The Truth Might Surprise You
It seems everyone has heard the story of RMS Titanic. At the time of its completion, it was the largest ocean liner in history, grossing more than 46,000 tonnes and coming in at over 882 feet long. This huge ship was widely lauded as the future of transatlantic shipping only for it to sink in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, just four days into her voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The ship had more than 2,200 people on board when she struck an iceberg just before midnight on the 14th April. She sank to the bottom of the ocean two hours and forty minutes later, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500, making it one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history outside of war.
Thanks to popular culture, we have images of those passengers in third class whose cabins were located in steerage, trapped below decks behind metal-railed gates while the ship sunk, prevented from getting up to the top decks where they could find lifeboats and salvation. All of it creates a poignant, almost melancholic defeatism about the class system at the turn of the 20th Century. But the question I’m going to ask in this post is: Were third class passengers really locked below?
Like many enquiries into the past, the answer can be found in the contemporary source documents. Following the Titanic disaster, there were two inquiries; one was set up by the British Board of Trade, and the other was conducted by the United States Senate. Their job was to question those who survived the sinking to determine what happened, why it happened, and how it could be stopped from happening again.
Both inquiries generated many hundreds of pages, and they reached many similar conclusions into what happened. I’ve trawled through their reports and witness testimony, and it is as fascinating as any court drama I have ever seen.
Focusing on the third class passengers, I was able to draw out the witness testimonies of three men, all of them survivors from third class. At some point in their interviews, each man was asked the same specific question – were you prevented from getting access to the upper decks? Using their testimonies and knowledge we now have of the event, I’m going to answer this question (hopefully) once and for all.
And I’m going to start with the testimony of a man called Berk Pickard.
Pickard has a really interesting background. He was born in Russia as Berk Trembisky before he left for France. Once in France, he took the French name of Pickard, and kept it for the rest of his life.
Stood before the United States Senate, he affirmed that he was in steerage sharing a cabin with a group of other men when the ship struck the iceberg, and he first knew of the collision at ten minutes to midnight when he was woken by a tremor running through the ship.
In his own words he states;
We had all been asleep, and all of a sudden we perceived a shock. We did not hear such a very terrible shock, but we knew something was wrong, and we jumped out of bed and we dressed ourselves and went out, and we could not get back again.Berk Pickard
He then goes on to describe how he found some stewards already making their way down the passageway, waking up other passengers and shuttling them towards the upper levels. Pickard realised the seriousness of the situation and decided to go back to his cabin to get more belongings when he was stopped by a steward. He told the Senate how the crew would not allow the steerage passengers on this part of the ship to go back.
So far from keeping the passengers below decks, in this part of the ship at least, the crew were actively getting them out towards the top deck. Pickard continued to describe how he climbed up to another level where he found a group of passengers arguing. He stated;
One group said that it was dangerous and the other said that it was not; one said white and the other said black. Instead of arguing with those people, I instantly went to the highest spot.Berk Pickard
He climbed his way up to an area for second class and stopped at a door. It was clearly marked for first class passengers only. Yet fortunately for Berk, it was left open, so he went on through. But then he had another problem – he had no idea where he was – he hadn’t been in this part of the ship before.
Imagine you’re suddenly in his shoes. The Titanic is sinking, and the deck you’re on is tilting ever further towards the waterline. Should you go left or right? Should you go down the first corridor you come to or do you try to seek out a set of stairs? After some time spent wandering around, Berk manages to get to the top deck where he came across a group of women and children boarding a lifeboat. Without saying a word, he climbed inside with a group of other men, and was lowered into the water where they rowed to safety. Once they were a safe distance, they all watched to the sounds of cries and screams as the ship sank, plunging to the depths far below.
