpool to Boston. The night the Titanic sank, the Californian had already radioed her with an ice warning, and had later radioed again to say that the ship had been forced to stop for the night as they were surrounded by ice. Titanic’s wireless operator, Jack Phillips, was busy catching up on a backlog of passengers’ messages when the Californian ‘butted in’ – causing Phillips to angrily reply “Shut up, shut up! I am busy; I am working Cape Race!” Shortly afterwards, the Californian’s wireless was turned off and the only wireless officer went to bed. Ten minutes later, the Titanic hit the iceberg.
The Titanic’s crew saw the Californian from the bridge and attempted to call for help via distress rockets, but help never came. The ship’s captain, Captain Lord, apparently believed the rockets were company signals of some kind, but given the concern expressed by some of his crew members, he ordered them to attempt to communicate with the ship by Morse lamp. He never instructed them to use the wireless, and no response from the Titanic was ever received by Morse. Later, the Californian crew mistook the ship’s lights sinking below the surface of the water as the ship ‘leaving the area’, and it wasn’t until the next day that they realised what had really happened.
8. The first movie about the disaster began filming just five days after it happened – and even starred one of the survivors.
The silent film was called ‘Saved From The Titanic’ and was actually hugely successful – the first of many hit films about the Titanic. It starred Dorothy Gibson, a silent movie star who had been travelling on the Titanic as a First Class passenger with her mother. In the movie, Gibson even wore the same clothes she had been wearing when the ship sank – talk about being authentic. Sadly, all reels of the movie were destroyed in a fire in 1914.
9. Shortly after the sinking, authors Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw got into a heated debate about how the disaster was represented in the press.
It all began a month after the sinking when Conan Doyle (creator of the Sherlock Holmes character) came across a very argumentative letter his friend (and fellow writer, George Bernard Shaw) had written to the editor of a popular newspaper regarding the sinking of the Titanic and its portrayal in the press. Shaw was essentially arguing that “outrageous romantic lying” had taken place in the aftermath of the disaster, and that the events of that night weren’t nearly as heroic or as ‘British’ as the public was being led to believe. Furious, Conan Doyle wrote back, expressing his disgust at how Shaw could be writing with “such looseness and levity” so soon after the tragedy. For Conan Doyle, the events that unfolded on the ship were the pinnacle of British chivalry and valour – and he would not have anyone say a word otherwise! This debate went on for another round, and the letters were published by the newspaper.
10. The last remaining survivor of the disaster died on May 31, 2009, aged 97.
Millvena Dean was the last remaining survivor of the Titanic disaster, having been just two months old when the ship sank (making her the youngest passenger on board as well). Her family was emigrating to Wichita, Kansas, where her father had relatives and where the family hoped to make a new life for themselves. They were not supposed to sail on the Titanic, but ended up being transferred onto the ship because of a coal strike. They boarded in Southampton as Third Class passengers. Dean’s father felt the collision with the iceberg and, after investigating, instructed his wife to dress the children and go up on deck. Dean, her mother and her older brother were placed in Lifeboat 10 – and thanks to her father were among the first Third Class passengers to escape. Sadly, Dean’s father did not survive, and his body was never recovered.