The destruction of the RMS Titanic is legendary. Deemed to be a ship of the future and virtually indestructible, it crashed into an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank. Just over 700 people survived, while more than double that number lost their lives.
It wasn’t the only ship of the White Star Line, of course. There were others, and the next ship constructed, the HMHS Britannic, set sail in 1915. While it had been planned as a luxury cruiser even more safe than its sister the Titanic, World War 1 had broken out before its completion. The Britannic was converted to a hospital ship and set out to help Great Britain and her allies.
In 1916, the Britannic suffered an explosion and took on water. Most of the crew and patients made it off alive, but after the two sinkings no more Olympic class ships were made for the White Star Line.
One might think that being aboard the Titanic would dissuade people from continuing a life at sea, but in the early 20th century, good jobs were often hard to find and safe ones more difficult still. If a person had training they were likely to put it to use, and in at least two famous cases they did.
One is Violet Jessup. A trained stewardess aboard the Titanic, she’d previously been on board the Olympic. She transferred off of the Olympic, the White Star Line’s most luxurious cruise ship, after it went in for repairs… following a collision with a British warship in 1911. Undeterred by the close call (after all, the ship had made it back to port rather than sinking) she took a job on the Titanic. One of the lucky people with a lifeboat seat, she decided to step in during wartime and help by serving as a stewardess on the Britannic.
Jessup was on all three of the Olympic ships when they had their accidents. She earned the nickname “unsinkable”… but she wasn’t the only one with that nickname, or that history. Deep under the waterline, these steam-powered ships were maintained by engine workers, some of whom were “stokers”. Arthur John Priest was one of those men.
He was on board with Jessup when the Olympic crashed. He was on board when the Titanic sunk. He was also on board when the Britannic sank, earning him the same trifecta as Jessup.
“Unsinkable” Priest and Jessup both continued to work on ships after the Britannic went down. But while Jessup worked for decades, Priest only remained shipboard for the remainder of World War 1. After that, he couldn’t find a job; no ship would have him.
It wasn’t just the three Olympic class ships that earned him a black reputation, but the other three… the sinking of the HMHS Asturias he’d survived before signing on with the Olympic, or the sinking of the RMS Alcantara between his stints on the Titanic and the Britannic, or even the sinking of the SS Donegal after his time on the Britannic.
He had demonstrated that survival is always an option, but the other sailors didn’t feel comfortable putting that slogan to the test.
Question of the night: What’s a “close call” you’ve had?