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Titanic Tales: The sinking of a reputation

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

The White Star Line Chairman J. Bruce Ismay become one of the most despised men in the world following his survival of the Titanic disaster





Mr. Joseph Bruce Ismay (12 December 1862 Crosby, Liverpool, England - 17 October 1937 Mayfiar, London, England) Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line


Early life


Born in Crosby, Lancashire, J. Bruce Ismay was the son of Thomas Henry Ismay and Margaret Bruce. His father was a senior partner in Ismay, Imrie and Company and the founder of the White Star Line. The young Joseph was born into wealth and educated at Elstree School and Harrow before being tutored in France for a year. J. Bruce Ismay was also one of the founders of the football team Liverpool Ramblers in 1882, the first Liverpool team to enter the FA cup. The club still exists but do not play competitive tournaments, only friendly games.


Following his education he apprenticed at his father's office for four years and then toured the world before heading to New York City as the company representative. On December 4th 1888 he married Julia Florence Schieffelin (5 March 1867 - 31 December 1963). They were to have two daughters and three sons. The family returned to the United Kingdom in 1891 and he was made partner in his father's firm. He became the head of the family business in 1899 after his father passed away.


White Star Line chairmanship


The passenger steam line flourished under his management and in 1902 he approved the sale of the White Star Line to J.P. Morgan & Co. as they were preparing the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM) which saw the merger of multiple UK and US lines. By February 1904 Ismay had raised to be the president of the IMM, with the support of Morgan.


The Titanic dream


In 1907, Ismay met with Lord Pirrie of the Harland & Wolff to consider the White Star Line response to the Cunard Line Blue Riband giants RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania. The new class of ship they conceived over dinner at Lord Pirrie's house in Belgravia were to become the Olympic class liners, the second of which was named Titanic. The pair concluded on luxury and maximised steerage capacity to earn greater profit rather than compete for speed.


J. Bruce Ismay authorised the number of lifeboats on each of the class to be reduced from 42 to 16, the minimum permitted by the Board of Trade for the projected tonnage. A decision that was to have catastrophic ramifications.


The Voyage


Ismay boarded Titanic at Southampton for her maiden voyage, accompanied by his valet, Richard Fry, secretary William Henry Harrison and assisted by crew member Ernest Freeman.


It has been reported that he spoke with Joseph Bell (Chief Engineer) and/or Captain Edward J. Smith about a possible test of speed if time permitted.


When the ship struck the iceberg Ismay was sleeping in his cabin, the incident woke him and he stepped out into the passageway to ask a steward what was the matter. The member of staff did not know so Ismay put on his coat and headed up to the bridge. When he made it to the bridge he spoke directly to the captain who confirmed to Ismay "We have struck ice." Ismay pressed his queries further. "Do you think the ship is seriously damaged?" and the captain replied "I'm afraid I think she is". Ismay returned back below and met Joseph Bell in the passageway and he asked the same question, receiving the same answer, although informed him that he was quite satisfied the pumps could keep her afloat.


Assisting with the lifeboats


Ismay returned to the bridge and heard the order to get the lifeboats launched. He stayed on deck assisting in the process of getting women and children onto boats, using his rank to convince many to leave the apparent comfort of the warm ship for the cold, hard boats.


During the loading of lifeboat 5 both First Officer Murdoch and Ismay were observed by Steward Henry Etches calling repeatedly for more women and children to come forward, none did. Eventually one woman stepped forward and asked Ismay if she could board the boat. Mabel Bennett explained "I am only a stewardess" and Ismay replied "Never mind, you are a woman, take your place."


Boarding the lifeboat


It became apparent the ship would founder before help would arrive as officers Henry Wilde and William Murdoch began preparing collapsible lifeboat C. The bow of the ship had started to dip into the water and people moved toward the back of the ship. The collapsible boat was rushed by a crowd of third class passengers and stewards but were driven back by Purser McElroy, who fired two warning shots into the air, while Murdoch held the crowd back. Two first class passengers, Hugh Woolner and the Swedish industrialist Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson helped to drag two stewards from the lifeboat, but Ismay took a place on board along with William Carter, a first class passenger.


