RMS Titanic Disaster (1912)

Figure 1.--This iconic photograph is the famous view of a newsboy hawking newspapers repoting on the 'RMS Titanic' tragedy outside the headquarters of the White Star Line Company on Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square in London. It was the day after the tragedy (April 16, 1912). The 20th century began with such great optimism. Science and thechnology yoked to capitalism had fundamentally changed Europe and North America. Large numbers of ordinary people for the first time in history were able to lead comfortabale lives. There seemed to be no limit to how technology could improve daily life. The 'Titanic' disaster was the first great shock of the 20th century. It showed that were limits to technology. It was followed 2-years later by World War I in which the new technologies were turned loose for destructive purposes. The newspaper boy in the photograph is Ned Parfett. He and his brothers joined the army in World War I. Click on the image for information about Ned.

The British luxury passenger liner RMS Titanic was a marvel of engineering to serve the lucrative North Atlantic trade between Europe and America. Titanic was not only the largest oceanliner at the time, but also the most luxurious. Everyone wanted to be on the maiden voyage of the great ship. It was so large that the media proclaimed it to be unsinkable. It was designed to be unsinkable with 16 watertight compartments. It was 269 meters long and 28 meters wide at its widest point. Harland and Wolff built the Titanic. Both rich people and virtuqally pennyless European migrants crossed the Atlantic in these great liners--only in different classes. Titanic departed Southampton bound for New York. The captain and company wanted to set a record crossing time. Thus Titanic slammed into a iceberg at high spped, ripping a gash in her side (April 14, 1912). She sank just before midnight. Tragically only 1,200 lifeboat spaces were available to save the 2,200 passengers and crew members. About 1,500 passengers including ship personnel perished in the frigid water, including both the rich band famous as well as the immigrants in steeerage. The American millionaires Benjamin Guggenheim, Isodor Straus and John Astor were among the men who died. Europe was optimistic at the turn-of-the 20th century. Technnological advances convinced many that nothing was beyond man's abilities. Civilization had reached a new stage in which technology could solve all problems. Wars were seen as a phenomenon of the past. Europe was seen as too economically inter-connected and the weapons too terrible for another major war. The Titanic disaster (1912) was the first shock of the century, highlighting the limits of technology.

North Atlantic Route

The sea lanes between Europe and North America were the most important in the world. The industrialization of the United States had greated an economic giant that had begun to rival Europe which in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of the industrial revolution had become the economic center of the world. In addition to the agricultural, mineral, and industrial products, a lucrative part of the trans-Atlantic trade was the huge number of European emigrants seeking a new future in the United States and Canada. At the time this required an oceanic voyage. Both rich people an European migrants croissed the Atlantic in these greatb liners, only in dfifferent classes.


Several steamship companies competed for this trade which was extremely lucrative. The most important was British and German companies. The British White Star Line was one of the most important. The White Star lines and other companies earned a great deal of their profits from the Third-Class passaengers traveking in steerage. More profits came from the steerage passaengers than the First Class luxury passengers. There is a tendency to depict the various classes as either calous or explotive. In fact the shipping companies were providing low-cost passages to America. Rather than capitalist exploitation of labor, it was capitalism providing workers the mobility to seek out opportunities for a better life. Compare this with the Soviet and Eastern European Iron Curtain designed not only to restrict worker movement but attempt to prevent workers from learing about the affluence of the West.

Royal Mail Ships

Some American readers have asked what the 'RMS' meant. RMS means royal mail ship or sometimes steamer instead of ship. All kinds of vessels were given contractts by the Royal Mail, but fast oceanliners were a favorite when available. On less traveled routes, more humble vessls had to be used. RMS ships have the right to fly the pennant of the Royal Mail when carrying the mail. The RMS ship designation was employed as the Royal Mail was becoming a increasingly respected British instiotution (1840). The Britisjh Empire at the time was expanding and safe reliable mail service was needed to help run the Empire, especially in the days before ocean canles. Cunard won many Royal Mail contracts. Royal Mail Lines and Union-Castle Line also had Royal Mail contracts. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) even won Royal Mail contracts. The CPR's trans-Pacific Royal Mail contract required the construction of a fleet of steamshipsó-the RMS Empress of China, the RMS Empress of India, and the RMS Empress of Britain which began regulsr service to Asia (1891). Ships were theoretically only able to use the RMS designation when carrying the Royal Mail. It was a pretigious desination. The best known RMS vessel was of cpurse the RMS Titanic. All the Royal Mail employees on Titanic were men and they all perished trying to save the mail.

