The White Star Line, a British steamship company, faced a challenge in the 1900’s. Its rival, the Cunard Line, had built smaller but faster steamships, and threatened the White Line’s traditional routes to America. Bruce Ismay, the Director of the White Line, decided that to counter the threat by constructing larger and more opulent vessels. From this decision came the ‘Olympic’ class of ships, which set the standard for large passenger cruisers of the era.
first, eponymously named Olympic, set sail on her maiden voyage in 1911. With
decks, a length of 883 feet and a height of 175 feet, and designed by the notable naval architect Thomas Andrews, its size eclipsed anything seen on the seas so far. Unfortunately, within a year of its launch, it collided with the HMS Hawke, a warship designed to sink others by ramming them with its reinforced bow. The Olympic’s hull was breached, but somehow it made its way back to port.
The White Star Line next launched the Titanic on the tenth of April, 1912. It sank five days later. Its first class quarters were the epitome of luxury, with a gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries, fine china, several restaurants and well-appointed cabins. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers, over 1,500 died, making it the deadliest peacetime marine disaster.
Being gluttons for punishment, the White Star Line launched the Britannic in 1914, with the same unfortunate result. When the First World War started, it was leased by the Royal Navy and served as a hospital ship. On the 21st of November, 1916, it struck a German mine while sailing in the Aegean Sea. The explosion ripped open her hull and she sunk in less than an hour. Fortunately, having learned its lessons, the company had installed sufficient lifeboats and, of the 1,605 persons on board, only thirty died.
As incredible as it may seem, there was one person on board of all three ships when they sank, though she barely survived the disasters. Her name was Violet Jessup and she worked as a stewardess for the While Line Company. She inherited the love of the sea from her mother, who worked as a ship stewardess until she became too ill to continue. Jessop was twenty-one years of age but she kept getting rejected at job interviews. The employers found her “too pretty,” fearing problems with crew and passengers. Indeed, over the course of her career, she received three marriage proposals, including one from an extremely wealthy first-class passenger.
When she appeared for a job with the White Line Company, she wore old clothes and made herself look haggard. She got the job. Her first appointment was with the Olympic, then the Titanic and then, the Britannic. While she was unhurt from the Olympic disaster and was ordered into a lifeboat (as she was carrying a baby in her arms) aboard the Titanic, she almost lost her life during the sinking of the Britannic.
She jumped into the waters as the ship went underwater. The sea sucked her under, towards the ship’s propellers. Her head struck the keel, arresting her momentum and she was able to surface. Years later, when she went to a doctor complaining of persistent headaches, it was discovered that she had suffered a fracture of her skull. Displaying enormous fortitude, she continued working on large ships for another thirty-four years, until her retirement at age sixty-three.
The White Star Line did not survive its disasters. It was bought by the Royal Mail Packet Company in 1927, and in 1933 merged with its old rival, the Cunard Line.