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Violet Jessop

Unsinkable Violet Jessop: Survivor of the Titanic and two other ship disasters

Image: Violet Jessop | Public Domain

As Violet stepped into the lifeboat, she could be forgiven for wondering if she was cursed. Three years before, she had been a stewardess on the Titanic; a year before that, she had been on board the White Star liner RMS Olympic as it smashed into a Royal Navy warship. Was the 'unsinkable’ Violet Jessop the unluckiest or luckiest woman alive?

Violet’s early years

Violet was born on 2nd October 1887 near the city of Bahía Blanca in Argentina. The daughter of Irish immigrants, William and Katherine Jessop, she moved to England at 16 following the death of her father. After initially enrolling in a convent school, Violet left to provide money for her large family when her mother became ill. She secured a job as a stewardess aboard the RMS Orinoco, travelling between England and the Caribbean.

Working for the White Star Line

In 1911, Violet joined White Star Line and was assigned a job on the company’s brand-new flagship ocean liner - the RMS Olympic.

Olympic was the first of three ‘Olympic-class’ transatlantic ocean liners built in Belfast to be the new gold standard in luxury transatlantic travel. Her sister ships were the Titanic and the Britannic.

While Violet was on the Olympic, the liner collided with the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Hawke in the Solent shortly after leaving Southampton. The Olympic was badly damaged and had to be returned to Belfast for extensive repairs. The incident cost White Star a fortune after an inquiry found the company to blame for the collision. This led not only to an enormous repair bill and loss of revenue but also a large legal bill.

A night to remember

In 1912, Violet was offered a position on the newly completed RMS Titanic. The heart-stopping collision with HMS Hawke aside, she had enjoyed her time on the Olympic and was reluctant to leave. However, a friend persuaded her that it would be a fantastic opportunity, so Violet took the job.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage on 12th April 1915. At 11:40pm on the night of the 14th, Violet was preparing to go to bed when she heard a loud bang followed by a screeching noise. Dressing quickly, she went to investigate the noise and was horrified to discover that the ship had struck an iceberg. Violet was told to don her life vest and head up to the ship’s top deck - as she later put it in her memoirs – to serve as an example to passengers who could not speak English about how to behave in a crisis.

Eventually, Violet was ordered into a lifeboat. As it was lowered into the water, a baby was thrust into her arms by one of the ship’s officers. The lifeboat hit the water and rowed away. Nearly 1,500 people lost their lives that night.

Rescue came three hours later with the arrival of the RMS Carpathia. As Violet stood on deck, a woman snatched the baby from her arms and ran off. No record exists of what happened to the baby Violet carried to safety. The Carpathia sailed into New York and deposited the survivors of the Titanic disaster. Shortly after, Violet returned to Southampton.

Violet goes to war

Two years later, World War I broke out and Violet enrolled with the British Red Cross. Still working as a stewardess, she was assigned to the HMHS Britannic. The youngest of the ‘Olympic-class’ liners, Britannic was requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1915 to act as a hospital ship carrying troops wounded in the Gallipoli campaign from Greece to England.

On the Britannic’s fourth trip out on 16th November 1916, she struck a mine. The blast caused the ship to flood and list to one side as it sank. Violet and her fellow crew members gathered on deck, awaiting the order to abandon ship. Despite the order not being given, lifeboats - one of which contained Violet - were lowered into the water. The boats were pulled towards one of Britannic’s giant spinning propellers, which had lifted out of the sea as the ship listed further to its side.

To the horror of those looking on, the lifeboats were smashed to pieces. As blood spattered up the white hull of the Britannic, Violet jumped from her lifeboat, receiving a serious head injury after plunging into the sea. Luckily, she was pulled from the water after Britannic’s captain ordered the ship’s engines to stop. For the second time in four years, Violet watched one of the White Star Line’s mighty ocean liners sink beneath the waves.

‘The white pride of the ocean's medical world,’ Violet later recalled, ‘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.’

After the war and later life

After the war, Violet went back to work for White Star. Thankfully, her career following the sinking of Titanic and Britannic was blissfully uneventful. Violet also had stints working for the Red Star Line and the Royal Mail Line before retiring to a little cottage in Suffolk. The ‘unsinkable’ Violet Jessop died of congenital heart failure in 1971. She was 83 years old.

Other notable survivors

Remarkably, Violet wasn’t the only one to survive the Titanic, the Britannic and the Olympic. Stoker Arthur Priest was also onboard all three ships and not only lived to tell the tale but also survived the sinking of the SS Donegal during the war and two further major collisions.

Also onboard the Titanic was lookout Archie Jewell. He not only survived the Titanic, but also the Britannic’s sinking. Sadly, Archie died during the sinking of the SS Donegal when it was hit by a German torpedo in World War I.

One of the most remarkable survivor stories is that of the Titanic’s master baker, Charles Joughin. Not only did he ‘ride’ the Titanic, clinging to the outside railing around the ship’s stern as it sank, but he also survived in the -2 degree temperatures for two hours. This has been put down to the fact that Joughin may have been drunk at the time.