Marking the century since Titanic sank

It’s exactly a century today since the Titanic sank, and I’m interrupting my usual weekly worldbuilding series to mark the moment. Titanic has been capturing headlines in New Zealand this week with Kiwi archivist Lemuel Lyes’ discovery that the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, had been to Christchurch 22 years earlier, in command of the Coptic.

Lemuel is a regular commenter on this blog. And he’s made a fascinating discovery. Until recently New Zealand had a self-image of being historically isolated at the bottom of the South Pacific. But dig far enough – and we can usually find some connection, however small, with the world. Proof of the degree to which the world was globalised back then.

For me the Titanic generally reveals much about our perceptions of the past. Titanic wasn’t the only ship of her class. There were three – Olympic, Titanic and Britannic. Their careers were filled with drama – Olympic was involved in various collisions and helped rescue crew from HMS Audacious in 1914. My great uncle was a witness that day – more on that another time.  Britannic went down in almost identical way to her sister ship. Yet only Titanic has captured our imagination; it has become a metaphor for failing to face up to the facts – fixing things by ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. And that night to remember has itself been mythologised; such as the irony of being labelled ‘unsinkable’ and then sinking. It is ironic; but not because the ship was thought to be unsinkable – it was a marketing slogan.

A quick dip into geekery. The three liners differed in detail but were built around one design, and had more internal subdivision than earlier vessels.  Ships sink in two ways: (a) loss of reserve buoyancy, and (b) loss of reserve stability from asymmetric flooding (more complex than it sounds – it also relates to metacentric height) – the ship rolls over or sinks by one end. Capsizing also happens if reserve stability is still good, via free-surface effects (‘slopping)’. That’s what sank Wahine in Wellington harbour, 44 years ago this month and the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge in 1987, among others.

Both Olympic and Titanic were designed to stay afloat if two compartments were flooded – and Olympic did so, when she collided with HMS Hawke in 1911. They could also float if four forward compartments were flooded.But it was a flawed design. The transverse bulkheads extended only to B-deck, not far above load waterline, and were open at the top. Once the ship was down even slightly by the head, water could spill between them. On Titanic, spill-over began within 20 minutes of the collision with the iceberg. This made it impossible to establish flooding boundaries and hastened the sinking. She would have sunk anyway; a recent study has shown that the collision caused structural failure of the hull plating across six compartments. The damage was compounded by faulty steel; the plates were not ductile, and in low temperatures the rivets were brittle and suffered shear failure. However, if the bulkheads had been of effective height, the ship would not have sunk so quickly – and lives could have been saved.

The more interesting story for me is the loss of Britannic. After the disaster, Olympic was modified to improve the subdivision, extend the double bottom into a double hull, and add more lifeboats. These features were then built into the third of the trio, RMS Britannic. She was a shade larger than Titanic, launched in 1914 and still fitting out at Harland and Wolff when the First World War broke out. Yet despite the improvements, she sank in exactly the same way as Titanic. This time it wasn’t an iceberg – it was a German weapon. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship and sent to the Mediterranean. And in the early hours of 21 November 1916, while off the island of Kea, she either hit a mine or was torpedoed. The weapon struck at a junction between two watertight compartments and shock response damaged the watertight doors elsewhere.

At first the ship seemed likely to survive. However, the loss of reserve buoyancy and resulting sinkage left some rows of scuttles underwater; and they had been left open by the nurses to give the patients air. Britannic began to settle rapidly by the head – much faster than Titanic. Captain Bartlett ordered the ship driven for the shore, hoping to beach her; but this may have hastened the rate of water ingress. She went down  just 55 minutes after the explosion. Fortunately the water was warm and there were plenty of lifeboats; of the 1066 people on board just thirty died. It could have been far worse.

Which brings me to the weirdest thing. One of the survivors was Violet Jessup – who had also been on board Olympic when she collided with HMS Hawke – and the Titanic, when she sank. Jessup survived all three catastrophes. Either very bad luck – or very good. I can’t tell which…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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6 thoughts on “Marking the century since Titanic sank

  1. Thanks for sharing my news! It is funny what makes the headlines and what doesn’t. A combination of the centennial commemorations, the usual Kiwi desire to see how we fit into international events and the quirky nature of the Captain’s shore leave seems to have gone down well (much like the infamous ship).

    You are very correct when you mention how connected New Zealand really was with the rest of the world even back then, especially with regards to maritime history. In fact a good number of the senior officers of the Titanic had New Zealand connections, a couple even married Kiwi girls. The most notable is First Officer Murdoch who married Ada Banks after meeting her in 1903 on a ship out of Sydney. Ada was given a tour of the Titanic a few days before the maiden voyage, then waited in Southampton for news of the successful crossing. It was of course not to be and Murdoch went down with the ship. Heartbroken, Ada returned to New Zealand in 1917 and is buried in Linwood Cemetary in Christchurch.

    I also agree with your view that there are many more lesser known stories of drama and adventure in the annals of maritime history. The one thing I like the most about the Titanic is the fact that it has been so well documented and commemorated that the existing research can be used to give glimpses into all sorts of greater stories. Society, transportation, fashion, media/communications, ship building, immigration etc. These are all fascinating themes in their own right and certainly just as relevant to New Zealand as anywhere else.

  2. Good on you for getting the headlines. We were very much a part of an integral ‘Pacific rim’ culture in the mid-19th century – my take is that we lost it, to some extent, with the 1880s-1890s swerve back towards Britain (what Belich called ‘re-colonial, though I wouldn’t go that far). Evidenced by the swing away from US spelling, for instance. But the reality of the British Empire, back then, was that it too was global. The sheer scale of the shipping throughout the 19th century beggars the imagination in many ways – it was capable of shuttling tens of thousands of wannabe gold miners back and forth across the Tasman, for example, in the 1860s.

    I’ll post later on my great uncle’s adventure with the Audacious. He was on the Orion at the time, further down the line, and watched it all unfold, including the Olympic’s arrival, swarming with passengers (of whom a dismaying proportion had cameras). Not strictly a Kiwi connection in 1914; he was English and didn’t come out here until the 1920s. But a fascinating story.

  3. This post was highlighted to me by a wordpress message, so I had to come back and comment, as I just reached for my centenary edition of ‘A Night to Remember’ by Walter Lord to start reading today. I picked it up after a visit in June this year to the Titanic Belfast museum (opened in March 2012), a wonderful walk through the history of the shipyards and the supporting industries and as you mention, using the infamous name as a successful marketing ploy, for it has indeed captured the imagination and the attention of the Hollywood machine.

    It doesn’t surprise me there are connections with New Zealander’s, I was staying in the Titanic apartments and had a magnificent view over the shipyards, which are now a mere footprint of what was there before, with the exception of the two bright yellow H&W crane hoists (I think thats what are called), but it doesn’t take much to imagine those 30,000 people who would walk, cycle over the bridge and down Dee St to work in the area every day (according to what the locals told me) and with that many people involved, there are bound to be a few connections.

  4. That sounds like a wonderful museum to visit! And for all its decline, the site still sounds like a testament to the power of the British ship-building industry a century ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them had NZ relatives – a fairly large Irish contingent settled here in the 1860s, many of them from the 65th Regiment.

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