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Brave Violet: Titanic survivor who cheated death three times

PUBLISHED: 17:23 21 July 2019

Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to hospital ship Britannic  Picture: VIA WIKIPEDIA

Violet Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to hospital ship Britannic Picture: VIA WIKIPEDIA

Archant

Over just five years her ocean liner collided with warship, Titanic sank, and her hospital ship hit a mine and sank off Greece

Titanic leaves Belfast, with guiding tugs  Picture: Robert WelchTitanic leaves Belfast, with guiding tugs Picture: Robert Welch

She was the young woman who worked for big shipping lines and three times cheated death at sea - before seeing out her days in rural Suffolk.

Violet Jessop was working on the White Star Line vessel Olympic in 1911 when it was in collision with HMS Hawke. Fortunately, everyone on board escaped serious injury.

The following year she was a stewardess to first-class passengers on the plush and imposing Titanic. It struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York and sank beneath the waves of the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

More than 1,500 souls perished. Violet was one of the survivors.

Even after such a terrifying experience, she continued to work for White Star. Life offered few other options.

November, 1916, found her nursing with the Voluntary Aid Detachment on the Britannic. The liner had been requisitioned as a hospital ship for troops.

On the 21st, it sank in the Aegean Sea, off Greece, after hitting a mine. Thirty died as it went down in less than an hour. Violet was badly hurt, but was at least among those who'd breathe again.

There was a chilling coincidence: The Olympic, Titanic and Britannic were all Olympic-class liners operated by White Star.

On March 6, 1912, Titanic (right) had to be moved out of drydock so sister ship Olympic (left), which had lost a propeller, could have it replaced  Picture: Robert WelchOn March 6, 1912, Titanic (right) had to be moved out of drydock so sister ship Olympic (left), which had lost a propeller, could have it replaced Picture: Robert Welch

It's little wonder Violet would later admit: "I did not like big ships… I was secretly afraid." She had been just 21 when she first went to sea in 1908, at that time with Royal Mail Line.

Violet eventually settled in England after more than four decades and more than 200 voyages. Life took her to Suffolk and a quiet thatched cottage called Maythorn.

We've mentioned her lucky escapes over the years. But with recent chatter on social media (folk watching a dramatisation of her story on YouTube and so on) it's time for a fresh look at her life…

A tough start

Violet was actually born in Argentina, near the Atlantic port city of Bahía Blanca, on October 2, 1887. She was the first of nine children born to Irish immigrants Katherine and would-be sheep farmer William.

Violet nearly died as a child - doctors forecasting that the illness she had (probably TB) would prove fatal - but she pulled through.

Her father died when she was 16, following surgery, and the family moved to England. Violet went to a French convent school in Kent. She also looked after a sister while their mother worked at sea.

The Grand Staircase of Titanic  Picture: From White Line Triple Screw Steamers bookletThe Grand Staircase of Titanic Picture: From White Line Triple Screw Steamers booklet

Violet herself followed that path after her mother became ill, becoming a stewardess on Royal Mail Line's Orinoco in 1908.

Passed unnoticed

Violet was among 700-odd survivors taken from Titanic's lifeboats by the Cunard Line steamship Carpathia when it arrived at the scene of the disaster.

American marine historian and writer John Maxtone-Graham, who came to see Violet in Suffolk, said it was remarkable she had never before spoken to a reporter or journalist before he arrived that wet Sunday morning in July, 1970.

It seems she had passed through unnoticed when Carpathia docked at New York City's pier 54 and the survivors disembarked (though she later admitted she'd in any case had no appetite to talk then about an experience so raw).

Sitting at Violet's kitchen table nearly 60 years later, John listened to her memories of that ill-fated voyage - on board the ship and overnight in the crowded lifeboat. She'd had to wait about eight hours to be helped to safety.

Describing Violet as "short but erect, with bright eyes and an engaging, direct manner", he noted her "wealth of no-nonsense common sense" and Irish lilt.

