Just after 11.40pm on 14 April 1912, the dress designer Lucy Duff Gordon, a first-class passenger on board the RMS Titanic heard a strange sound from deep in the bowels of the ship, far beneath the pair of expensive staterooms on a Deck that she shared with her husband and business partner, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. “It was as though a giant hand was rolling iron balls,” she recalled later. the noise was variously heard by others as a “roar of thunder” or likened to Titanic sliding over “a thousand marbles” or the ship “running up on gravel … a crushing noise”. in fact, it was the sound of the steel plates on the liner’s starboard side being staved in by the jagged edge of an iceberg, detached from the ice fields of the far north by the unusually warm winter. the freezing Atlantic water gushed into her lower decks with terrifying force and speed.
A century on, we remember the night of the sinking of Titanic not just because, with more than 1,500 dead, it remains one of the worst maritime disasters of all time, but because in hindsight it appears to be the end of Edwardian hubris, a punishment carried out by a vengeful Neptune. The catastrophe was nature’s contemptuous response to the glittering palace of luxury kitsch, complete with the latest wireless technology gizmos (which still failed to save the ship) sailing across the flat calm ocean on Titanic’s maiden voyage. Coming just one month after Captain Scott’s expedition had perished in the wastes of Antarctica, the sinking of the world’s largest ship dealt a blow to the sense of superiority that had created the “unsinkable” liner in the first place. Two years before the guns of August 1914, Britain’s century of unchallenged global hegemony ended not in fire, but in ice.
A fleet of books have been launched to commemorate the centenary of the sinking, with about 20 new titles competing for attention. Of these, the most moving, original and deeply researched is Titanic Lives by the industrious historian Richard Davenport-Hines. he covers the brief life of the enormous liner, from its conception in the ambitious mind of J Bruce Ismay, boss of the White Star Line, to the the construction in Belfast’s giant Harland and Wolff shipyard, to the fateful departure on its first – and final – transatlantic voyage. Davenport-Hines’s focus, however, is on those who sailed on the doomed ship, and he welds the stories of these lives into a study that is at once a portrayal of the sharp social divisions in pre-first world war society and a tragedy worthy of a great novel.
The iceberg that ripped Titanic open like a tin-opener also exposed the social strata of Edwardian England travelling aboard her. the passengers ranged from the Astors, the Ismays, the Duff Gordons and the Guggenheims in their gorgeously appointed staterooms on the upper decks, to the poor, the tubercular and the merely desperate crammed into the sweatbox cabins in the ship’s guts. Many of these people really were the “tired, poor, huddled masses … yearning to breathe free” referred to on the inscription beneath the Statue of Liberty that they hoped to see in a few days, welcoming them into New York’s harbour with the promise of a new world. with great sensitivity, Davenport-Hines dissects the apartheid-like social distinctions on board – with the rich paying 10 times as much as the steerage class for their passage, and the poor forbidden to enter the liner’s lounges and libraries reserved for their betters.
Class divisions along with gender dictated the survival chances of those on board. Davenport-Hines calculates that male steerage passengers were most prone to perish, while ladies travelling first class, along with their maids, were the likeliest to live. he even explains why so many boys and young men died, when telling the “heartbreaking” story of Rhoda Abbott, a seamstress in flight from her abusive husband, who had to watch her two teenage sons drown after they had helped her into a collapsible lifeboat, and then clung to its edge, treading water. “Young men weaken and die quickly in freezing temperatures … because they have a lower percentage of body fat to act as insulation, and perhaps because their over-excitement sends them quicker into shock. First Eugene, then Rossmore slipped away into the water with her watching. Few women can have suffered as she did.”
Although there was some panic as realisation spread that the ship was sinking, the rule that women and children were first into the lifeboats was generally observed. among the upper-crust passengers, Davenport-Hines shows that there were instances of bravery and self-sacrifice, alongside selfishness and cowardice. the richest man on board, John Jacob Astor IV, helped his 19-year-old pregnant wife Madeleine and other women into a lifeboat and calmly watched as it was lowered. he died. His fellow millionaire, Ben Guggenheim, having seen his mistress and her maid into a lifeboat, donned evening dress and sat on deckchairs with his valet, sipping brandy and smoking cigars, waiting to meet his fate to demonstrate “that a Jew could die like a gentleman”. Neither survived. Notoriously, J Bruce Ismay did.
