To further understand why the Titanic tragedy has had such a lasting impression, we asked Daniel Allen Butler, Titanic historian and author of The Other Side of the Night, a series of questions which will be answered over the next couple of days.
You have been researching, studying, and writing about the Titanic for over 40 years. What continues to fascinate you about the Titanic?
When anyone delves into the story of the Titanic, they will be immediately taken by the genuine humanity and vulnerability of the men and women who built, crewed, and sailed aboard the Titanic. Those people were men and women – and children – with ambitions, hopes, dreams – however naive they might appear to modern, self-proclaimed sophisticates – to which, like all of us, they aspired. To what was the choice of the individual, but in their aspiration we can all recognize something of ourselves, and understand that though the social, moral, and political values of the Edwardian world may be far removed from those of our own, those men, women, and children were every bit as human as we.
The basher driving rivets into the Titanic’s hull, the quartermaster standing at her wheel on the bridge, the stewardess making up the beds in the Second Class staterooms, the passengers boarding the ship at Southampton, the firemen feeding coal into the insatiable maws of the boilers, the officer in the chartroom plotting a course, the Irish immigrants saying their last farewell to the “Auld Sod” – and ultimately the fifteen hundred passengers and crew standing on the deck of the sinking ship after the last lifeboat had pulled away – are touchstones for us all, in whom we see the reflections of the courage and character of the men and women we (hopefully) aspire to be ourselves.
As we approach the anniversary of the sailing and sinking of the Titanic, one can imagine the buzzing of the Harland and Wolff shipyard 100 years ago as workers built the White Star Line’s reply to the Cunard Line’s grand Lusitania and Mauretania. Can you describe to us what the scene would have been like as the Titanic was prepared for her maiden voyage?
As the Titanic took shape at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, she absorbed more and more of the attentions of the workforce, until the new ship occupied the labor, talents, and skills of more than 14,000 men – from marine architects and draughtsmen, interior designers and decorators, shipfitters, pipefitters, and electrical fitters, to a bewildering assortment of caulkers (responsible for cutting clean heads on finished rivets, as well as assuring that steel plates were sealed tight), moulders (who formed the steel plates for the hull that required special shaping, cutting, or bending),and cloot men (who cut cloth for a multitude of uses), to the heater-boys, catch-boys, holder-ups and bashers who drove the rivets which held the ship together. There were plasterers, plumbers, painters, carpetlayers, and chandlers, swarming over the Titanic’s passenger accommodations and public rooms, completing what would be regarded in the decades to come as one of the most beautiful interiors ever put into a ship, all of them applying their craftsmanship to what would Belfast remember as the finest ship the town ever built.
Harland and Wolff was Belfast’s largest employer, and the Titanic the shipyard’s largest project, so “the 401,” as she was known prior to her launch (it was considered bad luck to use a ship’s name before she was put into the water), was a looming presence everyday in the lives of most of Belfast’s workmen. By the time she was finished, over 106 million man hours would be spent on the construction of the Titanic and by the end of May 1911, she was ready to be launched into the River Lagan.