A Pen to Sink a Thousand Ships

May 12, 2005
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I read Lee Kendall’s article with great interest, and while I appreciated the focus on Matania’s published work of the British Inquiry, I was struck by some errors of fact regarding Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon. Also, I didn’t care for the expression of personal opinion, passed off as fact, within what is essentially an historical review. Objectivity and balance ought to be maintained when presenting historical analyses of controversial events and persons. In this article, Kendall presents the unproven allegations against the Duff Gordons not as allegations at all but as accepted fact.

But first, I want to point out a factual error in the statement that No. 1 lifeboat was the first launched. It wasn’t, of course. It was either the fifth or sixth lowered, depending on one’s view of the evidence of the evacuation timeline.

Now, to the Duff Gordons. The author refers to Sir Cosmo’s offering of five pounds apiece to Boat 1’s sailors as a "mercenary incentive to persuade them (the crew) not to row back for survivors." This is an opinion, not proven fact. If Kendall’s article was an editorial, I wouldn’t object to it, but in a review of this kind that statement should be qualified as an "alleged incentive" to be absolutely fair. There was, and still is, no proof that Cosmo bribed the seamen in Boat 1. Some people like to imagine the worst of Cosmo but the allegation of bribery, one mustn’t forget, also undermines the characters of the men accepting the supposed bribe. And I have a hard time believing all 7 crewmen were of a low sort.

The writer’s term "seedy dealings," attributed to Cosmo Duff Gordons actions, is also an unfair interpretation, as —— again —— it’s not grounded in any proven facts but in gossip.

Elsewhere in Kendall’s narrative Cosmo is described as "effete," and I take exception to that. He may have been a gentleman of leisure but he was also a productive member of his community, namely the village of Maryculter, where his family seat was located. He was a sheriff and magistrate at various times, and much involved in local charities. Cosmo was a great family man, with a jovial spirit, and not at all a grandiose "society" type. He was actually just a conventional country squire, preferring hunting and fishing up on his land in Scotland to making the rounds of fashionable London parties.

Lee Kendall asks: "For instance, why did he not, at any time, suggest going back himself?"

Probably for the same reason that almost every other person seated safely in lifeboats didn’t suggest going back. He was afraid. Plain and simple. My question is why do people continue to think —— in an age no longer informed by noblesse oblige —— that Sir Cosmo had more of a moral obligation to organize a rescue effort than people in the other boats? Why are the Duff Gordons still being singled out for their failure to rescue swimmers when no other passengers are held individually accountable for their own failure to do so?

Kendall: "Why did he take it upon his shoulders to offer money to the men in his lifeboat out of bald compassion when he clearly did not feel the slightest ounce of that sentiment toward those other men, women and children struggling for survival?"

Again, the author is making assumptions based on a prejudicial view of Cosmo Duff Gordon’s personality. Private papers and letters (one of which, written by his wife, I have shared on this message board) bear out his intense sadness at the tragic loss of life he witnessed. To make the statement that he was uncaring in the face of such despair is not only unfair, it’s shamefully so.

Regarding the money —— in my opinion it was offered out of Cosmo’s sense of charity, but also as a way of keeping the peace. The sailors (at least 2 of them) had just admonished his wife for absent-mindedly commenting to her secretary about the loss of the latter’s nightgown. But then the men started in bickering about their own lost wages and possessions, until Cosmo finally told them, "Yes, that’s hard luck, but I’ll give you a fiver." It really was that simple. It was the press that made it into something sinister; once they got hold of the story they ran with it, twisting it up and giving their spin to it.

Kendall: "How was it possible for him not to know the name of the person he allegedly spoke to in the boat, when he remembered Hendrickson’s name so well afterwards?"

Cosmo knew the man’s name on Carpathia because by that time he’d talked to him further and learned his name.

This statement is also flawed: "The dramatic withdrawal of the Duff-Gordon’s (sic) from polite social circles soon after the Inquiry’s end, or at least, polite society’s withdrawal from them, could not have been without the influence of Sir Rufus’ pointed badgering."

I certainly agree about Isaac’s badgering, but the Duff Gordons didn’t withdraw, dramatically or otherwise, from "polite society." Cosmo’s reputation was very much injured, that’s true, but he did not become a pitiful recluse. His family and close friends, among whom were some quite important figures, remained entirely loyal. Cosmo’s heart was broken by the scandal, and that’s why he led a less public life post-1912, not because he was no longer welcomed in "society." The outpouring of support from members of the aristocracy during the days of the Duff Gordons’ appearance at the hearings is good evidence of the esteem in which the couple was held by their peers.

