S1E7 – Show Notes

Young Violet Jessop

Young Violet Jessop. Photo via Spydersen.

She was a lucky woman, almost from the day she was born. At a time when mycobacterium tuberculosis was ending the lives of countless individuals around the globe, little Violet Constance Jessop was powering through. And while one might expect a consumption-addled infant in 1880s Argentina to have a slim chance of survival, Violet Jessop was there to prove them wrong.

The doctors told her parents, Irish immigrants to South America, that she would have only a few months to live, at most, but Violet overcame the cough and the fever and the weakness to become a force to be reckoned with.

She cared for her brothers and sisters for most of her childhood. At sixteen years old, her father, William, died, and her mother, Katherine, moved the family to England, where she found work as a stewardess for the White Star Line. Violet attended convent school and cared for her sister while their mother was away at sea. Her mother told her of life aboard the ships–of the bad weather in the North Atlantic, and of the poor attitudes displayed by first class passengers toward the working class.

When Katherine became ill, Violet removed herself from school, knowing it would now be up to her to support her family.

But there was a problem–one that might not have been an issue for any woman in a higher class, but it was a problem nonetheless for Violet Jessop. She was beautiful. Exotic, almost. With grey blue eyes, and skin that seemed more olive than one would expect for someone of Irish descent. She had an Irish accent, of course, but there was something else to it. Something that indicated she hadn’t grown up in Europe.

Her beauty became somewhat of a detriment during her job hunt, as most stewardesses at the time were middle aged and past their prime. She followed the rules she’d been taught–to go into interviews with a smile on her face and dressed in her finest clothes, but found that the men who interviewed her were nervous–afraid that her beauty might cause problems for the crew, or be a distraction to passengers.

So in an act of desperation, Violet took matters into her own hands. She dressed herself in clothes that were old and ill-fitting. She didn’t bother with makeup. She was still polite, but there was no attempt at Irish charm.

White Star Line's Magestic, at sea.

The SS Magestic in 1896, Violet Jessop’s first ship with White Star Line. Photo via Titanic White Star.

And it worked. At the age of 21, she was hired as a stewardess aboard the mail ship Orinoco. Shortly afterwards, she was hired by White Star Line and worked aboard the Magestic from 1908 to 1910, at which point she transferred to work aboard the Olympic. She worked 17 hour days for only $2.10 per month. That’s about $200 in today’s money. It hardly seems worth it, but she loved the work. She loved being on ships.

And she loved working for Captain Smith on the Olympic. At its time, it was the largest passenger liner in the world. The diamond in White Star’s fleet. With a grand staircase that precisely matched that of the later Titanic, and a clientele that was just as wealthy. It was a beautiful working environment.

That is, until September 20, 1911. On that date, Violet Jessop was hard at work when the Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke, shortly after leaving Southampton. The two ships had been traveling alongside each other when Captain Smith turned the Olympic to starboard, catching the captain of Hawke off-guard, and smashing into the latter ship. The Hawke was nearly sunk, and the Olympic began taking on water, filling two of her watertight compartments and completely wrecking the propeller gear. Luckily, they were able to return to port with no major injuries, but it had been a close call. It had been Violet Jessop’s first brush with death aboard a ship. But it wouldn’t be the last.

Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, at sea.

White Star Line’s Olympic in in 1922. Photo via Titanic White Star.

She stayed with White Star Line, and as a reward for her hard work, she was invited to transfer to the Titanic. She didn’t want to leave Olympic, but her friends and family assured her that this would be a great opportunity–one she would be foolish to turn down. So she took their advice and she boarded in Southampton, accepting a position as a stewardess for first-class passengers.

She went about her usual duties during her short time on Titanic. She provided her wealthy clientele with the service she knew they expected, and she was finally lying down to sleep on the night of April 14th when she realized something was wrong. The ship had stopped. The low rumble of the engines had ceased and they were no longer moving. Shortly afterwards, a knock on her door brought her out of bed, and she was instructed to dress herself and make her way up to the boat deck to serve as an example of what to do for non-English speaking passengers. She waited calmly on deck, smiling at the passengers who were beginning to crowd around her, attempting to cheer them up in spite of the cold and the grumbling about being awoken at such a late hour. And when lifeboat 16 was ready to be loaded, she was asked to board, to show the women around her that it was safe, that they too should follow. After the lifeboat had been filled with 50 or so passengers, an officer handed Violet a baby and instructed her to care for it.

So that’s what she did, all evening. The lifeboat was rowed away from the ship, and it was eventually tied onto lifeboat six. Someone in the boat remarked about turning back to save the drowning passengers, but the officers made no attempt. So Violet Jessop waited, holding a baby whose name she did not know, and wondering how on earth she had managed to survive another accident. I told you she was lucky.

The occupants of lifeboat 16 were loaded onto the Carpathia the next morning. Before Violet climbed up the cargo net onto the ship, the baby was placed into a burlap sack and pulled aboard. She fetched the baby after making it onto the boat, but shortly afterwards, a woman approached her, took the child without a word, and walked away. Violet hadn’t even managed to get a name, let alone a thank you.

She rode to New York aboard the Carpathia, helping the ship’s crew with whatever she could, feeling it odd to be aboard a ship without having to work a 17 hour day. The thing she missed most from her luggage, she said, was her toothbrush.

She returned home after reaching New York, and it’s at this point, that one would expect Violet to have given up working on ships. But that wasn’t her style.

