The following is an excerpt from my first book, Einstein’s Refrigerator and Other Stories From The Flip Side of History.
Titanic. Titanic. Titanic.
Everything related to this ship was big. Big ship. Big disaster. Big legacy. Big movie.
I won’t bore you with the details of this story. You’ve probably heard them many times. Besides, we are here to talk about the unsinkable Violet Jessop.
I know what you are thinking. Wasn’t that the unsinkable Molly Brown? Yes, but you’re thinking about another story. Molly only survived one disaster at sea. Violet Jessop somehow survived three.
First, let’s look at Violet’s background to see how she wound up in these disasters.
Violet was born on October 2, 1887 in Argentina, just shortly after her parents had emigrated there from Dublin. Her father died when she was eighteen, so her mother made the decision to pick up roots again and move back to England.
By the age of twenty-one, Violet had decided upon her lifelong career. She was going to become a stewardess. No, not a stewardess on a plane, but on a big ship. Stewardess was just a glorified name for the onboard cabin maids that catered to the rich people’s every whining need.
Her first voyage was aboard the Royal Mail’s Orinoco, which set sail on October 28, 1908. On September 28, 1910, Violet switched to the White Star Line and embarked on the Majestic.
At the time, White Star had received an influx in capital from financier J.P. Morgan and embarked on a plan to build the greatest ships of all time. There were to be three of them, the sister ships Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic.
For the greatest ships, White Star needed the greatest staff. Their crew was handpicked from every ship in the company’s line. Violet Jessop was one of the few selected. She was young, hard-working, and attractive.
The first ship to be launched was the Olympic. At the time, it was the largest and finest ship ever to fly the British flag. And Violet Jessop was on board as a stewardess in first class.
The first few voyages of the Olympic were uneventful. The fifth trip out to sea was not as lucky. On September 20, 1911, under the command of Captain E. J. Smith (yes–the same captain in charge of the Titanic when it went down), the Olympic collided with the smaller British cruiser HMS Hawke. The Hawke forced its way into the Olympic’s hull, ripping a gash nearly forty feet in length below the waterline. This created a big problem for the ships, but they were both able to limp back to port. Completion of the Titanic was put off for nearly a month while the Olympic underwent emergency repairs.
So? Big deal, you say. Well, the story gets better. Read on…
Being one of White Star’s prized employees, Violet was transferred to the newly launched Titanic.
I think we all know what will happen on this ship.
Yes, Violet was on the ill-fated Titanic when it went down in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. She was in her room, drowsy from reading, when the Titanic crashed into that dreaded iceberg and began her descent to the bottom of the sea. Being an employee, Violet had no intention of getting in a lifeboat until all the passengers were gone. Another ship’s lights (most likely the Californian with its engines and radio off) could be seen several miles away and they all expected to be rescued.
It seems that the officers were having a difficult time getting the emigrant women into the lifeboats due to the language barrier. Violet was standing in the background when an officer requested that she get into a lifeboat to set an example for the other women. Violet got in, was handed a baby to hold, and the others followed. Violet’s lifeboat was lowered to the water and launched. Violet would realize the next day while floating around the Atlantic that all those she left behind probably perished.
Violet’s lifeboat was also the last to be rescued by the Carpathia, which had turned back from a journey to the Mediterranean to help with the rescue. The Carpathia returned to New York with the survivors and the remains. Violet chose not to publicly speak to anyone and hopped on the first boat back home to England.
After the Titanic’s sinking, the Olympic was brought back into port for six months of modification. Structural changes were made and additional lifeboats were added to the ship. Once the ship’s retrofit was completed, Violet was once again assigned to the Olympic and set sail. She stayed on board until World War I broke out. Violet decided to help in the war effort by joining the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as a junior nurse.
At the same time, work had been underway on the third of these great sister ships (only three were ever built), the Gigantic. Since Gigantic sounded too similar to Titanic, the company decided to change its name to the Britannic. Then, on November 13, 1915, the Britannic was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and was completed as a hospital ship. The ship took its maiden voyage on December 23, 1915.
On November 21, 1916, the Britannic departed from Naples and set sail on her sixth voyage in the Aegean Sea.
And guess what? Violet Jessop was a nurse on board. If you see a tragedy about to happen, you are absolutely correct.
While Violet was down in the dining room getting breakfast for a sick woman, she heard a dull, deafening roar and felt the ship shake. The ship struck a German-planted mine and began to sink.
Everyone to the lifeboats!
Violet went back to her cabin and packed her most worldly possessions into her apron pockets and tucked them under her waistband. She boarded lifeboat number four.
The captain of the ship cranked the engines in a last-ditch attempt to get the ship into shallower water. What the captain did not realize was that the lifeboats were being lowered at the same time. By starting the engines, a whirlpool was created that sucked the lifeboats into the Britannic’s mighty propellers. Even the best oarsman could not row against the mighty current.
A few minutes after Violet’s lifeboat hit the water, she noticed that everyone had jumped overboard into the sea. She turned and saw the gigantic propellers slicing and dicing anything and anyone that came near it.
Violet had no choice but to jump out herself. Unfortunately, she did not know how to swim. She had also made the mistake of placing her coat under her life vest, which meant that she could not remove it when it became waterlogged.
Down she went. (Violet, that is.)
Her buoyant body slowly rose back up.
Violet’s head crashed into something hard, most likely the bottom of the lifeboat. Then it happened a second time and a third.
Would Violet survive? You bet. Remember that we are dealing with the unsinkable Violet Jessop!
Violet’s nose just barely rose above the water’s oscillating waves. She opened her eyes just as another lifejacket was floating by. She grabbed it to stay afloat. Her next sight was that of a head split open with its brains falling out. There were body parts and wreckage floating all around her. Quite the gruesome sight.
In the distance, Violet could see the Britannic slowly fall into the sea. The ship was not even one year old, yet it went down in fifty-five minutes. The ship would not be seen again until Jacques Cousteau discovered it on the sea bottom in 1976.
Shortly after the sinking, one of the Britannic’s motorboats came to rescue her. The damage? Violet’s leg was deeply cut and torn up. She would find out years later while getting a dental x-ray that her skull had been severely fractured, but she had no clue at the time.
Others were not as lucky. While only twenty-eight people perished, many others lost arms and legs or suffered other serious injuries. Luckily, the Britannic did not have any wounded in its hospital beds at the time, or the death toll may have compared to that of the Titanic.
Violet was probably the only Britannic survivor to be rescued with her toothbrush in hand. She had learned from the Titanic disaster just four years earlier to go back to her cabin to get the toothbrush if you think your ship is about to go under.
After the war, Violet returned to her life as a cabin stewardess. She retired in 1950, after forty-two years at sea. She passed away in May of 1971. After her death, Violet’s nieces discovered a manuscript that she had written in 1934. It was finally published in 1997 under the title Titanic Survivor. Without this manuscript, her story may never have been completely told.
So there you have it. Not only did Violet Jessop have the privilege of being aboard the greatest ships of her time, but also she had the honor of being the only woman to have survived all three of the ill-fated sister ships.
Violet Jessop was one lucky lady. But then, she was a curse on the other passengers of these ships. I don’t think I would have been able to sleep comfortably if I knew she was on the same ship as I was.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.