Titanic Revisited Part I

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.

Abandoned shipyards

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.

Ist Class cabin on board Titanic

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).

Titanic Belfast Museum

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.

Titanic Quarter

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.

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27 thoughts on “Titanic Revisited Part I

  1. A very thoughtful and well-written post. The Titanic continues to fascinate me. When I crossed the Atlantic in May 1988 on the Queen Mary, they announced over the loudspeaker when we were a bit south of where the Titanic went down to her watery grave. The announcement really brought many sad and sober thoughts to mind.

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  2. We all know the story, but not the fascinating facts that you gave us, which reflect so much on the attitudes and philosophy of those times. A really absorbing post, thank you so much… much food for thought…

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  3. Dear Claire, this is a great post! your comments about society at the time of the disaster are intriguing, and make me want to do more reading about this time period. Downton Abbey, which begins with the sinking of the Titanic also touches upon the idea that it is the end of an era. Here is a link to a blog post I wrote about the Titanic which addresses the question of its endless fascination to us. I eagerly await Part Two of your Titanic post!
    http://naomibaltuck.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/the-titanic-connection/

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    • Thanks or the link Naomi, it is intriguing the similar notion with Downton Abbey, in that case it is seen through the desire of the house servants to lift themselves up out of servitude and by some of the family wanting to participate in a much more involved way in society, helping with the war wounded, driving tractors for example. But within both classes there are both those who want change and those who prefer tradition.

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  4. Interesting post, as always!

    These things from history draw us in, imagining circumstance, celebrating resilience, decrying those who acted in self-interest. We do this now with the Aurora shooting.

    Another incident happened the year before Titanic, don’t know if the author mentions it. In 1911 New York, 146 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, most young women who leapt to their death from 8 floors up – because they were locked into their work floor.

    The story left it’s mark on so many, including one Frances Perkins, who went on to work for rights, and who is actually the person behind Social Security and unemployment compensation in America. You can find lots of things on Triangle, and one day I intend to write a novel set in its environment.

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    • It is indeed a fascinating period in history Nelle, I didn’t know about the fire in 1911, it may have been listed in the events (which didn’t come from the book, just from my own research and curiosity), but interesting as you say, often tragedies are a catalyst for positive change. I look forward to hearing more about your novel, an inspiring subject and backdrop for a story for sure.

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    • There was a wonderful choice of books available in the Titanic Belfast museum and it was a real pleasure to choose.

      I have since also heard of an interesting book by Syrian-American writer Laila Salloum Elias The Dream and then the Nightmare: Syrians who Boarded the Titanic which chronicles the stories of the very many Arab passengers many I believe from Lebanon (Syrian in the book title refers to Greater Syria which encompassed a number of countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan), I’m trying to track it down as this community I’ve heard very little about in connection with the Titanic, but I am very interested to know more.

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      • That does sound like an intriguing read. I never really think about the different nationalities of the passengers, bar the ones who are portrayed in many adaptations, such as the British, Irish and Italian, so a book that focuses on Arab passengers sounds very good.

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  5. I’ve always been intrigued by the tragedy of the Titanic and so enjoyed the perspectives you offer in this post. It’s so haunting to hear “And The Band Played On” and picture those musicians in those desperate moments.

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    • Thank you Patricia, it was interesting to learn about the context of the Titanic, to see those abandoned shipyards and try to imagine the bustling life that attracted so many to this city back then. The human tragedy is unimaginable, so many lives touched by it, and across many nations.

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  6. Great post, Claire! And very interesting comments on class distinctions that guided the rescue efforts: about who was saved (which I knew) and which bodies were recovered for funerals (which I did not). Belfast has long been on my to-visit list, but the Titanic Museum is another good reason to go. Thanks!

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    • Yes, it seems the tourism industry is slowly replacing the shipbuilding industry and that could get even more of a boost, as just next to the museum are the studios for the ‘Game of Thrones’ series, although they are not open to the public. Northern Ireland even has its own Holywood (with only one L).

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  7. This is a beautiful post, and your ending words are particluarly poignant for me because the last song the band played, ‘orpheus’ was so moving and I wept at thier heroic effort to keep spirits up until the last moments. My last boy wept too and said ‘mama, why did all these people have to die?” We have a lot of story books for children on the Titanic and we’ve watched the film several times. And for us, or for me, the sinking of the Titanic remains a very disturbing and harrowing event in the history of the 20th C.

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    • Thank you Celeste, it was a very moving film and the story of the musicians quite humbling. There are so many stories that continued to affect lives after the event, some that are being written about and shared and others that we will never know.

      I think it is a wonderful tribute to the many who were lost to share and remember not just the Titanic, but the historical period in which they lived, it represents important lessons for humanity.

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  8. What a wonderful trip you have taken. It must have been slightly haunting in a way. I turned the Arizona in Pearl Harbor and Alcatraz in San Francisco – not the same as the Titanic, but both places have stayed with me. I lived in the UK and worked for Barings Bank and was surprised to see that the class system was still thriving. I wasn’t quite sure what it was at first because I was fresh off the boat so to speak, but it was fascinating to watch. As always, Claire, your posts have a way of painting me into the scene.

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    • Thanks Brenda, it really was an unexpected journey, the boat really a symbol of that period in time and with my family coming from this area it got me thinking about what it must have been like living in that era.

      The class system seems to have been something else during that time, something still accepted but on the cusp of being challenged, especially so after the war which put people on much more equal terms, women included. I too had no concept of it when I first arrived in London, I think it does exist everywhere (and has evolved), the difference perhaps being that it is talked about much more in the UK.

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  9. Earlier this year I got Titanic fatigue, with so much on across the all the mediums, but you have reignited my interest again. Love the accidental syncronising of the dates as well. sounds like an absolutely fascinating trip and a wonderful entry on such an emotive subject.

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    • I kind of avoided the Titanic anniversary partly because most of what I was seeing was oriented towards Hollywood’s version of it, but visiting Belfast definitely ignited my interest and made it much more human and related to the people I met there. Sometimes we need a greater connection in order to generate a genuine interest I believe.

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      • Never a truer point made. The Hollywood film(s) were so erroneous it was just depressing. Now i have got my passport renewed I may do something like this myself to better my reviews of historical books.

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