Saturday, 14 April 2012

That Sinking Feeling

                     I expect you are bored out of your socks with all the centenary of the Titanic stuff doing the rounds at the moment. Well, brace yourselves, ‘cos here’s more of the same.

Built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff for The White Star Line between 1909 and 1911, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic was, at the time of her launch, the largest ship afloat. At noon, on April 10th 1912, she left Southampton, sailed for Cherbourg, France, then on to Queenstown, (now Cobh), Ireland, before leaving for New York.

At 23.39 (Onboard Time) on April 14th 1912, Able Seaman Frederick Fleet, on lookout, reported that an iceberg was directly ahead of the ship. First Officer William Murdoch took evasive action, and put the engines into reverse, but Titanic struck the iceberg on her starboard side, tearing holes in the steel plates and popping the rivets. She sank at 2.20 the following morning.

Inevitably, when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, there will be rumours, hearsay and misreporting. As errors go however, few have yet to match this. It is taken from the Daily Mirror, April 16th 1912. Imagine, if you will, that a relative or friend of yours was onboard the Titanic, and reports of the disaster have begun to come through. And imagine then that you open your morning newspaper to read the following.

The White Star liner Titanic, the greatest ship the world has ever known, has met with disaster on her maiden voyage.

She left Southampton on Wednesday last and carried about 2,300 passengers and crew on board, with 3,400 sacks of mails.

On Sunday she came into collision with an iceberg, and immediately flashed out wireless messages for help.

Many steamers rushed to her aid, but her fate and that of the thousands on board, remained in doubt on both sides of the Atlantic for many hours.

It was at length known that every soul was safe, and that the vessel itself was proceeding to Halifax (Nova Scotia), towed by the Allan liner Virginian.

All her passengers had by that time been taken aboard two of the liners that hurried to the scene in reply to the wireless message.

So many and so conflicting were the reports that reached London yesterday concerning the fate of the Titanic that until detailed and definite tidings come to hand it is difficult to establish much more than the one all-important and outstanding fact that –

Every man, woman and child on the great liner is safe.

Further on in the same report: -

Mr. Franklin, vice-president of the White Star Company, states that the Titanic is unsinkable. The fact that she was reported to have sunk several feet by the head was, he said, unimportant. She could go down many feet at the head as a result of water filling the forward compartments and yet remain afloat indefinitely.

Due to various circumstances, the exact number of people who perished cannot be given, but an estimate by the Board of Trade inquiry gave 1514 passengers and crew lost, with 710 saved.

The Daily Mirror was not the only newspaper guilty of misinformation. In the scramble for pictures, many newspapers published images of any four-funnelled liner labelled as the Titanic. Some were simply misattributions – the image below is the liner Olympic wrongly titled as the Titanic.

The main error is that the fourth funnel of the Titanic was not connected to the engines. It was added for cosmetic purposes – the Cunard Line’s ships had four funnels, and the White Star Line was not about to be seen as second best. The funnel had some function – it served as a ventilation shaft – but it did not bellow out smoke like the other three. However, when newspaper used other liners as illustration, smoke can clearly be seen issuing from the fourth funnel. 

The White Star Line also had their advertising images altered, with smoke added to the fourth funnel. In the days before Photoshop and digital manipulation software, graphic artists were not above altering images manually.

In this artist’s impression of the liner sinking, smoke is pouring from the fourth funnel.

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