The survival rate for Americans on the Titanic was 58 per cent, while for the British it was just 32 per cent. What accounts for the huge discrepancy? Were the Americans just pushier when it came to getting a place on a lifeboat? Or was it all tied up with attitudes to class?
The ship’s first-class accommodation was predominantly occupied by wealthy Americans on their way home from a trip to Europe. Some had been on business, but for the rest it was an über-glamorous luxury holiday. Second-class, on the other hand, was dominated by the British. They were middle-class professionals – teachers, ministers, farmers, merchants, civil servants – many of them emigrating in the hope of achieving a better standard of living in the United States.
After the Titanic hit the iceberg, stewards knocked on the doors of cabins and staterooms and accompanied first- and second-class passengers to the boat deck, up their own designated staircases. The second-class area of the boat deck, at the stern of the ship, was smaller than the first-class area towards the prow. What appears to have happened is that the British men in second class got squeezed out as the lifeboats were loaded. They assisted their womenfolk onto the boats in the second-class area then they stepped back as women and children from third class began to appear and fill every available space.
Hardly any men from second class stepped forward to try and find a space in the boats being launched from the first-class area. That’s why of the 168 men in second class, only 14 survived – just 8 per cent. Their survival rate was much lower than that for men in third-class or even for crew. They were victims of their conditioning in the British class system and they knew their place.
Amongst the Americans, I think a distinction can be drawn between the men born into families with ‘old money’ – men such as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and John Thayer – who ‘did the decent thing’ and stayed on board. But the self-made millionaires who’d created their fortunes from scratch through sheer hard graft, getting in at the early days of the automobile industry or manufacturing new-fangled electrical appliances – these men weren’t going to give it all up because of an iceberg. They’d been pushy enough to haul themselves up the ladder of life and one way or another they did their darndest to get on those lifeboats.