There’s something about the magnitude and timing of the sinking of the Titanic that makes it almost irresistible for people to turn it into a sort of fable. The sinking of the “unsinkable” ship, the largest ship of its kind built up to that time, seems like a perfect example of hubris, and the fact that the wreck occurred just two years before the outbreak of the Great War (which perhaps more than any event defines the beginning of “Modern Times”) allows the Titanic to serve as a symbol of all that was bad and good about the world before the world before the War.
One of the things that most people are pretty sure they know about the sinking of the Titanic is that many of the first class passengers survived while those traveling third class were kept below decks and perished in far greater numbers. This fits well with the image of rigid class stratification in the pre-War years.
It is certainly true that a much greater percentage of third class passengers died in the sinking than first and second class passengers, however, the images popularized by James Cameron’s movie of third class passengers being locked below decks by the viciously classist crew appear to be fiction. The question of whether third class passengers were actively kept from the lifeboats was examined during Lord Mersey’s official investigation of the wreck and his conclusions were as follows:
“It has been suggested before the Enquiry that the third-class passengers had been unfairly treated; that their access to the boat deck had been impeded; and that when at last they reached that deck the first and second-class passengers were given precedence in getting places in the boats. There appears to have been no truth in these suggestions. It is no doubt true that the proportion of third-class passengers saved falls far short of the proportion of the first and second class, but this is accounted for by the greater reluctance of the third-class passengers to leave the ship, by their unwillingness to part with their baggage, by the difficulty in getting them up from their quarters, which were at the extreme ends of the ship, and by other similar causes. The interests of the relatives of some of the third-class passengers who had perished were in the hands of Mr. Harbinson, who attended the Enquiry on their behalf. He said at the end of his address to the court: ‘I wish to say distinctly that no evidence has been given in the course of this case which would substantiate a charge that any attempt was made to keep back the third-class passengers … I desire further to say that there is no evidence that when they did reach the boat deck there was any discrimination practiced either by the officers or by the sailors in putting them into the boats.’
“I am satisfied that the explanation of the excessive proportion lost is not to be found in the suggestion that the third-class passengers were in any way unfairly treated. They were not unfairly treated.”
The biggest predictor of who survived and who drowned on the Titanic was age and sex. 74.35% of women survived, across all classes, 52.29% children survived, and only 20% of men survived. This site provides a stark graph which shows the survival rates by class, sex and age.
As you can see, a greater percentage of third class women and children survived than first class men. This was not by accident. In accordance with the Victorian ideal of protecting “women and children first” when a ship was sinking (a practice made famous by the wreck of the HMS Birkenhead), Captain Smith had ordered that women and children be loaded on the lifeboats first. There were not enough lifeboats on the Titanic to save all the passengers and crew (this was common at the time). The lifeboats were rated to carry a total of 1178 people, while there were some 2227 people on the ship (908 crew and 1319 passengers). In theory, this means that following Captain Smith’s orders, it should have been possible to save all the women and children on board (534 total) plus an even greater number of men. However, in the early stages of boat loading, many passengers were unwilling to leave the apparently steady ship for the tiny boats, and some officers took a strict view that no men should be allowed onto lifeboats until all women and children were evacuated. The result was that many of the earlier lifeboats were not actually full when launched.
The sense in which chivalry took precedence over class is exemplified by the accounts of American millionaire Colonel John Jacob Astor IV’s last hours:
When Second Officer Charles Lightoller arrived on A Deck to finish loading Lifeboat 4, Astor helped his wife with her maid and nurse into it. Astor then asked if he might join his wife because she was in ‘a delicate condition’; however, Lightoller told him that men were not to be allowed to enter until all the women and children had been loaded. Astor stood back and simply asked Lightoller for the boat number. The lifeboat was lowered at 1:55 am and Astor stood alone while others tried to free the remaining collapsible boats; he was last seen on the starboard bridge wing, smoking a cigarette with Jacques Futrelle. A half hour later, the ship disappeared beneath the water. Madeleine, her nurse, and her maid survived. Astor and his valet, Victor Robbins, did not.
Louis Garrett’s eyewitness account stated: “What a sight! Most of the lifeboats were gone. The crew was permitting women and children only to board the lifeboats—there were not enough for everyone. We saw women crying, not wanting to leave their husbands; husbands begging their wives and children to hurry and get into the lifeboats. Amid this complete pandemonium and mass hysteria stood my sister and I, two immigrant children, unable to speak English, frightened beyond belief, crying and looking for help. The last lifeboat was being loaded. A middle-aged gentleman was with his very young, pregnant wife. He helped her into the lifeboat, then looked back to the deck and saw others wanting to get aboard. He kissed his wife good-bye, and, returning to the deck, grabbed the first person in his path. Fortunately, I was there in the right place at the right time and he put me into the lifeboat. I screamed for my sister who had frozen from fright. With the help of others, she also was pushed into the lifeboat. Who was the gallant man who performed this kind act? We were told he was John Jacob Astor IV. At that time he was 45 years old and his wife, Madeleine, was 19. They were traveling to the United States because they wanted their child to be born there. Many newspaper stories were written that told how John Jacob Astor gave up his life for a young immigrant. The Astor family records indicate that, according to Mrs. Astor, Mr. Astor had words with a crewman who tried to prevent him from helping his wife into the lifeboat. He did so anyway. And, as I said, he kissed her and, returning to the deck, began helping others into the lifeboat.”
There’s a modern tendency to see such issues in terms of moral worth or rights. Is a woman or child’s life worth more than a man’s? Does a woman have more of a right to life than a man? This is not, however, I think the way that society at the time saw such issues. The turn-of-the-century chivalric ideal was instead based on extrapolating the feelings of the family out to society as a whole. Just as any man would naturally wish to save the life of his wife and children, even at the expense of his own, it was seen as the duty of society as a whole to protect the lives of women and children in such a situation, acting as their husbands and fathers would themselves have wanted to do.
In 1931, a memorial was erected to in Washington DC dedicated to the men who died on the Titanic. The statue is, to be honest, a fairly ugly example of ’30s sculpture, but the sentiments are admirable.