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Unsinkable Violet Jessop
By: Lynn Whitney
Three times is the charm, so they say, but I don’t believe that was meant to apply to boating disasters. However, in the case of Violet Jessop, it did bring her the fame of surviving the ill-fated voyages of the White Star Line’s three sister ships; the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannic.
Violet Jessop was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Oct. 2, 1887 to Irish emigrant parents. Her first brush with near death was surviving tuberculosis as a young child. Given just a few months to live, she recovered and grew into a young woman of remarkable beauty. At 21, she stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall with blue grey eyes and thick auburn hair. A trace of an Irish lilt added to her allure.
Following the death of her father, the family moved to England, where her mother took a job as a stewardess at sea. When illness curtailed her mother’s career, Violet decided to pursue the vocation as well. Familiar with the duties her mother had performed, the convent-schooled young woman looked forward to an adventurous life at sea. Her first attempts at securing a position were thwarted by her good looks and youth. Potential employers felt that she would be a distraction to their privileged guests and cause problems with the crew. After being turned down several times, she finally went to an interview dressed drably and with no make-up. She was hired immediately. Ironically, her previous interviewers’ predictions proved to be somewhat accurate, as she received at least three marriage proposals on one voyage, one from a first class passenger. She declined them all. With hard work and personable qualities, she quickly advanced from third class service to first.
Violet joined the crew of the Olympic in 1910. Initially concerned with the inclement weather and rough sea conditions of Atlantic crossings, she became quite fond of the cruise line’s American passengers. She found them to be friendlier and more respectful than their European counterparts.
By 1911, after Violet had been working for about one year, the Olympic was involved in a collision with the HMS Hawke. Both ships were heavily damaged. With its hull breached, two flooded compartments and a twisted propeller, the Olympic stayed afloat and limped back to port. All crew and passengers, including Violet returned to shore safe and sound.
Although surviving a shipwreck might give some people pause to reconsider their chosen career, the incident did not deter Violet. The following year, at the age of 24, she took a position as a stewardess on the Olympic’s sister ship, the Titanic. According to Violet’s memoirs, it was a pleasant experience. The accommodations were comfortable and the passengers friendly. The ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews was a favored passenger who always had a cheerful word for her.
On the night of the disaster, Violet was in her room, preparing for bed. Not quite aware of the seriousness of the situation, she followed orders and proceeded to the upper deck, where she joined the other stewardesses. While some passengers strolled about the ship, seemingly unconcerned, she observed women tearfully clinging to their husbands before getting into lifeboats with their children. Violet was ordered into a life boat by an officer, possibly to show the terrified women that it was safe. As the boat was being lowered, an officer called to her, “Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby,” and dropped a bundle into her lap. Eight hours later, she and the other Titanic survivors were rescued by the Carpathia. Still clinging to the baby, a woman claiming to be the child’s mother found her and whisked the baby away. This story has never been verified, but Violet later claimed that years after her retirement, on a stormy night, she received a phone call. The woman asked if she had rescued a baby on the Titanic. When Violet answered, “yes”, the woman said, “I was that baby,” laughed and hung up. As for her experience of surviving one of the world’s worst nautical disasters, Violet had one regret. She had left her toothbrush on the ship and she missed it.
Two shipwrecks later, Violet was still undaunted. During WW II she joined the crew of the third sister ship, the Britannic, as a nurse. While operating in the Aegean Sea as a hospital ship, the Britannic hit a mine planted by a German U- boat and sank in only fifty minutes.
This time, Violet’s luck ran out. The boat sank so quickly that there was no time to get in a lifeboat. Violet jumped into the water and was immediately sucked under the ship’s keel, violently hitting her head. Later in life, suffering from headaches, she consulted a doctor who informed her that at one time she had suffered a fractured skull. Seemingly unperturbed by her third shipwreck, Violet joked that her thick hair cushioned the blow and saved her life. She also stated that this time, she remembered her toothbrush.
Perhaps believing that she was unsinkable, Violet continued her seafaring career working for the Red Star Line, cruising the world. She also spent time on Royal Mail Ships until her retirement at the age of 61. She spent the rest of her life in England raising chickens and gardening. She died at the ripe old age of 84. The sea was never going to claim Violet Constance Jessop.