Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

the ghosts that haunt theTitanic

From the 'pioneer of sexy underwear' to the tragic birthday boy, this book charts the lives of those - rich and poor - who were on the Titanic when it sank, writes John Spain

With the centenary of the Titanic's sinking on April 15, 1912, on the way, we are about to be submerged by yet more books about the famous ship. There are hundreds already and more are on the way in the next few months.

Is there really anything new to be said about the night to remember? Probably not, but this one by an award-winning biographer finds an original approach by exploring the lives of the people who were on board in a level of detail not attempted before.

Even if we learn nothing new about the sinking, it makes fascinating reading because the Titanic was a floating microcosm of society at the time, from the economic migrants down in third class to the upper decks with the hereditary rich and those of enormous new wealth.

An example was one of the American titans of industry, John Jacob Astor IV, who was found with $4,000 in sodden notes in his pockets, equivalent to around $100,000 today.

The book says he was probably killed as the forward funnel crashed into the water on top of people who had slid overboard, a quicker death than freezing in the water, which took about 20 minutes.

We actually don't get to the sinking until three-quarters of the way through the book, which builds up the tension steadily because we don't know which of the many people we are getting to know so intimately are going to survive the horror to come.

The depth of research is very impressive, as one would expect from an author who has won the Wolfson Prize for History.

It will be apparent to Irish readers, for example, in the pages dealing with the group of 14 emigrants from Addergoole in Mayo, 11 of whom perished.

That said, there is not that much about the Irish on board, although two familiar stories are there. Young Tipperary man, Edward Ryan, sneaked on to a lifeboat by pretending to be a woman. The author quotes the "unabashed letter" he sent to his parents describing how he did it.

Another young Irishman, Daniel Buckley, managed something similar. He had got into Lifeboat 13 early on with other men, who were later ordered out to let women in.

Buckley started crying and a woman took pity, throwing her shawl over him and telling him to be quiet. He got away with it.

One of the saddest stories is that of a boy called Alfred Rush from Kent, a third-class passenger travelling with family friends to join his older brother in Detroit.

His 16th birthday was on the day of the sinking and he celebrated it by donning his first pair of long trousers. He was so proud of being grown up that when it was time to get into a lifeboat he stood back and said: "I am staying here with the men." He didn't survive.

The boy was just one of the more than 1,500 people who died that night in the freezing waters. But who were they all?

The book cannot cover everyone in detail, but the author fills in the stories of enough people to build up a complete picture of the complexities and disparities of life 100 years ago. Through these life stories, Titanic Lives becomes a window into the rigidly tiered society of the time.

The most readable parts of the book deal with the upper crust, particularly with the two English toffs who survived and were vilified as a result.

One was Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line chairman, who was partly responsible for cutting the number of lifeboats so there were only 1,178 lifeboat places, even though there were 2,235 passengers. That did not stop him skipping into a lifeboat when he got the chance.

Just as questionable was the behaviour of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who was on the near empty lifeboat that left early and who is alleged to have bribed the seaman manning the boat not to go back to save people in the water.

The book provides a mini-biography of the fabulously wealthy Duff Gordon. Even more fascinating is his wife Lady Duff Gordon, a commoner and divorcee - their marriage was a minor scandal - who was "the pioneer of sexy underwear". A couturier, she hated to see her creations worn over "the ugly nun's veiling" which was the female underwear of the time.

She started to make underwear "as delicate as cobwebs" and half the women in London flocked to her shop (She also had shops in Paris and New York and seems to have been the Pippa Middleton of her day). When she went to get into a lifeboat she wore "a mauve silk kimono and a squirrel coat".

Lady Duff Gordon later described her terror as the lifeboat was lowered. "I shall never forget how black and deep the water looked below us and how I hated leaving the big, homely ship for this frail little boat." She didn't know how lucky she was.

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