Cunard Lines

One of the most noted steamer lines was Cunard which came to dominate the Atlantic passanger trade. Cunard was founded by Canadian shipping magnate Samuel Cunard with engineer Robert Napier, and businessmen James Donaldson, Sir George Burns, and David MacIver at the very beginning of steam-pwered trans-Atlantic travel (1838). The company was founded as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company's initial success was due to winning the lucrative transatlantic mail shipping contract between Britain and America which is why Cunard ships carried the designation Royal Mail Ship (RMS) The company changed its name to Cunard Steamships Limited. The company's first trans-Atlatic steamer was the paddlewheel SS Unicorn (1840). Regular service began the same year with Britannia, another paddelwheel steamer. Britannia was a pioneer in the trans-Atlantic transportation of passengers. The firt route was from Liverpool to Halifax and then on to Boston, a 14 day run. New York was later added as a major destination port. Cunard dominated the North Atlantic route, but it dud not just carry British passangers. Smaller lines from different European countries, especially Scandinavia brought passangers to Britain for the trans-Atlantic run. For example Norwegians might travel by a Wilson Line steamer from Norway to Hull on England's North Sea coast and then travel by train to Liverpool. Cunard often did not have the largest and fastest liners, but developed a reputation for safty and reliability. Cunard's major competitor was the White Star Line, the operator of the ill-fated Titantic. Cunard evetually acquired the White Star Line. Another competitor was the Canadian Northern Steamships which Cunard also acquired. As the dominant company on the world's most important sea route, Cunard played an important role in the development of the modern international economy. Cunard also played a role in the the wars fought by Britain from the Crimean War to the Falklands War. The German sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania (1915) was one of the primary causes of the United States entering World War I. The Argentine Air Force sank Cunard's Atlantic Conveyor with an Exocet missile (1982). Cunard was adersely affected by the development of fast, low-cost air travel. The assessts were puchased by Carnival.


What few realise is that there was an element of risk in travelling on any ship at the time. Marconi radio operatives and bigger liners were reducing the risk of a ship sinking. The Titanic was one of the sfest ships at the time. Unfortunately newspaper hype gave the ship its unsinkable reputation. It was of course the operation of the ship perhaps more than design flaws that resulted in the disaster. The idea that there should be life boat space for everyone was not then an estanlihed concept. It only came after the Titanic disaster and was not implemented until about 1916. Thomas Andrews, Jr. was managing director and also head of the drafting department of the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff in Belfast where Titanic was built. He did envisage there to be more life boats than the 16 but the board of directors decided not to have more life boat space than what the legislation demanded. He would die on Titamic.

RMS Titanic

The British luxury passenger liner RMS Titanic was a marvel of engineering to serve the lucrative North Atlantic trade between Europe and America. Harland and Wolff built the Titanic. Titanic was not only the largest and fastest ceanliner at the time, but also the most luxurious ocean liner ever built. The accomodations in sterrage where most immigrants traveled were better than the accomodations for better paying passengers on other stramships. Titanic had a capacity of 46,329 GRT. It was 269 meters long and 28 meters wide at its widest point. Titanic to serve on the Atlantic route. White Star advertized Titanic as not only luxurious and fast, but unsinkable. It was widely seen as a technological wonder of the day--emblematic of the optomistic attitude toward technology and progress in the years before World War I. Everyone wanted to be on the maiden voyage of the great ship. It was designed to be insinkable with 16 watertight compartments.

Accomodation Classes

The third class passengers on the Titanic travelled in relative style. It was like travelling second class on other liners. A reader writes, "The issue with the Class division and locked doors preventing assess to each class was as I understand it a requirement of the American immigration authorities.

Other Ships

The North Atlantic route was a busy route, thus sgips rushed to aid the Titamic passengers. The RMS Californian had stopped sailing for the night because of the icebergs. Navigating around the pack ice was hazardous at night. Had it not slowed and been nearby, it might have been anle to responded to the Titanic distress rockets and reached Titanic before it sunk. also ships going to rescue another in distress is the Captain's responsibility. Shipping rules prohibit a captain from putting his own ship in peril. His crew and passengers come first.

Maiden Voyage

Titanic departed Southampton bound for New York. After a stop in Queenstown, Ireland set off for New York. The captain and company wanted to set a record crossing time. The captain hoped to set a speed record for an Atlantic crossing on the maiden voyage and disregarded warnigs of sea ice because he believed that the vessel actually was unsinkable. A reader writes, "It is not quite true that Captain Smith ignored the iceberg warnings. The way to treat danger then was too go at speed and get the danger behind you. All White Star captains held to this philosophy."


