Belfast Telegraph

Titanic couple condemned to be judged for eternity

By Mike Gilson

Every time I visit, it is the Duff Coopers I remember. There they are looking quite impossibly posh. Turn of the century blue bloods exuding a sense of entitlement.

There's Sir Cosmo, the fifth Baronet, with waxed moustache and topper, never a day's hard work in his life. And alongside, Christiana, his wife, a successful fashion designer of some repute but an appalling snob with piercing eyes and imperious posture.

They're not exactly unknown, are the Duff Coopers. Most people, especially in Belfast, will have vague knowledge of their story or of the symbolism of their plight.

For, alongside the owner of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay, the aristocratic couple stand for a rigid, uncaring, Georgian class system that, perhaps more than the sinking itself, makes the Titanic one of the most oft told tragedies in human history.

Had the Great Britain of 1912 not been so hideously class-bound, more of the 1,500 or so victims would surely have survived.

The Duff Cooper's story is reasonably straightforward, but hugely compelling. The couple escaped the sinking in a half-full lifeboat – Cosmo clearly not in the women and children first category –w hich failed to turn back despite the cries of those drowning in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. It was alleged that the Baronet paid the lifeboat crew £5 each to keep rowing to safety.

We will probably never know of the Duff Coopers' real actions that night. The British inquiry into the sinking cleared Sir Cosmo of paying the bribe in strikingly unjudicial terms and a letter from Christiana's secretary, who also survived, tells of Cosmo being forced by his wife to join the lifeboat as there were no other women on that part of the deck.

Against that, the British inquiry was hideously deferential and something akin to a whitewash, while you'd expect the couple's secretary to write what she did, wouldn't you?

Why do I bring up this well worn story again? It's just that every time friends, family and colleagues come over from England, they want to visit the damn Titanic Museum.

I've been five or six times now and feel like charging the place for my services as a guide.

I was at it again last weekend. And every time, it is the black and white formal photographic portraits of the Duff Coopers that set me thinking. They certainly would not be my kind of people. As the son of a Tilbury docker, I'm pretty sure I would have been in Third Class on that voyage.

The Duff Coopers would not have given a damn for those like me crammed gasping for air down below as the vessel took on water. But on Saturday, as I looked again at their sternly posed pictures, festooned with vulgar trappings of wealth, it's hard not to think of oneself in their well-heeled shoes.

What would I have done in the circumstances?

The success of the James Cameron movie – and now our own museum – has ensured the Duff Coopers live on in perpetual infamy when they might have been long forgotten, bygone products of a thankfully bygone age.

Now, every morning when the museum manager switches on the lights of that impressive dock-side building, there are the Duff Coopers waiting for the verdicts of tens of thousands of people visiting from all over the world, to be judged again in a neverending public tribunal of opinion from which they have no escape. You could almost feel sorry for them.

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