Why does the story of the Titanic still have the power to move us, even though it happened more than a hundred years ago?
I moved near to Southampton some years ago and soon became aware of the scar that the loss of the Titanic over a hundred years ago had made on this proudly seafaring city. There is hardly a street here which did not suffer the loss of a member of their family. Even now memories abound, kept alive by the tales told to relatives, and passed down through grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
The ship was supposedly bringing work and a new prosperity to the city. Instead it brought heartache, and the stricken faces of those desperately waiting for news. So many never came back and those that did were never the same. What they witnessed that night would haunt them forever.
Waiting outside the White Star offices for news.
“The sounds of people drowning are something that I cannot describe to you...It’s the most dreadful sound and there is a terrible silence that follows it.”
Eva Hart, survivor.
But not everyone is so intimately affected so why do they care? Perhaps it’s the mythology constructed around the disaster including many films, books and television series. Gradually it became a soap opera in which tales of heroism and romance abound – Ida Strauss refusing to leave her husband, Molly Brown rowing a lifeboat to safety and Harold Lowe who kept going back to search for survivors; the brave bandsmen who played whilst the ship sank. More dastardly deeds were also remembered, for instance the role of Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line.
In 2012, Southampton commemorated the centenary of the disaster in many different ways. One of the most effective was also very simple
Titanic - "From Prow to Stern" - Life-Size - Southampton, England - East Park - 14-15 April 2012
An outline of the deck of the doomed ship was marked out in a city park and just walking round it made it easy to imagine the awe of those observing the great ship’s launch. What also became apparent from information boards was the hubris of the management, only providing enough lifeboats for half the passengers. Even worse, the ones that were provided weren’t properly filled.
A moving vigil was held when a candle was lit for each person who had died
Image copyright 20th Century Fox ,Paramount Pictures
Naturally we’re shocked by the hierarchical attitudes of the ship’s officers in the films but may put that down to the film-makers showing events in a more dramatic light. The statistics speak for themselves though and still shock. Of the 706 third class passengers only 178 survived (24%) whilst the 325 First Class passengers fared better – 202 survived (61%). Ironically many of the dead were attempting to make a new life in a world where they believed class would not matter.
Victorian Britain had appeared to be innovative and confident but there were firm rules governing people’s position in society. All still seemed well during the brief flamboyant reign of Edward VII but cracks were appearing. The Titanic disaster proved to be a microcosm of a country in which there was now no certainty and very little justice if you were poor.
Life has changed a great deal since 1912 and society is much more egalitarian. However despite vast social changes there are still concerns about the gap between the rich and the poor and we have pressing fears as to the effectiveness and safety of scientific innovation. This is why the legends around the sinking of the Titanic still have the power to move us.
Here is a video showing genuine footage of The Titanic
Titanic Disaster - Genuine Footage (1911-1912)
Southampton is a vibrant and dynamic city proud of its maritime heritage. However many people here still pause once a year on the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, taking the time, not to celebrate, but to remember and mourn.
EDITOR: This book about The Titanic can be ordered directly from Amazon by clicking on the image above.