The boat was lowered into the water at 2:00am, the last starboard -side successful launch. The Titanic was listing to port and the lifeboat had to be pushed away from the ship as she was lowered. Titanic sank twenty minutes later. Ismay is reported to have turned his back on the sight, sobbing in the dark.


Collapsible C was the first of the collapsible boats to reach the Carpathia at about 5:45 am. It had 43 people on board.


On board the Carpathia


Ismay was shown to the cabin of the Carthapia's doctor, Frank Mcgee. He gave Captain Rostron a message to send to the White Star Line New York office:


"Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg, resulting serious loss life further particulars later". Bruce Ismay.


Ismay did not leave the cabin for the rest of the journey, he ate no solids and was sedated with opiates. A seventeen year old survivor Jack Thayer, attempted to console Ismay, he reported:


[Ismay] "was staring straight ahead, shaking like a leaf. Even when I spoke to him, he paid absolutely no attention. I have never seen a man so completely wrecked."


Upon arrival in New York, Ismay was hosted by Philip Franklin, vice president of the company. Ismay then went to testify at both the US Senate and the British Board of Trade.


Criticism


Ismay was lambasted on both sides of the Atlantic for his perceived cowardice, having survived when so many others perished. For a period of time he was considered one of the most vilified men on the planet. Later portrayals of the disaster in cinema and television depict him as a villain. In fact, Louden-Brown, consultant to the Cameron film, has gone on record to say he thought the depiction of Ismay was unfair and he tried to get this reconsidered. He was told no changes were to be made to the script but furthermore "this is what the public expect to see"


It has been argued that the hostility toward Ismay in the press was driven by William Randolph Hearst, the press magnate, who had fallen out with Ismay. The Board of Trade enquiry found that Ismay helped many people to escape and was cleared of any blame.


Later life


The disaster had a deep impact on Ismay but despite the popular belief that he became a depressed recluse, he was still very active in business. He donated a large sum to the pension fund for widows of the disaster and helped in the resolution of the multitude of insurance claims made by relatives of the victims, but none of this would repair the damage done to his public image.


After the tragedy, Ismay's wife made sure that the Titanic would never be discussed again within the family and in his personal life Ismay did become a man of solitary habits, spending his summers at his cottage in Connemara, Galway, Ireland, fishing for trout and salmon. It is reported at a family Christmas gathering in 1936, one of his grandsons, by his daughter Evelyn, asked him if he had ever been ship wrecked. Ismay replied "Yes. I was once in a ship which was believed to be unsinkable."


Death


Ismay's health declined rapidly in the 1930s. A diagnosis of diabetes saw his right leg amputated below the knee in 1936 and saw him confined to a wheelchair. On the morning of October 14, 1937 he collapsed in his bedroom at his house in Mayfair, London, after suffering a massive stroke, which left him unconscious, blind and mute. He died three days later, aged 74.


The Times obituary gives us a glimpse into the personality of the man defined by one night in April. Perhaps most telling, it makes no mention of the disaster.


[He was a man] 'of striking personality and in any company arrested attention and dominated the scene. Those who knew him slightly found his personality overpowering and in consequence imagined him too be hard, but his friends knew this was but the outward veneer of a shy and highly sensitive nature, beneath which was hidden a depth of affection and understanding which is given to but few. Perhaps his outstanding characteristic was his deep feeling and sympathy for the 'underdog' and he was always anxious to help anyone in trouble. Another notable trait was an intense dislike of publicity which he would go to great lengths to avoid. In his youth he won many prizes in lawn-tennis tournaments; he also played association football, having a natural aptitude for games. He enjoyed shooting and fishing and became a first class shot and an expert fisherman. Perhaps the latter was his favourite sport and he spent many happy holidays fishing in Connemara'.


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