The First & Last Voyage of RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton on the 10th of April 1912. On the 15th of April 1012, she hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sunk.
Of the 2,224 passengers and crew, only 710 survived. It remains one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
On board were some of the wealthiest people in the world, and some of the poorest, emigrating to a new life in North America. The passengers travelled in three classes, with those in first class experiencing levels of luxury that had hitherto seldom been seen aboard a cruise ship.
The largest ship afloat at the time, the Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, operated by White Star Line and famously touted as virtually unsinkable. With advanced safety features such as watertight compartments and remotely activated watertight doors, it was thought that a breach to the hull would flood only a single compartment, at worst, which the ship could certainly survive.
It was not the design of the ship alone that lead to the disaster. Message after message from other ships warned of heavy ice in the vicinity, reporting that they had either reduced speed drastically or heaved-to for the night. Between the 11th and the 14th, the Titanic received over 20 such warnings. Although these were all duly logged by the radio operators and passed on to the bridge officers, no order was given to slow down, even as the Titanic entered the region of hazard, and she steamed on at full speed.
Shortly before midnight, the lookouts spotted an iceberg directly ahead. The bridge officer on duty immediately ordered the engines stopped, the wheel turned hard to one side, and the watertight doors below decks to be closed. Though the ship started to turn, it was too little too late, and the huge ice berg scraped down the starboard side of the ship.
The nature of the collision caused hull plates to buckle in multiple locations and opened five out of the ship’s sixteen watertight compartments to the sea.
It took two and a half hours for the ship to sink.
Maritime safety regulations were hopelessly out of date in an era when the size of steamships had increased so much and so quickly. They stipulated that all British vessels over 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats (with exact size also specified). The original plans for the ship included 64 lifeboats, but it was decided that these would not only increase costs unnecessarily, they would also clutter the decks to the detriment of the passenger experience. The Titanic was over 46,000 tons, and in the end, sailed with just 20 lifeboats on board. If each were loaded to full capacity, this would be enough for only 1,178 people, a third of her maximum capacity of passengers and crew. In addition, the ship carried two small cutters, with a capacity of 40 people each, intended to allow for a quick response to man overboard emergencies.
The shortage of lifeboats was compounded by a lack of officer training – the officers didn’t know how many passengers each lifeboat could safely carry – and most were launched barely half full. The crew followed a ‘women and children first’ policy, prioritising those from first and second classes and indeed the 1,514 casualties were predominantly third class passengers, crew and male first and second class passengers.
Those who didn’t make it aboard a lifeboat or cutter drowned on board or died within minutes from hypothermia in the freezing waters.
The 710 survivors were taken aboard from the lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia a few hours later.
The Human Story of the Sinking of the Titanic
Of course, the other side of the story is the human one, and tales of heroic or romantic behaviour from crew and passengers alike have long been part of the lore surrounding this tragic event.
Some stories are well known and have been represented by semi-fictional accounts in print, on stage and in film. Others are known less widely.
Margaret “Molly” Brown was a well known American socialite, philanthropist and activist. She helped establish the Colorado chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, was a charter member of The Denver Woman’s Club, an organisation dedicated to helping other women through education and philanthropy and campaigned to help destitute children and establish the United States first Juvenile Court. On a tour of Europe, she learned that her eldest grandson was ill and booked first class passage back to the USA on the first ship available, the Titanic. After the collision, she helped many others to board life boats before being bodily forced into one herself. Once in the water, she ensured that crew and women worked together to row and keep spirits raised. When the Titanic finally went down, Brown and one or two others called for the boat to return towards the ship, in an attempt to take on additional survivors. They were overruled by the others in the boat, who were fearful that the boat would be overwhelmed and capsized by the sheer number of passengers in the water. They stayed away, but like the passengers in other boats, they recounted afterwards the harrowing experience of hearing the screams, for almost an hour after the ship went under. On being rescued by the Carpathia, Brown threw her energy into assisting with the care of other survivors and immediately set to work establishing a charitable fund and practical assistance for those who had lost everything they owned in the disaster. Dismissive of the heroine status accorded to her by the media, nonetheless she became one of the most well known survivors of the disaster. Her fame helped her continue to fight for the causes she felt deeply about, from the rights of workers and women, to education and literacy for children to historic preservation.
