Next year is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable RMS Titanic, and a major exhibition will visit London in remembrance of the disaster.
So much has been written about the sinking of the fateful ship with the loss of 1,200 lives that you might think there is not much more to say.
This is absolutely not true according to Clifford Ismay – a distant relative of White Star Line chairman Bruce, who has often been called a coward for his behavior during and after his maiden voyage.
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“I felt sorry that he was misjudged, I would say the same to anyone, not just because he was a member of my family,” said Clifford, speaking to MyLondon from his home of Workington, Cumbria – which incidentally overlooks the North Atlantic where the Titanic was lost.
The all-too-familiar story is that Bruce was called a coward because he left the sinking ship on the collapsible lifeboat C when there were women and children still waiting to get off the decks.
A woman during the damning investigations also claimed she was heard discussing with Captain Smith about pushing the ship to go faster before it hit the iceberg on the night of April 14.
In many ways, Bruce was chosen as a symbol of the arrogance of the White Star Line – who believed their ship was “almost” unsinkable.
In James Cameron’s 2000 film Titanic, he was played by Jonathan Hyde with a very cowardly air.
The American press then filmed him and labeled him “yellow liver” and a negative image of him was reproduced film after film.
But Clifford explains why.
“When he took up his post at the White Star Line, he had moved to New York to be his agent there and became great friends with Randolph Hearst, the aspiring newspaper owner,” he says.
“At one point Randolph asked Bruce to partner with him in the papers, but he refused.
“Randolph was very hurt by this and never forgave him and it was his papers that launched the slimy campaigns against Bruce afterwards.”
It was something Bruce would never quite get over, retiring from London to live in a cottage in the Irish village of Costello that overlooked the North Atlantic, almost as if he wanted to look into the abyss, remembering the 1,500 souls who had perished in the depths.
But Clifford was granted unique access to documents, letters and photographs sent and received by Bruce after the sinking.
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They belong to Bruce’s grandson who Clifford visited and spoke to at his home in Scotland – and, he says, they tell a very different story about this supposedly cowardly man.
One thing they are correcting is the criticism Bruce received for quitting the White Star Line after the disaster.
“The documents show that Bruce had in fact planned to retire before the Titanic left and found a successor in Harold Sanderson,” Clifford said.
“He also wanted to relinquish the chairmanship of the International Mercantile Marine Company – the American parent company of the White Star – but in fact continue as chairman of the White Star Line, but the remaining directors did not want him to remain chairman. at the end. “
Clifford explains that he didn’t really want to be president of IMM initially and only reluctantly took the job after his colleagues convinced him.
So it wasn’t as if he left the ship after the disaster like a coward.
A woman called Elizabeth Lines later reported that she overheard Bruce talking to Captain Smith at some point on the trip about the ship’s speed increase, but Clifford says this has been discredited by many.
It’s highly likely that the woman made it up as part of her attempt to sue the White Star Line for negligence after the event, he says.
On that horrific night of April 14, 1912, Clifford says there is a lot of eyewitness testimony that claims Bruce acted quite heroically – and certainly didn’t leave the women and children behind.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“He was on deck with Captain Smith and after realizing how serious the situation was and orders had been given for the lifeboats to be lowered, he got out on deck and came to lifeboat 7 where he helped launch the boat, helping to get people on board. “
Clifford says testimony says he did the same on lifeboats 7, 5, 3, 9 and 16.
When he finally made his way to the foldable lifeboat C, just minutes before the Titanic sank, “there were no women or children standing beside the lifeboat,” Clifford said. .
“There was nothing else he could have done but die. The water lapped around his feet.
“He would also have thought of his wife and children at home and it was a huge disaster. Someone had to stay alive to make sure this couldn’t happen again.
“He knew Smith and Andrews (Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect) were not going to get away with this, so he would have been that man.”
After the lifeboat was retrieved by the Carpathia rescue vessel, witnesses recorded Bruce standing alone against the ship’s bulkhead.
The ship’s doctor came and offered him refreshment, but said he preferred not to eat.
Clifford says the doctor must have “seen a problem with Bruce’s state of mind” because he escorted him to his cabin where he was given opiates.
He stayed there a good part of the trip. Something that probably didn’t help stop the rumors.
Nor did his calm and shy personality which he often covered in an abrupt manner.
“It was mostly on his shoulders. I imagine he would have asked a lot of questions, ”says Clifford.
Bruce was often criticized for not making sure his liner had enough lifeboats – he only had 16 and four collapsible boats.
But Clifford says the ship had more lifeboats than the Board of Trade required at the time.
“Most of the lifeboats were way under their capacity and I have a feeling that if they had had more lifeboats they wouldn’t have had time to load them anyway,” says Clifford. .
So if Bruce wasn’t responsible, what was the ultimate cause of the sinking?
Clifford says, “So many things went wrong that night.
“Even before the ship left there were problems. There was a delay when the propeller had to be removed and installed on another ship.
“Even if something like this hadn’t happened and the ship had sailed earlier, things could have been different.
“It’s the little things like that. In the end, the ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I’m not trying to persuade people that he wasn’t a coward. I’m trying to give people alternatives based on factual evidence,” says Clifford.
You can pre-order Clifford’s book, “Understanding J Bruce Ismay – The Story of the Man They Called the Coward on the Titanic” from most booksellers.
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