Towards the end of his testimony, he was asked directly about any barriers that might have prevented him from getting to the upper decks. This is what he said;
The steerage passengers, so far as I could see, were not prevented from getting up to the upper decks by anybody, or by closed doors, or anything else. While I was on the ship no one realised the real danger, not even the stewards. If the stewards knew, they were calm. It was their duty to try to make us believe there was nothing serious. Nobody was prevented from going up.Berk Pickard
This is as clear as you can get. In Pickard’s part of the ship, there were no restrictions in getting third class passengers away to safety. And this is reflected in the second witness testimony from my research; a man called Olaus Abelseth.
Abelseth was twenty five at the time of the sinking. He was from Norway, and had gone to Southampton with his cousin and his brother-in-law to seek their fortune in the United States. He confirmed at the time of the collision how he was down in steerage after having gone to bed at 10 o’clock. He shared his third class cabin with one other man, and both of them were woken by a tremor running through the ship. Realising something was wrong, they both got dressed, and like Pickard, they left their cabin to go find out what was happening.
Abelseth told the Senate that he reached the top deck without any problems only to realise he had left his lifebelt behind. Seeing all the commotion, he realised something bad must have happened. So he went back down, grabbed his lifebelt and went to find his cousin and brother in law since they slept in a different cabin to him. After waking them up, he led the groggy pair up the ship’s decks and the trio somehow joined a group of Norwegians they had met previously during their voyage. Together as a single group, these Norwegians eventually found themselves standing outside at the rear of the ship.
Abelseth called this part of the ship the hind part, and the Senators had to have it confirmed to them where exactly he was at this point. He was actually on the poop deck, which was used as a promenade for third class passengers.
This is very different from the boat deck. There is a level change and a railing with a locked gate that during normal cruising would stop third class passengers from mingling with those in first class. Abelseth describes seeing many passengers from steerage, climbing a crane arm to get up on the boat deck where all the activity around the lifeboats was taking place.
There were a lot of steerage people there that were getting on one of these cranes that they had on deck, that they used to lift things with. They can lift about two and a half tons, I believe. These steerage passengers were crawling along on this, over the railing, and away up to the boat deck. A lot of them were doing that.Olaus Abelseth
Eventually, the gate between third class and first class was opened by a couple of the ship’s officers, and they called out for women and children to come forward. Two women from Abelseth’s group went through while the men dutifully hung back.
By the time Abelseth, his cousin and his brother in law were permitted up on the boat deck, many lifeboats had already been cast off, and the Titanic was well on its way to sinking utterly. Despite opportunities to get on a boat, Abelseth declined, and together with his relatives, he decided to jump into the water just as the ship sank. Striking the freezing cold water, he almost drowned, but was plucked out of the sea when he happened to come across a lifeboat. Tragically his cousin and brother-in-law did not survive the ordeal – they both perished after jumping into the freezing waters of the Atlantic.
The Senators asked Abelseth a final time about the opportunities steerage passengers had to reach the top deck.
The question was;
Do you think the passengers in the steerage and in the bow of the boat had an opportunity to get out and up on the decks, or were they held back?
Yes, I think they had an opportunity to get up.
He was asked;
Were there no gates or doors locked, or anything that kept them down?
Abelseth simply reiterated;
No, sir; not that I could see.
The Senator queried him about the crane that people climbed on to get to the boat deck, and Abelseth quite accurately pointed out that by then, his band of third class passengers were already out in the open air – there had been no restrictions keeping them in their rooms. Remember – he’d gone up and down twice; the first time to see what was going on, the second time to grab his relatives. So Abelseth would have known better than most about any gates or locked doors in his part of the ship.
But then we come to the third witness. And he has a rather different tale.
Daniel Buckley was twenty years old at the time of the sinking. He described to the Senate Hearing how he’d similarly woken up in his steerage cabin, and had reached the boat deck where he’d eventually gotten on a lifeboat with a group of other men.
However, unlike Pickard, these men weren’t so lucky. A couple of officers discovered them before the boat was lowered, and Buckley described how the crewmen had to resort to firing pistols over their heads in order to force the men out of the lifeboat.
