In the early hours of 15 April 1912, the most famous maritime disaster in history befell RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage. On board was one Violet Jessop, a young woman with an astonishing relationship with the three Olympic class liners.
Miss Violet Constance Jessop (1 October 1887 Buenos Aires Argentina - 5 May 1971 Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England)
The sinking of the Titanic is such a well known event in our history that has been dissected time and time again, recently with the release of the record breaking film on the subject and the centenary of the tragic events we have been treated to a further deluge of documentaries and investigations. The facts are well known, the largest ocean going liner of it's day, proclaimed to be unsinkable, struck an iceberg and was lost with more than 1,500 souls in the icy cold Atlantic. The lack of sufficient lifeboats and accusations of preferential treatment for richer passengers at the cost of the steerage classes still causes shock over one hundred years later. The powerful stories of survivors is sometimes lost in the noise over some of the key characters and fictional passengers from the film, so while many people think of the tragic case of Rose and Jack and their doomed romance, there are some astonishing real life stories to be discovered among the survivors of the Titanic. One such stunning tale, is that of Violet Constance Jessop. She has a unique position in history in as such as she survived the sinking of Titanic and Britannic and the collision of the other sister ship Olympic.
Titanic captured in Cork harbour on April 11 1912 in one of the last known photos of the doomed liner. Photographer unknown (Photo on display at Cobh Heritage Centre, museum in Cobh, Ireland)
Violet Jessop was born on 2 October 1887 in Argentina, the eldest daughter of nine children of Irish immigrants. As a reminder of how precarious life was in those days, only six of her family survived childhood, Violet herself nearly died of tuberculosis when young and her father died due to complications from surgery while she was sixteen. Her family moved to England and when her mother fell ill Violet left school to start work to support her family. She pursued the same career as her mother and became a ship stewardess, taking her first job on the Orinoco with the Royal Mail Line in 1908. Her memoirs state that she had to dress down and make herself less attractive to seal the post. She was only twenty one and at the time most ship stewardesses were middle aged. It was felt her youthful good looks would be a distraction, and to a degree it proved to be the case as she received three proposals of marriage while onboard various ships.
Working for White Star
In 1910 she started her relationship with the White Star Line, first working on Majestic before transferring to Olympic, the largest liner of the day. She reportedly enjoyed working on the huge liner, even if the 17 hour days were long and the pay was minimal (Around £2.20 a month, equivalent to a meagre £200 today) but reported that Americans were much more likely to be personable to her when she served them.
The Olympic incident
Jessop was on board when Olympic set sail on her fifth voyage from Southampton to New York on September 20 1911. The liner suffered a collision with British warship HMS Hawke in the Solent. The two ships were steaming parallel to each other when Olympic turned starboard, the wide radius of her turn took the Captain of HMS Hawke by surprise and his ship effectively rammed the starboard near the stern. HMS Hawke had been designed to ram ships with her prow and the collision caused significant damage, flooding two watertight compartments and twisting the propeller shaft. There were no fatalities or serious injuries and the ship returned to port under her own power. The collision was a financial disaster for White Star Line but certainly enhanced the reputation of the class as "unsinkable". HMS Hawke fared less well, almost capsizing from the impact. She was repaired but a few short years later was sunk by a German U-Boat early in World War I, with the loss of 524 men.
Transferring to Titanic
Violet Jessop would be out of work as her ship was returned to Belfast for repairs but when White Star Line were looking for staff to crew the newly launched sister ship Titanic, Violet was convinced by friends and family to return to her role. And so it was that she was aboard the ill fated liner on her maiden voyage.
The ship designer, Thomas Andrews, is spoken of in her memoirs with glowing warmth. It seems he was the only person who really paid attention to crew recommendations or concerns and mixed with the crews on regular tours of the ship. He always had a cheerful word to say accompanied by the lamented regret that everyday they were "further from home"
Jessop recalled how she was comfortably drowsy in her bunk when the collision occurred. She had just read a translated Hebrew prayer prior to sleep, to protect her from fire and water. She wrote in her memoirs:
"''I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Some time after, a ship's officer ordered us into the boat (16) first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: 'Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.' And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.'"
In the lifeboat
She was adrift in the lifeboat for eight hour before being rescued by the Carpathia
''I was still clutching the baby against my hard cork lifebelt I was wearing when a woman leaped at me and grabbed the baby, and rushed off with it, it appeared that she put it down on the deck of the Titanic while she went off to fetch something, and when she came back the baby had gone. I was too frozen and numb to think it strange that this woman had not stopped to say 'thank you'."
This should have been enough of a track record to keep most people away from ships, let alone Olympic class liners, but Violet Jessop was not deterred. During World War I she served as a nurse with the British Red Cross and was allocated to Britannic, the third of the Olympic class liners, operating as a Hospital ship. Britannic never actually carried fare paying passengers, as she was requisitioned for the war effort in 1914. Sure enough, on the morning of 21 November 1916, HMHS Britannic sank in the Aegean Sea due to an unexplained explosion. It was not clear if it was a mine or a torpedo but the ship sank in 55 minutes with the loss of thirty lives. It is unclear whether Jessop made it to a lifeboat or had to jump directly into the sea, but she suffered a serious injury during the sinking:
"I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!"
She stated she believes her thick hair helped her survive the impact and that when the explosion rocked the ship, her first thought was to return to her cabin to collect her toothbrush as she had remembered how ghastly it was to be without one after surviving the Titanic disaster. As she had done only four years previously, she watched the grand liner sink into the water but was still not to be deterred from a life on the open sea.
Violet Jessop c. 1915, Photographer unknown, colorised by Loredana Crupi
She returned to work for White Star Line in 1920 and continued to spend most of her life working liners and then cruise ships until retirement to rural Suffolk in 1950. She recounts the story of a curious phone call one night asking if she had saved a child from the Titanic. When she confirmed that was the case, the caller laughed and said "I was that baby!" then hung up. Records indicate that the only baby on boat 16 was Assad Thomas, who was handed to Edwina Troutt, and later reunited with his mother on the Carpathia.
Jessop's duty to be seen setting an example to passengers on the night of the Titanic disaster is referenced to in both A Night To Remember (1958) and Titanic (1997) and a TV movie Britannic (2000) features a protagonist who is wary of being onboard the ship after having survived the Titanic four years earlier, which is clear inspired by the life of Jessop.
'Miss Unsinkable' Violet Jessop never did accept the proposals of marriage she received from passengers and did marry albeit briefly at the age of 36. She never did start her own family and in fact the entire marriage chapter is notably absent from her own memoirs. She spent her later years raising chickens but did attend a London meal in 1958 to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the sinking coinciding with the release of the film A Night To Remember. She can be seen in the photo below, on the far right, gripping a glass of wine alongside Lawrence Beesley, Marjorie (Collyer) Dutton and Gus Cohen.
Violet Jessop eventually succumbed to decongestive heart failure in 1971. Her name will forever be closely connected to the ill fated Olympic class liners that proved less sea worthy than her.