As far as Lady Duff Gordon’s reputation, all evidence shows her personal life and career were largely unaffected by the controversy of her role in the aftermath of the disaster. The tabloids inflicted some bumps and scrapes at first, but she overcame that, and the press ultimately championed her. For the rest of her life, Titanic was pretty much a non-issue for the public. Even her obits (or most of them) mention it only as a footnote. Posthumously, it’s a different story.
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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Well said, Randy!

I rather think Sir Cosmo let the side down on the night to remember, but a terrific amount of rubbish was written about him and it still gets repeated. His kindly gesture to the boat's crew was misrepresented as a bribe in the face of dubious and confusing evidence.

The word 'effete' is the last thing I'd say about him. He was a man of action, which makes me more disappointed.

One thing that I particularly deplore is the claim that boat 1 could have taken 28 more people. I've done the sums and the research and the claim is bunkum. I've shown that the claimed capacity of the boat was quite unrealistic. With a serious and skilful effort, boat 1 might have picked up 5 or 6 more, but that's about it. Whether those picked up would have survived is another thing. In boat 4, two out of eight picked up died in the boat.
 
May 12, 2005
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Hi, Dave:

I understand your view. I’m also disappointed Boat 1 did not go back. But my disappointment extends to the other boats’ failure to go back, too. While I think it would’ve been great if concerted rescues (apart from Boat 14’s lone attempt) had been made, I suppose I’m not more critical because I understand WHY they didn’t happen.

Self-preservation is a more common human impulse than heroism. If it were not so, heroism wouldn’t be so remarkable. Also, I think fear is an overwhelming instinct. It’s easy for us to sit and map out in our minds what ought to have happened with the boats that night. We are sitting safely in our homes and offices. We are not actually facing the cold and the dark and the horrifying sounds of dying people. Because it’s so horrendous what happened to those who drowned or froze to death, our hearts go out to them. We want to save them. But if we were actually there and facing the possibility of death ourselves, we would feel quite differently. Our natural fear and sense of self-preservation would take over —— at least it would in most of us.

So, although I can’t blame the boats, where the few heroic spirits wanting to return were overruled by a frightened majority, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if there were more Harold Lowes that night!

Randy
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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G'day, Randy!

It wasn't just fear. It's also tied up with the inadequacies of the boats. The idea that hundreds more people could have been carried won't stand up to analysis. The crew didn't do quite as badly as in often made out, both before and after the sinking.
 
May 12, 2005
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Dave:

I appreciate your insight. I have never heard before that the emergency boats couldn’t hold as many passengers as has been claimed. And that the lifeboats in general may not have had as high a capacity as is believed is also new to a non-techie like me. For myself, I never thought the crew did a bad job anyway, with the exception of Captain Smith, whose leadership was somewhat lacking. It’s a good thing his officers were as proactive and skilled as they were.

Randy
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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Randy, it's all in my book, complete with CAD drawings.

I rather agree with you on Captain Smith, though I'll probably get howled down. He himself loaded and lowered boats that were not well filled, even allowing for the Board of Trade's vivid imagination.
 

Lee R Kendall

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Feb 13, 2006
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Hi Randy, many thanks for your comments on my article, I really appreciated your candour and would just like to respond to a few points you made, in the hopes of making my position a little clearer, and perhaps providing scope for further debate. The purpose of ‘A Pen To Sink A Thousand Ships’ was to draw attention to the way in which the British Inquiry was represented to the British Public of the period through the artwork of a particularly gifted artist, who is still criminally overlooked in terms of prolonging the popularity of the Titanic disaster as a whole; when set against the transcripts of the Inquiry itself, in order to gauge the fidelity of the imagery. As you know, Matania’s work on the Titanic has been enormously influential, not just in terms of inspiring the artists who followed him, but also in terms of colouring the historical background, and I wanted to show how that influence was carried through post -disaster in terms of his decision to document the Inquiry itself.

The first point I’d like to raise straight away is that you are quite correct to point out that the ‘fact’ that lifeboat no. 1 was the first launched, is incorrect - the correct phrase should have been ‘one of the first boats to be launched’. This error has now been amended. (Thanks Philip.)

I’d now like to discuss several of the points you made about the Duff-Gordons, and, as you claim, the intrusion of my personal opinion upon a strict historical survey.