Titanic slammed into a iceberg at high speed, ripping a gash in her side at 23:40 (April 14, 1912). It was not immediately apparent how serious the damage was. And some sources maintain that the damage was not as severe as sometimes claimed. A reader writes, "It is doughtful that there was a gash in her side big enough to cause the sinking. Strange things happened on impact. No body was flug to the ground or anything. Thus few passengers realised how serious it was at first. This was unlike a few days before when another ship hit an iceberg at meal times. passengers were flug to the ground, Tables over turned food everywhere. Not so the Titanic. In her dinning room the tables were laid for breakfast the next day. It is now believed that the titanic slid over the iceberg and had her bottom gashed. This was thed damage thast caused her sinking. Technical engineers clainm that the Titanic would have stayed afloat longer if the water tight doors thad been opened so that the spread of water would have kept her up right. This might have kept Titanic afloast long enough for the Carpathia to reach the stricken vessel. Captain Smith realized within minutes realised that his ship was going down. Preparations for the evacuation began about 20 minutes after striking the ice berg. The shortage of lifeboats doomed many passengers. Tragically only 1,200 lifeboat spaces were available to save the 2,200 passengers and crew members. The order 'women and children first' had two interpretations. Women and children boarded first then men afterwards. Thus there would have been men and women in the boats. However Lightoller interpreted this to mean only women and children in the boats. He did not let men in. That caused delay and confusion because many women would not leave without their husbands. In the Allyison case they would not leave because they were looking for their nanny and child. Two third class children escaped by climbing through a window and reaching the boat deck. This was part of the reason that many of the existing life boasts were launched partially full. Titanic lifted its bow, the lights went out, and the great ship sank below the waves at about 2:20 am. The survivirs in the life boats were left in silence and the dark. Three dogs were saved. Two women hid their little dogs inside their coats. A bigger dog was plucked out of the water. Molly Brown took charge of rowing and inspired the women to row. Half empty boats were filled up and then the empty ones went back to pick up survivors from the water. However the coldness added to the death toll.


About 1,500 passengers including the captain and other ship personnel perished in the frigid water. Among those lost were both the rich and famous as well as the immigrants in steeerage. Mmany of the rich and famous as many had booked passage on Titanic as it was such a major event. Included among thise lost were The American millionaires Benjamin Guggenheim, Isodor Straus and John Astor were among the men who died. The strange thing was that few bodies were found afterwards. This had led many experts to speculate that while being led to safety a catastrophy overwhelmed the Third class passengers.


Accounts of the Titanic inevitably turn to responsibility. And almost always the onus is placed on the White Star Line. Usually the charge is made that the Line was attempting to save money [Allen] Or even to improve the aesth etics--how the ship looked. The idea that the Line was attemopting to save money is ludicros. The White Star Line lavished momey in Titanic. The idea that they would have not spent money on a mew more rather inexpendive life boars simply dies not make sense. Of course, Hollywood never misses a good opportunity to blame capitalism for some adverse circumstance or better yet a tragedy. So this is the ract that James Cameron takes in Titanic (1997). An a respected historian, Simon Schama appears to base his pomtificating on the film, "Chillingly, the shortage of lifeboats was die to shioboard aesthetics." [Schama] He seems to see it as a kind of metaphor for 'global capitalism' hitting the Leaman Brioyers icebrg. Because of many of the popular Titanic discusion come from academicians or movie makers with a left wing bent, this is the depiction we constantly get. Schama would no doubt be surprised that his assessment agrees with that of NAZI Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels. Goebbels was a film buff. He and Hitler woukd warch movies together. After the victory in France (1940), Britain refused to ask for terms. So Goebbels wanted to make anti-British propagabda. The result was one of the most costly films mae in NAZI Germany--Titanic. The thenme was that the disaster was the result of the White Srar Line and Buce Ismay in particular. It was meant to be a condemnation of Britain and captalism. (It was bever released in NAZI Germany because when Goebbels saw it, he realized that it was political dinamite. By the time the NAZI 'Titanic' (1943) was finished (and the director dead in a NAZI jail cell), the War had turned against Germany. And the idea of a single-minded strong leader leaing a great ship to disaster was too similar to a strong leader leaduing a great nation to oblivion. The sinking scenes of people floundering in icy seas were too much like civilians in Germany's bombed our cities. (Some of these shots were so good that they were used in 'A night to remember'.) There are extensive records on the building of Titanic and these records make it very clear that the White Star Line's concern wih lifeboats was simply to comply with the Board of Trade requitements--16 lifeboats. A reader writes, "The White Star line was not acting negligently by not providing enough life boats for all its passengers. It was some years ago that I realised the Board of Trade life boat requirement based on tonnage and not passengers meant that few ships had enough life boat places for all." And as with most things Tuitanic, they exceeded the basic requirements, equipping the ship with 20 lifeboats. White Star Line offifials simply assued the Board knew what it ws doing. At the time the requirement was made, ships were smaller. The Board of Trade e=required ships over 10,000 metric tons to have 16 like boats. Titantic was over 46,000 tons. The Board had not updated itsa requirement in 20 years. Ships by the 20th centtury were much safer than earlier. The lifeboats wre primarily used to transfer passengers in case of an emergency. The tianic proved to be adisaster because it sank so quickly. Othewise the lifeboars oukd have been sufficnt to transfer the pssengers ti the several shiops which soon arrived on the scene. This is what happened when the Repunlic sank with very little loss of life (1909). [Berg] Yes despite the clear incomptence of the Board of Trade, fim studios and academics rarely point to government regulatory responsibility.