Buckley, however, was fortunate. As each man was dragged out, he began to cry, knowing what would happen to him if he was forced out of the lifeboat. Seeing him in such a state, a woman on the seat next to his wrapped him in a shawl to disguise him, and told him to keep quiet.
The ruse worked, and as more women and children were brought onto his boat, the other men were dragged off, all except for Buckley. And he survived to tell his tale. When asked about steerage passengers being locked below decks, he at first gave an ambivalent answer. He said;
I do not think so.
The senator asked him again;
Were you permitted to go on up to the top deck without any interference?
This time he replied;
They tried to keep us down at first on our steerage deck. They did not want us to go up to the first class place at all.
Who tried to do that?
I can not say who they were. I think they were sailors.
What happened then? Did the steerage passengers try to get out?
Yes; they did. There was one steerage passenger there, and he was getting up the steps, and just as he was going in a little gate a fellow came along and chucked him down; threw him down into the steerage place. This fellow got excited, and he ran after him, and he could not find him. He got up over the little gate. He did not find him.
Put to one side the bizarre circumstance of a steward being chased through the ship by an angry passenger he’s just thrown down a set of stairs, Buckley’s response is revelatory. He goes on to explain further about how he had gotten to the top of the stairs and passed through an open gate when a steward appeared and threw back another third class passenger before locking the same gate closed.
The passenger was so outraged, he tore off the lock and chased after the steward.
Buckley was asked to confirm exactly where in the ship he was with the use of a model and some drawings. Again, he was asked the question; did the locking of this gate prevent people escaping the lower decks?
Buckley replied that once the lock had been torn off, it didn’t. But it is evidence that an attempt was made to restrain third class passengers, at least in his part of the ship.
So why might this be done? Could it be because the crew saw steerage passengers as disposable? Did they simply not care and merely see them as a burden?
From the stewards’ point of view, they had been given orders to wake steerage passengers and get them ready to leave. Some followed this order to the letter while others were more liberal, preferring to get the passengers topside as soon as possible.
It’s important to remember – the ship was sinking. People would have been panicking, and up on the boat deck, officers and crew members were furiously working to get lifeboats ready for departure. The last thing they needed were hundreds of desperate passengers pushing forward to get a place on one. It was determined at the hearing that it took about twenty to thirty minutes to get each boat prepared; it was not a simple task.
Undoubtedly, some gates throughout the ship were closed and locked. But they were all open before the first lifeboat began its controlled descent to the waterline. Whether it was from stewards being given the order to permit third class passengers up top once things were prepared, or whether, as Buckley witnessed, it was an impatient passenger with a grudge bursting the lock open ahead of time, one way or another, the gates were open at the crucial moments in the evacuation.
Any gates that were locked, seemed to have been done so out of a sense of need, in the best interest of the passengers. Unfortunately for those in steerage, they had a further distance to travel to get to the upper decks. Just like today, back then, you got what you paid for, and first class paid a lot for their cabins beneath the boat deck where they would find lifeboats waiting.
It’s a similar reason to why third class passengers were so rudely woken from their beds compared to those in first. Many like Abelseth and Pickard didn’t have English as their first language. In the passengers’ best interests, the crew had to make sure they understood what they were being told, they had to shuttle these passengers forwards, physically pushing them on for the boat deck at times.
So were those in steerage kept locked below decks? Ultimately in some parts of the ship for a period of time, yes. But in the same way people in some areas of a large commercial building are told to stay put during a fire, it’s done from a sense that it’s the best course of action for everyone.
I’ll end with Pickard’s final words on the matter when he described the actions of the stewards in a poignant remark. Like many of the crew, the majority of the stewards perished during the Titanic’s sinking.
They tried to keep us quiet. They said, “Nothing serious is the matter.” Perhaps they did not know themselves. I did not realise it, the whole time, even to the last moment. Of course, I would never believe such a thing could happen.Berk Pickard
Next Titanic Article: Why Were the Titanic’s Lifeboats Not Fully Loaded?