Should women and children be saved first in shipwrecks?

‘Women and children first’ is a phrase that will be forever associated with the Titanic but it’s unclear whether this is actually what Captain Smith ordered as the ship was sinking. There was one precedent for it back in 1852 when HMS Birkenhead foundered off Cape Town with 26 women and children on board. Her Captain ordered that the men stand back while the women and children were loaded onto a cutter, and 450 men subsequently died – but the rule certainly wasn’t part of maritime law.

In some ways, it made no sense to save lots of women who would become widows, and children who would become orphans, because without a man to provide for them they might well not survive back in the old days when you needed a man to put a roof over your head. Many cultures decided it was more useful to society to save the men first, and there are documented instances in which this rule was followed in shipwrecks before 1900. The only way to justify saving women and children first is the argument that men tend to be stronger swimmers and more able to save themselves if they end up in the water; but in fact, swimming skills had nothing to do with survival on the Titanic. Once they were in the water, it was just pure luck if they managed to get onto a boat – and hardly any did.

Neither the American nor the British Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic was able to establish whether Captain Smith gave the order to prioritise women and children. He was heard to shout “Be British” into a megaphone, but that can be interpreted in many different ways! Second Officer Lightoller, who was in charge of loading the lifeboats on the port side of the ship claimed that when the Captain asked him to load the boats, he queried: “Shall we load the women and children first?” and the Captain answered “Yes.” Eloise Smith, a first-class passenger testified at the American Inquiry that when she asked if her husband could accompany her onto a boat because she was pregnant, the Captain didn’t answer but shouted ‘Women and children first’ into a megaphone.

An underfilled lifeboat photographed by a passenger on the Carpathia.

Lightoller took the supposed order very literally, and the only men who boarded lifeboats on his side of the ship were the minimum number required to row them. This meant that many of his boats went off half-filled because there weren’t sufficient women around at the time of launching who were prepared to leave a luxurious liner and get on a fragile wooden rowing boat suspended 70 feet above the dark ocean. On the starboard side, Officer Lowe sensibly filled up available places with men. Captain Smith must surely be blamed for failing to ensure that the lifeboats were filled to capacity. Had that happened, another 467 people could have been saved.

What would happen in a shipwreck nowadays? It’s too early to know exactly what occurred during the evacuation of Costa Concordia, but it seems most people behaved very decently in helping children and those with walking difficulties to safety. Women took their place alongside men in the queues for the lifeboats, as of course it should be in a society where we demand equality of the sexes.

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What were the crew doing as the Titanic sank?

Back in 1912, working in service was a serious commitment, whether you were a butler
in a stately home or a steward on board a luxury steamship. Your needs were far less important than those of the people you served; in fact, your life was less important than theirs.

Injured wireless operator Harold Bride is helped ashore in New York.

After the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, her crew continued to man their posts even once the situation was clearly hopeless. There are countless tales of selfless devotion to duty, and in most cases it wasn’t as a direct result of orders from superiors but just a sense that it was their role in life.

That’s why the five postal clerks struggled to haul sacks of mail above the level of the rising waters, while stokers kept tending the fires long after the ship had come to a halt and obviously wasn’t going anywhere. Seamen rushed around checking all the watertight bulkheads were closed and manning the pumps, trying and inevitably failing to keep water out of each of the ship’s compartments.

Stewards occupied themselves with ushering passengers to the boat deck, while officers supervised the loading of the lifeboats and the firing of distress rockets. The orchestra played on the boat deck. Chief baker Charles Joughin organised the distribution of loaves of bread among the lifeboats while in the wireless room Jack Philips and Harold Bride kept sending out distress messages long after Captain Smith had relieved them of their post. In fact, very faint wireless calls were heard from Titanic up to the last minutes of the ship’s life, although they were too weak to be read after 1.45am when the engine rooms filled with water.

There were lights on board the ship until the last minutes because of the heroism of the engineers who stayed below deck pushing back circuit breakers that tripped as water got into the wiring. During the last 20 minutes, the lights flickered but they stayed on. How much worse would the experience have been for all if it had been conducted in pitch blackness? Needless to say, none of those engineers survived.

I chose a steward, Reg Parton, as one of the main characters in my novel Women and Children First, because it’s an aspect of the Titanic story that is less often told. What must it have felt like to know the ship was sinking and not be able to focus on saving your own life because of a sense of duty? Unlike the passengers, crew members knew there weren’t enough lifeboats, so they were aware that hanging around was tantamount to a death sentence. Of the 885 male crew, only 192 survived.