Hospital ship Britannic during the First World War. Violet Jessop served on it  Picture: Allan GreenHospital ship Britannic during the First World War. Violet Jessop served on it Picture: Allan Green

He also found she was almost bald by 1970, and wearing an auburn wig. It was the legacy, he discovered later, "of a violent head injury received while abandoning Britannic".

People had nearly died when their lifeboats were pulled towards the ship's propellers. She'd write later of Britannic's sinking: "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…"

John used some of Violet's Titanic story in his 1972 book The Only Way to Cross, about the survivors. By the time it came out, though, she was gone.

She'd died of heart failure, aged 83, in May, 1971. Though she'd lived in her adopted village of Great Ashfield, north-east-ish of Bury St Edmunds, she was buried near sister Eileen at Hartest, south of Bury.

That wasn't the end of it, though. In 1996, two of Violet's nieces sought to have their aunt's memoirs published. The stewardess had completed the manuscript back in 1934, but it had lain largely forgotten.

A publisher asked John to edit and annotate Violet's writings. Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess came out in 1997, with a paperback edition published by The History Press 10 years later.

You know the ship is sinking?

Titanic sails from Southampton on April 10, 1912  Picture: From White Line Triple Screw Steamers bookletTitanic sails from Southampton on April 10, 1912 Picture: From White Line Triple Screw Steamers booklet

Violet's memoirs are fascinating. We learn that, as disaster loomed, the night was quiet and penetratingly cold. "Little wisps of mist like tiny fairies wafted gently inboard from the sea and made my face clammy."

The stewardess retreated to her cosy bunk on Titanic, flicked through magazines such as Tatler, and then remembered that an old Irishwoman had given her a prayer, translated from Hebrew. Say it daily for protection against fire and water, she'd urged.

So Violet started reading, and almost dozed off.

"Crash!… Then a low, rending, crunching, ripping sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and the sound of her engines gently ceased. Quiet, dead silence for a minute. Then doors opened and voices could be heard in gentle enquiry."

There was a pause. Violet looked at cabin-mate Ann, who said "Sounds as if something has happened."

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Suddenly there was hustle and bustle, as crew returned to duty. Steward Stanley knocked at the door, his face white. "Anything you'd like me to do for you on my way? You know the ship is sinking?"

The 2007 History Press paperback edition of Violet Jessop’s memoirs, edited by John Maxtone-GrahamThe 2007 History Press paperback edition of Violet Jessop’s memoirs, edited by John Maxtone-Graham

Look after this baby!

Into a lifeboat, clad in an eiderdown she'd grabbed from a cabin. An officer shouts "Look after this, will you?" - and Violet "reached out to receive somebody's forgotten baby in my arms".

Violet watched the decks disappearing beneath the surface. "One of the huge funnels toppled off like a cardboard model, falling into the sea with a fearful roar."

Titanic went down "with a thundering roar of underwater explosions… One awful moment of empty, misty blackness enveloped us in its loneliness, then an unforgettable, agonising cry went up from 1,500 despairing throats, a long wail and then silence and our tiny craft tossing about at the mercy of the ice field".

'Snatched the child'

Violet feared the stranger's baby might die, but it eventually stopped whimpering and slept. The lifeboat was tossed about in the violent, cold sea. Eventually the desperate survivors were rescued by the Carpathia and set course for Manhattan.

Violet wrote that as she stood, clutching the baby in her frozen arms, "a woman rushed up, snatched the child and ran away with it… I did wonder why, whoever its mother might be, she had not expressed one word of gratitude for her baby's life."

Adrian Walters, who as a youngster tended neighbour Miss Jessops lovely cottage garden. It was just a magical world for a little boy  Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVEAdrian Walters, who as a youngster tended neighbour Miss Jessops lovely cottage garden. It was just a magical world for a little boy Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

And then life carried on. Violet wrote: "I knew that if I meant to continue my sea life, I would have to return at once. Otherwise I would lose my nerve, for I had no love for it. But I needed the work."