Violet Jessop in her volunteer nurse's uniform during her time on Britannic.

Violet Jessop in 1916, during her time aboard Britannic.

World War I broke out in 1914, and in 1916, White Star Line gave their newest oceanliner, the Britannic, to the military for use as a hospital ship. Violet Jessop, the bull-headed and seafaring woman that she was, volunteered to work aboard the Britannic, and if you’ve been following along, you can probably guess what happened next.

While sailing off the coast of Greece on November 21, 1916, the Britannic struck an underwater mine that had been planted by a German U-boat.

I’m going to give fair warning here that the details I’m about to share are not for the faint of heart. If you’d like to skip over this part, tap the forward 15 seconds button five or six times.

Okay, are you ready?

The Britannic began taking on water just seconds after the explosion. It had struck the ship in a critical point, right between watertight holds 2 and 3. Water rushed into the compartments, flooding the boiler rooms and quickly inundating them. The adjacent boiler rooms were evacuated as water began to overtake them, and when compartment six began to flood, the Britannic was doomed. The captain ordered the watertight bulkheads to be closed, but the ship had sank low enough to reach the portholes. Portholes that had been opened by the nurses to provide ventilation to the medical ward. This hastened the flooding, and the panicked crew began rushing the lifeboats, hindering the efforts to load them.

The HMHS Britannic, a hospital ship during WWII.

The HMHS Britannic, prior to her accident.

While all this took place, Captain Bartlett remained on the bridge, looking for any means by which he could save the ship. He ordered the engines to continue running and attempted to turn toward the nearby island of Kea, hoping to beach the ship and prevent a full sinking.

The steering mechanisms had been destroyed, though, and the waterlogged vessel proved impossible to navigate. As the bow of the ship tipped lower and lower into the sea, packed lifeboats were finally reaching the water and the stern was rising up, past the waterline, propellers still spinning. Two of these lifeboats were sucked backwards, thrown directly into the path of the propeller blades and ripped to shreds. Their occupants didn’t stand a chance.

Captain Bartlett heard this news and ordered the engines stopped, terminating the propellers just seconds before a third lifeboat was to meet a similar fate.

The ship listed hard to starboard and the davits that allowed the lifeboats to be lowered into the water were rendered useless. They buckled under the improper angle and the lifeboats skidded down the side of Britannic.

The situation had reached a boiling point. People were panicking, taking it upon themselves to launch any viable lifeboats they could, jumping into the water to escape the sinking vessel.

Captain Bartlett gave the order to abandon ship, and in his final act before being washed overboard, he blew the ship’s whistle to alert the crew below deck that they should escape.

Britannic rolled onto her starboard side and the funnels collapsed. She began making her final descent.

Violet Jessop watched this unfold from the water. She had been on one of those doomed lifeboats but jumped overboard when she saw what was coming. She was sucked underwater and smacked her head on the stern of the ship. She surfaced again and witnessed Britannic’s final moments, saying “She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence….”

Violet was pulled from the water by one of the surviving lifeboats and taken ashore to Kea, where she tended to the survivors. She later said “An elderly man, in an RAMC uniform with a row of ribbons on his breast, lay motionless on the ground. Part of his thigh was gone and one foot missing; the grey-green hue of his face contrasted with his fine physique. I took his hand and looked at him. After a long time, he opened his eyes and said; ‘I’m dying’. There seemed nothing to disprove him yet I involuntarily replied; ‘No, you are not going to die, because I’ve just been praying for you to live’. He gave me a beautiful smile … That man lived and sang jolly songs for us on Christmas Day.”

30 men died in the loss of Britannic, but Violet Jessop had survived the sinking. This one worse than the last, which had been worse than the one before it. But at least this time, she had remembered to grab her toothbrush.

She was alive and, aside from the headaches, she was well. She went to a doctor later in life and it was discovered that, at some point, she had fractured her skull. She felt confident that she knew when, and credited her survival to her thick head of hair, saying it must have cushioned the blow. I am, once again, going to call it luck.

Although she had been a fiercely independent woman all her life, she married a crewmember from the Magestic, named John James Lewis on Monday, October 29, 1923 when she was 36 years old. The marriage did not last, however, and the couple were separated within six months.

She took seven months off of work, and then returned to sea as a stewardess on Red Star Line in 1924. She eventually made her way to back to the Royal Mail line and enjoyed two round-the-world cruises before retiring in 1950 to a sixteenth-century thatched cottage in the Suffolk where she cared for her chickens. She wrote her memoir from the cottage, telling of her experiences aboard Titanic and Britannic, leaving out her time on Olympic, and actively avoiding the subject of her failed marriage.

And although she never did find out the name of the baby she carried off Titanic, she did receive a phone call later in life from a man who claimed he was that child before laughing and hanging up. At first glance, it would seem that she had received a prank call, and her biographer told her that this must be the case–that some children from the village were just having fun. She looked him dead in the eyes, though, and said “No, John, I had never told that story to anyone before I told you now.”

Violet Jessop died of congestive heart failure in Suffolk in 1971 at the age of 84.

She had lived a long and fulfilling life, and she had surely been a lucky woman.

Violet Jessop's grave

Violet Jessop’s grave in Suffolk. Photo via Find a Grave.

Omitted is a Titanic history podcast, written, produced, and edited by Corey Constable. Be sure to follow along on Instagram and Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *