Violet Jessop: “Miss Unsinkable”

Violet Jessop survived Tuberculosis in the early 1900s at a time when that disease had been mostly fatal for those unlucky enough to contract it. Yet her survival would fortell the type of spirit and “luck” that would befall this young woman time and time again over the next decade and a half. She would survive the dreadful sinkings of both RMS Titanic in 1912, and her sister ship, HMHS Britannic, in 1916. Also, she had been on board RMS Olympic, the eldest of the three sister ships, when it collided with a British warship in 1911. And she had survived them all, hence the nickname: “Miss Unsinkable”.

Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic during World War 1

Born in late 1887, near Bahía Blanca, Argentina, to Irish immigrants, Violet was the eldest of nine children. After spending much of her youth attending to her remaining 5 younger brothers and sisters, and surviving the aforementioned Tuberculosis, Violet’s father died due to complications from surgery. After his death the family moved to Great Britain, and Violet continued her studies in a convent school while also taking care of the children. During this time her mother was working as a stewardess on ships at sea to help support the family. In 1908 Violet’s mother became ill and had to stop working, so Violet left the convent school to earn a living for the family. Taking up where her mother left off, she decided to become an ocean liner stewardess as well as a nurse. She was 21, whereas most stewardesses at the time were mostly middle-aged. Violet had to use no make-up and dress shabbily in order to make herself less beautiful to employers during interviews. In 1908 she began her stewardess career with the Royal Mail Line aboard the Orinoco at the age of 21.

Violet Jessop
Royal Mail Lines

Within 2 years Violet secured a position aboard the White Star Line’s RMS Olympic, the largest ocean liner at the time. The company was known for its spoiled passengers and luxurious cruise ships. Violet was working 17 hour shifts aboard the Olympic for a mere £2.10 per month. On 20 September 1911 she was aboard the Olympic when it left Southampton and promptly collided with the British warship HMS Hawke. There were no casualties and with two large holes in its hull, the Olympic managed to return to port without sinking. Once the ship was back in service in November of that same year, Jessop went back to work.

The RMS Olympic at its port in Southampton.
RMS Olympic and HMS Hawke

Violet enjoyed her work on the Olympic, but some of her friends had managed to persuade her to take a stewardess position on Olympc’s sister ship, RMS Titanic. Jessop boarded the Titanic as a stewardess on 10 April 1912, at age 24. Working conditions aboard the ship were much better than on the Olympic. Sources record that the ship’s doctor had taken Violet under his protective wing and was keenly protective of her. His interest in her welfare managed to help keep eager potential suitors at bay, thus making her life much more pleasant aboard Titanic. In her memoirs, Titanic Survivor, Violet wrote that “The doctor’s interest in me had an added advantage. It kept away one rather persistent man, whose work on board placed him in a favorable position and whose overtures rather inclined to nocturnal ramblings and disregard for other people’s feelings.”

Four days after boarding, on 14 April, the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, where Titanic sank a little more than two hours after the collision. When the ship struck the iceberg, Jessop, a devout Catholic, wrote that she had just finished reading a Hebrew prayer meant to provide protection from fire and water when the Titanic collided with the iceberg. Violet recalls of that night that “I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children.” Violet helped with the process of putting women and children into the lifeboats.

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.
Titanic at Southampton docks, prior to departure, April 10, 1912.

Then it became Violet’s turn. She was ordered into Lifeboat number 16, and as it was being lowered a baby was given to her to take care of. Aster eight hours adrift at sea, the Titanic resting at the bottom of the ocean, Jessop and the others were rescued by the ship RMS Carpathia. While aboard, during the trip to New York, a woman, presumably the baby’s mother, grabbed the baby she was holding and ran off with it without saying a word. Jessop recalled that “It appeared that she put it (the baby) 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’.”

Der Untergang der Titanic
A lifeboat carrying survivors from the Titanic was seen floating near the rescue ship Carpathia on the morning after the disaster. Many boats carried fewer than their 65-passenger capacity.

1503 souls perished that evening in 1912. Yet, after another near-death experience, Violet had no thoughts of quitting her life on the sea. Writing in her memoirs, Violet states that “I knew that if I meant to continue my sea life, I would have to return at once. Otherwise, I would lose my nerve.” Another reason why she did not leave her career was due to health concerns. It was during her childhood that she had managed to survive tuberculosis, which had left her lungs in a weakened state. The state of her lungs therefore required that she needed a constant and steady amount of fresh air. “So, despite my fear,” she once told an interviewer, “I chose the sea.”

During World War 1, Violet served as a nurse for the British Red Cross. In 1916 she worked aboard HMHS Britannic, a former White Star Line ocean liner, now transformed into a hospital ship transferring wounded soldiers back to England. On the morning of 21 November 1916, it sank in the Aegean Sea due to an unexplained explosion. Britannic sank within 55 minutes, killing 30 out of the 1,066 people on board. It was thought that the ship had either struck a mine or hit by a torpedo by the Germans. Violet made it to a lifeboat but came close to dying when the lifeboat was nearly sucked underwater by the propeller blades of the sinking ship. Jessop statesthat “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!” In her memoirs, Violet described the scene she witnessed as Britannic went under: “The white pride of the ocean’s medical world … dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths.”

HMHS Britannic.
The sinking of HMHS Britannic.

By 1920 Jessop was back working for the White Star Line. She would remain at sea for the next 30 years. During this time she briefly married and had no children. She would not have to endure any more catastrophes at sea – the three she had were surely enough. In 1950 Violet retired to Great Ashfield, Suffolk. Once, she received a telephone call from a woman who claimed to be the baby Violet saved from the Titanic. She had never told anyone about that incident before that day. In 1971, “Miss Unsinkable” passed away from congestive heart failure at the age of 83.

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