The Coal Strike & Titanic's Engineering Crew

Titanic is often taken as a singular event. It was so unusually and profoundly tragic that in some ways, it's become more myth than fact.

But its now-iconic status does not negate historical context. It had many influences and witnessed unique circumstances that led it from the docks at Southampton to the iceberg.

One of these circumstances was the National Coal Strike.

British coal miners, circa 1910. From the George Grantham Bain collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The Coal Strike & Titanic's Engineering Crew

From February 22 to April 6, 1912, coal miners in Britain went on strike to protest for a living minimum wage, which was unprecedented at the time.

In a steam-powered society, coal became scarce, fast.

Boiler being lifted into R.M.S. Olympic (Titanic's elder sister.) Taken November 9, 1910.


In response, the White Star Line announced that Titanic's speed would drop from 23 knots to 20.

In the wake of the strike, cabins on Titanic’s older sister, Olympic, reportedly housed all the coal that the White Star Line could manage to hoard.

By early April, the coal strikers at last received their demands and the strike was past.

Yet the coal shortage remained.

White Star, adamant to keep Titanic's scheduled maiden voyage of April 10, culled coal from every ship in the vicinity. The Oceanic, Adriatic, Philadelphia were all ported as a result.

By April 10, 1912, a representative of the British Board of Trade had declared that “the coal on board [the RMS Titanic] is certified to amount to 5,892 tons, which is sufficient to take the ship to her next coaling port.”

Passengers of ported vessels were forced to find a new ship to travel on.

Most elected to travel on Titanic.

Unfortunately, workers from these docked ships faced a dilemma of their own.

In particular, the so-called "black gangs"—ship firemen and stokers, so named because they were always caked in soot—were desperate for work, because so many having been recently laid off due to the strike.

To snare a job on Titanic as a fireman was, therefore, some fine luck.

All in all, there were approximately 250 firemen on board when Titanic set sail.

They worked in unbroken rotating shifts: 8-12, 12-4, and 4-8. Rotating meant that block was worked by the same men, A.M. and P.M.

Completely removed from the passengers and most of the crew, the firemen took their breaks to sleep, eat, smoke, and spend lots of time with their "52 friends"--otherwise known as a deck of cards.

R.M.S. Olympic's boilers, which were identical to Titanic's. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic made impact with the iceberg during the fireman’s 8-12 watch.

In general, despite their location in the depths of the ship, the firemen had advanced notice of the damage and made their way to the deck with haste, many carrying their kits with them.

Being able-bodied men, some were assigned to lifeboats to row. Others tried to save themselves regardless, and were ejected from the boats—except for a fair few who escaped when the last boats were launched less discriminately.

Lead Stoker Frederick Barrett was one of these.

Fred jumped into Lifeboat 13.

Then Lifeboat 13 drifted directly underneath Lifeboat 15, which was being lowered simultaneously.

Horrified screams from 13 to stop lowering 15 were unheard in the melee, and 15 pressed down, nearly crushing 13 and everyone in it.

Fred rushed forward through the other passengers with a knife in his teeth, to cut the falls and push Lifeboat 13 away.

He saved dozens of lives in a matter of moments.

"Leaving the Sinking Liner" by Charles Dixon for The Graphic, published April 27, 1912, depicting lifeboats 13 & 15's near-calamity.


Along with other firemen, Fred Barrett also experienced hypothermia, because he was only wearing a paper-thin shirt. This attire was typical for the boiler room, but not conducive to the mid-Atlantic ocean.

Fred, who had immediately set to rowing, eventually had to relinquish the tiller. A female passenger then draped a shawl over him, and he fell asleep.

Unlike Fred, most of the firemen were left to fend for themselves in the open sea, such as stoker Arthur John Priest, who was miraculously rescued from the water in what is most commonly identified as Lifeboat 15.

Of the 163 firemen on Titanic, 45 were reported to have survived. Three of the 13 Lead Stokers survived.

Titanic’s firemen worked tirelessly for hours without reprieve, shoveling heavy coal into the mouths of furnaces blazing with fire, consumed by bitter billows of smoke.

Because of this, they usually worked shirtless, or wearing only a vest or suspenders. Being submerged in frigid ocean water, mere degrees above freezing, with little or no clothes from the waist up, was a particularly loud death knell for many firemen.

Frederick Barrett, who was Lead Stoker in Boiler Room 6.


Additionally, there were 73 coal trimmers on board who handled the coal, from loading to maintenance to delivery. Twenty survived.

When Titanic sank, it is estimated that 2,500 tons of coal accompanied it.

To date, coal is found throughout the 15 square miles of ocean floor that constitutes the wreck site.

As it turned out, the initial wound and subsequent splitting of the ship scattered coal like a trail of breadcrumbs as Titanic slowed to a stop following impact with the iceberg.

More recent forensic studies suggest that its bow planed forward, and its stern spiraled like a helicopter blade as it descended.

And the coal trail certainly suggests as much.

On September 1, 1985, mastering an ROV-robot team named Argo and Jason, respectively, Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic.

Where previous expeditions to locate the shipwreck had used sonar, Ballard used his previous experiences and elected to search for, and follow, the debris field.

The first identifier during that expedition was a Titanic boiler, distinguished by its 3 doors—a type of boiler that only the White Star Olympic Class had.

It was this distinctive boiler and the aforementioned trail of coal that led the Ballard expedition to discover Titanic’s bow.

In 1994, coal from the wreck was curated and brought to the surface for sale, in order to fund further and more extensive expeditions to Titanic.

This was condoned by RMS Titanic, Inc., which was granted Salvor-in-Possession rights of the wreck site in that same year.

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