Ismay epitomises the Titanic tragedy. as chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, he conceived the liner and its two sister ships Olympic and Britannic as an answer to his chief British competitor, Cunard, and his German challenger, the Hapag line. Having forced through the Titanic’s building in Belfast (possibly, recent research has revealed, with weak, sub-standard steel), Ismay was on board for what he hoped would be a triumphant maiden voyage. he is reported to have ordered the liner’s skipper, Captain Edward Smith (who went down with his ship), to sail at top speed despite the danger of icebergs, and steal a march on the competition with a record Atlantic crossing time. in the agonising two hours and 40 minutes Titanic took to sink after striking the iceberg, Ismay boarded a half-empty lifeboat and abandoned his ship, even turning his back as it plunged to its doom as he could not bear to see his creation die. Vilified as a coward by a hostile press, and shunned by “society” for his craven conduct, a shamed Ismay resigned and became a recluse, dying in 1937.
Titanic: the Last Night of a Small Town (OUP, £18.99) by social historian John Welshman, emphasises the status of Titanic as a microcosm of the society that made her, by selecting a dozen people from the passenger list, and telling their stories before, during and after the disaster. he selects his subjects with care: they include Archie Gracie, an energetic and wealthy American who stayed on the Titanic until it sank and was pulled down with its undertow. He struggled to the surface and scrambled aboard a lifeboat – only to die of diabetes and the effects of hypothermia eight months after the sinking – but not before he had written one of the first accounts of the tragedy. Harold Bride, another of Welshman’s subjects, was the teenage wireless operator who sent out SOS distress signals until rising water swamped the radio room.
He too survived, as did seven-year-old Eva Hart, whose story is in her memoir, as told to Ron Denney in a Girl Aboard the Titanic (Amberley, £16.99). Hart – who died in 1996 – was emigrating from London to Canada with her parents, and had never seen the sea before boarding the giant liner at Southampton docks. Her mother had a premonition of disaster, and vowed never to sleep on board – so she sat up fully clothed every night and was ready to meet disaster when it struck. Hart’s father, Ben, put them into a lifeboat: the last time she saw him. She sat shivering in the boat with her mother as the liner slid under: “I never closed my eyes. I saw it, I heard it, and nobody could possibly forget it. the worst thing I can remember were the screams.” Amberley, a publisher that is making something of a cottage industry of the Titanic centenary, with 10 titles, also republishes I Survived the Titanic by Lawrence Beesley (£16.99). Beesley, a sports and science teacher at Dulwich College, was on his way to a tennis tournament in the US. His physical fitness – he was photographed on an exercise bike in one of Titanic’s gyms – might have helped ensure his survival in an open lifeboat, and he wrote this vivid account of the sinking within weeks of the tragedy.
In Titanic Tragedy (WW Norton, £16.99) John Maxtone-Graham, an authority on ocean-going liners, broadens the scope from the sinking itself to examine wider issues: why didn’t the new-fangled wireless technology save more lives? was Titanic as sound as her splendid, shimmering exterior suggested? Why did the only rescue ship – the SS Carpathia – take until dawn to reach the scene? Why – a question asked with more force by Hart who lost her father because of it – were there only enough lifeboats to save a third of those on board? and why were those boats all on the first-class deck and therefore out of bounds to the lower orders? (Beesley saw two second-class female passengers turned away.) in Titanic on Trial (Bloomsbury, £8.99) Nic Compton, another maritime historian, asks the same questions – and seeks the answers amid the 2,500 pages of transcripts from the two inquiries into the disaster on either side of the Atlantic. This raw, often unguarded testimony, gives an insight into the desperation of drowning people. as Titanic officer Harold Lowe bluntly admitted: “I did not return [to the scene of the sinking] immediately. I had to wait until the yells and shrieks had subsided, because it would have been suicide to go back there until the people had thinned out … a drowning man clings at anything.”
After 100 years, and with all the 20th century’s horrors, Titanic’s last night is still terrifying. the calm water, the starry, frost-clear night, the half-empty lifeboats, the struggling, screaming swimmers and the lost liner looming over all as her stern reared up, ready to be pulled down by the weight of the water filling her. Lady Duff Gordon, safe with her husband and secretary in Lifeboat No 1, saw and heard it all: “I could see her dark hull, towering like a giant hotel, with light streaming from every cabin porthole. as I looked, one row of these shining windows was suddenly extinguished. I guessed the reason and turned shudderingly away. When I forced myself to look again, another row had disappeared. Then my husband cried ‘My God! She is going now!'”
• Nigel Jones’s Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London is published by Hutchinson.