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“Honor and Glory Crowning Time”: The Grand Staircase

"Honor and Glory Crowning Time": The Grand Staircase

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot think of Titanic without seeing, in the mind’s eye, the Grand Staircase.

And for good reason. The Grand Staircase was installed in all three Olympic-class vessels, and was the opulent centerpiece of each ship. 

Titanic’s Grand Staircase, in particular, has achieved an almost otherworldly status, though, because it’s so often recreated in media.

Despite the impression this often gives, the Grand Staircase was, of course, designed to do what any proper staircase does: functionally connect floors.

The Grand Staircase reached from Boat Deck all the way to E Deck. Elevators were also located just forward of the Staircase from A through E Decks.

First-Class elevators on RMS Olympic, circa 1911.


The Grand Staircase was constructed from Irish oak in the William & Mary style.

And at its top was an astonishing and elaborate dome made from glass and wrong iron, from the center of which hung a gilted crystal chandelier.

“It was an object of great splendour,” proclaimed the White Star Line. “A fitting crown as it were these the largest and finest steamers in all the world.”

The glass dome was backlit during the evening hours thanks to a protective box that was installed around it, to protect it from the worst of the sea elements.

On A Deck, the floor of the landing was comprised of linoleum tiles, which were milk-colored and interspersed with onyx medallions.  Blue sofas and armchairs, as well as potted palms, decorated this landing, as well as each subsequent level of the Grand Staircase.

There was also a piano on the Boat Deck level, so the band could entertain in the stairwell.

At the base of the Grand Staircase on A Deck was a bronze cherub holding a torch; replicas are thought to have decorated the bases of B and C Decks. On D Deck, the base of the Staircase boasted an electrically lit gilt candelabra.

Color illustration of Grand Staircase from White Star Brochure, circa 1911.


White Star released a promotional brochure in 1911 for both Olympic and Titanic, and did they love them some Grand Staircase.

We leave the deck and pass through one of the doors which admit us to the interior of the vessel, and, as if by magic, we at once lose feeling that we are on board a ship, and seem instead to be entering the hall of some great house on shore. Dignified and simple oak panelling covers the walls, enriched in a few places by a bit of elaborate carved work... 

In the middle of the hall rises a gracefully curving staircase, its balustrade supported by light scrollwork of iron with occasional touches of bronze, in the form of flowers and foliage. Above all a great dome of iron and glass throws a flood of light down the stairway...

Looking over the balustrade, we see the stairs descending to many floors below, and on turning aside we find we may be spared the labour of mounting or descending by entering one of the smoothly-gliding elevators which bear us quickly to any other of the numerous floors of the ship we may wish to visit.

As written in the White Star promotional brochure "Olympic" / & "Titanic" / Largest Steamers in the World," 1911.

The portion of the Staircase that you’re probably envisioning right now—with the glass dome and the famous clock—was A Deck, which was considered dual-level.

The interior balcony with the ornate arched windows and potted ferns (that looked down onto A Deck with the dome directly overhead) was Boat Deck.

Grand Staircase, Boat Deck Level, on RMS Olympic. Taken by William Herman Rau.


The Grand Staircase was accessible exclusively to First-Class passengers. It functioned as the point of entry to First-Class public rooms and staterooms; the rooms that could be accessed from each deck were as follows.

Boat Deck: opposing corridors granted access to the Officers Quarters and the Marconi Room. The entrance to the First-Class Gymnasium was next door to the Starboard entrance to the Grand Staircase.

A Deck: access to the Reading & Writing Room, as well as the Lounge, which were entered through revolving doors. Also granted entrance to the Promenade Deck, and First-Class staterooms.

B Deck: Both of the “Millionaires’ Suites” were accessible from B Deck, as well as the most lavish of the First-Class staterooms.

C Deck: The Purser’s office, as well as the Enquiries office, were immediately off the Staircase to the Starboard side. More First-Class staterooms were also accessible via companionways.

D Deck: Opened directly onto the Reception Room, and the Dining Saloon was adjacent to that. First-Class staterooms were once again accessible behind the staircase.

E Deck: Only cabins were accessible via E Deck. From here, a modest staircase could be taken down to F Deck to get to certain athletics facilities that were located on F Deck, such as the swimming pool and the Turkish baths.

The well-known ornate clock on A Deck, which was located directly below the glass dome, actually had a name, so to speak. It was called “Honour and Glory crowning Time.” 

The clock was carved from solid oak, and its design was inspired by a "monumental" chimney that had been designed for none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.

