When we think about life aboard the RMS Titanic, our minds usually go first to glitz and glamor. Ornate grand staircases, bejeweled ladies in evening gowns, forbidden romances with tragic ends. But there was another world below deck: the passengers on the Titanic were served by a devoted and tireless group of stewards. These stewards, a diverse class from all corners of the world, were responsible for cleaning rooms and hallways, delivering meals, and generally answering to passenger needs, however specific or menial.
One of these humble but hardworking stewards was Violet Jessop, who boasted an impressive career at sea. She would also manage to survive the disaster of the Titanic, in addition to two other perilous crashes: that of the Olympic in 1911, and the Britannic in 1916. Her story offers a unique glimpse into a much-studied historical event.
Jessop was born on October 2, 1887, in a dirt floor puesto outside the city of Bahía Blanca, Argentina. She was the first of nine children born to Irish immigrants William and Katherine, of whom six survived. From a young age, Jessop’s parents relied on her to care for her younger siblings.
William Jessop died after complications from surgery when Violet was 16. Her mother decided the best thing for the children would be to move to England, and Violet set sail for the first time in her life aboard the Burgundy. The Jessops traveled to London, where Violet was enrolled in a Catholic school. Meanwhile, Katherine worked as a stewardess on a Royal Mail ship, until she fell ill sometime before Violet’s 21st birthday.
Unable to work, Katherine looked to her eldest daughter to keep the family coffers full. Taking after her mother, Violet began applying for work as a steward, but was rejected because of her youthful appearance. After attending an interview in drabber clothes, Violet Jessop received her first onboard assignment in 1908. She sailed on the Royal Mail Line vessel Orinoco, serving the West Indies.
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After almost two years on the Royal Mail Line, Jessop was wrongfully dismissed by a captain who falsely reported her to the authorities for flirting with his officers. She went looking for work again, and after a series of rejections from more desirable sea routes, was forced to apply to liners that served the notoriously tempestuous North Atlantic. In dire need of work, Jessop accepted an offer aboard the RMS Majestic.
On September 20, 1911, Jessop was aboard the RMS Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke en route to New York. Although both ships were heavily damaged, they were able to make it to port with no casualties. The relatively good outcome helped Olympic’s reputation as a member of the White Star Line, which advertised the safety of their ships by referring to them as “unsinkable.” Jessop has rarely spoken publicly about her first disaster at sea, so we can only wonder what her thoughts were in the heat of the moment.
Jessop’s life at sea continued normally. She went back to caring for exacting heiresses and their misbehaved Pekingeses. Meanwhile, naval architect Thomas Andrews surveyed White Star employees, asking them what improvements they would like in the next class of ships. Jessop and her colleagues suggested a number of minor changes, not least of which were improvements to stewards’ quarters. So when Violet Jessop and the rest of the crew of the RMS Titanic boarded the ill-fated ship, they did so with a kind of pride in their hand in its creation.
Jessop was onboard as the Titanic steamed out of Southampton’s port on April 10, 1912. Despite bad weather and a near collision with the SS New York, the voyage continued as normal.
On the night of April 14, Jessop was in her cabin reading magazines from the ship’s library when she decided to say a prayer. As she finished, she heard a loud crash, and then a crunching noise. The Titanic slowly ground to a halt. Then she heard her crewmates getting up and returning to duty, and resolved to do the same. Finally, a fellow steward appeared in her doorway, announcing that the ship had struck an iceberg and was sinking.
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Jessop couldn’t believe it at first. After all, the Titanic had been advertised by the White Star Line as an unsinkable ship. So she took her time, calmly gathering her passengers and carefully selecting a hat to wear. The crew was instructed to tell the passengers that there were many other ships in the area, and that rescue was imminent.
Eventually Jessop followed her passengers to deck, where things were a little more hectic. The boat was visibly listing, and there was confusion as some passengers who didn't speak English could not understand the crew’s instructions. An officer who knew Jessop asked her to model the correct behavior for disoriented passengers, and she climbed aboard the next lifeboat.
Just before the boat lowered, another crewmember recognized Jessop and handed her a baby who had been left behind. Then the boat began its descent toward the water, the sound of the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” growing farther away.
Jessop was still aboard the lifeboat when the Titanic at last completely submerged. There was a brief commotion from the survivors, and then just darkness as the north Atlantic waters tossed the little lifeboat around. It would be one of the last to join the RMS Carpathia, a nearby ship that rescued the survivors. There, a crying woman—presumably the baby's mother—ran up to Jessop and snatched the infant out of her arms without a word.
As they arrived in New York, the passengers learned that no further survivors were coming. Around 1,500 people had died, well over half of the passengers who had boarded the ship in the first place. She resisted immediate offers to speak publicly about the disaster.
Jessop knew she had to get back out to sea as soon as possible, or risk losing her nerve and her career. Less than two months later, she was back aboard the Olympic.
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World War I broke out in 1914, and many seamen made moves to aid the war effort. For her part, Violet Jessop returned to shore, where she trained to join the Volunteer Aid Detachment of nurses. Two years later, she returned to the sea aboard the HMHS Britannic, which had been converted from passenger liner to hospital ship.
On November 21, 1916, the Britannic was en route to the Greek town of Moudros to pick up a group of wounded soldiers when it struck a deep sea mine. The explosion was felt throughout the ship, and everyone in the dining hall reacted immediately. Again, there was a pervading sense of calm in the escape; however, this was less because the passengers were in denial and more because they were all professionals in a time of war.
The Britannic’s captain, though, was certainly going to try his best to save her. Captain Charles Alfred Bartlett continued to run the engines, attempting to bring the ship to port before she went under. The turning of the propellers created a current that drew the lifeboats in, shredding the boats and, horrifyingly, some of their passengers. Jessop was able to escape at the last moment, but received a number of blows to the head that resulted in a fractured skull. She was soon rescued by another lifeboat, and spent the following months recovering on an island in the Cyclades.
After her third accident, Jessop decided it was time for a break. She took a job at a bank, and worked there for three years. But the sea called, and Jessop returned to the White Star Line in June of 1920. The rest of Violet Jessop’s seafaring days passed in relative quiet. Things had certainly changed: the foreign passengers she encountered were usually tourists now, not immigrants, and with everyone’s deeper pockets came bigger demands.
In June of 1950, Violet Jessop boarded a ship for the last time. Her final assignment was aboard the RMS Andes, a mail ship serving South America. That December, she retired to a small cottage in Suffolk where she spent the rest of her days tending chickens and growing mushrooms.
Jessop died in 1971 of congestive heart failure. She left behind an incomparable legacy, in no small part due to her fascinating but incomplete memoirs. They have since been published under the title Titanic Survivor. Her unique experiences, limitless bravery, and refined literary voice make for one of the most completely real and human accounts of the sinking of the Titanic.
Sources: The National Archives