Monday, October 8, 2012

 One Very Lucky Lady

 Remember me saying I was going to tell the story of one very lucky...hell, remarkably, unbelievably lucky...young lady? Let me start the story by saying I love the ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, and in fact anything to do with ships (Hence both of my blogs kick off with nautical tales). When I was a child one of the highlights of our at least monthly trips across the Chesapeake Bay to see my  paternal grandmother was the two hour ferry ride between Little Creek, on the mainland and Kiptopeake, on The Eastern Shore. Heck, my dad had worked for the Virginia Ferry Commission and knew most of the crews and captains, so by age five I knew the way from the car deck to the bridge on a couple of the boats as well as the crew (Something that wouldn’t happen in this post-9/11 world).
  I know, I're thinking 'What's that got to do with a lady being lucky a hundred years ago, Rob??' What it has to do with it is simply this...As much as I love all of the above, if I had gone through what a young Irish girl named Violet Jessop went through between 1911 and 1916, I 'm not sure I would have even wanted to so much as look at anything that floated for a while, much less actually ride on it. 

Violet Jessop
Ya see, she was aboard Olympic  when she collided with HMS Hawke. Then she was aboard Titanic when she hit the iceberg. And finally, she was aboard HMHS Britannic when that ship had a meeting with a mine. Yep, she was aboard all three of the White Star giants when they met their misfortune. Recall that two of those misfortunes involved the ships sinking out from under her. This Trilogy of disaster didn’t seem to slow her down much, though. She spent 42 years at sea, and wrote a book about her experiences aboard the White Star giants.
Let’s introduce the lady first. Violet Jessop was born on October 2nd 1887 in Argentina. Her parents had immigrated from Ireland a couple of years earlier to open a sheep farm, and apparently did a pretty decent job at it. Sadly her dad passed away in 1903, when Violet was only 15, and her mom moved her and the rest of the family (Violet was the oldest of six children) back to England. Violet was enrolled in a convent school, and her mom got a job with Britain’s Royal Mail Line as a ships stewardess. This would influence Violet’s life a few years later when her mom became ill and had to retire. Violet would become the family’s bread winner, and in 1908, at age 21, she also joined the RML as a stewardess. She was a strikingly lovely young lady, with thick auburn hair, blue gray eyes, a hint of an Irish accent, and from the pictures I’ve seen, that elusive ability to be both cute and beautiful at the same time. She actually had some problems getting hired because of her beauty and youth, and ‘drabbed herself down’ for one interview, then was promptly hired.
 Jump ahead a couple of years. Career ambition isn’t a new thing, and Violet decided to apply to White Star as they had better routes, and a more regal reputation. She apparently did a pretty decent job for Royal Mail because they gave her glowing references, and White Star hired her all but on the spot. She noted in her book that she knew the work would be hard and the hours long (Seventeen hour...yep, you read that right...days). Her first ship was the original RMS Majestic, which she joined in 1910. She did what would be known today as a lateral transfer to the RMS Olympic, joining her crew on June 14th 1911, and she loved the ship. She was also quite fond of Americans, saying that we were far less demanding than passengers from the European countries. Annnnd...she was aboard Olympic when HMS Hawke made a hard left turn right into her.
This was a near non event to Violet. Neither ship was fatally damaged, both limped back to port. Violet either got an unscheduled vacation or was a assigned to another liner while Olympic  was being repaired...then she rejoined Olympic’s  crew when that ship was placed back in service.
One of her friends was egging her on to transfer to Titanic. Titanic was even bigger and more luxurious than Olympic, and only the Cabout itreme De La Creme would be assigned to her. Our Girl Vi hemmed and hawed and hemmed a bit more and her friend kept on with the 1912 version of 'This will be just SERIOUSLY Awesome, Girl!', and Violet did whatever paperwork and procedures were needed for another transfer.  On April 10th, 1912 she joined the crew of RMS Titanic.
Fast forward four days, to the night of April 14th. Violet had finished up her long day of attending to the needs of the First Class passengers and had crashed out in her quarters. In her words, she wasn't quite asleep, but was in a state of comfortable drowsiness when there was a mild shudder that she barely noticed, then a bit later a knocking on her cabin door. One of the stewards, or possibly the head of that department told her to get up on to make sure she grabbed her life jacket. She was probably thinking 'This can't be good' as she grabbed her life jacket (They were cork filled back then) and headed up on deck, where she found passengers milling about casually and no real sense of urgency just yet. Women were clinging to their husbands, and asking just what was going on, the menfolk were trying to find out just exactly that from the crew, who at that point weren't real sure themselves...or if they did know how serious the situation was, they weren’t saying much about it to prevent a panic.
She was standing with a group of other stewardesses, discussing the goings on (And likely noticing the ever increasing tilt the deck was taking towards the bow) when a ships officer ordered the entire group of stewardesses into Boat #16, to show the female passengers that the lifeboats were safe. As she was getting settled, she heard him say 'Here Miss Jessop, look after this baby', and a blanket-wrapped bundle was dropped (Or placed) in her lap. The baby's mother had apparently remembered something she wanted to retrieve from her cabin, placed the baby on deck...or a bench...or possibly a deck chair...and left the infant unattended. The unnamed ship's officer scooped the infant up, thinking it had been abandoned, and handed it off to the closest female he could see, who turned out to be Violet Jessop. The boat was loaded, lowered, and the occupants settled for a long wait.
They were taken aboard Carpathia after about eight long, frigid hours. On Deck Violet was still wearing her life vest, clutching the child against it when a woman saw her and the baby, lept at Violet, snatched the infant from her arms, and hurried off with it...apparently (And hopefully) the child's mother. Violet noted that she was still too numb and frozen to even think about why the women didn't thank her for taking care of the baby.
Carpathia made port in New York, The Titanic's rescued survivors disembarked at White Star's pier, and Violet continued her career as a stewardess, probably aboard Olympic. When World War I broke out, she took a leave of absence from White Star, joined the Red Cross Nurse Corps, and was assigned to hospital ships. To be specific she was assigned to RMHS Britannic. Though I haven't found anything that confirms my opinion, I have a feeling that her familiarity with 'Olympic class liners had a lot to do with which ship she was assigned to.

Violet in her uniform  during World War One
Now Fast Forward to Nov. 21, 1916. Violet was likely helping to get the wards ready to receive the thousands of injured British soldiers who would soon be coming aboard when the mine's explosion rang throughout the ship, which quickly took on a pronounced list as well as being down by the bow.
Violet ended up aboard one of those first lifeboats. One the first two which were released from their falls without authorization. She fist endured the six foot drop into the sea (That couldn't have been fun) and then realized that something was dreadfully wrong. She saw that they were headed straight towards one of the partially exposed propellers and dived overboard.

 She ended up beneath the Britannic's hull as she surfaced and managed to clock her self good on the ol' noggin as she surfaced beneath the bilge keel. (A note here...many sources say it was the keel, which is the main longitudinal structural member, running lengthwise along the very bottom of the hull. Britannic drew somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 feet when she was on an even keel, even with the stern ''light' and much higher in the water than normal...high enough to expose the first few feet the propeller blades...the keel would have been 15 or 20 feet down as well as 50 feet or so away. She probably got turned around as she went under, swam beneath the lifeboat, and surfaced beneath the Bilge keel, which runs along the 'round down' where the bottom of the hull goes vertical and becomes the side.)
Violet credited her thick head of auburn hair for cushioning the blow to her head, and allowing her to remain conscious. She was pulled aboard another boat, made it to The Island Of Kea, and was one of the nurses tending to those who were injured when the boats were pulled into the props. Her career continued...both as a nurse, and as a stewardess after the war. There is a postscript to her Britannic experience, however. Some years later when she began suffering severe headaches, the doctor treating her found evidence of a healed hairline skull fracture...likely given to her by Britannic's bilge keel.
She stayed with her career until 1950...with White Star, then Red Star, and finally Royal Mail lines, where she worked until World War II. She held a clerical position during the war, which she held until 1948. She then went to sea for two more years, and finally retired in 1950.

Violet, on the far right, at a celebration of the release of A Night To Remember

 She moved into a 16th century thatched roof cottage, took up gardening, and lived a quiet,  relaxing life of retirement, though she did enjoy a bit of fame in 1958 when A Night To Remember came out. 
She died in May of 1971 of congestive heart failure.
Notes, Links and Stuff An interesting story...also on Encyclopedia Titanica...of Violet Jessop's short lived marriage

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