That chimney was illustrated in the publication “Recueil de decorations interieures” in 1812; it was made of white marble and gilt bronze, and was installed in 1810. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in a fire in 1871.

Plate of "monumental" chimney, designed for Napoleon Bonaparte by Percier and Fontaine, 1812.


“Honour and Glory crowning Time” was a so-called slave clock.

This meant that it, along with 24 other clocks within the ship, were beholden to a master clock located in the wheel house that all worked in synchronity. There were two master clocks on Titanic, each of which controlled 25 slave clocks.

A man by the name of Charles Wilson carved the central portion of the clock.

Mr. Wilson recalled that when Titanic departed from Belfast on April 3, 1912, the timepiece was not ready. A circular mirror, therefore, was installed as a holdover until the clock face was ready.

Charles Wilson, therefore, reasoned that the completion of clock had to have occurred while Titanic was docked in Southampton, between April 3, 1912, and her departure on April 10.

Grand Staircase of RMS Olympic, first published in "The Shipbuilder" in 1911.


While A Deck had the allegorical clock, Decks B through E had oil paintings installed on their landings. 

There was also an Aft Grand Staircase located between the third and fourth funnels; unlike its counterpart, it only reached only from A Deck to C Deck. From the Aft Grand Staircase, passengers could reach the Smoking Room and Lounge, as well as the A La Carte Restaurant the Cafe Parisien. 

The Grand Staircase does not exist within the wreck. It is thought that each segment of the Staircase broke apart and floating out during the sinking, or was shattered by the hydraulic blast caused by the bow’s impact with the seabed. Otherwise, it simply rotted away prior to the discovery of the wreck in 1985. 

Where the Grand Staircase once was, is a deep and lightless well. But this has allowed for quite convenient ROV entry into Decks A through D.

Recognizable elements of the foyers that surrounded the Grand Staircase are still visible and intact, such as ceiling fixtures and a few carved pillars, as well as oak beams.

The Aft Grand Staircase was summarily decimated, because it was located where Titanic ruptured and broke. 

It should be noted that all of the photos included herein are of Titanic's elder sister, the RMS Olympic. No photos of Titanic's Grand Staircase are known to exist.

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“Here, There, and Everywhere”: Chief Designer Thomas Andrews

"Here, There, and Everywhere": Chief Designer Thomas Andrews

As a child, Thomas Andrews, Jr., was fond of horses and beekeeping. He was a competitive cricket player.

And of course, he really enjoyed boats.

Thomas Andrews. Taken on July 7, 1911.


Thomas, who often was called “Tommie”, was 16 years old when he was granted a privileged apprenticeship at Harland & Wolff in 1889. This was convenient, since his uncle was none other than Lord William Pirrie, partner of the firm.

Though Thomas's parents were still, of course, required to pay for the opportunity.

Lord William Pirrie's office at Harland & Wolff, where Thomas Andrews undoubtedly spent time. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


During this five-year apprenticeship, Thomas’s daytime hours were spent working in various departments, including the cabinetmakers and draughting office, throughout the firm. And at night, he attended technical college.

In late 1894, he took a proper job at the shipyard; in 1907, he became the managing director of the Draughting Office. Good news, that, as he was engaged to be married.

At the time, Thomas was engaged to Helen Reilly Barbour, who he called Nellie. Apparently, he had proposed to her rather abruptly back in 1906, according to a remorseful letter he sent to her on March 25 of that year. "My dear Nellie," he wrote, "I cannot tell you how much it grieves me to feel that I frightened or gave you any annoyance last night."

Nellie clearly forgave him for his impulsivity, though, and they married in 1908. They had a daughter, nicknamed Elba because of her initials, in 1910.

Thomas with his wife Nellie and daughter Elba. Taken November 29, 1910.


So it was in 1907, after having been promoted, that Thomas began a new project: a line of triplet luxury liners for the White Star Line, beginning with the R.M.S. Olympic.

The draughting office. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Now by the time of this well-earned promotion, "Tommie" was an extremely popular guy in the yard.

Vera Morrison, who is Nellie's daughter from her second marriage, recounted a story her mother had told her of Thomas’s popularity at Harland & Wolff.

He told Nellie when they were driving out of the shipyard one day together that all the workers who were coming out were his mates. He was so very popular and dearly loved, I think, by so many people.

This anecdote goes hand-in-hand with a biography of Thomas Andrews by Shan Bullock, which was published in 1912.

