Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
Random Quote
Random Date

HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

image title

Above: Violet Jessop

Violet Jessop – The Luckiest Woman Afloat

 

By Turtle Bunbury

In the moments before the Titanic struck the iceberg, 24-year-old stewardess Violet Jessop was slumbering upon her bunk bed, musing upon a prayer she had just made her roommate read out. It was an odd sort of a prayer, a translation from the Hebrew, offering protection against fire and water. An elderly Irish nun had slipped it into her prayer book at a convent in Kent some years earlier. But Violet Jessop, raised as a devout Irish Catholic, would later maintain that she had never read it before that fateful night.

It was probably just as well that Violet had her religion. As well as the Titanic, she was destined to survive two further major maritime disasters while serving on board Titanic’s sister ships, Olympic and Britannic. To have been involved in one such calamity would have been unfortunate but a hat-trick of calamities in the space of five years sets off some form of a record and ensured Violet’s status as the most famous of Titanic’s eighteen stewardess.

There have been Jessops in Ireland since at least the 18th century, with a prominent branch based at Doory Hall, now a ruined mansion, near Tashinny in County Longford.[i] Violet’s grandparents William Jessop and Catherine McCormack, or McCormick, were married in Castlebar in 1855 and then moved to Dublin. Their firstborn son Philip was baptized as a Protestant but was rechristened as a Catholic in 1860, suggesting that William and Catherine were mixed religion.[ii] William

By the time Violet’s father William Raymond Jessop was born in 1861, William and Catherine were living at 87 Lower Camden Street, Dublin. The boy was christened a Protestant in St. Peter’s Church.[iii] In the mid-1880s, the young man emigrated from Dublin to Argentina and set himself up as a sheep farmer on the Pampas near Bahia Blanca.[iv]

Guillermo Raimundo Jessop, as he became known, was by no means a lone Irishman. An estimated 30,000 Irish emigrated to Argentina during the 19th century and, by the 1880s, a number of them had farms of between 50,000 and 200,000 sheep.[v]

In 1886, Guillermo married Katherine Violet Kelly. By some accounts ‘Kate Kelly’ was born in Buenos Aires in 1863, the daughter of Santiago Kelly. Others suggest she was from a wealthy Dublin family who ran a photographic business and lived on Merrion Square.

In her memoirs, Violet recalled how her mother loved to talk about ‘her girlhood in Ireland’. ‘It only needed one of us to remark what lovely buns a local firm made or how green a certain field had become for her to say: ‘Ah, these are not anything like the grand buns you get in Dublin’, or ‘Sure, the green here is nothing like the green in Ireland’.

Violet was Guillermo and Kate’s eldest child. Born in Argentina on 1st October 1887, she was lucky to survive childhood after a lung haemorrhage, followed by serious bouts of tuberculosis and scarlet fever. Three of her eight siblings were less fortunate and died young.[vi]

The children were raised near Mendoza, where Guillermo worked as a stationmaster, which involved delivering mail to everybody on the station, and then as a 'fuel inspector'. However, tragedy struck when the 41-year-old Dubliner died of cancer in Mendoza in 1903.

Violet, aged just 15, was devastated by her father’s death but, as the eldest child, she had little time to mourn. Kate Jessop took her family back across the Atlantic to Britain, placed her four sons in an orphanage and instructed Violet to look after baby Eileen while she went to work as a stewardess for the Royal Mail Line.

With a few years, Kate had found a new husband and settled in Acton, while Violet and Eileen were dispatched to a convent school in Kent. In 1908, Kate’s health went into decline and Violet took her place as a stewardess with the Royal Mail. At 21, she was very young to be given the responsibility of a stewardess.

She was also dangerously pretty. Five feet three inches tall. Penetrating grey-blue eyes. Thick auburn hair. A soft Irish accent. Some feared this combination would prove rather too tempting for certain male passengers. Violet deliberately dressed down for the crucial interview and made sure not to wear any make up.

At the age of 21, she set off on her first cruise on board the steamship Orinoco, which was bound for the West Indies. On the journey, she fell in love with one of the ship’s junior engineers, an Irish-Australian called Ned Tracy. However, the romance floundered when Ned said he couldn’t marry her until he was promoted, an event which was likely to be far in the future.

Violet initially resisted working with the White Star Line, under which Titanic sailed. She was wary of the unpredictable weather conditions on the North Atlantic run. She had also been warned that Atlantic passengers tended to be tetchier and more demanding than others.

However, by 1910 she was working 17 hours a day for White Star, attending to passengers on the Majestic which travelled to and from New York. The following year, she transferred to the Belfast-built Olympic, the largest ocean liner in the world. Her fellow crew included steward John James Lewis who would later become her husband. In September 1911, Violet had her first real taste of the dangers of ocean travel when the stately liner was involved in a collision with HMS Hawke in the Solent. Both ships limped safely to the repair yards but it was a financial disaster for White Star.[vii]

Violet and 246 other crew members from Olympic were duly transferred to her new-built sister ship, Titanic. In early April 1912, Violet 'dressed in a new ankle-length brown suit' and took a horse-drawn cab down to the Southampton docks and signed up for the maiden voyage.

