The Strange Story of “Miss Unsinkable” Violet Jessop

Everyone knows that the passenger liner Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912 and sank. Some people also know that the Titanic’s sister ship Britannic, used as a World War One hospital ship, hit a mine and sank in 1916. And a few people even know that the third ship of the group, theOlympic, was damaged in an accidental collision with the British Navy cruiser HMS Hawke in 1911. But virtually forgotten is Violet Jessop, the White Star Line stewardess who worked on all three ships, survived all three accidents, and earned the nickname “Miss Unsinkable”.

Olympic_and_Titanic

The Titanic and her sister ship Olympic.

Violet Constance Jessop was born in October 1887, the daughter of Irish emigrants who had left Dublin a few years earlier to make a new life in a new world. But Jessop was not born in America–her parents were part of the little-known but just as important wave of European immigrants who crossed the ocean to settle in South America. Jessop’s family were sheep farmers who lived just outside of Bahia Blanca, Argentina.  Violet was the oldest of what would be six children. As a young child she contracted tuberculosis and was not expected to live, but pulled through anyway. But shortly afterwards her father died, and her mother Katherine moved the family back to England, where she got a job working as a stewardess on the Royal Mail Shipping Line. Violet attended a Catholic school with plans to enter a convent, but after her mother fell ill and could no longer work, Violet, as the eldest child, had to leave school to support the family. Just 21 years old, she signed on in 1908 as a stewardess for the Royal Mail linerOrinoco, which ran between England and the Caribbean. As a strikingly beautiful young woman with an Irish accent, she attracted much attention (and several marriage proposals) from the wealthy passengers–which was frowned upon by the company’s management, who discouraged “fraternization”. In response, Jessop began to wear drab clothing and no makeup to look older. Over time, she moved up from working with the third class passengers to working first class.

About a year later, Jessop left the Royal Mail line to work for the White Star Line. Although White Star sailed British-registered ships with British crews, it was actually an American company, owned by International Mercantile Marine, one of the holdings of American financier J. Pierpont Morgan. White Star liners were active on the England-America routes. Although Jessop later said that she was at first reluctant to sail on the North Atlantic routes because of the cold weather, after she joined the crew of the Majestic as a stewardess in 1909, she found that the Americans were not as class-conscious as her former British passengers had been, and treated her “more like a person”.

At the time Violet Jessop signed on to the Majestic, the White Star Line was planning a technological coup which, they hoped, would capture most of the lucrative North Atlantic trade for them from the competing Cunard Line. The new Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauritania were the fastest passenger ships afloat–but White Star hoped to compete with them through sheer luxury, with three new sister ships that were designed to be the biggest and most sumptuous liners on the sea. They were to be named the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic.

In 1911, the first of the class, the Olympic, was ready to begin sailing, and White Star began hiring service crew members for her. Among them was Violet Jessop, who transferred to theOlympic for the higher pay (two pounds and ten shillings a month–for a 17-hour workday). When the Olympic made her maiden voyage from Southampton to Cherbourg and then on to New York (under the command of Captain Edward Smith), Violet Jessop was working as a First Class Stewardess.

On the Olympic’s fifth voyage, on September 20, 1911, a mishap occurred.  While passing through a narrow channel off the Isle of Wight, the huge suction generated by the Olympic’spropellers apparently pulled a nearby ship, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke, into theOlympic’s path, causing a collision. The Hawke’s armor-reinforced bow cut into the Olympic’sside, severely damaging her. Although the collision had flooded two of her watertight compartments and warped her propeller shaft, the Olympic was able to return to port under her own power–with Jessop and the other crew members aboard. It took almost two months to repair the ship. As part of the process, the propeller shaft was taken out of her sister shipTitanic, then still under construction, and placed into the Olympic–an action that delayed the completion of Titanic by several weeks.

Jessop continued aboard the Olympic for several more months until 1912, when the newly-finished Titanic entered service. In her memoirs, Jessop writes that although she liked theOlympic, several of her friends convinced her that the Titanic would be “a wonderful experience”. She transferred for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, scheduled for April 10. Another crew member who transferred from the Olympic was Captain Smith, who planned to take Titanic for her maiden voyage and then retire.

When the Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 pm on April 12, Jessop was in her crew quarters with fellow First-Class Stewardess Elizabeth Leather. As she later described it, “I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Some time after, a ship’s officer ordered us into the boat (Number 16) first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: ‘Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.’ And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.” Jessop and the other survivors were picked up eight hours later by the liner Carpathia.

After the Titanic disaster, the White Star Line made some changes to the design of the thirdOlympic-class liner, the Britannic, then just beginning construction. The hull was strengthened, an inner skin was added, and the watertight bulkheads were extended all the way to the upper deck.

Violet Jessop, after surviving the Titanic sinking, also made a change–she left the White Star Line and became a nurse for the Red Cross.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, shortly after the Britannic finished construction, the British Government commandeered both the Olympic and the new Britannic for the war effort. The Olympic was hastily fitted with a number of 5-inch guns and was used as a troopship, capable of carrying 6,000 soldiers at a time. The Britannic, meanwhile, was fitted out as a hospital ship, and as the casualties mounted during the Gallipoli campaign, Britannic made five trips to the Agean Sea to pick up wounded troops and take them back to England. In an amazing coincidence, one of the Red Cross nurses that was assigned to her was Violet Jessop. WhenBritannic set off from Southampton on November 12, 1916, for the Agean, Jessop was once again on board.

The trip went uneventfully until 8:15 am on November 21, when, as she passed near the Greek island of Kea, the Britannic was rocked by a huge explosion. She had hit an underwater mine that had been laid earlier by a German submarine. As her forward compartments flooded and the front of the ship was pulled under, water began pouring into the portholes, which had been left open to cool the ship down in the Mediterranean heat. It was more flooding than the Britanniccould handle, and she sunk in only 55 minutes. Of the 1,066 crew and medical staff aboard, 30 died–most when their lifeboat was sucked into the ship’s propellers and was destroyed. Another lifeboat, this one with Violet Jessop aboard, also drifted towards the propellers, and Jessop jumped over the side. In her memoirs she recalled, ”I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head.” Jessop was picked out of the water by another lifeboat, which then paddled to the nearby village of Korissia where she helped with caring for the injured. She didn’t know until years later that the impact with the ship’s hull had cracked her skull.

You would think that Violet Jessop, now dubbed “Miss Unsinkable” by the press, would have avoided the sea altogether, but instead at the end of World War One, she returned to work as a stewardess for the White Star Line, back aboard the Olympic from 1920 to 1925, then leaving to join the Red Star Line. (The Olympic continued to sail, completing 257 trans-Atlantic round trips, until 1935, when she was removed from service and unceremoniously scrapped.) After two around-the-world cruises on the Red Star’s premiere ship, the Belgenland, Jessop left Red Star in 1931, and in 1935 went to work for the Royal Mail Line in the Caribbean–the same line she had worked for at the age of 21. During this time, she had what she later described as a “brief but disastrous” marriage.

After working as a secretary during the Second World War, Jessop returned to the Royal Mail Line for another two years, before retiring in 1950 at the age of 63. She had been at sea for 42 years.

When the Hollywood movie A Night to Remember, about the Titanic, was released in 1958, Jessop was interviewed by the local press, where she pointed out several errors in the film–ranging from the fact that the third-class passengers had not been locked below decks as depicted in the movie, to the inaccuracy of the big wide hats worn by the women in the movie (the women didn’t actually wear them on the boat deck as they tended to blow away).

In 1971, “Miss Unsinkable” died in England of congestive heart failure.  She was 84.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.