He would share his lunch with a mate, toil half the night in relief of a fellow-apprentice who had been overcome by sickness, or would plunge gallantly into a flooded hold to stop a leakage. “It seemed his delight,” writes a foreman, “to make those around him happy. His was ever the friendly greeting and the warm handshake and kind disposition.” Such testimony is worth pages of outside eulogy, and testimony of its kind, from all sorts and conditions, exists in abundance.

Despite his esteem, tenure, and status at the shipyard, some of Thomas’s suggestions for the White Star superliners—including a minimum of 46 lifeboats and watertight bulkheads reaching up to B Deck—went unheeded.

Deck plans of the R.M.S. Titanic, as used for reference in the Senate Inquiry.


Thomas had been on the maiden voyages of the Adriatic, Oceanic, and Olympic, so the choice to sail on Titanic was routine--so much so that Chief Baker Charles Joughin had a customary loaf of bread made especially for him at the start of each journey.

None of this is to say that Thomas wasn’t enthused about his newest ship. He wrote the following to Nellie while in Southampton.

The Titanic is now about complete and will I think do the old Firm credit tomorrow when we sail.

Henry Etches, a steward who had also worked on Olympic, attended to Thomas’s needs on board, taking him “some fruit and tea” and helping him to dress in his evening wear every night.

“That would be about a quarter or 20 minutes to 7, as a rule,” Etches said. “He was rather late in dressing.”

By all accounts, Thomas spent his time roaming all about the gargantuan ship looking for improvements to be made. He always took down the minutest of details in his notebook, such as an excess of screws in the stateroom hat hooks and the color of the red tiling on the promenade deck being just a touch too dark.

Etches testified to as much at the American inquiry. When asked by Senator Smith if Mr. Andrews had been busy and worked nights, Etches replied as follows.

He was busy the whole time… He had charts rolled up by the side of his bed, and he had papers of all descriptions on his table during the day… He was working all the time, sir. He was making notes of improvements; any improvements that could be made… during the day I met him in all parts, with workmen, going about. I mentioned several things to him, and he was with workmen having them attended to. The whole of the day he was working from one part of the ship to the other… I happened to meet him at different parts of Deck E more often than anywhere else.

According to Etches, he also knew that Thomas visited the boiler rooms, as he saw the suit that he wore when visiting the boilers discarded on Thomas’s bed.

Thomas’s perfectionism and meticulous attention to detail, however, should not be taken as an implication that he was not pleased with Titanic on the whole. He is reported to have said to first-class survivor Albert Dick, whom Thomas had befriended on board, “I believe her to be nearly as perfect as human brains can make her.”

Thomas routinely worked into the late hours, and is reported to have been awake and working at the time of the collision with the iceberg. Immediately thereafter, he was witnessed taking emergency tours of the ship. Per survivor Albert Dick, as reported in Shan Bullock’s biography of Thomas Andrews:

He was on hand at once and said that he was going below to investigate. We begged him not to go, but he insisted, saying that he knew the ship as no one else did and that he might be able to allay the fears of the passengers. He went.

Steward James Johnstone reported that while he was in the dining saloon, he saw Mr. Andrews run down toward the Boiler Room, followed by Captain Smith.

Johnstone said that while he was stuffing four oranges in his pockets, Thomas resurfaced. Johnstone followed him down to E-Deck, where he watched him descend further still to the mail rooms.

When he peered after Thomas running down the stairwell, he saw water flooding in.

Thomas, who was without a hat and had an insufficient coat for the ocean night-chill, was also witnessed personally seeing to getting passengers to wear their lifebelts and enter lifeboats throughout the entire sinking.

Jack Thayer wrote in his account that he and his parents were directly approached by Thomas.

We saw, as they passed, Mr. Ismay, Mr. Andrews and some of the ship’s officers. Mr. Andrews told us he did not give the ship much over an hour to live. We could hardly believe it, and yet if he said so, it must be true. No one was better qualified to know.

Excerpt from "The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic" by Jack Thayer.

Jack's encounter is hardly unique. Given Thomas’s famed congeniality and his apparent omnipresence on the ship, he was highly esteemed by many passengers and was often stopped for a comforting word or further information about what was really going on. He makes appearances in many survivor accounts.

The testimony of Mr. Etches at the Senate Inquiry sheds light on Thomas’s calm but urgent direction to the stewards, as well as attests to his overwhelming concern for the passengers.

