The Sinking of Titanic: Righteous indignation
Powerful pioneers of Victorian engineering shaped modern existence, giving the machinery and means to mass migration and to create the most powerful nation on earth. We are all of us familiar with and indebted to Victorian achievement. Great social reform, empire of trade, the rise of the steam engine, urbanisation, mechanisation, sanitation, medication – the Victorians did it all. Nothing was insurmountable.
One aspect about the Titanic which has fascinated me most is why, with all their manicuring of life and the environment, their monument to technical prowess, a ship of 1912, was set to sea with so small in number of lifeboats. Baring twenty lifeboats, four of which of canvas, I wondered how this fastidious culture waved goodbye the world’s largest ship as she slipped from Southampton’s shore that April 10, with this famously deficient quota of boats. The research on which I endeavored became the centrepiece of my book The Unsinkable Titanic: The Triumph Behind A Disaster.
Fascinated to discover a wholesale complacency toward safety behind this great engineering marvel I was equally surprised revisions to these rules were approved the very day following her infamous loss. Unbeknownst to her loss at that time the regulating body of mercantile shipping, the British Board of Trade, reappraised its controversial rules which stood for nearly twenty years prior to disaster that aligned the supply of lifeboats to the tonnage of the carrying ship. The rules, however, capped that perscription of supply to the size of vessels no greater than 10,000 gross. Titanic was a 46,000-ton vessel. The governing rules, dated 1894 and remaining unchanged, required vessels 10,000 tons and greater just 16 lifeboats with which to save every live on board the world’s largest steamers.
By the time of Titanic, practice evolved to transfer passengers from the damaged-ship, to rescue-ship. A plan not without fundamental flaw: assuming that is, rescue ships were at reachable distance. With the rising use of wireless and the density of traffic in the Atlantic’s busiest routes – their new-found ability to summon aid – armadas of lifeboats would be at the stricken ship’s disposal the carrying of boats beyond this cap was thought as superfluous. Greater energies were focussed in the design of the ship itself – keeping it afloat following incident, than to disgorge its thousands of occupants into little boats. This all painted a picture to me, that perhaps diligence in this age of fastidious attention to detail has been unduly misjudged by hindsight.
Was the indefensible now suddenly to me defensible? I set out the case in my book to uncover this most overlooked aspect of Titanic lore: was she sent to her doom by an all-too easily maligned regulator and owner?
Although the scale of ships was increasing, between when the rules were written and the disaster of Titanic the opportunity to deploy lifeboats was in fact diminishing. Incidents were becoming fewer. The shipbuilders themselves hoped through bulkhead divisions to turn the ship into its very own lifeboat. Safety had much evolved beyond simple wooden lifeboats and gave genuine reason to believe their numbers were more to arrest calls to regulate for more, than be of aid in disaster. When discovering how far safety has improved, gave proof that in the face of all my preconceptions, history had been too hasty to judge.