First my remark about Duff-Gordon’s ‘mercenary’ turn of character, I deny the allegation that my personal opinion has impinged upon the ‘evidence‘ of this in any way, my exact wording in that sentence, from the beginning runs: “There were plans too, to render the sensational appearance of Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon (alongside his wife, Lucy, the only civilians called before the Board), who’s apparent ‘tipping’ of the men in Emergency Cutter No. 1... had been a mercenary incentive to persuade them not to row back for survivors.” My use of the word ‘apparent’ here, is intended to offset just the kind of accusation that you made. I imply no prejudicial thought, and I make quite clear at the head of that paragraph, that the whiff of scandal about the whole Duff-Gordon affair, was the only reason for an illustrator to bother with the story in the first place. As you indicate, the moral implications of Sir Cosmo’s conduct were very much a part of the criticism levelled at him in the newspapers, but it was the evidence he presented before the Inquiry that really sullied his reputation, and it is on that evidence alone, as you can gather from my extensive quotation, that I present my conclusions.

The same goes for my comment as to ‘seedy dealings’. This runs in the same direction, when placed in context, with the run of logical argument as Matania’s plan for illustrating the hearings would have worked itself out. I fail to understand in what other idiom the money boat affair could be described, on whatever side of this particular fence you happen to sit. Can you deny that the mere suggestion that such bribery may have been effected was anything other than seedy?

You go on to say that you take issue with my use of the emotive term ’effete’ and in his defence say that Sir Cosmo was a jovial family man, quite at home hunting and fishing in Scotland and a fervent supporter of local charities. Of course I cannot comment, I did not know him. In any case, it is the public persona of Sir Cosmo that we are concerned with here, and, at least as far as the British Inquiry went (you have seen the photographs of him and Lucile posing on the decks of the Carpathia, and outside the Scottish Drill Hall distributed at the same time, no doubt), this was simply that the whole experience had been a bit of a game. It is on that basis I use the locum ‘effete’. Carefree would perhaps be a more diplomatic choice, but nevertheless I stand by what I said.

It should be born in mind, with reference to my question “Why did he take it upon his shoulders to offer money to the men in his lifeboat out of bald compassion when he clearly did not feel the slightest ounce of that sentiment toward those other men, women and children struggling for survival?” that no amount of personal information after the fact, whether it be sadness expressed through the private correspondence to which you refer, or otherwise, could hope to negate the effect of Sir Cosmo’s questioning before Sir Rufus Isaacs and it was this point that I was trying to focus on in my discussion of Balliol Salmon’s treatment of the subject. You may think I am being assumptive in posing such a question, but nevertheless, it is a legitimate point. Sir Cosmo, even given the strict stiff-upper-lip precocity of the time, came over several degrees colder than ice, and no amount of verbal inflection could make him appear any less endearing.

As to the “withdrawal of polite society” comment, whilst I confess that for some this is a controversial point, for every one of his ‘peers’ who came out in support of him, I feel confident in maintaining that there was another perfectly prepared to step aside and disown Sir Cosmo. The Duff-Gordons were certainly not, as you suggest, welcomed back into the fold with open arms. To quote from the memoirs of Lucile herself reminiscing about the ‘money’ issue in 1932: “Cosmo said this with his characteristic impulsiveness, and I don't think anybody thought much of it at the time, but I remember every word of that conversation, for it had a tremendous bearing on our future. I had little thought then that because of those few words we should be disgraced and branded as cowards in every corner of the civilized world." Discretions and Indiscretions (Jarrolds, 1932).

In her own way of course, she may have been exaggerating, but some hardship because of the Titanic episode, from former friends is clearly referred to in her memoirs, the term ‘civilized’ for the flamboyant Lucile, meaning Society, and not the average man or woman on the street.

Finally, I’d just like to say that the overriding concern with this article was not to simply rehash, or go over old arguments as to who was responsible for what and why; the thrust of this piece was to try to uncover some long forgotten aspects of the reportage of the British Inquiry, and highlight the further contribution made to Titanic’s memory by F. Matania in particular. Again many thanks for taking the time out to share your views on the article, and I hope, other than the disagreeable aspects mentioned, it was otherwise enjoyable?

Lee Kendall
 
May 12, 2005
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Hi, Lee:

I’ve responded in detail to your post but this will be my last commentary regarding the Duff Gordons because, as you rightly point out, it is distracting from the main subject of your article, which is that of Matania’s excellent news illustration of the Titanic disaster and its aftermath.

Lee: "There were plans too, to render the sensational appearance of Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon (alongside his wife, Lucy, the only civilians called before the Board), who’s apparent ‘tipping’ of the men in Emergency Cutter No. 1... had been a mercenary incentive to persuade them not to row back for survivors."

The word "apparent" clarifies your meaning of the word "tipping" but does not do so for the term "mercenary." If you wanted to make it clear that you were neutrally presenting facts, rather than giving opinions, you’d have to rewrite that rather long sentence. But as you say it wasn’t intended as a statement of fact, I accept your word.


