Violet Jessop, the 20th Century Lady Jonah: Part 1 – Aboard the RMS Olympic


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
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Jonah

The Biblical narrative of Jonah in the Old Testament, set in or around the 8th century BC, concerns the disobedient prophet Jonah. God orders Jonah: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me.

But Jonah chose to flee “away from the LORD” to Tarshish by sea, geographically in the opposite direction. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish. The LORD, however, hurled a great wind upon the sea, and the storm was so great that the ship was about to break up. Then, the sailors were afraid and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship they threw its cargo into the sea. The sailors cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Jonah admitted his disobedience to God.

The sailors asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may calm down for us?

Jonah responded, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you. For I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.”

Since the sea was growing more and more stormy they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped raging. But the LORD sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah prayed to God in his affliction. God commanded the fish to spew Jonah out.

Violet Constance Jessop (October 2, 1887 – May 5, 1971)
Violet Constance Jessop (October 2, 1887 – May 5, 1971)

Violet Constance Jessop (October 2, 1887 – May 5, 1971) was an ocean liner stewardess and nurse notable for surviving the disasters associated with the British White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class liners: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic.

Was Violet Jessop a 20th century Lady Jonah?

In the mid 1880s, her father, William Jessop immigrated to the Argentine Republic from Dublin to try his hand at sheep farming. In 1886, his fiancée, Katherine Kelly from Dublin joined him.

Violet Jessop was the first of nine children born to them. Violet contracted tuberculosis at an early age. However, she survived even though her doctor predicted that she would succumb to the illness. Despite a delayed education, Violet benefited from an American schooling in Argentina.

SS Orinoco (Source: clydesite.co.uk)
SS Orinoco (Source: clydesite.co.uk)

After William Jessop died in Mendoza, Katherine Kelly moved to Great Britain with her children where she found a job as a stewardess for the Royal Mail Line. Violet attended a convent school under the tutelage of Breton nuns in Kent.

When Katherine became ill, Violet left school at an early age to act as a parental surrogate to four younger brothers. Like her mother, Violet decided to become a ship stewardess.

In the early 20th century, most women working as stewardesses were middle-aged, but Violet just 21-years-old and looked beautiful which proved to be a disadvantage in finding a position as a stewardess because Employers believed that her youth and good looks would cause problems with the crew and passengers. Violet solved the problem by making herself look homely by wearing old clothes and no makeup while attending interviews.

In 1908, Violet joined as a stewardess aboard the Royal Mail Line’s passenger-cargo vessel the SS Orinoco that plied between Southampton and the West Indies. From then on, her seagoing career continued with few interruptions for 42 years.

Titanic Survivor

John Maxtone-Graham the editor of “Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters,” said her beauty increased her troubles with the “philandering captains and pursers, loquacious or insufferable fellow stewardesses, and an array of sometimes horrifying passengers.”

During her career as a stewardess on various ships, at least three men proposed to her, of while one was an incredibly wealthy first-class passenger.

The White Star Line and Harland & Wolff

Harland & Wolff Heavy Industries Limited in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a Northern Irish heavy industrial company, specializing in shipbuilding and offshore construction. The company was formed in 1861 by Edward James Harland and Hamburg-born Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, who lived in the United Kingdom from age 14.

The Belfast shipbuilders had a long-established relationship dating back to 1867 with the White Star Line founded in Liverpool, England, by John Pilkington and Henry Wilson in 1845.

White Star Line concentrated on the Liverpool to New York shipping services. They financed their heavy investment in new ships by borrowing from the Royal Bank of Liverpool. The bank failed in October 1867 leaving White Star Line with an overwhelming debt of £527,000 (£39,510,442 as of 2014) and forced into bankruptcy.

White Star Line vector logo

On January 18, 1868, Thomas Henry Ismay, a director of the National Line, purchased the house flag, trade name and goodwill of the bankrupt company for £1,000, (£76,182 as of 2014) intending to operate large ships on the North Atlantic service.

Thomas Ismay was president of White Star Line till 1899 and had several ships under his authority. Most of these ships were chartered.

Gustav Christian Schwabe, a prominent Liverpool merchant, and his nephew, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, approached Thomas Ismay during a game of billiards. Schwabe offered to finance the new line if Ismay had his ships built by Wolff’s company, Harland & Wolff.

Thomas Ismay agreed, and established a partnership with the agreement with the stipulation that the shipbuilders would not build any vessels for the rivals of White Star Line. Harland and Wolff were given a great deal of latitude in designing ships for the White Star Line. Cost considerations were relatively low on the agenda and the shipbuilders were authorized to spend whatever on the ships and would be paid cost plus a fixed five percent profit margin.

White Star Line placed their first order with Harland & Wolff on July 30, 1869 and began operating again in 1871 between New York and Liverpool, with a call at Queenstown.

It has long been a custom with many shipping lines to have a common theme for the names of their ships. White Star Line named their ships ending in –ic.

In the late 19th century, White Star Line sought to fund construction of two ships, SS Majestic and SS Teutonic through the British government. The government accepted the proposition with the stipulation that the Royal Navy would have access to the two ocean liners in a time of war.

