The human cost of the Titanic disaster

TRAGIC STORY ... two new books have been written about the Titanic, pictured.
TRAGIC STORY ... two new books have been written about the Titanic, pictured.

She has an iconic place in our minds, touched as she was by both glamour and tragedy.

But there is a passage in Titanic: Destination Disaster which strips away any romance that might attach itself to the great liner’s loss.

It describes the huge debris field left in the wake of her sinking – furniture, fittings, deck chairs.

And in among it all floated the dead, some in groups, like the three drowned men all found clinging to a single chair, or singly, like the little fair-haired boy of about two, found on his own among a mass of wreckage.

In Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, chilling photographs of some of the dead, which White Star circulated in the hope of identifying them, are monstrous reminders of the scale of human loss.

The approaching centenary of the Titanic disaster next spring has presented publishers with the opportunity to explore the catastrophe in impressive detail.

The heavyweight has to be Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. This veritable doorstop of a third edition, by two of the world’s most renowned Titanic experts, is illuminating on many levels.

One of them is how extensively the Titanic was actually photographed, both inside and out.

Moments of true maritime history were recorded, like the picture of Titanic and her sister ship Olympic – later broken up here on the Tyne – bow-to-stern at the yard of Harland and Wolff.

And who knew that the rescue of some of her survivors was also photographed, the equivalent of the modern mobile phone camera capturing a lifeboat approaching the gangway door of the Swan Hunter-built Carpathia, which had sped to the great ship’s rescue.

Remarkable, too, are photographs of some of the Titanic’s crew – bedroom stewards, cooks, firemen, seamen – whose stories are often less well-told than those of the ship’s – especially monied – passengers.

In fact, there is something to be learned on every page of this stupendous book.

I didn’t know, for instance, that Edward Harland, of Harland and Wolff, had served his apprenticeship with Robert Stephenson & Co and had been a manager for the firm of shipbuilders Toward’s who, in the mid-19th century, had premises at St Peters, Newcastle, and here at South Shields.

But most impressive of all is that this volume tells the human story of the Titanic, lending renewed poignancy to those ghostly remains so many fathoms down.

By contrast, Titanic: Destination Disaster, by the same authors, is another third edition, this time of a book that sets out to look at the legends and the reality of the liner’s loss.

It’s on record that there had been premonitions of the disaster, for instance. But it’s fascinating to read how much chance actually played in who lived or died.

One suite was cancelled three times, for example, for prosaic reasons – illness, business.

On the last occasion, the wealthy American who had taken it changed his passage to the Tyne-built Mauretania.

Also extensively illustrated with absorbing photographs, Destination Disaster, like Triumph and Tragedy, also takes the Titanic’s story up to the present day and the information and items that have been rendered up by the exploration of her wreck on the sea bed.

We will hear much more about the Titanic in the months to come, no doubt, but you are left with the feeling that she could still surprise us yet.

* Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy (John P Eaton and Charles A Haas) is published in hardback by Haynes, price £30.

* Titanic: Destination Disaster, by the same author, is published in paperback, also by Haynes, price £12.99

* I have a first prize of Triumph and Tragedy to give away, plus three other prizes of Destination Disaster, if you can answer the following:

In what year did Titanic sink? Send your answer to Titanic Competition, c/o Janis Blower, Shields Gazette, Chapter Row, South Shields NE33 1BL, to arrive by next Wednesday, November 24.