RMS Titanic and her ill-fated maiden voyage have captured the imagination of people all around the world. Titanic was operated by the White Star Line and was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. She measured 269 m (about 882 feet) in length, with a beam of 28 m (92 feet) and a height of 53.3 m (175 feet) from her keel to the top of her funnels. One of her four funnels served a purely aesthetic purpose, since four funnels were considered more pleasing to the eye than three. She had 16 solid and 4 foldable lifeboats on board, which could have saved 1178 lives. That was only enough for about 1/3 of the people on board. However, this was still within the legal requirements of the time. In 1912 Titanic was the largest and most luxurious passenger ship in the World and was said to be unsinkable.
Times were hard in 1912 in Southampton. The National Coal Strike meant that thousands of men were without work that April. Many families were dependent on charity handouts and had been forced to go to the pawn shop to get food.
Many ships were unable to sail because of a shortage of coal. Only the White Star line was recruiting crew for a return voyage to New York on board their new luxury liner. They had been able to gather sufficient coal from other vessels and suppliers. So Southampton people happily signed on to the “unsinkable” Titanic.
A small number of the crew were permanent employees of the White Star Line, but the majority were contracted (signed on) for one voyage at a time. Some had never even worked on a ship before. There were plumbers, firemen, engineers, waiters, maids etc. Stokers, firemen, trimmers and greasers, who did the heavy manual and dirty jobs came from the poorer areas of the town such as Chapel and Northam while the waiters, stewards and the clerks came from slightly more affluent areas further out from the town centre.
Titanic’s arrival also meant a boom for local firms, as for example Oatley and Watling supplied fresh fruit and vegetables and FG Bealing’s nursery at Highfield provided 400 plants for the ship and buttonhole flowers for every first-class passenger.
Titanic pulled away from the White Star dock in Southampton at the start of her maiden voyage on the10th April 1912. She struck an iceberg five days into the crossing at 11.40pm and sank at 2.20am on the 15th April, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
The tragedy made headlines across the world and had a devastating effect on the people of Southampton. Out of the total of 897 crew members, 715 men and women had their home address in Southampton and only 175 returned home alive. More than 500 families not only lost a loved one but often also their only source of income.
The widows of non-salaried crew received no formal compensation from the hugely profitable White Star Line. In Southampton Titanic relief funds were organized for the families of lost crew members, raising nearly £450,000 (around £20,000,000 in today’s money).
However, even though the financial consequences could be dealt with, the emotional scars ran deeper. A whole generation of men had been lost. Widows had to cope without their husbands, children had to grow up without their fathers and many survivors struggled to come to terms with the fact they had lived while many others had perished.