The significance of the Titanic continues to intrigue, or I should say has begun to intrigue me more since a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city in which it was built, a city which itself grew on the back of the growing shipyards and connected industries associated with it. Between 1851 and 1901 the city’s population increased from 87,000 to 350,000 and was the fastest growing city in the British Empire during that time.
From the top floor of the apartment in the Titanic Quarter where we stayed, I looked down on a vast, empty space, a maze of square and rectangular footprints of buildings and thoroughfares, once a labyrinth of busyness, that filled with the more than 30,000 men and women who would cross the bridge and walk or cycle down Dee St to work.
I contemplate that wasteland with its perpendicular lines; the skyline still dominated by two tall, bright yellow Harland & Wolff gantry cranes, a symbol which continues to salute the past, and I try to imagine the hive of activity that it once was.
Turning the last pages of Walter Lord’s ‘A Night to Remember’ I read in the end chapter Facts About the Titanic that she was launched at the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff on 31 May 1911. The date rings a bell and I look in my diary and see that my daughter and I arrived in Belfast on 31 May 2012, exactly 101 years on from that auspicious date.
Julian Fellowes, creator of the series Downton Abbey and the film Titanic asks in the foreword why this tragedy still haunts us, as it does and certainly the opening of the significant Titanic Belfast museum is a testament to that. He suggests:
Maybe it is because the ship seemed, even then, to represent that proud, pre-war world in miniature, from the industrialists and peeresses and millionaires and Broadway producers who sat around the vast staterooms in first class, to the Irish and German and Scandinavian immigrants packed into third, carrying with them all they possessed, on their way to a new life in America….And as they headed for destruction, so did the larger world they represented, which would soon hit its own iceberg in the shape of the First World War.
Walter Lord’s book is really just that, a factual account of what happened interspersed with the comments to create a narrative of various passengers and crew throughout the two to three-hour ordeal, from the moment of impact when the ship sideswiped an iceberg, until the Carpathia arrived in dock at New York and the truth about how few survived from the more than 2,200 who had been on board when she set out was revealed. He shares the reflections of many people from all classes, providing an overview of the atmosphere and a brief introduction to the individuals thrown together in this catastrophe.
One of the significant complexities which the Titanic represented, was the separation of the classes, the architectural blueprints clearly show the delineation between 1st, 2nd and 3rd class and the museum today exhibits perfect replicas of the rooms they inhabited, complete with holograms of talking passengers. This distinction also carried through to influence the evacuation of passengers, with 1st class women and children given priority, no children from 1st or 2nd class were lost, while 53 children in 3rd class were lost (23 saved).
Even as the Mackay-Bennett returned to the scene to retrieve bodies, similar principles were applied. There were too many bodies to cope with, so many were buried at sea, arbitrary measures were used to try to decide which bodies should be kept, those with tattoos were identified was 3rd class citizens and given a prompt sea burial. At the time it wasn’t criticized, but the sinking of the Titanic could be said to have been a turning point in this respect, it was the end of the Edwardian era, just before the outbreak of World War I and many things would change in the period that followed from a social perspective.
Looking at that period from 1900 to 1912, I noted that there were many exciting and exhilarating firsts, the Wright brothers first flight in 1903, the NY subway opening in 1904, the first European country to give women the vote in 1906 (Finland), and the first electric washing machine released in 1907. Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and electricity was becoming more widespread.
By contrast, in the years that followed the Titanic, personal income tax was introduced in the US in 1913, World War I started in 1914 which propelled women into roles they had never considered before and equality between the classes and the sexes began its long path towards some kind of rebalance.
Now that I have the context of the ‘Night to Remember’, I have started to read ‘And the band Played On’ an account written by Christopher Ward, grandson of the 21 year-old violinist Jock Hume, who together with the other band members of the Titanic, kept playing until the ship disappeared.