31 March 2015
In the summer of 1907 J Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line and American financier J P Morgan came up with a plan to outdo their main rivals, Cunard, who had just launched the Lusitania and the Mauretania, the fastest passenger ships in service. Rather than try to compete by building a speedier ship, Ismay thought size was the way forward and suggested a new class of liners the largest and most luxurious in the world. Thus the seeds were sown for three new ships, RMS Olympic, HMHS Britannic and RMS Titanic. Little did they know the name Titanic would go down in history in a way neither of them could have anticipated. My Tuesday walk took in some of the places that are inextricably linked with her.
Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff’s design drawings for these Olympic Class ships included an inovative system of watertight compartments and electronic watertight doors that would make them practically unsinkable. Titanic and Olympic were built side by side with Olympic’s hull laid down in December 1908 and Titanic’s in March 1909. Although the two ships were virtually identical Ismay had a steel screen with sliding windows installed on Titanic’s promenade deck to give first class passengers extra shelter. This also made Titanic heavier than her sister and, therefore, the largest ship afloat at her launch on 31 May 1911. Just before the launch a worker was killed by a piece of falling wood, the ninth shipyard worker to die during her construction. Perhaps this was an omen.
Over the course of the next year, Titanic was fitted out with engines, funnels and all the opulent furnishings and fittings that would make her so famous. On 2 April 1912, after her sea trials, she was deemed seaworthy and, at eight in the evening, she left Belfast for Southampton. Twenty eight hours later, at midnight on 4 April, she was towed into berth 44 of Southampton Docks. Unfortunately, as I no longer have access to the docks, I couldn’t visit the berth but I began my Titanic walk at Dock Gate 4. Opened in 1912, it was then called White Star Dock and was built to become home to the three new liners.
Just inside the gate there is a small stone memorial with a bronze plaque in memory of the passengers and crew of the ill fated ship. This is still a working port used by some of the biggest cruise ships in the world, ships that would dwarf Titanic and her sisters. It is not the place to be trespassing so I asked the guard on duty and he kindly saw me across the road with a warning to be careful. Buffeted by the gale force wind, a last gasp from the traditionally windy month of March, I stood for a moment in silence and thought about all those lost lives.
Titanic’s arrival was good news for the people of Southampton. More than seventeen thousand men were out of work after the National Coal Strike of 1912, their families living on charity handouts or by pawning their clothes to buy food. On 6 April men queued outside the White Star offices to sign on as crew for the ship. Just a few hundred yards from the dock gate it was my next port of call. More than seven hundred Southampton men, many from the poorest area of the city, were taken on. Four of every five crew members were Southampton citizens.
That grand wooden door with its scrolled portico has seen both joy and grief. How happy those men must have been to be employed, knowing they’d secured the future of their families. As I stood outside with the wind blowing and traffic roaring I imagined hats thrown in the air and delighted faces. Some must have been disappointed and left, pulling up their coat collars and bowing their heads in despair. Just nine days later it was a different story. Then, the families of those happy men gathered outside the very same door, desperate for news of their loved ones. A small plaque commemorates the event.
There were also twelve passengers who called Southampton home. For most passengers though, their Titanic experience would have begun with a rail journey, their first view of the city was as they stepped onto the platform of Southampton Terminus Station just across the road from the White Star Dock. The station building, designed by Sir William Tite and built in 1839, still stands today, although it is now a casino. Many of the first class passengers would have been met under the glazed canopy by porters from the adjoining South Western Hotel.
These days trains rarely run on the track behind the station and all are goods trains heading for the docks. Back in April 1912 though, the platform would have been bustling with wealthy Titanic passengers and their luggage excitedly looking forward to a luxurious cruise to New York, ladies in feathered hats and furs, men in bowlers and jaunty boaters. Standing there under the canopy I could almost hear the hiss of the stream, smell the coal dust and see the porters dashing about with huge trunks.
Those lucky enough to afford a first class ticket were whisked from the platform into the opulence of the South Western Hotel. Here they could actually check in for the Titanic and, on the morning of departure, another train was laid on to take them right to the ship. Built in 1872 right beside Southampton Terminus Station, the hotel was designed by John Norton to serve passengers, mostly bound for Southampton Docks. The French Renaissance influenced design with elaborate windows and wrought iron edged balconies would give the passengers a taste of the grandeur to come. In fact, the main staircase was said to be the prototype for the grand staircase on the Titanic.
Among the Titanic passengers who stayed at the hotel was J Bruce Ismay. It must have pleased him to look out from those beautiful windows at the ship he had conceived sitting in the dock. Over the years the hotel has hosted many distinguished guests. Amongst them, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower who planned the D-Day invasion there. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother even danced in the Wedgwood ballroom which is still in existence but now as a bar.
Sadly, it is no longer a hotel. For many years it was used as offices for British Rail. In fact, it wasn’t until the late seventies, just before I started work at British Rail, that they moved to Overline House by the modern day station. Colleagues who had worked in the old building often said how much they missed its splendour. It went on to become home to BBC South for several years. These days it is called South Western House and the upper floors are ninety four luxury apartments and penthouses while the ground floor is fifteen studio apartments. Unfortunately the price range is more suited to a footballer or rock star than someone like me.
As I left South Western House behind and was half blown across Queens Park, I couldn’t help wondering if any of those first class passengers took a stroll on their last night on shore. Of course, not all the two thousand two hundred and twenty three souls who sailed on Titanic were weathly or privildged. There were second class and steerage passengers too, not to mention the nine hundred or so crew members on the ship. The next leg of my walk would explore some of the places they would have spent their last night.