[I saw Mr. Andrews at] 20 minutes past 12. He stopped me. I was going along B Deck, and he asked had I waked all my passengers… Mr. Andrews then told me to come down on C Deck with him, and we went down the pantry staircase together. Going down he told me to be sure and make the passengers open their doors, and to tell them the lifebelts were on top of the wardrobes and on top of the racks, and to assist them in every way I could to get them on, which I endeavored to do.

We walked along C Deck together. The purser was standing outside of his office, in a large group of ladies. The purser was asking them to do as he asked them, and to go back in their rooms and not to frighten themselves, but, as a preliminary caution, to put the lifebelts on, and the stewards would give them every attention. Mr. Andrews said: "That is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do," and, with that, he walked down the staircase to go on lower D Deck. That is the last I saw of Mr. Andrews.

Stewardess Mary Sloan likewise was awed by Thomas’s calm and determined selflessness, despite the fact that his face “had a look as though he were heart-broken”.

She said, “He was here, there, and everywhere, looking after everybody… thinking of everybody but himself.”

Stwardess Annie Robinson’s report likewise speaks to Thomas’s drive to protect those on board. After asking her to open up all the unoccupied rooms and distribute their lifebelts and blankets, as well as to make sure all the ladies had left their rooms, he gently chided her for not wearing her own lifebelt. Per the biography of Thomas Andrews written by Shan Bullock, their exchange went like this.

“Did I not tell you to put on your life-belt. Surely you have one?”

She answered, “Yes, but I thought it mean to wear it.”

“Never mind that,” said he. “Now, if you value your life, put on your coat and belt, then walk round the deck and let the passengers see you.”

“He left me then,” writes the stewardess, “and that was the last I saw of what I consider a true hero and one of whom his country has cause to be proud.”

All of his bravery and pro-activity is belied by perhaps the most famous of all Titanic’s oft-called Last Sightings: that of Thomas Andrews, standing mute, dazed, and lifebelt-less at the fireplace of the First-Class Smoking Room.

Starboard view of the First-Class Smoking Room on Olympic. Thomas Andrews was encountered by the fireplace in Titanic's identical room.


This comes from First-Class Steward John Stewart, who was one of two stewards charged with the Verandah Café. Per the Bullock biography, Stewart’s encounter went thusly.

[Stewart] saw him standing along in the smoking room, his arms folded over his breast and the belt lying on a table near him, "Aren't you going to have a try for it, Mr. Andrews?"

He never answered or moved. "Just looked like one stunned."

Thing is, this wasn’t the last sighting of Thomas Andrews.

And it was never purported to be.

While Thomas was indeed seen in the Smoking Room, the timeline for this particular Last Sighting is just plain off. Stewart stated that he saw Mr. Andrews only minutes before he took to Lifeboat 15, which left the ship at 1:40a.m. The ship did not sink until 2:20a.m.

It’s a heartbreaking moment for sure, but it was never set forth as Thomas’s last moments alive.

In truth, Bullock states directly thereafter that Thomas was seen on deck during Titanic' final few minutes; he was throwing deck chairs and anything else to hand overboard before being washed off the deck. And as per Mess Steward William Fitzpatrick and disclosed by the authors of “On a Sea of Glass,” he was last witnessed being washed off the bridge alongside or nearby Captain Smith.

Thomas's body was never recovered.

On April 19, 1912, the Andrews family in Belfast received the telegram they’d dreaded.

Interview Titanic’s officers. All unanimous Andrews heroic until death, thinking only safety others. Extend heartfelt sympathy to all.

He was 39 years old.

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“Titanic Behaved Splendidly”: Titanic’s Sea Trials

"Titanic Behaved Splendidly": Titanic's Sea Trials

Titanic’s sea trials—when the ship’s many safety features were tested in real time—were scheduled to begin on Sunday, April 1, 1912, but poor weather conditions and a detrimental northwesterly wind caused the trials to be postponed to Monday morning.

Aboard were just over 40 crewmembers. They were compensated an extra five shillings for the delay.

Captain Edward J. Smith.


The roster of officers reporting to Captain Smith for sea trials were as follows.

Chief Officer William McMaster Murdoch

First Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller

Second Officer David Blair

Third Officer Herbert John Pitman

Fourth Officer Joseph Groves Boxhall

Fifth Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe

Sixth Officer James Pell Moody

The four junior officers received telegrams from the White Star marine superintendent to report to the Liverpool offices at 9am on March 26th, to pick up their trains tickets for their trip to Belfast.