Violet’s memoirs offer a useful insight into the ensuing voyage. Every night she took a walk on the upper deck to breathe in some fresh air before heading down to her cabin. On one such stroll, she met Thomas Andrews, the County Down born designer of the ship – and a nephew of Lord Pirrie, the company chairman. He was cheerful but tired and seemed sad that he was getting ever further from home. Violet said the crew were fond of Andrews who had done a good deal to ensure their cabins were a lot more spacious than normal.

In her memory, the initial iceberg collision was followed by ‘a low, rendering, crunching sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and the sound of her engines gently ceased. Quiet, dead silence for just a moment. Then doors opened and voices could be heard in gentle enquiry.’

Reluctant to consider the possibilities, she lay in her bed for a while. 'Sounds as if something has happened,' suggested her roommate. When she heard some of the male crew passing their door, returning to duty, Violet realized she too needed to get to work. She dressed quickly and made her way upstairs, passing a steward on the staircase who glumly told her the ship was sinking.

She duly began to attend to the women passengers in her section, helping with ‘the endless buttons of their elaborate dresses’ and, after she had got them to the boat deck, ensuring their lifebelts were on secure.

There was still a dreamy air of unreality at this stage because it was widely known that Titanic was unsinkable. She tried not to read too much in the horrified faces of the senior crew members she encountered while bringing her charges upstairs.

A sense of panic swept over the ship when it was announced that women and children were to board the lifeboats, albeit as a precautionary measure. Violet returned to her cabin where, by her own admission, she spent a few moments trying to decide which hat she should wear as the calamity unfurled. After ditching one trimmed by sweet peas, she settled for a long scarf, scooped up her eiderdown and returned upstairs.

This time she ran into her Scottish friend Jock Hume who was a violinist in Titanic’s orchestra. 'Just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit,' he said. Up on deck, his band began playing some popular songs from the time, such as ‘Alexander's Ragtime Band’ and ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’.

Meanwhile, Violet ‘stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children.’ With horror she noted that the front of the ship was slowly but surely sinking into the water.

An officer approached the stewardesses and ordered them to board Lifeboat 16. As the boat was being lowered down Titanic’s side, the same officer leaned down with a child in his arms that he dropped into Violet’s arms. 'Here, Miss Jessop’, he said. ‘Look after this baby.'

One of the four men who rowed them away from Titanic’s deadly suction was a fireman who had just come up from the stokehold. His face was black with coal dust, his eyes red-rimmed and he only had a thin singlet to shield him from the icy cold.

As the lifeboat rowed away, Violet could still hear Jock’s band playing. Only now they were playing hymns instead of ragtime.

At 2:27 a.m., Violet watched as Titanic split and sank. 'One of the huge funnels toppled off like a cardboard model, falling into the sea with a fearful roar … Then she went down by the head with a thundering roar of underwater explosions. One awful moment of empty, misty blackness, then an unforgettable, agonizing cry went up from 1,500 despairing throats, a long wail - and then silence.' [vii.b]

She spent eight hours in the lifeboat before the Carpathia picked them up. ‘I was still clutching the baby against my hard cork lifebelt I was wearing when a woman leaped at me and grabbed the baby, and rushed off with it, it appeared that she put it down on the deck of the Titanic while she went off to fetch something, and when she came back the baby had gone. I was too frozen and numb to think it strange that this woman had not stopped to say 'thank you'.

Violet may have had a terrifying experience on Titanic but it did not deter her from returning to work as a stewardess. Her next assignment was on the P&O steamer Malwa, travelling to the Far East and Australia. When the First World War broke out, she served as a nurse with the Red Cross on the Olympic, which had been converted into a hospital ship.

By 1916, she was serving on Britannic, another Belfast-built White Star liner which had also been converted into a hospital ship and was bringing home sick and wounded soldiers from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. On the morning of 21st November 1916, Britannic was making her way down the Kea Channel of the Aegean Sea when a loud explosion ripped into her, caused either by a mine or a single torpedo.

28 people died in the sinking of Britannic. Violet attributed her own narrow escape to the cushion of her thick auburn hair: 'I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship's keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!'

But experience was now her forte and before she jumped, she grabbed her toothbrush from her cabin. She later said it was the thing she most regretted leaving on the Titanic.

After the war Violet continued to work for White Star until a ‘brief and disastrous’ marriage to a fellow crewmember John James Lewis compelled her to transfer to the Red Star line.[viii] She embarked on two round the world cruises on their largest ship, the Belgenland, before she returned to the Royal Mail Line.[ix]

In 1950, 62-year-old Violet Jessop retired to a secluded sixteenth-century thatched cottage in Suffolk which she filled with souvenirs from her forty two years at sea. She spent her days tending to her gardens and looking after hens whose eggs provided a useful income. When the film A Night to Remember was released in 1958, she gave short shrift to the film’s theory that the 3rd class passengers were deliberately kept behind locked gates and prevented from accessing the deck.

