Titanic: re-telling the story


This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which collided with an iceberg on the 15th of April 1912. Out of the 2,224 passengers and crew on board, 1,502 died as a result of the collision. At the time of her maiden voyage, the Titanic was the largest ship in the world and widely believed to be unsinkable. The many books, survivors and the two blockbuster films based on the story, are testament to the enduring fascination of the Titanic. In his book, Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town, social historian John Welshman explores the stories of twelve passengers and crew; their back stories and their accounts of the events on that fateful night.

In this interview, he explains the process of putting together a different kind of narrative for a familiar story.

This extract describes the start of the voyage, with the Titanic just reaching Queenstown, on the Irish coast.

“The coast of Ireland looked beautiful as the Titanic approached Queenstown Harbour, the brilliant morning sun showing up the green hillsides and picking out the groups of houses dotted around here and there above the rugged grey cliffs that fringed the coast. The ship took the Pilot on board, ran slowly towards the harbour with the sounding-line dropping all the time, and came to a stop well out to sea, with the propellers churning up the bottom and turning the sea brown with sand. It seemed to schoolteacher Lawrence Beesley as if the ship had stopped rather suddenly, that perhaps the harbour entrance was too shallow. Passengers and mail were put on board for the tenders America and Ireland, and nothing gave a better sense of the enormous length and bulk of the Titanic than to stand as far astern as possible and look over the side from the top deck, forwards and downwards, to where the tenders rolled at her bow, tiny beside the majestic vessel that rose deck after deck above them. There was something very graceful in the movement of the Titanic as she rode up and down on the slight swell in the harbour, a slow, stately dip and recover, only noticeable by watching her bow in comparison with some landmark on the nearby coast. The two little tenders tossing up and down like corks beside her illustrated vividly the advances that had been made in comfort aboard the modern liner.”

Matthew Flatman: John, your book is based upon twelve individual’s accounts. Why did you decide to focus on these twelve specifically?

John Welshman: I was trying, as far as possible, to give the reader a kind of cross-section of people who were on the ship, both passengers and crew. There were roughly 2,200 people on the Titanic and if we think about what made up that number, about a third are crew. The crew was actually surprisingly big, there were over 800 crew members, and over 300 stewards, for example. Then another third are the first and second class passengers and another third are those in third class. What I tried to do, as far as possible was to preserve those proportions with my twelve. So I ended up with two people in first class, three people in second class, another three in third class, and four people who could be regarded as crew members, three of whom were on the Titanic and one other, the captain of the Carpathia rescue ship.

Following on from that, I had certain criteria in mind when I was choosing my twelve, which was partly an attempt to correct what I saw as an imbalance in previous accounts. A lot of the previous accounts had focussed on people in first class, but while I was interested in people in first class, I was equally or more interested in those in second and third class. A lot of the previous accounts had focussed men, and I was equally interested in the experiences of women. So I think I’ve been completely fair in my twelve. I’ve got six males, six females.

MF: How many survivor’s accounts actually exist?

JW: One of the things which I think is quite surprising is that there aren’t as many survivors’ accounts as you might suspect, if we think there were 711 survivors. I had a pretty thorough search of those written in English and I felt that there probably only about thirty or thirty-five accounts that were long enough for my purposes. There were a lot of shorter accounts written for newspapers and so on. But in order to weave the accounts into my narrative, they needed to be reasonably lengthy. So it wasn’t actually that difficult to choose my twelve and since writing the book I haven’t come across any others that I wish I could have included.

MF: Why were these accounts written in the first place?

JW: I found it quite helpful to think of the twelve stories as falling into three categories. There are the accounts that are written pretty close to 1912. The accounts of second class passenger Lawrence Beesley and first class passenger Archibald Gracie, for example, were published around 1912, 1913. Then the second category includes those accounts that were written up and published as memoirs in the 1930s, such as the accounts of Second Officer Herbert Lightoller and Captain Rostron. And then the third category accounts were written much more recently, often with the help of friends or relatives. Perhaps someone’s son writing about their mother’s experiences or in one case a grandchild writing about their grandmother’s experiences.  So they fall into these three different time periods and each of these pose a slightly different historical problem, but they are also clearly written for a range of purposes. Sometimes this purpose was just to record someone’s experiences, sometimes to try to apportion blame or explain what caused the disaster. There some accounts that seek to defend someone’s actions, like in the case of Second Officer Lightoller, answering certain questions: why did he behave the way he did? Why did he send lifeboats away only half full? So these range of motivations shape the account and perhaps explain why it was published at all.