They arrived around noon the next day on March 27th and reported on board to Chief Officer Murdoch. Notably, in his deposition later, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe attested to a March 29th arrival.

Fifth Officer Lowe and Sixth Officer Moody were instructed to inspect the totality of starboard-side lifeboats, including the collapsibles. Together, they conducted an inventory of life-saving materials such as oars, sail riggings, and tarp; he also recalled that he noted one empty "bread tank" in each of the lifeboats but none in the collapsible boats, nor emergency lanterns in any of the boats at all.

Captain Edward J. Smith boarded on April 1st, and with him came an officer arrangement that upended the ship's commanding hierarchy. At the last minute, he announced his intention to bring on Henry Tingle Wilde as Chief Officer.

So William Murdoch and Charles Lightoller were both demoted to First and Second Officers, respectively.David Blair was dismissed from command altogether, which safeguarded the remaining junior officers from a reshuffle themselves.

Titanic Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde in Royal Naval dress.


When Former-Second Officer Blair disembarked in Southampton, he disembarked with his keys... including the key to the locker for the Crow’s Nest. This secure cabinet is where implements were housed for the lookouts.

Including binoculars.

George Hogg, a surviving lookout on Titanic, testified to the Senate regarding David Blair's actions as he was set to depart at Southampton, having been dismissed from his duties.

Mr. Blair was in the crow's-nest and gave me his glasses, and told me to lock them up in his cabin and to return him the keys... I locked [the binoculars] up... There were none when we left Southampton.

It is sometimes implied that Blair did this nefariously as some Shakespearean act of revenge due to his dismissal, but in reality, it was industry practice to lock up the binoculars when a ship was docked.

Other accounts state that David Blair took the binoculars with him because they were his own personal pair.

Regardless, Now-Second Officer Lightoller could not provide the lookouts with binoculars. He didn’t think too much of it, as there were other glasses on board somewhere and the lookouts could spot without them, being at such a height as the lookouts were, so he promised to pick up a new pair in New York City.

And that was that.

Charles H. Lightoller, who was demoted to Second Officer on Titanic.


Titanic was the second sibling in a set of triplets; her elder sister, Olympic, underwent her sea trials beginning on May 29, 1911, and ran for two days. They were not without difficulties.

According to Tom McCluskie, a historian for Harland & Wolff, “The extensive sea trials found that there was a number of problems. Chief architect Thomas Andrews himself wrote in his design notebook that Olympic’s hull was observed to “pant.”

As McCluskie describes it, “[Panting] means the hull—instead of being rigidly straight—is going in and out. Now it’s not a vast movement, it’s not going out three, four feet and coming in; it’s a matter only of inches. But really, it shouldn’t do that on a calm sea.”

This discovery led architect Thomas Andrews to implement changes to his nearly identical work-in-progress, Titanic. Per McCluskie, Andrews “made reference to it on the shell drawing which he modified for Titanic to include extra stiffening.”

Sister ships Olympic (close to dock) and Titanic. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Despite these changes and the flaws in Olympic that incited them, Titanic only undertook a single day of sea trials.

J. Bruce Ismay, White Star’s chairman, could not attend, nor could Lord William Pirrie owing to a bout of pneumonia. So he sent his nephew, Thomas Andrews—conveniently the ship’s lead designer—in his stead.

Around 6 a.m., Harland & Wolff’s own tug boat, called Hercules because he was mighty strong, arrived and cast the first line aboard Titanic as it slept in its berth. The four tugs assisting Hercules, which were owned by the Alexandra Towing Co.—and named Huskisson, Horby, Herald, and Herculaneum—moved into their positions, and at Hercules’s whistle, the H-Team pulled Titanic to the center of the River Lagan.

Titanic on her way to sea trials accompanied by her fleet of tugs. Courtesy of U.S. N.A.R.A.


The behemoth liner eased her way down the river toward Belfast Lough, escorted by the five tugs. Around noontime, and about two miles off Carrickfergus, the herd of vessels slowed to a stop, and the tugs all dropped their ropes and pulled away.

Boilers were lit one by one, and smoke began to bloom from Titanic’s three functional funnels (the fourth was false, for aesthetical purpose).

Captain Smith ordered the blue-and-white burgee, which is more commonly recognized as a triangular mariner’s flag. This type of burgee, known as Signal Flag A, announced that its ship was undergoing sea trials.

As the water churned at her stern and her dapper burgee clapped above her, Captain Smith ordered a three-blast sounding of Titanic’s horn and her trial-run officially began. As Titanic took its first metaphorical steps, the officials and officers on-board took lunch in the First Class Dining Room to compare notes.