'I was that baby'

John Maxtone-Graham tells us Violet's final time at sea came in the late 1940s - a two-year stint on Royal Mail's resumed South American service. (Though, at 61, she was too old, strictly speaking.) In 1950 she "swallowed the anchor" and prepared for life on land.

Violet got a job at an estate agency in Mayfair, where she learned the thatched cottage at Great Ashfield was for sale. She moved to Suffolk and kept chickens to bolster her pension.

Finances, John suggests, were stretched thinly - helped a little by selling some of her possessions. Later, her sister Eileen and her brother-in-law also moved to Suffolk, to Hartest.

John also wrote about something Violet told him had happened a fortnight or so before he came to see her. It followed a violent thunderstorm. The phone had rung after midnight.

Apparently, the woman caller checked she was speaking to the stewardess who had rescued a baby from Titanic, laughed, and said "I was that baby." Then she rang off.

Was it a prank? Violet told John she'd told no-one locally about her role on the ship, and least of all about the baby.

Magical world for a boy

It wasn't quite the last word on the episode. After the last time the EADT mentioned Violet in an article, Adrian Walters sent us a letter. Violet had been a neighbour when he was a lad - a friend of his mother - and he had done some odd gardening jobs for her.

He said Violet had given a somewhat different version to his mother. "She stated that the lady caller had asked whether the baby had been a girl and, if so, she could come into a lot of money.

"In spite of her obvious financial difficulties, Miss Jessop had retorted that the last thing that she would have thought to do amid the unfolding disaster on a dark and freezing north Atlantic night was to check the sex of the baby…"

Adrian told me this week that locals had known, in general terms, that their neighbour was "the lady who survived the sinking of the Titanic". He reckons he was about seven when he began to realise what was what, but people never really talked about it in detail.

Miss Jessop (as she was known in that more formal age) lived at Maythorn Cottage, Daisy Green, Great Ashfield. Adrian's family was just up the road at Slough Farm - the next property along; a quick bike ride away.

His mother was Swiss, and generally the person to whom "foreign" incomers were directed - the thinking presumably being that she could better understand their situation and thus welcome and help them. She got to know Violet quite well.

"One of the things Mother used to ask me to do was drop off things at people's houses when we had lots of apples in the autumn. Maybe I went up there (Maythorn Cottage) and dropped off apples or vegetables."

He also suspects Bob-a-Job week, when members of the Scout movement offered to do domestic chores for people as part of a fund-raising drive, brought him into Miss Jessop's orbit.

Anyway: The boy who was mad-keen on gardening found himself doing odd jobs for his neighbour in her "lovely secret garden".

This was probably in the mid to late '60s, when he was 10 or 11, and lasted for a couple of summers. He'd go reasonably regularly to do a bit of gardening, "then go into her little kitchen and have orange squash and a biscuit, and go and do a bit more".

Maythorn was a lovely little thatched cottage with a thatched porch. There was a patio at the back, a pond and a pollarded oak.

Her "perfect garden" was essentially "wings" either side of the cottage. "She had a flair. It was just a magical world for a little boy."

(John Maxtone-Graham mentioned a riot of daffodils, crocuses and tulips in spring; rose bushes; and some vegetables.)

At the back was a meadow of about an acre and a half. "She had some chicken sheds and kept chickens, selling the eggs to make a bit of income."

And Miss Jessop herself? "She was very elderly. I remember her as a slightly-stooped white-haired lady. Quite short." And a private person.

Adrian's seen that clip on YouTube and laughs about the somewhat more youthful and effusive dramatisation by the actress playing Violet. That portrayal couldn't have been further from the reality he remembers.

He read and enjoyed the memoir. "I didn't realise she had been on the Olympic and Britannic as well. To us, she was always 'The lady who was on the Titanic' - a big deal - but that was all."

He wishes he'd known more then, and could have asked Violet about her life and experiences. "Trouble is, young boys don't ask all the right questions…"

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