MF: Were there any inconsistencies in the original accounts and do you trust their reliability?

JW: I certainly tried to correct factual errors and I tried to resolve contradictions between the accounts where that was possible. But in the end, I left it for the reader to make up his or her own mind. I think Clive James’ autobiography was called ‘Unreliable memoirs’ and I like the idea that we’ve got these accounts and we can try to make them as reliable as possible. But in the end the book is almost like a mosaic of overlapping accounts and the reader just has to use their own judgement as to which ones they trust and which they don’t.

MF: Did you attempt to adopt the individual’s language to try to convey their characters?

JW: I suppose my starting point was to try to remain as true as possible to the original accounts. I think one of the reviews described it as a multi-voiced narrative and I quite like that description.  It’s interesting reading reviews because often you feel like the person hasn’t really got the point of what you were trying to do. But I felt like in this case, the reviewer really did understand what I was aiming for.

I was trying to preserve the person’s voice as much as possible, but of course, in the process of weaving them into a narrative, I had to impose some consistency onto the accounts in order to make it readable. And there were some accounts where I found this process very difficult. I think the best example of this is the account of Archibald Gracie, which was written in a manner which was probably quite dated for the time it was published in 1913. If he was referring to a female passenger, he would always use the form of writing her husband’s first name. So he would refer to Sarah Smith as ‘Mrs Henry Smith’ and I found myself changing those sorts of things. He would also use language which would be regarded as politically incorrect today, so we would occasionally refer to passengers from Southern Europe as ‘daegoes’ or he’d say that they haven’t got our Anglo-Saxon sense of bravery or chivalry. In fact, his account is infused with a sort of chivalrous approach to unaccompanied, female passengers. He was always saying that he was going to offer them his protection and so on. So the Archibald Gracie account was the one that I found most difficult and I really worked quite hard on it, on the one hand to preserve his voice, and on the other to make it consistent with the other accounts and altogether more modern.

MF: Do you feel like you used any authorial licence in the writing of this book, to fill in gaps in the narrative, for example?

JW: I think I found that there weren’t too many gaps because you usually get one of the twelve describing a certain event, some of the accounts were quite useful in filling gaps. For example, there’s a very good account from second class passenger Lawrence Beesley of the Titanic arriving and leaving Queenstown, Ireland, which no one else really describes. One of the things I did find very challenging was to construct a narrative for myself, particularly when things got very exciting. I had to mark out when things happened: when the ship hit the iceberg, when they launched the lifeboats, when did they finish launching the lifeboats, when were the stress rockets fired off, when did the ship finally sink. So I’d constructed this chronology for myself and it was quite a difficult to relate my twelve accounts to that, because I felt like I was juggling these twelve stories.

MF: Why do you think people still care about the Titanic? Is there anything interesting left to say about it?

JW: I suppose as a social historian, the thing that really fascinates me about the Titanic, is the idea of all these people with their individual histories being brought together on this one ship. Before I’d started working on the book, I’d never heard of the Encyclopedia Titanica website but once I did, I found it absolutely fascinating. There is a page there for every single crew member or passenger. Of course, the amount of information on it varies quite a lot. In some cases, it’s the pages for the third class passengers which are the most poignant because sometimes you’ll just have someone’s name, age, occupation and the price of their ticket. The thing that still fascinates me is the idea of one voyage, but 2,200 people’s stories. I never really got tired of following that up; there were always new stories to discover.

I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the Titanic: why didn’t they see the iceberg? Why was the ship going so fast? Why were the lifeboats sent away only half full? Why did the Californian not answer the Titanic’s distress calls? But I thought a lot of those issues, especially the story of the Californian, had been explored quite fully in other books. It seemed to me that with regard to these issues, no matter how research I did, I was unlikely to come up with anything new. Whereas with this book, I hoped that by adopting a necessarily restrictive approach in focussing on my twelve accounts, I could get into their experiences in more detail.

MF: To what extent do you think life on the Titanic was representative of life during that era?