Rear view of Titanic being pulled toward Belfast Lough. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic was revved up to nearly 20 knots, then drifted to a stop. Isolated turn maneuvers, such as rudder-only and propeller-only, were performed. The ship’s wheel was ordered “hard over” while Titanic was traversing a straight path, creating a circular path with a diameter of approximately 3,850 yards.

More stopping tests followed, including running right toward a buoy at full speed.

She then traveled about 40 miles toward the Irish Sea, turned about to head back to Belfast Lough, and performed some twisty-turns to port and starboard along the way, and got back home in the evening time.

One more test was then advised by Francis Carruthers, the ship surveyor sent by the British Board of Trade: Anchor up, and anchor down.

Carruthers found Titanic’s performance satisfactory and issued the mandatory certificate to Thomas Andrew and his deputy, Edward Wilding. The ship was officially good for one year to the day.

With the sea trials done and dusted, the crew on board resumed their daily operations. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe set aside some time to write back to his wife, Nellie. He helped himself to a spare menu card from the day, April 2nd, and scrawled on its back along the bottom edge: "first meal ever served on board" and posted it to Nellie.

R.M.S. "Titanic."

April 2, 1912.

Hors D'Ouvre Varies


Consomme Mirrette

Cream of Chicken



Roast Chicken

Spring Lamb, Mint Sauce

Braised Ham & Spinach

Green Peas                                Cauliflower

Bovin & Boiled Potatoes

Golden Plover on Toast


Pudding Sans Souci

Peaches Imperial


Dessert                          Coffee

Later, sworn under oath before the American inquiry of Titanic's sinking, Harold Lowe testified that Titanic did not even reach her full potential for speed during the sea trials. He stated that he believed that she could "easily do 24 or 25 knots,” instead of the 20 knots achieved that day.

Furthermore, in his deposition sworn before the British Consulate General in May of 1912, Harold Lowe attested that "on the trials the Titanic behaved splendidly and manoeuvred very well."

Titanic being pulled toward Belfast Lough. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic departed Belfast for Southampton at approximately 8:00pm that evening. She encountered fog in the wee hours of April 3rd, though it dissipated by noon.

And shortly after midnight, on April 4th, another tugboat gang of classical gods and guys—this time Hercules, Neptune, Ajax, Hector, and Vulcan of the Red Funnel line—drew Titanic into Berth 44 at Southampton, where she was "docked by moonlight," per Sixth Officer James Moody.

Titanic would spend the Easter weekend there, waiting for her maiden voyage to begin. James Moody wrote to his older sister Margaret that, at 8:00am on the morning of April 4th, Titanic's crew “hoisted a huge rainbow of flags right over the ship, 220 flags [altogether and] 9 feet apart” to salute the Southampton

There was less than a week to go.

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Launch Day

Launch Day

No, not April 10, 1912.

May 31, 1911, when liner-in-progress SS401 took its first bath.

It seemed that all of Belfast came to witness Titanic's so-called baptism in the River Lagan; some estimate up to 100,000 in the crowd, elbowing for space wherever it could be found. Recall from last year's post about the Harland & Wolff shipyard that the building of any ship, but especially the White Star liners, required the masterwork of thousands of citizens over a period of years. It forged a deeply personal connection, and was an accomplishment for the entire community. It bound them in elation and, less than a year later, in unbridled grief.

It's a challenge to underestimate just much the Titanic meant to Belfast.

As the design and dimensions of the Titanic and the Olympic are practically identical it is not now necessary to say much on this point, seeing that a detailed description of the latter - which would apply equally to her sister ship - has already been published in our columns. The vessels mark a new epoch in naval architecture. In size, construction, and equipment they represent the last word in this science...

Every detail had to be judged with mathematical accuracy if accidents had to be averted, and the preparations had therefore to be made with great care and caution. Over the bows of the vessel the White Star Company's flag floated, and there was displayed a code signal which spelled the word "success". If the circumstances under which the launch took place can be accepted as an augury of the future, the Titanic should be a huge success.

The ceremony was lost on at least one unnamed shipyard worker, though, who was reported to have said of the launch, "We just builds 'em, then shove 'em in."

Admission was sold with a ticket--the proceeds were reportedly donated to two local children's local hospitals, so: right on, Harland & Wolff. Select tickets to the launch survive today. As evidenced by the creases, the tickets all spent some time in their owners' pockets.