Probably the story that wrenches most strongly at my heart is that of Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of the famous Macy’s department store. At the time of the sinking, the couple had been married for 41 years and had raised six children. They were almost inseparable, and on the rare occasions when they were apart, they wrote to each other every day. During the sinking, officers pleaded with Ida to board one of the lifeboats, but she refused to leave her husband, ensuring that her maid took a place, as well as Ida’s fur coat, before returning to her husband’s side. She is said to have told him simply, “Where you go, I go”. A Bronx cemetery monument to the couple carries the inscription, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
Michel and Edmond Navratil were just 3 and 2 years old, respectively, when their father Michel kidnapped them from his estranged wife Marcelle. On Easter Sunday, on the 7th April, a day he had been accorded to spend with the children, he collected the boys from his mother-in-law, took them to England (from France) and boarded the Titanic under an assumed name. Other passengers reported that Navratil kept himself and the boys isolated during the journey, and rarely let them out of his sight. But after the collision, Navratil knew he must rely on others to save his children, and kissed his sons goodbye, before handing each one into the arms of passengers aboard collapsible lifeboat D. Navratil perished with the ship, but his sons were duly rescued by the Carpathia. Unable to speak any English, and thereby give any clue to their real names, the boys were dubbed the “orphans of the Titanic”, and temporarily taken into care by a first class survivor, Margaret Hays. Initially, the search for relatives centred on the name Hoffman, under which Navratil had booked tickets. Luckily, Marcelle, still in France, read the story of the orphans, and recalled that her husband had a friend by the name of Hoffman. She sent descriptions and pictures which quickly established hers, Michel’s and the children’s identities and White Star Line gave her a ticket on the Oceanic to New York, where she was reunited with the boys, before their return back to France soon after.
Hudson and Bess Allison were successful and hard working young couple who met, fell in love and married against the wishes of Bess’ parents. They had two children, Lorraine and Trevor and owned homes in Montreal, London and Chesterville, Ontario. They were returning home from a European holiday and business trip, and had their children and nannies with them. On the night of the sinking, Trevor’s nanny became aware of the danger, and took it upon herself to evacuate him to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, she was not able to find Hudson and Bess, and they frantically searched the ship, for their son. When crew tried to persuade their daughter Lorraine to get into a lifeboat, her parents refused, wanting to keep the family together. In panic, they waited and waited, until it was too late. Only Trevor and his nanny survived the night. Lorraine was the only first class child to perish in the sinking.
Edvard and Gerda Lindell were third class passengers from Sweden. During the sinking, the couple jumped from the ship into the waters and managed to get to lifeboat A. Edvard managed to clamber aboard, but Gerda could not. Another Swede aboard the boat, August Wennerström, held her hand over the side. The boat was partially filled with cold sea water and those aboard were quickly exhausted by hypothermia. Eventually Gerda slipped from Wennerström’s grip and was lost to sea. Edvard died on board. A month later, a drifting lifeboat was discovered by one of the teams recovering bodies. Within it they discovered a gold wedding ring, later identified as Gerda Lindell’s. It had likely slipped off her hand into the boat, as Wennerström struggled to hold her hand.
The Plucky Little Countess, Lady Rothes
Born on December 25th 1878, Lucy Noel Martha Rothes nee Dyer-Edwardes, was known by her family as Noelle. Refusing all suitors, in her first year after coming of age, she eventually fell for and married Norman-Evelyn Leslie, the 19th Earl of Rothes.
Following their marriage in 1900 the couple settled in Paignton, Devonshire. They were very active on the London social scene, and were presented at the Royal Court where Noelle was received by the Princess of Wales. Indeed, both were later invited to participate in the coronation of Edward VII in 1909.
Their first child, Malcolm, was born in 1902 and their second, John, in 1909. Having her own children inspired Noelle to help those of others, and she became active in charitable works to help poor and sick children, and their families.
In 1904, Norman inherited the Fifeshire estate in Scotland, and they moved into Leslie House, where they quickly became well respected by the local community. As well as her fundraising and philanthropic activities, Noelle was also politically active, a chairman of local Women’s Unionist Associations.
