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.

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links