Violet Jessop was born in Argentina into a poor Irish immigrants’ family in 1887. She was the first in nine children and caught tuberculosis at a very young age, but surprisingly managed to recover. Along with her family, grieving their father who had just passed away, Violet left Argentina for England when she was 16. Her mother, who had worked as a stewardess at sea for years, soon got sick as well, and Violet had to leave school and start making money to cater for her family. Following her mother’s lead, she began her career as a stewardess on a British ship in 1908, and two years later joined the crew of the luxury boat Olympic. The latter was part of a magnificent trio of sister ships owned by the White Star Line, with a promising future.
Yet, a few minutes following departure, the British liner crashed into the HMS Hawke, a warship –fortunately for Violet and everybody on board, no casualty was reported and the Olympic safely got back to port despite the damage. Violet still had time to receive (and politely turn down) a marriage proposal from one of the passengers, but this experience did not convince her to change jobs. Instead, she joined another White Star Line boat for her maiden voyage: the Titanic.
Needless to say that, from a prior-to-April 15, 1912 perspective, the Titanic met all standards of safety and luxury. It had received wide media coverage – when asked by a journalist about the likelihood of a sinking, one of the crew members is believed to have replied: “God himself couldn’t sink this ship!” So it sailed, with great confidence, from Southampton on April 10. Then this happened:
Violet was falling asleep in her cabin when the liner struck the iceberg. She recalls:
”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. Some time after, a ship’s officer ordered us into the boat first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: ‘Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.’ And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.”
She spent eight never-ending, freezing hours on the lifeboat, watching the ‘unsinkable’ ship slowly sinking into the deep black waters of the Atlantic. Then she was rescued, along with 704 people, by the Carpathia which had traced the ship’s SOS messages. Over the next few days, as Violet was recovering from the event – by the way, you may wonder about that baby she’d been given: it was apparently taken back by a flustered woman whom Violet assumed was the mother – her mind could be buzzing with images of chaos and terror from that night. After all, more than 1,500 people had died during the accident – two out of three people who had boarded the ship.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t enough to stop her from pursuing her maritime career. First, presumably because ‘lighting does not strike the same place twice’ (an old saying which is, by the way, scientifically wrong: it is for example estimated that the Empire State Building gets struck about a hundred times a year) and secondly because the context needed her at sea. WW1 broke out, so she became a Red Cross nurse on the last White Star Line vessel she had not boarded: the Britannic.
In 1916, the ship was strolling around the Aegean Sea, near the cost of Kea (Greece) when it hit an underwater mine. There was a massive blast, and the evacuation proceeded quite quickly to save the maximum amount of passengers. Nevertheless, Violet had to jump into the water to save her life, which was on a razor’s edge: ‘sucked under the ship’s keel’, she recalls, the nurse suffered a knock on the head and was about to lose consciousness, but eventually got a grip on herself and survived – once again. Finally safe, she witnessed the Britannic sinking less than one hour after the initial explosion, a scene that Violet vividly remembers:
“She 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, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence…”
She had been aboard the three White Star liners on the day of their accidents, which for both of them led to quick sinking. The Britannic did not claim as many lives at the Titanic – ‘only’ 30 people out of 1,065 aboard. But still… would Violet then consider another career on terra firma? Nope. Sure enough, she headed for another crew and another ship, though she changed employers this time: she got hired by another company operating transatlantic liners, the Red Star Line (I’m very curious about the last ‘employee satisfaction survey’ she handed over).
Adventurous Violet spent some 42 years of her life at sea despite these major accidents that were the reason for her fame, as she got nicknamed ‘Miss Unsinkable’. Her story is a call to perseverance and commitment, illustrating that one can repeatedly face disastrous events and keep on moving forward. Some argue the odds were against her for experiencing such traumatic events in her early career; others say this was an impressive stroke of luck to survive all of them.