The couple’s pursuits were widely followed by the media, who reported on their horse riding, shooting, cricketing and boating pastimes, though the Rothes didn’t care for the attention they attracted. They had their critics – some members of the rather jaded and amoral Edwardian aristocracy derided them for their affectionate domestic lifestyle and they were described by one journalist as “a most unfashionably devoted couple.” But they remained more popular than not.
In February 1912, Norman left on a business trip to America, on a mission to learn from the privately operated U.S. telegraph service, in comparison to the state-run British system. So enjoyable did he find his tour of the States and Canada, Norman invited Noelle to travel out and join him in California, so that they might celebrate their 12th anniversary together.
Noelle invited one of her closest friends, Norman’s cousin Gladys Cherry, to join her for the voyage, which was booked on the Titanic. Gladys planned to visit her brother Charles, who was living in New York. To journalists before the trip, she said that she and Norman were planning to buy an American orange grove, and would be returning home in July, to take their children over. She was “full of joyful expectation” about the crossing.
Noelle and Gladys took full advantage of the ship’s facilities, and enjoyed socialising with other first class passengers, amongst whom they made many friends. The evening of the sinking, the ladies attended a gala dinner in honour of the captain, Noelle dressed in designer gown and jewels, including a new necklace made from 300-year-old Leslie heirloom pearls.
Shortly after 10 p.m. they retired to their cabin, awakened less than two hours later by the collision. Initially, the women put on their dressing gowns and fur coats, and went up on deck to find out more. Assured that the collision was nothing serious, the atmosphere on deck was calm, with passengers excited about the adventure. However, a short while later, Captain Smith came to the group and asked if they would go quietly to their cabins to retrieve and put on their lifebelts, and then go up to the top deck.
Back in their cabin, the ladies found Cissy, Noelle’s maid who had come up from her E deck cabin to theirs on the C deck. She reported that water was pouring in to the raquet court. A passing steward helped them locate their lifebelts, and advised them to dress warmly. They donned their warmest woollen suits and heaviest furs. Leaving purses and money behind, Noelle grabbed only a hip flask of brandy and the string of Leslie pearls, and all three women headed out onto deck. Noelle recalled that crowds on deck were increasing, and people were milling about wondering what to do. No orders had been given to abandon ship, but passengers were still secure in the ship’s unsinkable strength, so there was not yet any atmosphere of panic.
However, as the ship began to tilt, people began to grow uneasy. Finally, second officer Lightoller gave the command for women and children to board the lifeboats. As has famously been reported, the ship band set up instruments on the deck and began to play. Noelle, Gladys and Cissy boarded lifeboat 8.
There were no officers aboard the boat, and just 4 members of crew including bedroom steward Alfred Crawford and able seaman Thomas Jones. Captain Smith gave both Crawford and Jones clear instructions to make for what appeared to be two masthead lights in the distance, pointing to the ship lights that could be seen from the deck. Assuming, from the clarity of the lights, that the other ship must be only a few miles away, he instructed them to deliver the passengers to the rescue ship before returning for more.
The inexperience of the crewmen showed and squabbling threatened to scupper their efforts to head for the distant ship lights. However, Tom Jones and Noelle quickly developed a strong mutual respect, and Noelle took over the tiller. Retaining her composure, she offered comfort and encouragement to fellow passengers and was later heralded as a heroine and reported to be the cohesive force that kept all aboard focused and in good spirits during the next several hours. Many of the women took their turns at rowing. Gladys took over the tiller, which she manned for more than half of the time spent in the boat.
As they continued to row it seemed that the distant ship lights never grew any closer.
At 2.20 am the ship broke and sank with a roar, which was followed by the shrieks of drowning passengers. Jones insisted they turn back to try and save some, supported by Noelle, Gladys and one or two other passengers. The majority strongly protested, arguing that it would be wrong to risk their lives on the bare chance of finding anyone alive, and also citing the Captain’s orders to head for the ship lights. Jones lamented, “if any of us are saved, remember I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them than leave them” but accepted the decision of the majority in the boat.
Some hours later, still rowing for the original lights, a new light was spotted in the opposite direction. Lifeboat 8 turned about and headed to the ship they could now see heading full steam in their direction. Having travelled the farthest distance from the spot of the sinking, they had the farthest to travel back but their spirits were raised by the stronger hope of rescue, and they sang as they rowed towards what they eventually discovered to be the RMS Carpathia.
