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The Unsinkable Stewardess

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Violet Jessop was either a very lucky woman or a very unlucky woman. She worked on ocean liners as a stewardess back in the day when that was the title of her occupation. Two ships sank while she was aboard them and another was involved in a collision; she survived all three disasters.

Violet Constance Jessop.

Violet Constance Jessop.

The White Star Line

Long before the misery of modern airplane travel was foisted on the world, people travelled in style. The White Star Line ensured that its first class passengers were comfortable, but the company also did a good job of looking after budget travellers and immigrants.

Violet Jessop followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a ship’s stewardess in the early 1900s. The work involved housekeeping and personal service to the first and second class passengers who didn't travel with their own servants.

It was not easy finding such a job because she was young and attractive. The Pooh-Bahs that ran the shipping companies did not think this was a good combination, suspecting it would cause unspecified trouble among passengers and crew.

To overcome the discrimination she dressed up all frumpy and wore no make up. In 1908, she signed on with the White Star Line. Soon, she was crossing the Atlantic aboard the RMS Olympic for about $250 a month in today’s money with free board and lodging tossed in. In addition, the wealthy passengers could be expected to be generous with gratuities at the end of the voyage.

Meeting with HMS Hawke

On September 11, 1911, the Olympic was sailing off the Isle of Wight and so was the Royal Navy’s cruiser HMS Hawke.

They were travelling parallel to one another when the Olympic suddenly veered to starboard, causing the warship to smack into the liner bow first. There was significant damage to both ships but no major injuries. Violet Jessop was aboard the Olympic.

White Star Line suffered a huge financial cost first in repairing its flagship and then in defending itself against lawsuits. The ship was under the command of the Southampton harbour pilot at the time of the accident so the ship’s master was deemed to be not the guilty party.

White Star bosses congratulated themselves on the ship’s design and its watertight compartments. Two were punctured but the vessel did not sink. The same technology was used in a sister ship that was nearing completion and was deemed unsinkable. It was called RMS Titanic, and the skipper of the Olympic, Captain Edward J. Smith, was soon to take command of her.

As the Olympic was out of service getting patched up, Violet Jessop and other crew mates were also assigned to the Titanic.

The damaged ships.

The damaged ships.

The Fatal Maiden Voyage

The disastrous first voyage of the Titanic is well recorded. The collision of hubris and an iceberg about 375 miles south of Newfoundland cost the lives of about 1,500 people.

Violet Jessop recorded in her memoirs that she was not quite asleep in her bunk when the Titanic hit the iceberg. She wrote “I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about.” She watched “the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children.” An officer told her and other stewardesses to get into a lifeboat.

She recalled that as the boat was being lowered the officer handed her a bundle and said “Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.” Many years later and retired, she said she received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as the baby Violet had cared for. However, historians cast some doubt on the accuracy of the story.

The survivors bobbed about in the frigid Atlantic waters and watched as the world’s biggest and unsinkable ocean liner slipped below the waves two-and-a-half hours after hitting the iceberg. Eight hours later they were rescued by the RMS Carpathia.

The Sinking of the Titanic as imagined by Willy Stöwer. It incorrectly shows smoke billowing from the fourth funnel, which was fake and only installed for aesthetic reasons.

The Sinking of the Titanic as imagined by Willy Stöwer. It incorrectly shows smoke billowing from the fourth funnel, which was fake and only installed for aesthetic reasons.

The Sinking of the Britannic

Violet Jessop returned to work with the White Star Line but now she had a different job. She joined the crew of the RMS Britannic, which had been commandeered to serve as a hospital ship during the First World War.

Now known as His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic, the vessel was operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and Violet was a nurse. She made five voyages into the Med. to pick up casualties and return them to Britain.

The sixth voyage began as usual with a stop to load coal in Naples. Shortly after leaving Naples and at 8 a.m. on November 21, 1916, the ship was rocked by a massive explosion. The Britannic had hit a mine laid a few days earlier by a U-boat. And, just as with the Titanic, her forward watertight compartments were ripped open and the ship began taking on water. Within 12 minutes the situation was so grave the captain ordered “Abandon ship!”

Violet Jessop was in a lifeboat that was being drawn into the ship’s still thrashing propellers, so she jumped overboard. Some others were not so lucky and were killed by the whirling metal blades.

Again in her memoirs she wrote that “I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!”

She was fished out of the water and taken to shore in a lifeboat.

HMHS Britannic sank in just 55 minutes but only 30 people died in the disaster.

A Career Continued

You’d think after three brushes with disaster Violet Jessop would find work on dry ground. But no, she went back to sea and did several round-the-world cruises aboard the SS Belgenland. She retired in 1950 and settled quietly into a cottage in an English village.

She died in 1971, aged 83.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1934, the White Star Line was merged with the Cunard Line, which operates the luxury liners Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Victoria. White Star Service aboard Cunard vessels is used to describe its highest level of accommodation. Cunard is now owned by Carnival Cruises.
  • Violet Jessop had a short-lived and disastrous marriage; the name of the husband has escaped the diligent sleuthing of historians. In addition, she received at least three marriage proposals from passengers, one of which is said to have come from a very rich man travelling first class.
  • Of the three Olympic-class ships of the White Star Line only RMS Olympic completed fare-paying voyages. She made 257 round-trip voyages between Europe and North America. She was withdrawn from service in 1935 and broken up two years later.
  • Conspiracy Theory Alert. Catastrophic events such as the sinking of the Titanic always attract folks who like to challenge the official narrative. So, here’s a whopper. The theory is that when the Olympic was walloped by HMS Hawke her keel was bent, damage that was irreparable and rendered the vessel unusable, good only for scrap. So, the owners switched the identities of the Olympic and the Titanic and the liner that hit the iceberg was, in fact, the Olympic masquerading as the Titanic. This enabled the White Star Line to collect a huge insurance payout. Of course, this theory presupposes that Capt. Smith deliberately hit the iceberg although, perhaps, without anticipating the terrible consequences.
The Titanic and Olympic berthed together. But which is which?

The Titanic and Olympic berthed together. But which is which?

Sources

  • “Woman Who Survived all Three Disasters Aboard Sister Ships: The Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic.” Emily Upton, Today I Found Out, January 28, 2014.
  • Olympic Survives Collision.” John Edwards, Ocean Liners Magazine, undated.
  • Titanic Survivor Stories – Violet Jessop.” Titanic, The Artifact Exhibition, undated.
  • “HMHS Britannic” Reuben Goosens, ssmaritime.com, undated.
  • “Miss Violet Constance Jessop.” Encyclopedia Titanica,

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on October 27, 2018:

This is fascinating. I am interested in the history of companies. I didn't realise the link between White Star, Cunard and Carnival. Violet Jessop's story is very interesting.

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