Book Review: Titanic Survivor. The Memoirs of Violet Jessop.


Violet Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess and nurse who achieved fame by surviving the disastrous sinking's of sister ships RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic in 1912 and 1916 respectively. In addition, she had been on board Titanic and Britannic's older sister ship, RMS Olympic, when it collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke in 1911. Her memoirs give us a unique glimpse of life below decks aboard one of the most famous ocean liners of all time. From Jessop's unusual vantage point, we learn what life was like for those who worked on the ships: hilarious fellow stewardesses, cramped quarters, wartime alerts, impossible passengers, philandering shipmates, exotic ports, unrequited love and tragic deaths.

At age 22, Violet Jessop boarded the RMS Olympic on October 20, 1910 to work as a stewardess. Olympics' first major mishap occurred on September 20, 1911, when she collided with the old protected cruiser HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight. Although the incident resulted in the flooding of two of her compartments and a twisted propeller shaft, Olympic was able to limp back to Southampton. At the subsequent inquiry the Royal Navy blamed Olympic for the incident, alleging that her large displacement generated a suction that pulled Hawke into her side.

Violet boarded the RMS Titanic as a stewardess on April 10, 1912, at noon and four days later on April 14, at around 11:40 PM the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink. Violet describes in vivid detail how she was ordered up on deck, because she was to set a good example to the foreign-speaking people, where she watched as the crew loaded the lifeboats. She was later ordered into lifeboat 16, and, as the boat was being lowered, one of the Titanic's officers gave her a baby to look after. The next morning, Violet and the rest of the survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia. According to Violet, while on board the Carpathia, a woman grabbed the baby she was holding and ran off with it without saying a word.

As if Titanic was not enough, during the First World War, Violet served as a nurse for the British Red Cross. In 1916, she was on board His Majesty's Hospital Ship Britannic when the ship apparently struck a mine and, with all the portholes open for ventilation, sank in the Aegean Sea. While the Britannic was sinking, she jumped out of a lifeboat to avoid being sucked into the Britannic's propellers. She, nevertheless, was sucked under the water and struck her head on the ship's keel before surfacing and being rescued by a lifeboat. She later stated that the cushioning, due to her thick auburn hair, helped save her life. She had also made sure to grab her toothbrush before leaving her cabin on the Britannic, saying later that it was the one thing she missed most immediately, following the sinking of the Titanic.

After the war, Violet continued to work for the White Star Line, before joining the Red Star Line and then the Royal Mail Line again. During her tenure with Red Star, Violet went on two around the world cruises on that company's largest ship, the Belgenland. In her late 30s, Violet had a brief marriage, and in 1950 she retired to Great Ashfield, Suffolk. Years after her retirement, she got a telephone call on a stormy night from a woman who asked Violet if she saved a baby on night the Titanic sank. "Yes," Jessop replied. The voice then said "Well, I was that baby," laughed, and then hung up. John Maxtone Graham, editor of this memoir, said it was most likely some children in the village playing a joke on her. She replied, "No, John, I had never told that story to anyone before I told you now." To this day, the baby she saved has never been positively identified. Records indicate that the only baby on boat 16 was Assad Thomas, who was handed to Edwinda Troutt, and later reunited with his mother on the Carpathia. The unlikely chance of the same incident happening twice on the same boat, along with the fact that Violet never told anyone until the 1970s about this incident leads to questions about the veracity of Violet's claim.

Few, if any, ocean liner stewardesses ever wrote their memoirs; hence, Violet Jessop's life story is doubly valuable - one of a kind as well as articulate, authoritative and informative. The book is excellently introduced, edited and annotated by John Maxtone Graham. He provides all the facts that the reader needs to know in order to fully understand Violet's memoirs and he comments on her narrative without detriment to her story.

MEMOIRS OF VIOLET JESSOP
By Violet Jessop
279pp. The History Press. £8.99.