Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Titanic - stuff you should know.

RMS Titanic leaving Belfast (From Wikipedia)
As this is a subject dear to my heart, it saddens me when I peruse the concentration of nonsense around the ship and it's story.  Like most legendary events (especially terrible tragedies), it is a magnet for narrative flotsam and jetsam that has accumulated over the years, some of which so pervasive that they have become established as fact by many.  Whilst urban legends can be fascinating in their own right, I feel that an event like the sinking of the Titanic needs to be protected from a descent into this dubious genre.  Here's my tiny attempt to sort this out.  The following are five spurious stories that often find themselves shared by folk when discussing the great ship.

1. The Titanic's hull number was 390904.  It is a common tale that Catholic workers refused to work on the ship as its number was 'NO POPE' backwards (it is if you squint, a lot).  This is nonsense as the number has no connection with the ship whatsoever.  The hull number, set by Harland and Wolff, was 401.  Its sister ship, Olympic, was 400.  It's un utterly unpleasant story, fuelling the already lively and destructive flames of the sectarian problems in Northern Ireland.  It is an example of how tales can be generated from nothing, to help justify terrible acts, I suppose.

2. The Titanic was the longest ship on Earth when built.  Sadly not true.  At 882 and three-quarter feet long, it was identical in length to its sister, Olympic, which, since launch in 1910 had been the record holder.  It was not a hair longer, wider or taller than the Olympic.  What made it the 'largest' ship afloat was simply its arrangement of windows and rooms on A deck:  as part of the promenade that was fully open on Olympic was enclosed on Titanic, there was more use-able space, increasing its gross tonnage.  This is also an easy way to identify photos of the sisters - the Olympic has an entirely open A-deck, whereas Titanic's is closed forward of the third funnel or so.

3. The Titanic had the skeleton of a worker entombed within its double hull. Nonsense.  The same was said of the Great Eastern - that famous 'cursed ship' of Brunel's.  The fact is that no shipyard would be lackadaisical enough to allow such a thing.  8 workers were killed in construction - a remarkably low number, when you consider the size of the ship and the 3,000 working on its construction.  However, as a fan of ghost stories and the macabre, I can see some merit in this tall tale.  Nothing beats folklore about bricked up corpses, after all.

Ken Marshall's imagining of the wreck, observed by ALVIN
4. The Titanic held a cursed Egyptian mummy in its hold.  There is no real evidence of this in any of the surviving rosters or manifests of cargo, and firmly fits into the category of urban legend.  The mummy in question - a priestess of Amun-Ra - is still in the British Museum (it isn't, in fact, a mummy at all - just a coffin lid).  The initial 'cursed mummy' story is attributed to William Stead, a journalist with an eye for the macabre.  He went down with the ship in 1912, and so this is potentially how the two stories merged.  The manifest did include fresh feathers, two french automobiles and a prized, bejewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

5. The Titanic had been foreseen in several works of fiction in the 19th Century.  Strangely, this seems to be true, though claiming any supernatural foresight on the part of the writers is possibly a little premature.  But certainly the type of disaster that overtook the Titanic was explored in earlier works.  One, "How the Mail Steamer went down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor" by none other than William Stead, told the tale of an unnamed mail ship that went down with too few lifeboats aboard.  The similarities end there, though it is spooky to note that Stead always said he would die by either 'lynching or drowning'.  The other text - Futility, by Morgan Robertson, has many eerie parallels with the real ship.  Both were triple screw liners that struck icebergs in the North Atlantic, with the loss of between well over a thousand lives.

The fact is, the whole story of drawing-board to sea-bed is fascinating enough, without foolish embellishments such as most of these.