Ice Bergs

The Titanic situation is often wrongly portrayed. It was not just a stray iceberg that the Titanic found but a whole ice field was in her path. With in days of the Titanic's sinking many ships reached New York to report encounters with icebergs. Several ships arrived damaged from hitting them. There is a report tucked away in the Daily Mail about the ice field.


Even more than the individual victims, the Titanic disaster showed the limits of technology and had a huge impact on public opinion.Europe was optimistic at the turn-of-the 20th century. Technnological advances convinced many that nothing was beyond man's abilities. Civilization had reached a new stage in which technology could solve all problems. Wars were seen as a phenomenon of the past. Europe was seen as too economically inter-connected and the weapons too terrible for another major war. The Titanic disaster (1912) was the first shock of the century, highlighting the limits of technology.

First Class Children

Many children were aboard Titanic. They and the women were given priority access to the lifeboarts, although for various reasons some did not get aboard, primarily because of chaos with loading and launching the boats. . The White Star Line's final passenger list for the Titanic was published on May 12, 1912. In is in the Appendix of Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember. The list showes that Mr and Mrs. Allison perished, along with their baby daughter Lorraine. The Maid, Nurse and Master T. Allison survived. Lord writes, "No amount of persuasion could move Mrs Hudson J Allison of Montreal. A little apart from the rest, she huddled close to Mr. Allison. Their baby Trevor had gone in a boat with the nurse, but Lorraine, their three year old daughter, still tugged at her mother's skirt." [Lord, p. 84.] There was a Carter Family including a Master William Carter and a Miss Lucile listed as a survivours from First Class. Their maid and manservant did not. The children's ages are not stated. There is also a Master Dodge. I believe it is the Allison boy and servants that are portrayed in the film. In the book there is also mention of the family. "There were a few couples too. The Allisons stood smiling on the promenade deck. Mrs. Allison grasping little Lorraine with one hand and her husband with the other." [Lord, p. 104.] A few pages on there is mention of a Ryerson Family. "Then came the Ryerson's turn. Arthur Ryerson noticed his Maid had no lifejacket. He took off his and buckled it to her. When Mrs. Ryerson led her son Jack to the window, Second Officer Lightoller called out, 'That boy can't go.' Mr. Ryerson indignantly stepped forward: 'Of course that boy goes with his mother. He is only thirteen.' So they let him pass, Lightoller grumbling, 'No more boys.' Mr. Ryerson did not survive, but his wife, two daughters, and son did. There is no mention of the maid. The servants were usually listed with the the family as Maid, or Manservant. The Spedden family had a Master R. Douglas and Nurse, suggesting he was a small boy. Several other First Class Families families have 'Misse's (Presumably unmarried daughters), but they well have been teenagers.

Michel and Edmond Narvatic (United States, 1912)

These two children survivied the Titantic disaster in 1912, There seems to be contradictory information about who the children are. The photo has a notation at the top reading "Louis & Lola? Titanic survivors", but the Bain Collection from which the photo comes identifies the children as Louis and Edmond Narvatic as the two children. I tend to trust the Bain designation since both of the children look like boys to me and since the notation on the photo itself has a question mark after the names. It has been suggested that the photo might have been taken on the Carpathia, the ship that rescued some of the Titanic survivors, but the background of the photo showing a playground with a wire fence and wooden wall with some leafless shrubery does not look like the setting one would find on a ship. I think the photo must have been taken on land, possibly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where most of the survivors were taken. There is a famous cemetery in Halifax where a number of Titanic victims were buried.

