Did the sinking of the Titanic puncture Edwardian social complacency?

Using an account of Titanic survivor John B. Thayer 'The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic' to discuss some of the fundamental aspects of this idea.


All of my life I have had an intense interest in the story of the Titanic, those around me call it an obsession but the word I have decided upon is ‘preoccupation’.

As a boy it was the history of the ship itself, the tale of the sinking and the engineering of the ship that fascinated me. However when I got a little older I began encountering ideas in books and the media that the sinking of the Titanic represented more than just a maritime disaster.

Walter Lord argues her demise was avoidable and arguably predictable and summarizes it as complacency on all levels: government, the ship owners, those who commanded them, and even the passengers who were just as overly unconcerned with the lack of lifeboats as anyone else. (Walter Lord, The Night Lives On, 1998).

The more I thought about this prevailing attitude, which was not limited to the ship’s owners and her crew, the more frequently straightforward facts from the story surrounding the sinking began to appear baffling. They even began to lend credence to a notion that the sinking had profoundly altered something in contemporary minds.

RMS Olympic, like her older sister ship Titanic, did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board, and after the sinking, following her return to England, she was hurriedly equipped with additional, second-hand collapsible lifeboats. Towards the end of April 1912, as she was about to sail from Southampton to New York for the first time since the Titanic disaster, the ship's firemen went on strike because of fears that the ship's new collapsible lifeboats were not seaworthy. These same firemen had been perfectly willing to undertake several trans-Atlantic crossings aboard the Olympic over the past eleven months in the certain knowledge that there were not enough lifeboats for even half the passengers and crew, and had been seemingly unconcerned by this manifest reality. Why the sudden shift in attitude? Did the sinking of the Titanic puncture some kind of all-permeating social complacency, a blindness - an irreproachable faith in the modern world which came to an end on the night of April 14th 1912?

I first came across this idea in the account of Titanic survivor John Thayer, who was only 17 at the time of the sinking, and one of the last to leave the ship. His account The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic, is meticulously detailed, his preface is especially insightful: the sinking of the Titanic was, in his eyes, a symbol of the end of the world he knew, and the stark beginning of a frightening new era.

‘I want to emphasize some of the everyday conditions under which we were then living, to show how much humanity was shocked by the coming disaster. These were ordinary days, and into them had crept only gradually the telephone, the talking machine and the auto-mobile . . . Upon rising in the morning, we looked forward to a normal day of customary business progress. The conservative morning paper seldom had headlines larger than half an inch in height. Upon reaching the breakfast table, our perusal of the morning paper was slow and deliberate. We did not nervously clutch for it, and rapidly scan the glaring headlines, as we are inclined to do today . . . These days were peaceful and ruled by economic theory and practice built up over years of slow and hardly perceptible change. There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to its ways. True enough from time to time there were events – catastrophes – like the Johnstown Flood, the San Francisco Earthquake, or floods in China – which stirred the sleeping world, but not enough to keep it from its slumber. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event, which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness.
Today the individual has to be contented with rapidity of motion, nervous emotion, and economic insecurity. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.’

Thayer, John. B. The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic (published in ‘two vivid accounts of the Titanic disaster at sea courtesy of Capt. Richard Fremont-Smith, USCG (Ret.) cousin of the author).

Harland and Wolff in 1911
When I was 19 I visited Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard, having grown up with images of the shipyard at the height of its success, building the White Star liners Olympic, Titanic, Britannic, and so on. The familiar images in my mind were contrasted with the shipyard before me, which was a vast, dreary and deserted space, with grass growing through the concrete slipways. Contrasts like these have enormous symbolic potential: nature beginning to take over a once industrial, man-controlled environment; the fate of the yard uncannily paralleling the fate of the ships it built; the end of the Victorian and pre-dating that, Enlightenment, dream. The disappearance, literally, of large numbers of people from the face of the earth - the passengers from the ships, the workers from the yard who became soldiers in the First World War. The temptation is great, perhaps a little too great, to read such symbolism into Belfast, the Titanic, and all the ship has come to represent in the modern imagination. Could it be then that the idea of a contemporary complacency is a product of our imaginations over-romanticising the imagery of the story of the Titanic and furnishing it with lamentable symbology?
Harland and Wolff Today

Cultural Historian Stephen Kern has gone as far as directly connecting the outbreak of war with the sinking of the Titanic, and attributes both to some kind of ‘failure of the old order’:

‘The arrogance, the lack of safety precautions, the reliance on technology, the simultaneity of events, the worldwide attention, the loss of life, all evoke the sinking of the Titanic as a simile for the outbreak of the war. The lookouts on the Titanic were blinded by fog [there was no fog, it is well recorded that it was a very clear night, trying too hard to draw a parallel there but carry on], as the political leaders and diplomats and military men were blinded by historical short-sightedness, convinced that even if war came it would not last long. On the eve of the disaster they shared a confidence that the basic structure of European states was sound, able to weather any storm. Europe, they were certain, was unsinkable. The concentration of wireless messages from the sinking ship...suggests the flurry of telegraph messages and telephone conversations exchanged during the July Crisis. Even the icebergs floating in the path of the liner had an analogy in the eight assassins who lay in wait for Francis Ferdinand at various points on his parade route the day he was murdered.’
The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (1983), pp. 268-9.

Kern draws poetic parallels, but one might be inclined to think them rather too elegiac. The sinking of the Titanic makes an excellent narrative foundation for these theories, but it isn’t necessarily the catalyst for broad sweeping change in Edwardian society, one single event rarely is. It was a symbol of how human social constructs were fallible, no matter how rigidly adhered to.

Further Reading:

The Titanic and the Californian (The seminal, and most unbiased,  introduction to the Californian controversy)

Titanic: A Survivor's Story: And The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic(The two most detailed, vivid and haunting survivors accounts available. The first, by Colonel Archibald Gracie was written in the months after the disaster before he eventually died, in December 1912, of the ill health inflicted upon him by the disaster)

The Story of the "Titanic" as Told by Its Survivors (The largest collection of survivors accounts available in one book)

Night to Remember (Walter Lords book is a timeless, thoroughly researched, factual classic. While our technical knowledge and understanding of the sinking may have moved on since this book was written, no book has yet to match Lord's narrative)