Before midnight on April 14, 1912, Violet Jessop settled into her bunk on the Titanic, where she worked as a stewardess. She flipped through some magazines, read a prayer, and was starting to drift off to sleep when an ominous crash jolted her out of her slumber. Less than three hours later, Jessop would find herself in a lifeboat on the North Atlantic, one of 705 survivors who could only watch in horror as the Titanic sank beneath pitch-black waters.
1. Violet Jessop worked at sea to support her family.
Jessop was born in 1887, the eldest child of an Irish couple living in Argentina. Her early years were marked by hardship. Three of her siblings died as young children, and Jessop herself fell seriously ill with tuberculosis. When her father died, Jessop’s mother took her six surviving children to England and secured a post as a stewardess on a ship. She became too sick to work, however, and it fell to 21-year-old Violet to provide for her family.
Jessop chose the same career as her mother, ultimately getting hired as a stewardess on the White Star Line, a prominent shipping company that ferried both cargo and passengers across the Atlantic. Jessop worked in first class cabins, attending to passengers’ many and varied needs: She made beds, brought breakfast trays, cleaned bathrooms, arranged flowers, and ran errands. There was, in short, “no aspect of service that was not her or her colleagues’ responsibility,” writes John Maxtone-Graham, editor of Jessop’s memoir, “Titanic Survivor.”
2. She was on board the RMS Olympic when it crashed into another ship.
In the early 20th century, hoping to gain an edge in the competitive transatlantic passenger industry, the White Star Line launched three ships offering unprecedented luxuries to wealthy passengers: the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. It was an opulent but ill-fated trio, and Jessop happened to be working on each ship when disaster struck.
The first in this series of maritime misfortunes was the collision of the Olympic with the HMS Hawke in September 1911. Both ships were badly damaged, but neither sank and there were no major casualties. Curiously, Jessop does not mention the crash in her memoir — but she does offer vivid details about her experiences on the Olympic‘s sister ships.
3. She had some salty opinions about the Titanic’s upper-class passengers.
Among the notable guests Jessop encountered during her service on the Titanic were American financier John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant wife, Madeleine Force Astor. Their marriage in 1911 had caused a sensation — Astor was recently divorced and nearly 30 years older than his new bride — and Madeleine did not make a particularly favorable impression on Jessop. “Instead of the radiant woman of my imagination,” she writes in her memoir, “I saw a quiet, pale, sad-faced, in fact dull young woman arrive listlessly on the arm of her husband.”
Jessop is similarly withering about several guests who do not appear on the Titanic‘s passenger list; according to Maxtone-Graham, they may represent “composites of passenger types” who made wearisome demands on the crew. She writes that one “Miss Marcia Spatz” arrived on board with “many and strange needs,” along with “[n]ever ending boxes of flowers . . . presumably thank offerings to mark her departure.” A “Miss Townsend” insisted that the furniture in her luxurious room be changed immediately and, according to Jessop, spent her “happiest moments . . . watching the agonized struggles of a couple of perspiring stewards tackling the job.”
4. After the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg, Violet Jessop tried to assure passengers that all was well.
When she heard the “awful grinding crash” of the collision, Jessop dressed quickly and sped to the section of the ship to which she had been assigned. Orders soon came to head toward the lifeboats. Jessop helped passengers adjust their lifebelts and reminded them to dress warmly, take blankets, and pack up their valuables. As she moved from room to room, she promised that these were merely precautionary measures; she herself did not, initially, fully comprehend that a catastrophe was looming. “Of course Titanic couldn’t be sinking!” she writes in her memoir. “She [was] so perfect, so new.”
The sickening realization of the Titanic‘s imminent fate came when Jessop turned to say something to a fellow stewardess and saw that the “forward part” of the ship was inclining toward the dark ocean. “For a fraction of a second,” she recalls, “my heart stood still, as is often the case when faith, hitherto unshaken faith, gets its first setback.”
5. She took care of a “forgotten baby.”
As Jessop stepped into a lifeboat with other women and children, who were the first to be evacuated from the sinking ship, a deck officer handed her a baby — “somebody’s forgotten baby,” Jessop writes. The boat was lowered toward the ocean and dropped onto the water with a “bone-cracking thud.” The baby started to cry. She held the child and watched as the Titanic‘s bowsank further into the water, until the great ship snapped in two and, “with a thundering roar of underwater explosions,” plunged into the sea. Stranded upon a frigid expanse of the Atlantic, Jessop “feared, suddenly, that this stranger’s child might die in my arms.” She wrapped the baby in a blanket that she had grabbed before evacuating the ship, and it fell asleep.
Hours later, Jessop was pulled on board the RMS Carpathia, which retrieved the Titanic survivors during a dramatic rescue mission. As she stood on the deck, freezing and dazed, a woman ran up to her and grabbed the baby out of her arms. “I did wonder why,” Jessop writes, “whoever its mother might be, she had not expressed one word of gratitude for her baby’s life.”
6. She nearly died in the sinking of the HMHS “Britannic.”
Jessop was not eager to return to a life at sea in the wake of the disaster. But she had little choice; she “needed the work.” Following the outbreak of World War I, she served as a nurse on the HMHS Britannic, which was refitted as a hospital ship during the war. Jessop was on board on November 21, 1916, when the Britannic hit a German mine and began to sink rapidly into the Aegean Sea.
Jessop was told to disembark in a lifeboat with some of her shipmates, who were greeted by a ghastly scene when they reached the water: the ship’s propellers were still moving, sucking passengers and boats alike into their blades. Though she spent years working on the ocean, Jessop did not know how to swim — but she could not risk staying in the boat. She clutched at her lifebelt and jumped overboard. When she resurfaced, her head struck the ship’s keel. “My brain shook like a solid body in a bottle of liquid,” she writes.
Jessop grabbed onto a spare lifebelt that was floating by and managed to hang on until one of the Britannic‘s motor boats picked her up. Jessop had survived yet another maritime disaster, but the blow to her skull would cause headaches for years to come.
7. Violet Jessop raised chickens after retiring from her career at sea.
Despite her tumultuous experiences on the ocean, Jessop continued to work in passenger service on large ships. She rejoined the White Star Line after the war, subsequently signing on with a new company, the Red Star Line, which sent Jessop around the world on five cruises. After a period of working clerical jobs on shore, she returned to sea for two years on the Royal Mail Line‘s voyages to South America. She retired from her eventful career in 1950, at the age of 63, and moved to the countryside.
Jessop spent her last years firmly planted on land, cultivating a beautiful garden and raising chickens to sell eggs for extra income. She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 84 in 1971.