Life aboard the Titanic

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

Suggested inquiry questions: How can we use original documents to find out about passengers on the Titanic?

Potential activities: Write a news report /video broadcast on the sinking of the Titanic using the sources provided in this lesson.

Download: Lesson pack

Who travelled on the fateful maiden voyage?

The Titanic was built at a cost of around £1.5 million, in Belfast, for the White Star shipping line. She was the largest passenger steamer of her day, at over 46,000 tons, and supposedly the most up to date. Special watertight compartments made her ‘practically unsinkable’, claimed the owners. They also advertised the luxurious First Class accommodation, with large state-rooms, a Parisian café, a swimming pool and restaurant.

Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage on Wednesday 10 April, 1912, calling at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in southern Ireland before heading out across the Atlantic, on course for New York. Late on the night of Sunday 14 April she struck an iceberg and was holed below the waterline. Less than three hours later she sank. Only 705 people were rescued from over 2,200 on board. Use this lesson to explore original documents relating to the sinking of the Titanic.


1. Look at Source 1. This is a list of passengers who were killed in the sinking.

  • What clues are there from this list that this is the First Class passenger list, not the Third?
  • Most of the people on this list do not have an occupation listed, why do you think this is?
  • This list shows HJ Allison, his wife and his daughter. We know that JJ Astor travelled with his wife Madeline, but she is not listed beside him. Why do you think this is?

Transcript of extract from the list of passengers drowned: First Class passengers (BT 100/260) (xls, 17.50 Kb)

2. Look at Source 2. This is also a list of passengers killed in the sinking.

a. What countries have these people come from?
b. How many different occupations are there listed?
c. What other differences can you see between the 1st and 3rd class lists? Why do you think this is?

Transcript of Extract from the list of passengers drowned: Third class passengers (BT 100/260) (xls, 17.50 Kb)

3. Look at Source 3a and b. These are images of the Titanic’s cabins in 1st and 3rd class.

  • Compare the two types of accommodation shown here. Write three sentences to describe the differences
  • What does this tell you about differences between rich and poor at that time?
  • Which of these cabins would you have preferred to stay in? Give your reasons why

4. Look at Source 4. This is a page from a document headed ‘Survey of an Emigrant Ship: Certificate of Clearance’. Use the simplified transcript to answer the questions below.

  • Where did most people embark?
  • Which class of passenger made up the majority of those embarking at Cherbourg?
  • Which class of passenger made up the majority of those embarking at Queenstown?
  • Which class of passenger were in a majority of all those on board when the Titanic set off for New York?
  • Look at the title of the document on which the table is based. What does this tell you about who all these steerage passengers were?

5. Look at Source 5. This is a telegram received by the Russian liner Birma.

  • When was it received?
  • If you were the wireless operator on the Birma, how would you report this message to the Captain?
  • If you were the Captain of the Birma, what would you do?

6. The Titanic has the reputation of being a luxury ship. Is this reputation justified?

7. 705 of those on board the Titanic when she struck the iceberg survived.

Of the survivors:

  • 381 were cabin class passengers, including all the children in this class
  • 270 were steerage passengers, including 26 of the children in this class
  • 52 were crew

What does this tell you about the safety arrangements for different types of passengers?


The first ship to cross the Atlantic by steam power alone was the Sirius, in 1838, taking 18 days to make the journey. However, early iron steamships were inefficient and the next 50 years saw the last flowering of ocean-going sailing vessels. Only the invention of the steam turbine in 1884 and production of cheap steel enabled steam to overtake sail at last. In the opening years of the 20th century a new design of vessel, the ‘liner’ appeared. They were much bigger and faster, with more carrying capacity: the Mauretania crossed the Atlantic in less than five days in 1907. More space meant more room for passengers to travel in luxury and, until air travel superseded them in the 1950s, the Atlantic liner was the last word in comfortable, speedy travel. The publicity given to the quality of First Class accommodation on the Titanic was therefore typical.

Throughout the 19th century millions of Europeans left the continent for new lands in Australia, South America, Africa and, especially, North America. The peak was reached in the first decade of the 20th century, when 11 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic to settle in the USA, 3.2 million of them from the UK and Ireland.

Not surprisingly, emigrants were usually poor: one of their main reasons for emigrating was to build a better life in America, which was seen as a ‘land of opportunity’. Back in the 19th century, shipowners had crammed emigrants below decks with inadequate facilities in order to keep fares low. The White Star Line, ironically, was one of the first to offer decent, although still cheap, accommodation to emigrant passengers.

The sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1,500 lives caused an uproar on both sides of the Atlantic. Newspapers blamed the owners for inadequate safety arrangements. Others blamed the captain for going too fast and too carelessly in waters known to be iceberg-infested.

An enquiry in the US Senate fixed on the fact that there were not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers, although the owners certainly provided more than they were required to by law at the time. It was also pointed out that not all the lifeboats that were on board could be launched in the time it took to sink. Many passengers anyway refused to get into the lifeboats, some of which left the ship half full.

Safety regulations had not caught up with these new massive liners and were rapidly changed. A new regulation of 1913 required all vessels to carry enough lifeboats for every passenger. An iceberg patrol was set up by the US Coastguard.

Teachers' notes

Using the original First and Second class passenger lists for the Titanic in this lesson students explore class difference in pre-First World War society. Additional photographic sources show the differences in accommodation on the ship. It certainly was, for some, a time of great wealth, which some passengers in the First Class accommodation on the liner did indeed possess. They could buy leisure and luxury in new and different ways, of which trans-Atlantic travel was just one.

A ‘Certificate of Clearance’ provides details of those passengers travelling in First, and Second class accommodation (cabin) and Third class (steerage). Again, teachers could ask students to present this information graphically. Moving onto the final source, students explore a telegram received by the Russian liner Birma from the Titanic asking for help having struck an iceberg.

As this enquiry reveals, not all passengers on the Titanic shared the same luxury on board. The sources highlight class divisions amongst those who travelled on the maiden voyage. It is important to note that at this time, 11 million people migrated for a new life in America between 1901 and 1910. They went to escape poverty, lack of political rights, religious persecution, nationalist bigotry or class prejudice. The years leading up to the First World War were years of unrest and political ferment, as well as great wealth for the few.


  • Look at the source: ‘Memorial to the sinking of RMS Titanic 1912 in the Significant Events Themed Collection in Related Resources.
  • What does it reveal?
  • Find out about the role of Noëlle, Countess of Rothes, a passenger who rowed the survivors on Lifeboat no. 8
  • Use the blog link below to find more documents relating to the history of the Titanic and write your own account of events.


Illustration : COPY 1/362

Sources 1 and 2 BT 100/260

Source 3 Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

Source 4 MT 9/920F

Source 5 MT 9/920C

External links

Titanic Journey
Explore the wreck of the Titanic online with this site from BBC Belfast.

Titanic – Built in Belfast
Find out more about Belfast’s most famous ship from the Ulster Folk and Transport museum.
A blog on where to find more sources on the Titanic and the story of the loss

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 1 & 2
Events beyond living memory that are significant nationally or globally

Key stage 3
Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early 20th Century 1901-1918

Suggested inquiry questions: How can we use original documents to find out about passengers on the Titanic?

Potential activities: Write a news report /video broadcast on the sinking of the Titanic using the sources provided in this lesson.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources