Violet Jessop (1887 – 1971)
Whether you agree with G K Chesterton’s analysis or not, there is something deeply fascinating about coincidences. I particularly enjoy stories of people who have cheated death on a number of occasions. They provide proof that some people can sail through traumatic experiences unscathed. One of the most pre-eminent examples is Miss Unsinkable, Violet Jessop.
As a young child Violet had already shown a remarkable propensity to look death in the eye, contracting tuberculosis and given just a few months to live. Proving the medics wrong, she survived and at the age of 21 took a job as a stewardess on an ocean-going liner. To achieve this position Violet had to overcome institutional prejudice. Although women worked on passenger ships they were usually of a certain age, the owners thinking that a young slip of a girl would cause too much of a distraction to the lusty matelots. To secure her position, she attended interviews wearing dowdy clothes and without make-up in an attempt to distract attention from her age and appearance. It worked and she secured a position in 1908 on the Royal Mail steamer, the Orinoco.
Sailors are superstitious characters and call unlucky crew members and passengers Jonahs after the biblical character who investigated the insides of a whale. Had they known that Violet was on the crew list, many a sensible sailor or passenger would have avoided the ship like the plague. Violet’s chapter of disasters started when she secured a position with the prestigious White Star Line and its luxurious liner, the Olympic. On 20th September 1911 the Olympic was sailing in the Solent in parallel with HMS Hawke. In manoeuvring the Olympic struck the Hawke’s bow which had been designed to ram ships, and the hull of the Olympic was holed above and below the waterline. Although two of the watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to sail under its own steam back to Southampton and no one was seriously hurt.
Then Violet took a position on board the White Star Line’s newest and most luxurious liner, the Titanic which the owners claimed was unsinkable. On the night of 14th/15th April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking with it some 1,500 souls. Violet, though, was one of the lucky ones, being ordered by one of the ship’s officers to get into lifeboat number 16 to show the passengers that it was safe to do so. Her one regret, she recorded in her memoirs, was that she left her toothbrush on board.
To many a life ashore might have seemed appealing but not for Violet who transferred to the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. During the First World War the Britannic was commandeered by the Navy and Violet saw service as a nurse aboard the ship which ferried troops back and forth across the Aegean. On 21st November 1916 it struck a mine planted by a German U-boat, sustaining substantial damage and sank so quickly that Violet and her fellow crew members hadn’t time to man the lifeboats. Clutching her toothbrush – she had remembered it this time – Violet jumped overboard, striking her head on the ship’s keel as she was sucked under. It was only years when she was complaining of frequent headaches that she learned that she had fractured her skull. Miraculously, only 30 died in this incident.
After the war Violet transferred to the Red Star Line and worked on ships for a number of years. The albatross that had hung around her neck had clearly disappeared because the rest of her career passed without incident. She died at the ripe old age of 84 of congestive heart failure.