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Who Owned the Titanic?
Was the Titanic a British or American ship?
One hundred years later
April 15th, 1912
It's over a hundred years since RMS Titanic was lost with such tragic consequences. Millions of words have been written about it, there have been numerous inquiries and hundred of miles of film have been devoted to the sinking of this 'unsinkable' ship.
Because the Titanic was sailing from Southampton to New York, because she was built in Ireland, because her crew was largely British, many of us - myself included until recently - assume that the ship was British-owned.
In fact, the owner was American.
The White Star Line
The Ismay family
The name of the White Star Line is familiar to all of us who are interesting in the history and demise of this ship. And it's true that this was originally a British company, created by Thomas Ismay.
When he died in 1899, the directorship of the company passed to his eldest son, Bruce (pictured on the right).
Bruce Ismay was on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and he survived. This became incredibly controversial and in the first inquiry, which took place in the States just after the loss of the ship, it became generally accepted that Ismay was a coward who had caused the loss of the ship and the huge loss of life.
A Night to Remember
The book and film about the Titanic
These were widely regarded as the most accurate depictions of the loss of the ship. Neither treated Bruce Ismay very kindly. You may recall that Ismay was shown in the film as a rather ineffectual man, dressed in his pajamas throughout the panic-stricken hours before the sinking.
When the survivors landed in New York, they were immediately subpoenaed by a senate inquiry in which Ismay also came out quite badly.
The newspapers were particularly virulent, particularly those owned by W. R. Hearst who was an old adversary of Ismay's.
But in fact, the ship was American-owned
As you can see, Ismay had sold the entire White Star Line to American tycoon J.P.Morgan thirteen years before the Titanic went down. Why?
Morgan's aim was to monopolise the ocean traffic between Europe and the Unite States. He owned a huge conglomerate the International Mercantile Marine that had gradually acquired most of the shipping companies that crossed the Atlantic.
Ismay was encouraged to sell by several people whose opinion he respected. Under part of the agreement he was retained as White Star Line's managing director.
As can be imagined, this was viewed with differences of opinion between the two countries. The United States naturally saw this as a good thing. The British,on the other hand, in general hated the idea of losing its ships to America. 'What' they asked prophetically 'would happen if there was to be a war?'
By the time of the sinking of the Titanic, Ismay was planning to retire from the business. His departure from the company was planned for December 1912.
A heroic survivor
Charles Lightoller was a senior officer aboard the ship. He is generally regarded as one of the heroes of the disaster, if not the hero.
Why wasn't Ismay seen in a similar light?
It was said that Ismay:
- As the 'owner' of the Titanic he should have 'gone down with the ship'
- Took a place in a lifeboat then there were women and children still aboard
- Encouraged the captain to sail at dangerous speeds
- Was evasive when asked questions about the sinking at the American inquiry
Were these accusations valid?
When Ismay returned to Britain after the senate inquiry, he was hailed as a hero. The British press answered the accusations above as follows:
- He was not the owner of the ship but the managing director of the British office of the American owners
- The lifeboat he entered was the last to leave the ship and there were no women or children on that deck at the time
- Ismay, in common with everyone else in the shipping business, knew that the Titanic could not compete with the Cunard liners when it came to speed
- He was not aware that the purpose of the inquiry was to apportion blame but that it was simply a matter of collecting personal accounts
Ismay insisted, and the British press agreed, that he had no official position on board the ship and that his presence was that of a mere passenger. He could exert no influence over the captain,officers and crew even had he wished to do so.
How to Survive the Titanic
This is an extremely thorough account of the Titanic's sinking, the Ismay family and the events that followed the disaster. It is immaculately researched and contains details from family correspondence that has never been revealed before.
This is highly recommended and in addition to hardback and paperback versions,is also available for your Kindle.
A mysterious love story
The book that you see on the right has three hundred pages so it's impossible for me to tell you about every story it contains. But amongst the fascinating new revelations is the story of Ismay's curious shipboard romance.
On the Titanic,he became acquainted with an American woman - a lady from the upper echelons of society. She struck him as being incredibly sympathetic and wise. She too survived the shipwreck but became a widow when her husband was lost in the disaster.
By 1912, Bruce Ismay was disillusioned with his marriage. At forty two years old, he was susceptible to the charms of another woman. When he returned to England he continued to correspond with the woman he had met on the ship and it is obvious from his previously unpublished letters that she saw - and hoped for - a future for them together.
You can learn more about this - and the Titanic disaster in general - from the book you see here.
Inadequate provisions for evacuation
The greatest accusation levelled at the owners of the ship was that there were not enough lifeboats for the full number of passengers and crew. Ismay was also blamed for the design of the ship and the fact that far from being 'unsinkable' it was at the bottom of the ocean within just a couple of hours of hitting the iceberg.
However, inadequate though they undoubtedly were, the ship had more lifeboats than the local regulations required. Ismay also was not involved with the design or the building of the ship.
Thomas Andrews, who designed the ship, was also on board for the maiden voyage and did not survive.
This ship was within a few miles of the Titanic when she hit the iceberg. Even though the crew of the Californian saw the distress rockets fired by the liner and received various radio transmissions, the captain did not react to these signals.
In the view of the inquiries that took place, and also in the view of modern experts, there would have been little loss of life - if any - had the Californian reacted and hurried to the stricken ship.
The Californian was also owned by International Mercantile Marine.