Titanic was not complete by any means--just its hull. It had none of its iconic four funnels, and the opulence that we associate with the ship was not yet installed. This was the day that Belfast would see if its newest baby could float.

An inch-thick coat of soft soap, tallow (id est, animal fat), and train engine oil slicked the tracks to allow the Titanic to slide down Slipway 3 into the waters at Belfast Lough, amounting to 23 tons of what must have been truly putrid grease. A daunting 80 tons of cable and multiple anchors were used to moderate the speed.

White Star was not the break-a-champagne bottle-on-the-hull sort of company. But it still knew how to get its pomp on. At least 90 members of the press were in attendance. Shipyard workers were given holiday without pay--unless they were assisting the launch.

Lord Pirrie (left) and J. Bruce Ismay on May 31, 1911, prior to Titanic's launch. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


By all accounts, the launch of Titanic could not have been scheduled for a more perfect day, though it was a bit hot for those who couldn't find shade.

Ladies formed a considerable proportion of the aggregate attendance, and even if their picturesque frocks appeared a trifle incongruous when contrasted with the surroundings of the shipyard itself they were unmistakably in harmony with the glow of the soft turquoise sky, from which the piercing rays of the sun descended, making the heat exceedingly trying for those who witnessed the launch.

Company dignitaries and those shipyard workers with ticketed admission took to stands that were built above the crowd. Lord William Pirrie, the Harland & Wolff chairman who was also celebrating a shared birthday with his wife that day, returned from inspecting the hydraulic rams shortly after noontime. At approximately 12:05 p.m., a pair of rockets were fired to warn other crafts in the vicinity. After ascending the stands with White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay and financier J.P. Morgan, Lord Pirrie finally gave the signal at 12:13 p.m.

Another red rocket was set off.

And as little white flags bearing "Good Luck" shuddered en masse, an exclamation of "There she goes!" echoed in the crowd.

It took a total of 62 seconds for the bow to take the water as the crowd chased its descent, after which the empty hull floated serenely to the other side of the Lagan. From there, five tugboats dragged what would become Titanic to the deep water berth where it would be fitted for its maiden voyage next year.

Titanic launching from the dry dock. By Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


And in the chaos of all this, yes, someone did die.

James Dobbin was what was called an 'old hand'--an established and well-known shipwright about the Yard. On Launch Day, he was assigned to knocking out the wooden support beams as the ship groaned forward. He was cross-sawing one of these shoring timbers when it collapsed and crushed him.

Dobbin was extricated by his colleagues and sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital--and in the company car, no less--where after surgery, he died from his injuries on June 2, 1911, two days following the launch of Titanic. His cause of death was listed by the coroner as "Accidentally crushed under a piece of timber... Shock and haemorrhage following fracture of pelvis."

Jimmy Dobbin was 43, and married. It's reasonably speculated that his wife Rachel and their only child, 17-year-old James, were most likely there that day, witnessing the launch alongside all the rest of Belfast... with no concept of what was happening to Jimmy as Titanic slid away.

And hardly did anyone else. Not Lord Pirrie, who hosted Ismay and Morgan at a private lunch afterward. Not any of the jollymakers celebrating through the day and into the evening. And all the while Titanic bobbed and whispered in its berth, awaiting its engines, its fittings, its crew and its passengers.

From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.


In 2014, a family photo album containing over 100 before-unknown photos of Titanic and Olympic were auctioned by the family of John Kempster, who was a director and senior engineer at Harland & Wolff; thirteen of those photographs were taken May 31, 1911. On that day, Kempster was acting as the master of ceremonies at one of the celebratory luncheons hosted by Harland & Wolff at Belfast's Grand Central Hotel.

A haunting handwritten caption of the newly discovered photos reads 'Going, going, gone.'

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Coal Strike & Engineering Crew

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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Shipyard Casualties

SS401 & Shipyard Casualties

Titanic, along with her sister vessels the Olympic and Britannic, were constructed in Belfast, Ireland. Belfast was an industrial city, and jobs were labor-intensive. And thanks to Belfast's ship-building company, Harland & Wolff, the construction of the behemoth liners was a city-wide operation that everyone talked about morning, noon, and night.

Belfast women primarily worked in the local linen industry, and their men were localized to the Harland & Wolff shipyards. These ladies were nicknamed "Millies," and the 15,000 men employed by Harland & Wolff worked in "The Yard."

Workers "knock off" at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, with Titanic in the background, circa May 1911.


