The Riveting Tale of the Unsinkable Violet Jessop
Arguably one of the luckiest women in the world, Violet Jessop was an Irish-Argentine ocean liner stewardess and nurse who was famous for surviving a mind-boggling three shipwrecks during a 5 year period. Jessop became infamous for living through the sinking of both the RMS Titanic in 1912 and her sister ship HMHS Britannic in 1916. She also had been on-board the RMS Olympic, which collided with a British warship, HMS Hawke, in 1911. With her wild and jaw-dropping track record, Jessop became known to the world as "Miss Unsinkable."
Early Life & Career Beginnings
Violet Constance Jessop was born on October 2, 1887 near Bahia Blanca, Argentina to Irish immigrant parents, William and Katherine Jessop. The oldest of nine children (6 of whom survived), Violet was very nurturing and attentive to her younger siblings. She first defied the odds as a child when she survived a serious case of tuberculosis. Though doctors only gave her months to live, Violet managed to overcome the illness. When her father passed away when she was 16, the Jessops relocated to England, where a young Violet attended a convent school.
Following the patriarch's death, Violet's mother Katherine found a job as a stewardess for the Royal Mail Line, a career path she herself would soon follow. When Katherine's own health began to deteriorate, Violet left school and applied for a stewardess position. Initially deemed too attractive and young for such a position, the determined Jessop dressed down in an effort to minimize her looks. At the time, most of the women working on ships were middle-aged so her youth and looks were considered a disadvantage.
However, the ploy worked and at 21 years old, Violet embarked on her first voyage as a stewardess for the Royal Mail Line vessel Orinoco in 1908.
Disaster Strikes: RMS Olympic
In 1911, Jessop was granted a position on-board the White Star luxury liner RMS Olympic. Despite working 17 hours a day and earning a modest wage, Violet was happy on the impressive ship and enjoyed her daily duties. The ship's maiden voyage was captained by Edward Smith, who would lose his life the following year in the Titanic disaster. She was on-board the vessel on September 20, 1911, when the Olympic departed Southampton and collided with the British warship HMS Hawke. Though the Olypmic's hull was severely damaged, the ship was still able to return to port under her own power. No one was seriously injured or killed in the crash. Both Jessop and Edward Smith were present during the collision, and would reunite during the RMS Titanic's maiden voyage.
The Tragedy of the RMS Titanic
Arguably one of the most infamous ships in history, the RMS Titanic was heralded as "The Ship of Dreams" and set sail on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. At the time of its launch, the ocean liner was the largest ship afloat in the world. As discussed in her memoirs, Jessop had initially been reluctant to leave the Olympic and join Titanic. Her friends and colleagues had ultimately convinced her, and at age 24 Violet would unknowingly become a part of history.
Just 4 days after its departure, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912. Within two hours and forty minutes, the cruelly ironic "Unsinkable Ship" plunged into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to her watery grave. At the time of the incident, Violet (a devout Catholic) had recited a prayer that was supposed to protect her from fire and water. Due to the "women and children first" rule, Violet was eventually ordered into Lifeboat 16. In her memoir, she described the moments leading up to her departure:
"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 boat (16) first to show 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 my lap."
Later in her memoirs, Jessop described how much she admired her fellow crew members, specifically Thomas Andrews. Of the Titanic's designer, she once said, "Often during our rounds we came upon our beloved designer going about unobtrusively with a tired but a satisfied air. He never failed to stop for a cheerful word, his only regret that we were 'getting further from home.' We all knew the love he had for that Irish home of his and suspected that he longed to get back to the peace of its atmosphere for a much-needed rest and to forget ship designing for awhile." Tragically, Andrews would perish when the ship sank.
After 8 hours in the lifeboat, Violet and the other survivors were rescued by the Carpathia. While on-board the ship, the baby she had been holding was wordlessly snatched by another woman (presumably the child's mother). Titanic's heartbreaking disaster led to the death of over 1,500 people, and became one of the deadliest peacetime disasters in maritime history.
The HMHS Britannic
During World War 1 and after the horrific Titanic tragedy, Jessop continued her job as a stewardess and worked for the British Red Cross. Four years after the sinking of the ship, she found herself aboard another White Star liner, HMHS Britannic. While initially launched as a passenger luxury liner, the vessel was re-purposed as a hospital ship during the war. On the morning of November 21, 1916, misfortune struck again for Jessop when the Britannic struck a naval mine. Within 55 minutes, the ship sunk into the depths of the Aegean Sea. Of the 1,065 passengers aboard, 30 people were killed.
Violet's closest brush with death came with the sinking of the Britannic, when she and the other passengers were being lowered down in lifeboats. The propeller blades were sucking lifeboats under the stem, and she was forced to jump from the lifeboat (though she didn't know how to swim). Despite hitting her head on the keel of the ship, Jessop survived. The accident resulted in a traumatic head injury that would years later be diagnosed by doctors as a skull fracture.
Life After Tragedy & Later Years
Following three unimaginable brushes with death at sea, Jessop remained a powerful and undeterred force. She continued her work on ships and with the White Star Line and later the Red Star Line and Royal Mail Line. In her late thirties, Violet had a short marriage that ended in divorce and ultimately retired to Great Ashfield, Suffolk in 1950. "Miss Unsinkable" led a quiet and comfortable life in retirement, tending to her garden and hens while surrounded by all her mementos from forty-two years at sea. She would later recount her memories in a memoir penned by biographer and friend, John Maxtone-Graham. Jessop passed away of congestive heart failure in 1971 at the age of 83, leaving behind an awe-inspiring and captivating legacy.
© 2020 Rachel M Johnson