On the 10th of April this year, more than 600 schoolchildren will march through Southampton each holding a picture of a member of Titanic’s crew. They will proceed from the Engineers’ Memorial in East Park to the new SeaCity Museum, where an exhibition will tell the largely untold story of the men and women who worked on the ship. It seems only right that during the many events commemorating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, the city that was home to the majority of the crew is honouring them in this way.

Does period accuracy matter when you’re writing historical fiction?

Costa award-winning author Andrew Miller said on the Today programme that he chooses a historical period and a setting for his novels then pretty much does what he likes with them. If you write gasp-out-loud prose like his, with extraordinary ideas and unforgettable characters, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Julian Fellowes was recently criticised for using colloquialisms in Downton Abbey that weren’t in use during the 1910s in which series 1 and 2 were set (http://slate.me/wA8R9e). Did it spoil our enjoyment of the shows? Not one iota. In fact, using the jargon of the era can make dialogue confusing for modern readers and slow the pace of the narrative.
If you’re telling a story, you don’t want to weigh it down with phrases that require clunky explanations, such as ‘goldbrick’ (1850s), ‘barnburner’ (1840s) and ‘horsefeathers’ (1920s).

We long ago accepted that characters in Hollywood’s historical epics dress and talk more like movie stars than ancient Greeks or Etruscans. If your story and characters work, you have an entertaining product, whether it’s a novel, a TV series or a film. So why do I knock myself out trying to ensure my historical novels are accurate?

Partly it’s because I like reading books that I can learn from and I’m hoping my readers feel the same way. I love immersing myself in an historical situation and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be there, breathing the air. Before I had Reg, one of the main characters in Women and Children First, buy a hot dog from a hot-dog seller in Times Square, I made sure that hot dogs were sold there in 1912 (they were, but it was too early for burgers in America). I read the works of contemporary authors, especially Edith Wharton, to get a feel for the way they spoke in
New York society at the time. I consulted old editions of Vogue for the clothes upper-class ladies would have worn.

And although I invented some characters on board the Titanic, I made every single description of the ship and its sinking factual… at least I hope I did.

But feel free to let me know if you come across any bloopers!

Did locked gates prevent third-class passengers escaping from the Titanic?

Daniel Buckley, a 21-year-old Irishman, gave rather contradictory testimony at the American Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. First he said he wasn’t aware of locked gates, then he claimed “they tried to keep us down on the steerage deck; they did not want us to go up to the first-class place at all.” He related seeing a sailor throw a third-class passenger back over a gate then lock it, but said his group managed to break it down and escape that way. This tale was repeated in the press and appears in many a Titanic movie – but no one else corroborated it.

The American Inquiry into the sinking

In fact, Berk Pickard, from Poland, told the Inquiry that he managed to ascend to the boat deck, from which lifeboats were being lowered, by walking through doors into second- and then first-class areas. The only barriers were signs saying “Second [or third] class passengers not allowed beyond this point” – but the doors could be opened by anyone.

For the majority of third-class passengers, the overwhelming problem they faced after the collision was negotiating the rabbit warren of passageways, staircases and public rooms to get up to the boat deck, which was mostly in the first-class area of the ship. There was no single staircase leading all the way up through the six to eight decks they would have to traverse to get near the lifeboats, and no handy maps of the ship they could use. Even the staff had trouble finding their way around.

Whereas first- and second-class passengers were guided to the boat deck by their room stewards, there were fewer stewards per head in third class, and only one – John Hart – appears to have fulfilled this role. An outstanding hero of the night, he led two parties upwards via a circuitous route and shepherded them into lifeboats, thus saving the lives of 66 third-class passengers who might not otherwise have made it.

Among the most intrepid third-class passengers were the dozens who scrambled up a cargo-loading crane that towered over the third-class outdoor deck. When they reached the top, they had to shimmy along a gantry to reach the boat deck.

It was survival of the intrepid. The ones who sat obediently below decks waiting for someone to tell them what to do would wait in vain. The many who didn’t speak English were doubly disadvantaged because they couldn’t ask advice or confer with their fellow passengers. There are tales of some seen dragging their steamer trunks and suitcases along corridors as the water level rose, because they had their worldly possessions with them on the ship and could never have afforded to replace them.

A swell of third-class passengers finally found their way to the boat deck at around 1.55am – just as the last lifeboat was launched. By all accounts they looked confused as they gazed at the empty davits from which the lifeboats had been lowered. They had been let down by White Star Lines, to whom they had paid their fares, trusting that they would be transported safely to a new life on a new continent. They were let down by Captain Smith, who could have organised the evacuation of the ship much more efficiently. And they were let down by the Inquiries, who only invited three witnesses from third-class to testify, out of the 178 who survived against the odds.