Violet Jessop died of congestive heart failure on 5th May 1971 aged 84 and was buried in the nearby village of Hartest, next to her younger sister and brother-in-law, Eileen and Hubert Meehan. Her memoirs, written in the early 1930s, were found by two nieces cleaning out her house and published in 1997. The memoirs inspired the character of the spirited but pragmatic second-class stewardess Annie Desmond in Julian Fellowes’ reworking of the Titanic story, a part played by former Emmerdale actress Jenna-Louise Coleman.

 

FURTHER READING

Titanic & Australia by Turtle Bunbury (The Australian, April 2012)

Titanic & Ireland by Turtle Bunbury (Ireland of the Welcomes, March 2012)

Titanic & South Africa by Turtle Bunbury (Mail & Guardian, South Africa, 13 April 2012 - see online version here)

Who sank the Titanic? by Turtle Bunbury

Violet Jessop - The Luckiest Woman Afloat by Turtle Bunbury (Irish Daily Mail, 12 April 2012)

THANKS

With thanks to Annemarie Kalishoek, Clive Mulville, Brian Hoban, Michael Molloy (Addergoole Titanic Society) and Mary Egan (Longford Westmeath Argentina Society).

Titanic Survivor by Violet Jessop, edited by John Maxtone-Grahm (Sheridan House, 1997).

FOOTNOTES

[i] At the time of the 1911 census, taken a year before the disaster, there were 61 Jessops registered in Ireland, including the family of a banker who lived on Frankfort Avenue in Rathgar, and another branch based on Upper Mount Street.

[ii] William and Catherine had a son Philip, born in 1856 and initially baptized as a Protestant. However, four years later, he was baptized again in the Catholic faith at St. Andrew’s, Dublin, in 1860 (Richd Johnston, Eliza Casson, sponsors), By this time, William and Catherine had settled in a relatively affluenct area at 8 Mercer Street, Dublin. There are McCormacks on Mercer Street in 1901 Census but no Mayo links. When their son Samuel was born on 7 June 1864, he was baptized in St. Nicholas; Philip Jessop and Martha Doran, sponsors. Violet’s father William Raymond Jessop is reckoned to be one of William and Catherine’s younger sons.

[iii] The original baptism registration from St Peters Church:

Area - DUBLIN (COI) , Parish/Church/Congregation - ST. PETER
Baptism of WILLIAM JESSOP of 87 LOWER CAMDEN ST on 9 August 1861
Name WILLIAM JESSOP
Date of Birth 3 July 1861
Address 87 LOWER CAMDEN ST
Father WILLIAM JESSOP
Mother CATHERINE JESSOP
Further details in the record
Father Occupation PENSIONER

[iv] The marriage cert on http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/violets-barren-white-star-wedding.html states her father was William Raymond Jessop

[v] Nearly 60% of them hailed from counties Westmeath, Longford and Wexford. In 1878, Edward Mulhall, the Dublin-born founder of The Standard newspaper in Argentina reckoned that a number of these men owned between 50,0000 and 200,000 sheep. ‘In no other part of the world have Irishmen been more prosperous’, he reckoned. ‘And nowhere do they constitute a more orderly and industrious community than in Buenos Aires.’

[vi] The family maintained close links with Britain during the 1890s. Violet’s brother William Henry (Guillermo E) Jessop was born in London on the 15 June 1891. (William Henry Jessop married Elsie Victoria Ross (born 7 November 1896 in London) and they both died in Queensland Australia, Elsie September 9, 1980 and William Henry died March 12, 1968 age 76). Also born in England are Violet’s brother Philip who died in 1918 and a sister Eileen who married Hubert H Meehan. Her brother Francisco Felipe Jessop was born on 22 June 1892 and christened at Nuestra Señora de la Merced, Bahía Blanca, on 19 Feb 1893. Her brother Samuel Basilio Jessop Kelly was christened at Virgin y Martir, Barracas, on 2 October 1898.

[vii] The Hawke was hit by a German torpedo in November 1915, and was lost with over 500 hands. Of the 85 boy sailors on the cruiser, only seven were saved.

[vii.b] Violet was in Boat 16, which features in a Titanic-themed stained glass window at St Patrick’s Church Lahardane, which recalls the group from Adergoole, Co. Mayo, who also drowned. One wonders did Violet and the few Addergoole survivors in the lifeboat chance to discover their Mayo connections. The only other known stained glass window with a Titanic theme is in Manhattan's Church of St John Devine and is dedicated to John Jacob Astor.

[viii] Within two years the marriage was over – there were no children and it appears he may have been a bigamist.

[ix] In 1948, the 61-year-old triple shipwreck survivor engaged in her final stint at sea when she signed a two-year contract with Royal Mail, servicing Brazil.

 

Articles