12th July 1998
By Noel Crusz in London
Violet Jessop, a stewardess of the ill-fated liner Titanic was one of the seventeen stewardesses who were saved when the Titanic sank on April 15th 1912 after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York. Violet visited Colombo on her way to Australia on a P&O boat Malwa on Feb. 2nd 1913. She stayed at the Galle Face Hotel and has left an account of her visit, which included a trip to Cinnamon Gardens, and her views on Ceylon tea.
I am here in London researching The Cocos Island Mutiny and visiting the documents section of the Imperial War Museum and the Public Records Office. But being a Titanic buff, I cannot resist the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the first memorial to the Titanic disaster was launched on 15th April 1995. I stood by the stone laid by Edith Harsman who was 15 when she was on the Titanic.
Violet Jessop was born in Argentina of Irish migrants from Dublin, the eldest of six children.
In the book Titanic Survivor her memories at sea are carefully recorded. Author John Maxton-Graham took material from Violet's four 'Seaman's discharge books': which were blue-bound volumes of passport size.
Violet shared her cabin with Ann Turnbull another Stewardess and was about to recite a prayer that an Irish woman had given her, when she heard the crash, as the Titanic hit the iceberg. The engines soon went silent.
A steward rushed in saying "The ship is sinking!" She hurried to help passengers wear life- belts, before finding a warm coat for herself.
'Life-boat 16' was launched after steerage third class passengers, nearly 25 of them were guided to the upper deck. It was a myth that these third class passengers were prevented by gates from reaching the upper-decks.
In her lifeboat there were 56 passengers, which included the three male crew, and three stewardesses. There were no first class passengers. This life boat soon found 'boat 6' and remained together till day break, when the Carpathia found them.
Violet Jessop vividly describes the last moments of the Titanic.
There were lights still on. Tightly embracing her was a forgotten baby thrown into her arms just before she entered the lifeboat. She heard a thunderous roar as the Titanic broke into two and sank. Migrant women in the lifeboat were weeping. Violet says 'she stared hard at the sinking liner as if by looking she could keep it afloat.'
Soon the Carpathia, under captain Arthur Rostron was seen. But the stewardesses wrongly accused Capt. Stanley Lord of the Leyland steamer Californian of seeing the Titanic and not coming to her aid. She writes to a friend Mrs. Emery: "The Californian was within sight all the time, and this was the real cause of calmness on the Titanic, as we all expected a ship so near to come to our aid". The Californian was in fact 19 miles away and could not have reached the Titanic, which had only 53 minutes to live. A fortnight after Lord Mersey's British Court inquiry on the loss of the Titanic, Violet was looking for a job. She accepted the fact that ship-stewardesses were poorly paid, and depended for tips from the generosity of rich passengers.
In February 1913, Violet joined the P&O liner Malwa, an Australian mail steamer, which steamed from Tilbury. The ship called at Colombo. Violet Jessop writes:
"I found contentment when I first walked through the Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo, luxuriating in the tropical scents around me.They lulled me into a perfect restfulness that even aching limbs had not the power to dispel, perfect compensation for the supreme efforts of getting ashore from the throes of a coaling ship." She felt the warm waters of the Indian ocean. She was lucky to escape the thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit of the Atlantic Ocean, which gave passengers only a few minutes to survive in that water.
She made some scathing remarks about Ceylon tea.
"I had always imagined that to take tea in Ceylon would be the acme of tea drinking. I approached my first Colombo cup reverently, but it proved the vilest lukewarm beverage I have ever tasted. I soon forgot it in the spell of the sunset hour: All the colours of the world displayed over the heavens, accentuating those three lonely bending palms of the Galle Face Hotel."
Violet was certainly enthralled with the Galle Face scene. "All the magic of a tropic evening gathered around me as the Indian Ocean breakers thundered in, and the palms nodded and dropped their tall heads understandingly as if the recipients of many confidences over the years."
Meanwhile in London a retired busman Rodger Meachem has signed a deal with Harland and Wolff, the Belfast firm that built the Titanic and still owns the name. Meachem can make millions with a range of clothes featuring Titanic and the White Star Line. On the other hand Hollywood's golden boy Leonardo Dicaprio is getting a bad press for accepting the role of a psychopathic cannibal in a new film; a long way from the nice boy image of the Titanic.
In London I secured Morgan Robertson's book 'The Wreck of the Titan'. It was published in 1898, by a former Merchant Navy officer. He was worried by the disregard of large ships for icebergs. The similarities of the fictional SS Titan are startling. His ship ( 800 feet) of 24 knots with 2200 on board hit an iceberg and sank. So did the Titanic 14 years later! I also secured a copy of a letter from the granddaughter of a spiritualist Mr. Penny, who warned the British Editor W.T. Stead not to board the Titanic. Stead had written a short story in 1886 about a sea collision made worse by life boat shortage, and rescue of survivors of a ship that hit an iceberg. Stead, ignored Penny's warning, and perished in the disaster.
If everything goes well, a $500-million replica of the Titanic will be crossing the Atlantic on the tragedy's 90th anniversary in April, 2002. Fine. But what if, heaven forbid, the ship sinks? Is it worth the effort?
Some people seem happy tempting fate. People like the folks who announced recently that they are working on a sequel to the Titanic.
Not the movie. The ship. A Swiss-U.S. partnership is building a $500-million, full-size replica of the boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the tragedy's 90th anniversary, in April 2002. (The original ship cost $10 million.)
The oil-fuelled steamer is supposed to make a Southampton, England-New York round trip. Ticket prices are to range from $10,000 (Leonardo DiCaprio class) to $100,000 (Kate Winslett). Presumably, there will be enough lifeboats this time around.
Although to hear Walter Navratil, president of the Swiss-based development company, White Star Line Ltd., tell it, it won't matter. "It cannot sink," he told the New York Post. Sounds familiar.
Potential passengers will be glad to know, however, that some just-in-case precautionary measures are being taken. "It will have modern equipment to detect icebergs," Annette Voelcker, spokeswoman for G&E Business Consulting and Trust, the Swiss-based developer and the chief shareholder in the project, told the Post. Good to know. Although, if you think about it, what's the point?
If Navratil is so certain that the ship can't sink, they could save some dough by leaving all the high-tech iceberg detectors out.
Just like Cameron could have saved some money by leaving out an hour of conversation in his movie. Of course, laughably bad dialogue didn't sink the movie. The same can't be said for an iceberg and a ship.
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