JW: That’s an interesting issue. One of the things I was struck by around the time the book was published, was the Julian Fellows’ series about the Titanic, which was shown on ITV. There was a huge build up for it and I followed it quite closely but thought that the four programmes were quite disappointing really. One of the things Julian Fellows tried to do, which I don’t think worked, was to suggest that the Titanic was a kind of Downton Abbey. Actually, when you look at the passengers of the Titanic, there were very few English aristocrats. There were one or two but not many and actually the majority of those in first class were American and Canadian millionaires, whose money had come from commerce, rather than inherited land. So I think there are a lot of myths about the Titanic, particularly the first class. But I think, especially in the second and third class passengers, the human detail of the stories does offer you a fascinating insight into a range of issues that interest me as a social historian, things like poverty, wealth, migration, social class, language, nationality, technology. The whole issue of work, I found quite fascinating, particularly the stories of the junior crew members. One of the people I chose was Harold Bride, the assistant wireless operator, and it was very interesting learning about the developments of early radio, Marconi and so on. One of the other junior crew members was Violet Jessop who was a steward for first class. I think that account provides a fascinating insight into the work of a steward. What comes through from her memoir is a real sense of the exploitation that she felt. In fact, when she wrote up her memoir in the 1930s, she actually used a lot of pseudonyms. She refers to some people who we know to be real characters, like Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, but she describes a lot of passengers whose names aren’t present in the Titanic passenger list. I think the reason she did this was she was still employed as a stewardess at the time of publishing but she still wanted to convey a sense of exploitation at the hands of rude first class passengers.

MF: You set out to convey the story from the perspective of third class passengers, and especially immigrants. This was the start of the age of migration, so what do you think the story of the Titanic can tell us about the period?

JW: Well migration had been going on for a much longer period, but it had certainly accelerated from the early 1900s. One of the interesting things is that it was really migration that funded these liners. They were only feasible because of the large number of migrants that they carried in third class. I found it quite interesting to reflect on my twelve characters, because five of them were migrating in one way or another. One of the things that came through from that was just how diverse people’s experiences were. Some of the people had already been to America and were returning, as in the case of my Finnish couple. They had both previously worked in the States, gone back home to Helsinki, got married and then were returning to the United States on the Titanic. Other people were planning to start a new life in America and had never been there before. The survivors were left with a dilemma because typically the mother and children survived and the husband and father didn’t. I found it quite interesting to see how people responded to that. In some cases, people carried on their journey to America. The Goldsmith family, for example, carried on their journey, so Frank Goldsmith, whose father had drowned, grew up in Detroit. After Thomas Hart and Benjamin Brown drowned, their families stayed in New York and Seattle respectively only for a few days before returning home. These stories just brought out for me how diverse people’s experiences were really, the questions of whether they’d been to America before, whether they carried on with their original plan or whether they returned home, their motivations for going and what they were able to take with them.

MF: The book’s subtitle is ‘The Last Night of a Small Town’. Could you explain the ‘Small Town’ metaphor?

JW: As many people know, probably the most famous book about the Titanic still is Walter Lord’s book, ‘A Night to Remember’, which was published in 1955. This phrase, ‘the last night of a small town’ is used by Walter Lord, although it’s not very prominent in the book. It’s actually at the back of the book in the acknowledgements, where he writes something like, ‘the Titanic was the last night of a small town, it was that big’. Writing Lord’s book had required the help of quite a lot of people. This phrase appealed to me and I was very clear from early on that I wanted it to be the subtitle of the book. This metaphor really struck a chord with me: the sense that everyone was on the ship whether they were male or female, adults or children, rich or poor, or from any of twenty different countries.

 “What impressed Archibald Gracie was a thin light-grey smoky vapour that hung like a pall a few feet above the broad expanse of the sea that was covered with a mass if tangled wreckage. It may have been caused by smoke or steam rising to the surface around the area where the ship had sunk. At any rate it produced a supernatural effect. Added to this there rose to the sky agonizing death cries, the wails and groans of the suffering, the shrieks of the terror-stricken, and the awful grasping for breath of those in the last throes of drowning. ‘Help! Help! Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!’ and ’My God! My God!’ were the heart-rending cries and shrieks of men, which floated continuously for the next hour to Gracie and the others over the surface of the dark waters. As time went on, they grew weaker and weaker until they died out entirely.”