Film: Survivor of three Titanics

Richard D North discovers a woman who survived three shipwrecks, including the 'Titanic'

Next Wednesday an estimated pounds 25-30,000 may secure three playing cards which were part of a hand of bridge when Titanic struck her iceberg, and survived. Sotheby's sale also features copies of radio signals sent that April night, and yet more will be on offer at Christie's on 14 May.

The mythic potency of anything associated with Titanic shows no sign of waning: 66 titles about Titanic were published by 1975 and there have been another 105 since.

One of the most fascinating accounts of the sinking, however, has only now come to light, 86 years after the event, as though it had somehow miraculously struggled free of the wreck, two and a half miles down.

It is the story of Violet Jessop's maritime career. She was already an experienced stewardess when shipwrecked: a veteran of Titanic's sister ship, Olympic's maiden voyage. She survived Titanic, and four years later, now as a nurse, she survived the sinking of Titanic's other sister ship, Britannic, too.

"She was a raging beauty," says Margaret Meehan, one of her two nieces, now living together in London. "See, here - she had an 18-inch waist." We're looking at sepia snaps which, unaccountably, its enterprising UK publisher did not include in Titanic Survivor - the memoirs of Violet Jessop.

Working on the White Star Line, which catered especially to the American market, Violet understood that the self-deprecating English upper middle- class style often concealed dislike or indifference toward the lower orders, while the more demanding Americans at least treated staff as individuals. About the latter passengers, she wrote, "You were faced with the paradox of being considerably overworked and yet much happier and free because of their attitude."

When she wrote her account, 20 years after the sinking, Violet's story was spurned by the organisers of the literary competition to which she entered it. But her nieces knew of its existence. One of the pair, Mary, had sailed with Aunt Vi in 1949, and later typed up the manuscript. A quarter of a century after its author's death in 1971, Margaret - an art teacher - went to the library to unearth the address of a likely New York marine publisher. Lothar Simon, of Sheridan House, Dobb's Ferry, NY, was quick off the mark and - perhaps on the back of the tastelessly inaccurate James Cameron movie - the book went through four US editions during 1997.

This must surely be the last book which we will have from a survivor, and beyond being perhaps the best observed it neatly completes the range of accounts. There are the survivors' testimonies from the inquiries - those vignettes which turn up in the two pretty fair British films of Titanic. But also, the scriptwriters had the fuller account of a second- class passenger, the science schoolmaster Lawrence Beesley and the account of Colonel Archibald Gracie, a first-class passenger. We don't have a steerage account, though far more third-class men and nearly as many third- class women survived as did from second class.

Filson Young (my grandmother's second husband and a prolific journalist covering many of the national dramas of the first third of this century) got his Titanic into the bookshops within three weeks of the sinking. He dwelt on, but did not exaggerate, the nobility of many people's behaviour on Titanic. True, he had not grasped and did not dwell on the less noble behaviour of most of the saved. Few of these turned their lifeboats back to rescue the people freezing to death after the sinking.

Probably rightly, he did not suppose that there was much positive discrimination against the steerage passengers (omission more than commission sealed their fate). He was surely right to stress that the disaster forced the classes which had been so conspicuously separate before it to intermingle very dramatically. "There were people on the Titanic who had so entrenched themselves behind ramparts of wealth and influence as to have wellnigh forgotten that, equally with the waif and the pauper, they were exposed to the caprice of destiny."

Michael Davie, the journalist, drew attention in his Titanic of 1986 to Titan - or Futility. However, the fictional mid-Atlantic sinking of the ship Titan depended on the venality of its owners and officers. In real life, cock-up, not conspiracy, was the villain. And the main lesson of the disaster was to guard against complacency, rather than criminality.

That was more or less the lesson from the extraordinary second UK official inquiry into the Titanic disaster. Held in 1992, it used the full advantage of hindsight to declare that the captain of the Californian, a British ship which did not respond to Titanic's distress rockets, was, anyway, too far away to help even if he had been less tardy.

And that should be that. Except that this is one ship which seems to intend to go on as it began - being talked about. If final proof of that were needed, have you heard the one about the difference between Bill Clinton and the Titanic. No? Well, only 750 women went down...

'Titanic Survivor' by Violet Jessop, Sutton Publishing, pounds 8.99

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