Violet Jessop, Survivor of the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic Shipwrecks
By: John Shepler
"Surely it is all a dream," she thought, clutching someone's forgotten baby to her chest as the lifeboat creaked lower and lower down the ropes. Violet Jessop looked up the side of the ship. It truly was the most magnificent vessel every built. Each deck was alive with lights and with passengers milling around, not terribly concerned. Most were probably hoping they would not be asked to climb into those unstable wooden rafts, only to be lowered into the inky blackness of the frigid North Atlantic. No, better to stay with the warmth and stability of the Titanic until matters were straightened out.
Violet had not objected when asked to step into the lifeboat with the other crew members. Looking after the comfort of the passengers was her job, after all, and many of the women put into this lifeboat were distressed and confused. Quite a few did not even understand the instructions that were being given in English. She held the child close and counted the alternating bands of brilliantly lit portholes and dark hull as the lifeboat jerked lower and lower toward the sea.
Six rows. Six rows of peepholes into the private lives of the rich, the famous and the ordinary families who were merely on their way to a better life in the New World. There were jewels strewn on dresser tops, ripe for the plucking. There were plumed hats and fine dresses. There were shoes and magazines and bedding in disarray. Most cabins were empty, empty like museum displays of lives as they once were and would never be again.
Violet's eyes never left the ship. There she was, all aglow from afar, her lights twinkling like great planets across the still waters. Unconsciously, Violet began counting the decks again by the rows of lights. One, two, three, four, five, six. So beautiful. Then again, one, two, three, four...five. Only five this time. Surely she had miscounted. One again, now. One, two, three, four, five. It was only five rows...then four...then only three. The nightmare had become reality. The great ship was settling ever so slowly into the ocean. The calmness of denial would soon turn into the panic and despair of fifteen hundred voices crying out in unison. Crying out for a rescue that would come far too late. Violet closed her eyes and prayed as an icy breeze arose from the calmness of the night, like a knife to the skin from the darkness. Then all fell silent on the ocean.
Where was Captain Smith? E. J. Smith, the beloved master of the most magnificent of all passenger ships. Many would not sail unless they knew it was Captain Smith who commanded the bridge. Violet knew him, too. It was not their first shipwreck together. She had been stewardess aboard the Olympic when it was the most magnificent of all ships. Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic and the soon to be built Gigantic, the three marvels of the gilded age. They were built to inspire confidence. Built to win dominance of the Atlantic passenger trade for White Star Lines. Captain Smith would inspire that confidence, and Violet Jessop would be there serving the passengers.
Olympic set sail for New York on her fifth voyage. It was September 20, 1911. Captain Smith was in command as she approached Spithead off the Isle of Wight and turned South of the Bramble sand bank. At the same time, the Royal Navy Cruiser H.M.S. Hawke was completing routine engine tests in the same area and traveling parallel to the Olympic. Suddenly, by some freak occurrence, the wheel of the Hawke jammed and she drew closer to Olympic, gradually being sucked in by the hydrodynamic forces surging past the hull of the great liner. At 12:46 PM, the two ships collided, crushing the bow of the Hawke and carving a double gash into the side of the Olympic. Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job and the Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to White Star's new flagship, the Titanic.
Now it is 1916. Captain Smith is gone. He is said to have remained on Titanic until the end. Violet Jessop is still going to sea. She has not been traumatized into giving up her career. Not now, not from that first collision aboard the Olympic. Something has changed, though. It is wartime and her service is aboard a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea. She has joined the Red Cross as a shipboard nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment.
The casualties of World War I mounted rapidly. Huge passenger ships were painted white and lit with hundreds of red lights so that even at night, enemy subs and surface ships would know that these are floating hospitals, not to be attacked. Back and forth from London they sailed, bringing wounded soldiers to hospitals...and home.
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, November 21, 1916, when Violet stood in the dining saloon holding a pot of tea for the morning's breakfast. Suddenly, the ship gave a long drawn out shudder from stem to stern accompanied by a deafening roar. The nightmare was beginning again. Violet watched as men scattered in an instant, but strangely felt no fear herself. She calmly went to help another nurse get dressed and then returned to her own cabin to sort out the things she treasured most. A ring, a clock, her prayer book, and something she remembered needing from the Titanic experience, her toothbrush. There had been much fun at her expense as she had complained about not being able to get a toothbrush on the Carpathia, and she recalled her brother Patrick's joking advice: "Never undertake another disaster without first making sure of your toothbrush."
That day the great ship sunk in less than an hour. A tremendous hole had been blown in the side of it by a German mine or perhaps a submarine torpedo. Miraculously, most everyone, including Violet Jessop, made it into the lifeboats and was rescued. Violet, however, was the only soul aboard who had survived all three shipwrecks of the great Olympic class ships of White Star Lines. The Olympic, the Titanic, and now, renamed and refitted as a hospital ship, the remaining sister ship of the great luxury vessels...Britannic.
Violet never died at sea. She returned as a stewardess on Olympic after the war and eventually retired from the passenger service. She passed away quietly in 1971. In the story of her life, "Titanic Survivor, " editor John Maxtone-Graham shares one last anecdote from his visit with Violet. Late one night several weeks earlier, the telephone rang in her home during a violent thunderstorm. The woman's voice at the other end asked "Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?" "Yes", she responded, "who is this?" The woman laughed. "I was that baby."
Books of Interest:
Titanic Survivor The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters by Violet Jessop and John Maxtone-Graham. Violet Jessop was probably the only rescued person with a toothbrush after the Britannic struck a mine and sank. But then she had been on the Titanic four years earlier and remembered what she had missed... In 1934, she wrote her memoirs. Few, if any, ocean liner stewardesses ever wrote their memoirs; hence, Violet Jessop's life story is doubly valuable - one of a kind as well a articulate, authoritative and informative. From her unique vantage point, whetherin pantry or glory hole, on deck or in a lifeboat, we are suddenly privy to below-stairs life aboard the great ocean liners.
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Also visit these related sites:
Encyclopedia Titanica - An in-depth resource for anyone interested in the Titanic. Contains over 2,000 biographies, 700 related documents, 1,000 photos, ship's deck plans, movies and animation. Serious researchers and casual browsers will find what they are looking for here.
Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tougher than Titanic - A related article on the life and times of the amazing Maggie Brown.
CQD Titanic - The Start of Wireless Disaster Communications
Photo of Violet Jessop, circa 1915, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: April 19, 1998 as part of A Positive Light