Belfast women primarily worked in the local linen industry, and their men were localized to the Harland & Wolff shipyards. These ladies were nicknamed "Millies," and the 15,000 men employed by Harland & Wolff worked in "The Yard."

Workshop at Harland & Wolff shipyard at Queen's Island, Belfast. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff, circa 1910.


Shipyard workers had 6am-5:30pm hours, Monday through Saturday. After work on Saturday, many often headed off to rally for the Glens--their shipyard football team--at The Oval, a local stadium, in a game against their local rivals, the Linfields. Then they would go on to exalt or lament in local pubs through East Belfast later in the evening. Rinse, repeat.

Sunday, of course, was for church. But for some, God could wait. According to Francis John Parkinson, Jr., who was less than five years old at the time and whose father was a woodworker for Titanic.

"I can well remember one Sunday afternoon, my father said... 'You tell your Sunday School teacher you'll not be in Sunday School next Sunday, for your dad's going to take you down to see the Titanic at Harland & Wolff.'"

"I remember looking up at this big steel hulk... and he described to me how someday they'll take away all the timber props that held up the ship, and they would release it into the water. And I remember quite well saying, 'But Dad, how can that big ship stay up in the water?' 'Oh,' he said, 'that ship will always stay up in the water. It will always stay up.'"

From "Titanic: The Complete Story" (formerly "Titanic: Death of a Dream) © A&E Television Networks, 1994.

Parkinson's warm confidence speaks to the comeraderie felt throughout Belfast.

Building these ships was an extremely personal and sentimental effort for the thousands of people employed and bearing witness to their construction. Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, was regularly found walking through The Yard with plans in his pockets, to talk with and best appreciate his workforce.

Contrary to popular imagination, White Star did not declare Titanic unsinkable. But a periodical called "The Shipbuilder" did. Therein, the RMS Titanic was pronounced "practically unsinkable" due to its novel fittings--such as the three-propeller system and fancy boilers--and its safety features, such as its watertight compartments and double hull, which would theoretically allow it to float even in spite of a crash.

Cross-section of Titanic, illustrating double hull plating. Published by Harland & Wolff, circa 1912. Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.


One of the reasons safety regulations are so stringent today is because up until recent history, they didn't exist at all. If you crushed a finger, lost an arm, burnt your face on duty? That was the hazard of the job; wish your livelihood farewell. And a number of men, often referred to as Titanic's First Victims, were subject to that reality.

A total of eight shipyard men died during the construction of the world's finest ocean liner, although some could hardly be called that. Samuel Scott was the youngest at only 15 years old; John Kelly, 19. Many workers in the shipyard were as young as 13.

Riveters on the deck of a ship in Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Glasgow, Scotland, during the First World War. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive Collection.


Samuel lived on his own down the street from his mum, who was listed in contemporary census as having six of her children living with her; in addition, the Scotts shared the house with another couple, who had three children themselves. Having the elders clear out to make space was common practice at the time, despite how objectively young Sam was.

On April 20, 1910, Sam was working on SS 401. As everyone did, Sam lined up to get his "bourd," the bit of wood with his assigned ship's number written on it. Sam was what they called a "catch boy" at The Yard, working as part of a riveting crew.

Essentially, the rivets were stoked in a coal bucket to white-heat by the "bellows boy;" the rivets were then removed with tongs and immediately tossed high in the air up to Sam, who caught them with his tongs and placed them in the hull so another boy, the "holder on," could keep it in place while it was driven in with a sledge hammer, and then a bevy of boys with hammers would alternatively work away at the still-cooling rivet to mold it into shape.

The boys were paid per rivet, so the smoother the teamwork, the hIgher the profit. But, if stories up from the ground and just a little clumsy, a catch boy could lose his job. Or his life.

Titanic and her elder sister, Oylmpic (foreground) under construction. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff, circa 1910. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress


High up alongside SS 401 on April 20, 1910, Sam slipped from a ladder on staging stories above the ground, and fell to his death; according to the inquiry performed as a result, no one witnessed his actual fall. His death was attributed to shock from fracture to the skull.

Sam was buried in an unmarked grave, but in 2011, Belfast historical organizations endeavored to get Sam a headstone.

Samuel Scott was one of eight to die building SS 401--the ship that a year following his death would be launched and christened the Titanic--but he's only one of five whose names we know. Three men are still unidentified. In spite of this, the Harland & Wolff Football and Social Club commissioned a commemorative plaque, which was dedicated in 2012.



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