Did the third class passengers on the Titanic have a fair chance?

When the evidence fits the prejudice

David Aaronovitch
Saturday 11 April 1998 00:02 BST

It was, of course, the tenacity, skill and patience of John Major\Tony Blair\Mo Mowlam\Bill Clinton which brought about yesterday's Ulster settlement, and put an end to thirty years of terrorism\war\pointless violence. History will judge this to have been the moment when diehard unionists\republicans gave up their obdurate insistence on a united Ireland\British Ulster, and allowed the guns to be put away.

One always has a choice. Of restaurants, spouses, garden furniture, newspapers and, above all, of histories. You can pick whichever suits you best, the one that sets off your eyes, the one that goes with the curtains, the one with the most complete sports coverage, or - in the case of history - the one that seems best to validate the views that you currently hold.

Take the Titanic. My inherited version of the 1912 disaster had it cast as a wonderfully rich and vivid illustration of the class struggle. In Walter Lord's A Night To Remember, Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon - whose party occupied an entire lifeboat (number 1) to themselves - turned to her secretary, Miss Francatelli as the Titanic finally went down, and said, "There is your beautiful night-dress gone." And there too went the three Skoog children, the four young Paulssons and the eleven members of the Sage family. All in third class, and all beneath the notice of this latter-day Marie Antoinette. Worse, they were locked out of the lifeboats so that the rich might live while the poor died.

This is not a view of history that would suit, say, the editor of the Daily Telegraph. For him, the class system was never so callous as that. It might confer privilege, but it also demanded responsibility to those who were poor or who laboured on your behalf.

So it must have been nice to have been able to run the headline in Thursday's edition, Titanic victims were not locked below. Taking the latest Oscar winning film to task, the Telegraph revealed that papers on display at a new exhibition at the Public Records Office proved that "the scene in which third-class passengers are locked below decks is a myth". A passenger called Pickard is documented as having said that those in steerage "were not prevented from getting up to the upper decks by anybody or by locked doors or by anything else."

Joy, then. But the figures are awkward. As the Telegraph admits, in first class over a third of the men, almost all of the women and all the children survived. In second it was less than 10 per cent of the men, 84 per cent of the women and all the children. But in steerage 12 per cent of the men, 55 per cent of the women and less than one in three of the children survived. Interrogating the figures shows that - despite the strict "women and children first" policy - a greater proportion of first class men survived, than of third class children.

Strangely, the documents quoted by the Telegraph contain observations by another steerage passenger called Buckley, arguing that "the passengers in third class had as much chance as the first and second class passengers". But how can this circle be squared? How, if they had just as much chance, did so many more of them contrive to be drowned? Simple, says the Telegraph. "More of the first class passengers survived because their cabins were closer to the lifeboats [just as much chance?] and many of the emigrants in third class died because their poor English meant they did not understand what was happening."

This Tiltian observation - with its suggestion that had the boat gone down in Swedish, then more would have been saved - seems somehow deficient. And other evidence states that there were many barriers between steerage and the rest of the ship, and that most of them stayed up. In addition some third-class passengers were denied initial access to the boats by sailors who forbade them to enter the first-class area. These included three Irish girls, and - curiously - Mr Buckley himself.

These facts, of course, do not really justify the American Hollywood myth of the deliberate lock-out, which is the version of history preferred both by vulgar old Marxists and vulgar new Meritocrats. But they certainly don't do much for noblesse oblige.

So, if the Telegraph chose to puncture the "myth" of the way that class decided who lived and who died on the Titanic, what might the liberal Guardian discover at the very same exhibition? Titanic's owners tried to gag filmmakers, that's what. Shipping companies apparently put pressure on cinema chains in a bid to "suppress material which might frighten away passengers". Just before the second world war, says the Guardian, the British Chamber of Commerce demanded that the Board of Trade stop Alfred Hitchcock making a film about the Titanic. Furthermore, the Guardian reminds us, the exhibition shows that the British Foreign Office secretly pleaded with US President William Taft to ensure that a senatorial enquiry into the sinking exonerated the British Board of Trade. The issue was one of censorship, cover-up and collusion in high places.

So, QED. The same exhibition based on the same historical disaster that happened 76 years ago this week, and two national papers with two entirely different stories, both of which act to reinforce the current opinions and prejudices of their readers. All of whom can wear "Validated By History" stamps on their foreheads.

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