After five hours in the lifeboat, they were eventually taken on board the Carpathia, at which point Noelle fainted, probably from strain and exhaustion, and was taken to the ship’s hospital to recuperate. However, on her recovery, she and Gladys immediately busied themselves with visiting the makeshift hospitals on board, providing what comfort they could to survivors from all classes.
Noelle was a nurse, and was able to assist in bandaging and medicating patients. They also joined a crewman in rounding up spare blankets and linen from which they cut and sewed garments for second class and steerage survivors, some of whom had no clothes at all.
Already, on the journey to New York, Noelle learned of her new nickname, “the plucky little countess” though she dismissed it instantly, insisting that Tom Jones had been the real hero and that the survival of their boat had been very much a team effort.
Just like her more famous fellow survivor, Margaret “Molly” Brown, Noelle did her utmost to ensure that destitute survivors would be taken care of, before disembarking herself and being met by an anxious Norman.
Although Noelle never courted the media, focusing on her husband, family and charitable interests, the papers continued to write about her, fuelled by the reports given by fellow survivors from lifeboat 8 and the Carpathia. When one headline labelled her as brave for taking charge of her boat, she was upset that it overstated her role and overlooked the contributions of Gladys, Jones and others. Though she did try and set the record straight, she soon realised that she could not control what was written.
The moniker given her board the Carpathia stuck, taken up as it was by a world looking for positive stories within such an enormous tragedy.
Norman and Noelle decided against buying property in America and returned to Scotland in the late summer. Over following years, as Britain went to war, Noelle resumed her local campaigns and charitable efforts, throwing herself into providing hospital facilities to wounded soldiers and shelter to European refugees, as well as coordinating fundraising efforts. Norman was called up, and went to serve in France. Wounded once, but quickly recovered and sent back into service, he was eventually invalided out of service after losing an eye when hit by shrapnel.
By the end of the war, the Rothes were struggling financially, and made the sad decision to sell the Leslie estate, much to the upset of their tenants and the local community. They moved down to their Buckinghamshire estate, in England and also spent time in their Chelsea, London residence.
In 1926, Noelle lost her father, and then the following year, Norman also passed away. However, she soon accepted the marriage proposal of a long time friend, and they lived a quiet life his country estate in Gloucestershire. As always, Noelle continued to help those in need.
Noelle didn’t talk much about her experiences in 1912, but did maintain a correspondence with Tom Jones, having presented both him and Alfred Crawford with commemorative watches. Jones, returning her affection, presented her with a plaque on which was mounted the numeral 8, which he had saved from their lifeboat.
Not long before her death, she agreed to share her memories with a young American journalist, Walter Lord, but never lived to see his resulting book, A Night to Remember. It proved to have a big influence on the understanding and perception of the disaster in the decades to follow.
Noelle died in her sleep on September 12, 1956.
Rediscovering the Titanic
Since the wreck was found on the seabed, back in 1985, even more has been learned about the furniture, supplies, passenger luggage and cargo lost when the ship sank.
During a recent visit to Berry Bros & Rudd we (carefully) flicked through an old ledger, covering transactions from March 1912, and saw the entries for orders to be delivered by the Titanic… 2 cases of original yellow Chartreuse, 2 of very fine sherry, 1 of Manzanilla sherry, 18 of dry champagne, 3 of “dry dry” gin and 3 of 10 year old Scotch whisky were loaded as cargo, for delivery to a variety of US-based customers.
On the wall in the Berry Bros & Rudd shop is the insurance advisement letter from White Star Line. It reads, “Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot, Yours faithfully, for White Star Line”.
To commemorate the centennial of the disaster, Berry Bros & Rudd decided to create a limited edition Scotch whisky. With scant information about the style of the whisky they had delivered to the ship, they decided to honour the “plucky little countess” Lady Rothes, with a Glenrothes, Speyside whisky. (BBR own the Glenrothes whisky brand, though not the distillery itself).
Called Titanic, their commemorative bottling was distilled in 1998, aged in sherry casks and bottled this year.
BBR’s Spirits Manager, Douglas McIvor, took us through a tasting of the whisky, sharing his own tasting notes and encouraging us to add our own.
Pete Drinks and Kavey Eats attending the tasting as guests of Berry Bros & Rudd.