The ship itself was the latest in marine technology. It was the largest in the world, with opulent interiors, lavish appointments and facilities such as restaurants, heated pool, gymnasium and Turkish baths. Of course, the latter was principally the domain of those travelling first class. This is not to say that the second- and third-class passenger accommodations, dining rooms and public spaces were in any way lacking in quality and comfort; a little-known fact is that many passengers who were wealthy enough to afford a first-class ticket travelled second class by choice because it was less of a hassle. For example, it wasn’t expected of the second-class passengers to change into their finest clothes for supper.
Third-class passengers on Titanic enjoyed better accommodations than had been offered by the steamship companies of decades past. Although their cabins were plain and the public accommodations crude by today’s standards, third class was provided with ample promenading space, and given service by deck stewards. The White Star Line provided all the necessities required for a transatlantic voyage no matter the price of the ticket.
There were, however, times when the third-class passengers had to step out of the luxuries of their ‘floating hotel’ for a dose of the reality of their circumstances. For instance, after breakfast was served, the third-class passengers were encouraged to go topside or to one of the recreation rooms so that the stewards could clean their cabins. Down below decks in ‘steerage’ cleaning the rooms sometimes involved washing down the decks with a hose.
The fact that there were just two bathtubs for all of third class reminds us of how times have changed. Many of the third-class passengers were immigrants who had never seen flushing toilets before. Bathing in itself was often a luxury that took place once a week in a bathtub. For the most part, though, their shared on-board accommodation was a step up from the previous cottages and tenements they’d vacated in their homelands.
The story of this magnificent ship touches upon many interests. Some historians are fascinated by how many rivets were used during construction and how many propellers drove the ship across the Atlantic. But the story is also about those who built Titanic, the crew and passengers that sailed on her and the rich tapestry of liner travel during the height of the Edwardian era. Those on board were representative of the many different classes travelling beyond Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown to New York. Many in third class were immigrating to the United States, principally driven by the desire to obtain financial security, the abundant work opportunities available and, of course, the hope for a better life.
Everyone boarded the ship with confidence and the expectation of a safe voyage. The tragic reality, of course, was very different, as Titanic sank with the loss of nearly 1,500 lives in the middle of the icy Atlantic, fewer than five full days into her maiden voyage.
With thanks to Bruce Beveridge and Steve Hall