Titanic Survivor – The Memoirs of Violet Jessop are the recollections of the life of a stewardess who survived the sinking of both the Titanic and Britannic (‘sister ship’ of the Titanic). This written narrative is interspersed with commentary and explanations by editor John Maxtone-Graham.
Whilst not a literary masterpiece, Violet’s memoirs have a charming appeal, and capture an era of ocean travel from the perspective of a working-class woman on board a ship – a voice that is not often heard. For anyone with ancestors employed in a ship’s victualling department in the first part of the 20th century, particularly as a first class cabin steward, these memoirs give an authentic insight into their life and work.
Violet, born in Buenos Aires on 2 October 1887, was the daughter of Irish immigrants William Katherine Jessop (née Kelly). Suffering serious bouts of ill-health in childhood, in 1903 following the death of her father, she came to England with her mother, brothers and sister.
In October 1908 she made her first sailing as a stewardess with the Royal Mail on the West Indies route, the start of her 42-year career at sea. Her final sailing, in 1950, was in the employ of the same company she started with.
In between, she had employment with White Star (a company she only joined with reluctance), P&O (very briefly) and Red Star. As well as working as a stewardess for first class passengers on transatlantic crossings with the White Star Line, she undertook World Cruises, hedonistic “booze cruises” during the US prohibition era, and had a stint as a VAD nurse in World War One on board the Britannic, which was converted to a hospital ship. All this was punctuated by periods on shore undertaking a variety of clerical work. The Titanic and Britannic therefore only formed a short period in what was a career spanning decades.
So do not expect a book purely focused on Titanic.
In fact the Titanic forms only three of the 34 chapters. And many of the names of crew and passengers are disguised, perhaps with the discretion of an employee still working on ships (the memoir dates from the mid-1930s whilst Violet was still working). Of those identified and identifiable, she does mention ship designer Thomas Andrews, and clearly had great affection for him. And violinist Jock Hulme is also referred to by name, one of the bandmen who also perished in the early hours of 15 April 1912.
Her Great War VAD experience on board the Britannic, which struck a mine on 21 November 1916 and sank off the coast of the Greek island of Kea, fills another three chapters. These also cover her repatriation as a Distressed British Seaman. From her Titanic shipwreck experience she made sure she abandoned the Britannic with her toothbrush!
And there are intriguing gaps too. Although her White Star Line career included time on the Olympic starting from its maiden voyage in June 1911, it also covered the ship’s fifth voyage when she collided with British warship HMS Hawke. This event is not mentioned. Again it illustrates that there is so much which Violet’s memoirs have skimmed over or omitted – events which would have interested readers.
That being said, Violet’s memoirs are well worth reading for the additional first hand perspective she gives of historic events.
More that this, her memoirs give a broader insight into the work of life with a ships’s victualling department generally, and the lot of cabin stewards in particular, in that golden era of sea travel of the early 20th century. They give a flavour of difficulties of a young girl getting such work in the first place (it was normally a job for more mature women), the job insecurity, the hard work, long hours, short breaks, and the difficult conditions under which they lived on board. There are anecdotes about the foibles and demands of passengers, the job offers, and the marriage proposals. Violet frequently analyses the character and behaviours of those serving alongside her in a ship’s victualling department – from their tippling, to the drive to earn tips to supplement their meagre wages.
And, on a human level, there are the tantalising snippets leaving you wondering who she was referring to – for example on the Titanic; what became of Ned – the love of her life; who was the man she had a brief and unsuccessful marriage with – never referred to in her memoirs; and what was in, and became of, the missing chapter.
To conclude, I really enjoyed this easy to read, conversational-style book. A perfect weekend indulgence.