Douglas Speeden

Douglas Spedden was an American boy who went everywhere with his parents. They were very wealthy and liked going on European tours. They travelled by ship to Europe and then travelled to lots of places by train. Douglas was then a boy of 7 years. On one occasion they travelled to Paris on a night train. Douglas found this exciting and enjoyed travelling in a sleeping compartment where he had a bed and slept throughout the journey. When the holiday was over they caught the Paris to Cherbourg Boat train and boarded a ship and had a tragic voyage back to America--the RMS Titanic. Unfortunately Douglas life was so short. He died aged 9 in a car accident in Maine. The book Polar: the Titanic Bear tells the story of Douglas and his Steiff-Polar teddy bear who took a journey on the Titanic together. Notice the white polar bear with Douglas in the picture. The bear was given him that year by his aunt when he was about to sail to Europe with his parents. Douglas departed America with his parents for Europe in September 1911. The family were in Paris during March 1912 and at the end of their tour they left on the Paris-Cherbourg Boat train. They boarded the Titanic. Four days later the Titanic on its Maiden voyage collided with an iceberg. The Spedden family were fortunate to all be rescued. Two years later while Douglas was playing football he chased after his ball which had gone onto the highway. Douglas did not look as he dashed out into the road. He was hit by a car and killed. He was the first road casualty in Maine! The family never recovered from the tragedy.


The children on the Titanic were not the only ones affected by the sinking. The captain and many of the officers and had families. Many of the ordinary and staff sailors also had families as did the passengers. So we are looking for accounts of their sons and daughters.

Reader Comment

A reader writes, "I know a little more about the nurse who cared for Master T Allison. She and I were pen friends for many years. She never told me much about that night but what a fanstastic woman. All the other children your correspondent mentioned are much older or as in the case of young Spedden an only child. Sadly this boy's life was short lived. Having survived the Titanic, shortly afterwards he was Maine's first traffic accident fatility. He was playing with a ball and it went into the road. He went to get it and was knocked downby a car and died a few days later. At the time, 13 year old boys were considered young men then because many went to work. Lightoller had already been shipwrecked before the Titanic. He was from Chorley and his family had a textile Mill but Lightoller wanted to be a sailor. Captain Smith of the Titanic came from Cheshire but was married at a church near Wigan. The captain of the Carpathia came from Bolton. Captain Lord of the Californian was from Liverpool. I have a booklet based on my own research as to what happened to the Titanic children."


The RMS Titanic is the most famous oceanliner of all time even though it never complete a single voyage. The public was shocked at the suinking of the unsinkavle Titanic. The public was fascinated with the luxurious ocean liner from the time of the launching. And that fascination only grew when news of its sinking broke. That fascination continues to this day. There have been several films made about Titanic. The best known is the the 1997 DiCaprio blockbuster--Titanic. The most accurate and arguavly the best is 'A Night to Remember' based on the Lord book. Various other versions of differing production values have been mad. Costuming in all of these films is an important element.

Maritime Disasters

Titanic is probably the most fanous disraster at sea. It was not, however the greatest loss of life at sea or the most important. The greatest loss of life was the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff sunk in the Baltic. It was a liner the Germans were using to rescue civilans (mostly women and children), NAZI bigwigs, and wounded soldiers trapped in East Prussia from the Red Army (January 1945). A Soviet submarine hitthe ship with three torpedoes in the Baltic Sea while participating in the evacuation of civilians, military personnel, and Nazi officials who were surrounded by the Red Army in East Prussia. The liner sank in less than 45 minutes. An estimated 9,400 people were killed in the disaster, making it the largest known loss of life in recorded maritime history. It is virtully unknown except to World War II buffs, probably becuse there was nota lot of sympathy for the Germans at the time. Not only because of NAZI attrocitites, but because the Germns had been sinking Allies shipping for 5 years. There are severa; other ship losses with thousands of people killed. None of them match the Lusitania disaster when 1,100 people were killed. This is down the list of maritime disasters, but none had the impact of Lusitania. The public was horrified. Sinking Lusitania solidifid in the public mind the brutality of the Germans, along with the invasion anf treatment of the Belgians and the intriduction of poison gas. America almost entered the War at this time. And when America did enter the war, the memory of Lusitania loomed large in the public mind.


Allen, Daniel. Unsinkble

Berg, Chris. "Thec real reason for the tragedy of the Titanic," The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 202), p. A13. >p> Board of Trade. Post-accident inquiry.

Lord, Walter. A Night to Remenber.

sChama, Simon. Newsweek (2012). We do not yet have the precise citation.


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Created: 8:27 AM 12/2/2010
Last updated: 12:51 PM 10/10/2015