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.
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.