SS Majestic (1890)
SS Majestic (1890)

Harland & Wolff built SS Majestic for White Star Line and launched her on June 29, 1889. After fitting the ship during the next nine months, it was delivered to White Star Line in March, 1890. On April 2, 1890, SS Majestic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to New York.

In 1895, 45-year-old English naval reserve officer Edward John Smith, who years later would gain lasting fame as the captain of the RMS Titanic was given command of SS Majestic. He served as her captain for nine years. When the Boer War started in 1899, SS Majestic under Smith’s command transported troops to Cape Colony. The ship made two trips to South Africa, in December 1899 and in February 1900, without any adverse incident.

Thomas Ismay died on November 23, 1899 and his son J. Bruce Ismay succeeded him as the chairman of White Star Line. He decided to build four ocean liners to surpass the RMS Oceanic built by his father: the ships were dubbed the ‘Big Four’: RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic, and RMS Adriatic. These vessels were designed more for luxury and for speed than safety.

In 1902, J.P. Morgan & Co., was organizing the formation of the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM). It was an Atlantic shipping combine which absorbed several major American and British lines. Bruce Ismay negotiated the sale of the White Star Line to J.P. Morgan&Co. The White Star Line became one of the IMM operating companies. In February 1904, Bruce Ismay became president of the IMM, with the support of Morgan.

Violet Jessop’s Career with White Star Line

After a brief assignment aboard SS Orinoco, Violet Jessop was hired by the White Star Line as a stewardess aboard SS Majestic.

In the early 20th century, the Harland & Wolff shipyard built a trio of ocean liners for the White Star Line, which were popularly called the Olympic-class ocean liners. They were: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic.

The designs for both Olympic and Titanic were on the board at the same time. However, to ease pressures on the shipyard, construction of the Olympic began three months before Titanic. Several years would pass before Britannic would be launched.

In 1912, the trio were by far the largest vessels of the White Star Line’s fleet of 29 steamers and tenders.

The RMS Olympic

RMS Olympic built by Harland & Wolff was the lead ship and the namesake of the White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class liners. Launched on October 20, 1910, it was the largest civilian transatlantic luxury ocean liner at that time – nearly 100 feet (30 meters) longer than any other ship. Edward Smith, who had earned the reputation as one of the world’s most experienced sea captains was given the first command of the lead ship.

RMS Olympic arriving at New York on her maiden voyage in June 1911.
RMS Olympic arriving at New York on her maiden voyage in June 1911.

The maiden voyage of RMS Olympic from Southampton to New York concluded successfully on June 21, 1911. However, as the ship was docking at Pier 59 in New York harbor under the command of Captain Smith with the assistance of a harbor pilot, one of the 12 assisting tugs got caught in the backwash of Olympic, collided with the ship, and for a brief moment was trapped under Olympic‘s stern. Eventually, the tug managed to free itself and limped to the docks.

During World War I, RMS Olympic served as a troop ship and was fondly remembered as the “Old Reliable“. After the war, it returned to civilian service. Throughout the 1920s and in the first half of the 1930s, she served as an ocean liner. She was in service for 24 years from 1911 to 1935. After 1930, the slump in trade during the Great Depression, and increased competition, made her operation increasingly unprofitable for the White Star Line.

On June 14, 1911, the 23-year-old Violet Jessop boarded the RMS Olympic to work as a stewardess on it.

Three months later, on September 20, 1911, shortly after leaving Southampton at the start of her planned fifth voyage to New York, RMS Olympic collided with the old protected Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight, the largest island of England in the English Channel.

At the time of this incident Violet Jessop was on board the RMS Olympic.

Satellite image showing the Solent, separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England (Source: Earth Sciences and Image Analysis, NASA-Johnson Space Center)
Satellite image showing the Solent, separating the Isle of Wight from mainland England (Source: Earth Sciences and Image Analysis, NASA-Johnson Space Center)

The collision took place as RMS Olympic and HMS Hawke were running parallel to each other through the Solent. The wide radius taken by RMS Olympic to turn to starboard took the commander of the HMS Hawke by surprise and its bow designed to sink ships by ramming, tore two large gashes on the RMS Olympic‘s starboard side, one above and one below the waterline resulting in the flooding of two of her watertight compartments and a twisted propeller shaft.

The damage to RMS Olympic (Source: Popular Mechanics Magazine December 1911)
The damage to RMS Olympic and HMS Hawke (Source: Popular Mechanics Magazine December 1911)

HMS Hawke nearly capsized after she sustained severe damage to her bow.

Despite the heavy damage to both vessels, there were no casualties and none seriously injured.

Both vessels managed to steam back to Southampton for repairs. The fifth voyage of RMS Olympic to New York was cancelled.

After two weeks of temporary repairs in Southampton, RMS Olympic returned to Belfast for further repairs. On 30th November 1911, she returned to active service.

Though Violet Jessop survived the collision of RMS Olympic with the HMS Hawke, she was slated for more traumatic experience a year later on RMS Titanic and on the RMS Britannic in 1916.

 

Next Part 2 – Aboard the RMS Titanic

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