Historians' Books

Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town

John Welshman |

My book is a popular narrative that reconstructs the disaster through the personal stories of 12 passengers and crew members of the Titanic. It was historian Walter Lord who described the sinking of the Titanic as 'the last night of a small town.' I felt the small town metaphor was helpful in conveying the sense that all aspects of society and human character were represented on the ship: rich and poor, male and female, old and young, generous and selfish.

Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town covers the stories of both passengers and crew, and documents individual experiences as well as broader social changes. I employed a 'life history' approach to uncover the lives of those featured in the book, before and after the disaster. Among the crew was Harold Bride (22), born in Deptford, London, the Assistant Wireless Operator employed by Marconi. In First Class, Archibald Gracie (53) was a wealthy American amateur historian, returning from holiday in Europe. In Second Class, Edith Brown (15), originally from South Africa, was heading for Seattle with her parents Elizabeth and Thomas. In Third Class, Elin Hakkarainen (24), a domestic servant from Finland, was travelling with her husband Pekka to Monessen, Pennsylvania. And finally a character who was not on the Titanic, Arthur Rostron (42), Captain of the liner the Carpathia, which on hearing the Titanic's distress call, came to her aid, rescuing more than 700 people.

I had two main aims, which seek both to build upon and challenge Lord's book A Night to Remember (1955). First, my book seeks to re-balance the narrative, away from First Class passengers towards the experiences of those in Second and Third; away from men, towards women; away from adults, towards children; and away from the experiences of people from Britain and the United States towards those of other countries. It was Lord who acknowledged that the atmosphere prevailing in Third Class had been 'a long-neglected side of the story'. But, if anything, it is the Second Class passengers - the teachers, clerks, minor businessmen, clergymen, small-time inventors and others who represented the trades, and the growing middle class that relied on them - who have been neglected, either lacking the glamour of those in First Class, or the 'picturesque poverty' of those in Third. It is this, in part, that underlies the selection of the 12 stories. Of the eight featured passengers, two were travelling First Class, three Second, and three Third. Earlier accounts of the Titanic disaster have been dominated by men, both those who survived and those who perished. In my book, six of the featured accounts are by women, and six by men, while eight are British, two American, one from the Lebanon, and one from Finland.

Second, and reflecting the subtitle, the book aims to offer not just a minute-by-minute depiction of events, but also to explore key themes. These include: the construction of the ship, migration to the United States and Canada, nationality and place (since the Titanic was built in Belfast, sailed to Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown - now Cobh - Ireland, was heading for New York, and sank off Canada), the histories of radio and life jackets, social class, and the lifeboat as a wider metaphor. Chapter 10 summarises the findings of the American and British Inquiries and traces what happened to the main characters after 1912.

The final chapter returns to Lord's A Night to Remember, and explores the question of what caused the sinking, drawing on the availability of new forensic evidence following Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreck in 1985. I draw together the featured themes, focusing particularly on social class and assessing the relevance of the disaster to the broader social, cultural, and political history of the Titanic's birthplace - Northern Ireland.

Probably, there are too many books about the Titanic. I wrote this book in the belief that the emphasis on the myth of the Titanic, and assumptions about gender roles and attitudes, 'dying like gentlemen', and ideals of 'British' behaviour, has moved the focus away from individual passengers and crew. What seemed to me most interesting were their personal narratives and the light that their stories sheds on the worlds they came from. I was keen to counter the conventional emphasis on the Titanic as a symbol of luxury and privilege, and the corresponding focus on wealth and deference, by trying to include more detail on the poor and underprivileged. Some passengers were migrants leaving England, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Lebanon and other countries for better lives in North America. Many junior members of the crew were also living hard lives. I deliberately avoided some of the most famous passengers and crew members, focusing instead on the histories of 12 inhabitants of this 'small town', their early experiences, family relationships, hopes, fears, and lives after the disaster. Overall, my aim has been to employ the rigorous, sceptical approach of the social historian, while retaining the vividness of the eye-witness account.

What have I learnt from the process of researching and writing? First, in writing a book for a broad audience, it is helpful to draw on novelistic techniques, for instance, introducing a character anonymously, and gradually revealing that person's history as in a novel. Second, as Walter Lord realised, a book like this needs to be as visual as possible, cutting from one person's story to the next in an almost cinematic way. Third, while historians are often more comfortable working with themes, such a book has to be a narrative, with the characters' stories woven into it. Fourth, when you set out to write a book you can only guess at the shape of the marketplace it is eventually placed within; I have been overwhelmed by the number of books that have been published, or republished, to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic's sinking. Finally, compared with conventional academic writing, while reading reviews on Amazon can be painful, the wider rewards can be greater. Among the latter I would pick out: chatting to a cross-section of customers in Southampton Waterstone's, several of them boatbuilders and naval architects; eating fish and chips before a talk at Fleetwood Library; talking at the Keswick literary festival; the enthusiasm and kindness of the people that I met in Colne, Lancashire; a pint of Guinness at The Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast; becoming a Twitter user; meeting Norwegian Titanic experts at the Maritime Museum in Oslo; and answering questions from children about the ship, its crew and its passengers. Above all, researching, writing, and publicising the book, and the wide range of experiences that the last has entailed, has been a lot of fun.

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