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
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
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,
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
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
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.
Also visit these related sites:
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