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.
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 More space meant more room for passengers to travel in luxury and, until air travel superseded them in the 1950s, the Atlantic liner was the last word in comfortable, speedy travel.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.
This lesson uses the story of Titanic to open a window on to pre-First World War society.
It certainly was, for some, a glamorous time. Great wealth, which some passengers in the First Class accommodation on the liner did indeed possess, could buy leisure and luxury in new and different ways, of which trans-Atlantic travel was just one. But as the Titanic set sail, their world was heading for an even greater disaster than the sinking of the liner. In only just over two years time the First World War would sweep away millions of lives and shake the politics of their world to its foundations.
As this enquiry reveals, not all the people of Europe, nor all the passengers on the Titanic, shared in this luxury. The fact that 11 million people were prepared to uproot themselves for an uncertain new life in America between 1901 and 1910 suggests that all was not well for many. They went to escape poverty, lack of political rights, religious persecution, nationalist bigotry, class prejudice. The years up to the First World War were years of unrest and political ferment, as well as great wealth for a few. The immense contrast of life-styles on the Titanic reveals this.
Using the source documents in this lesson, the pupils can find out about the passengers on the Titanic. Source 4 requires a little statistical skill. Both the table, and the figures for who was drowned and who survived could be displayed for analysis using ICT.
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
Survivors of the Titanic
Survivors of the tragedy tell their stories of that fateful night
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.