Podium: Blunders that led to `Titanic' deaths

Iain McLean

From a paper given by the Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, on the sinking of the `Titanic'

DISASTERS OFTEN involve regulatory failure. Some body was responsible for safety and failed to ensure it, through negligence or lack of imagination, or both. As part of an ESRC-funded research project on the Aberfan disaster of 1966, we are looking at regulatory failure in other British disasters, beginning with the Titanic, the century's best-known and deadliest peacetime disaster.

The White Star liner Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, on the night of 14-15 April 1912. Two hours later, she foundered in a flat, calm sea with the loss of 1,490 lives; 712 people were rescued alive, one of whom died soon after the rescue.

A Court of Inquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey, a retired Liverpudlian judge, was set up on 23 April, and reported on 30 July 1912. There were two Commons debates on the sinking; both were talked out without a vote. The Titanic had had only 1,178 boat spaces for her complement of 2,201 (and authorised capacity of 3,547). Therefore, although most of the discussion in 1912 and since has been about why the boats were not full, a much larger question is why there were not enough boats. Full boats would have meant 1,178 survivors instead of 712; enough boats might have meant 2,201 survivors instead of 1,178.

The Mersey Report found the Board of Trade culpable for failing to update the rules; the industry also blocked any regulation to increase boat requirements. In the second Commons debate, not only did industry speakers display no shame or guilt ("`Boats for all' is one of the most ridiculous proposals ever put forward", said Richard Holt MP, a partner in Alfred Holt & Co, ship owners), but they also hijacked the entire debate, so that it ran out of time before any difficult questions could be put.

Just as, at Aberfan and other recent disasters, the top management of the culpable corporations tried to deflect all blame on to the shoulders of their junior staff, so in 1912 the Board of Trade's nautical adviser, and the industry, deflected blame on to the Titanic lookouts, and the almost certainly blameless crew of the British cargo ship Californian. It was 80 years before ministers approved a reappraisal of the case against the Californian. That 1992 report is a strange document, because it embodies contradictory conclusions from two reporters, but its main relevant conclusion is that the Californian could not, as was alleged in 1912, have reached the Titanic before she sank.

Who survived the sinking, and why?

Many fewer third-class than first-class passengers survived. This fact has founded 80 years of class analysis.

In James Cameron's recent Hollywood epic, Titanic, several scenes depict the third-class exit gates being locked by members of the ship's crew to prevent the steerage passengers escaping. But neither the British nor the American inquiries of 1912 found systematic class discrimination. Of the British inquiry, we are tempted to say, "They wouldn't, would they?" But neither did the much more critical American inquiry.

The real story is a good deal more complicated. Class is involved - but mostly indirectly.

Survival rates by class for passengers are in Lord Mersey's report. For crew, they can be reconstructed from the crew lists. They show anomalies that do not fit into the accepted story. For example, a smaller proportion of second-class than of third-class male passengers survived.

What other factors may have been at work? One is physical position on the ship. Those high up, and near the boats when the iceberg struck, had a better chance of surviving than those lower down.

Of course, position is strongly associated with class, but they are not the same. Some high-class people were low down (second-class passengers, engineer officers). Some low-class people were high up (deck ratings, three-quarters of whom survived).

Other factors are the honour codes of the time: "women and children first"; "officers stay at their posts". We fitted a statistical model to see which factor had the strongest influence on the probability of survival. We found that sex and position each had more than twice as strong an effect as class.

So are the movies right? Were the dead killed by the British class structure? That view is not wrong. But it is seriously over-simplified. Like the children of Aberfan in 1966, they died of a lethal combination of bureaucratic lethargy and producer-group obstruction. Class worked its effects in indirect ways. Where it was crosscut by honour codes, the honour code proved to be more powerful than class.

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