Lee: "the moral implications of Sir Cosmo’s conduct were very much a part of the criticism levelled at him in the newspapers, but it was the evidence he presented before the Inquiry that really sullied his reputation, and it is on that evidence alone, as you can gather from my extensive quotation, that I present my conclusions."

I disagree. It was the negative publicity that greeted Sir Cosmo’s appearance at the hearings that sullied his reputation, not his evidence in the witness box. I suggest you read articles and editorials published AFTER Cosmo’s testimony to see how opinions changed based on it. Also, the well known responses from the courtroom audience during Como’s testimony May 17, and again on May 20, were entirely supportive of Cosmo’s position. The outcry from his friends and supporters when he was unfairly questioned was so loud at one point that Lord Mersey had to wave his arm to signal a return to order. Following Cosmo’s final testimony, many press commentators who were present that day changed their tack, issuing editorials supportive of him but critical of the court. So, contrary to your claim, his appearance at the Inquiry actually achieved a widely sympathetic impact, and some sectors of the media published almost apologetic notices (not that it helped him much at that point). Even so, whether or not you or other people today are satisfied with Comso’s evidence, many were impressed by it at the time. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in modern cases, a man proven innocent who carries even a residue of suspicion of guilt finds it hard to live down. And that’s what happened with Cosmo; the public show of sympathy was simply too late to undo the pain and damage inflicted by the first unbelievably false and unkind reports.


Lee: "I fail to understand in what other idiom the money boat affair could be described, on whatever side of this particular fence you happen to sit. Can you deny that the mere suggestion that such bribery may have been effected was anything other than seedy?"

It seems you’re trying to back down from your own words. Surely you realize your use of the term "seedy dealings" was not fairly put. It was a statement of opinion, not fact. It could have been stated in a way that was fair to both sides of the question, and that would have been preferable since you’re referring not to a proven fact but a contention.



Lee: "Of course I cannot comment, I did not know him."

That’s pretty flimsy. A researcher seldom "knows" his subject. But if you are going to make gross charges of a personal nature, such as you’ve made about Cosmo’s basic humanity, you might want to have some sort of documented evidence at your disposal before you do so. Basing your opinion of him on sensationalistic news coverage isn’t the best approach.


Lee: "you have seen the photographs of him and Lucile posing on the decks of the Carpathia, and outside the Scottish Drill Hall distributed at the same time, no doubt"

I have. Are you suggesting they were having a lark in those pictures? If so, you really are off track. The Carpathia photos were taken by Dr. Frank Blackmoor, an amateur photographer and news-hound. He befriended the Duff Gordons while aboard (administering a sedative to Lucy Duff Gordon and lending some clothes to Cosmo). It was Blackmoor’s idea to take a photo of Boat 1’s survivors, not the Duff Gordons’. As to the Duff Gordons "posing" for photographers outside Scottish Hall, that’s absurd. They were trying to elude reporters by leaving the courtroom through a rear exit and were ambushed by paparazzi. They were NOT mugging for the cameras!



Lee: "the whole experience had been a bit of a game"

A game? Are you mad? What evidence have you for such a conclusion?


Lee: "no amount of personal information after the fact, whether it be sadness expressed through the private correspondence to which you refer, or otherwise, could hope to negate the effect of Sir Cosmo’s questioning"

As I’ve said, you have only given one side of the effect of Cosmo’s appearance at the hearings. So your account of it is fundamentally flawed and unbalanced. That’s why I have tried to level it out with some facts you either omitted or were unaware of.


Lee: "Sir Cosmo, even given the strict stiff-upper-lip precocity of the time, came over several degrees colder than ice, and no amount of verbal inflection could make him appear any less endearing."

Again —— your opinion. I don’t think Cosmo came off as cold. His reserve was publicly commented on, and his overall calmness. But he was also angry at several points during his cross-examination (according to several news stories), so he wasn’t exactly unemotional. As far as verbal inflection, apart from what was described in the papers, you can’t possibly assume what his inflection was. And, you’re quite wrong that inflection doesn’t alter how one’s statements are perceived. As I have written above, his testimony did endear him to many, so I tend to think his body language and facial expressions, as well as his speech, reflected his deep emotion. Mersey, when admonishing one of the cross-examiners for his nastiness, even referred to Cosmo’s "condition" as being "bad enough" without inflicting more injury.


Lee: "for every one of his ‘peers’ who came out in support of him, I feel confident in maintaining that there was another perfectly prepared to step aside and disown Sir Cosmo."

Some of Cosmo’s social acquaintances did indeed disown him, as his wife admitted in her memoir. And it is quite likely that some of these men and women were among the crowd at Scottish Hall. Lucy, in fact, makes that accusation in her book. But your account sidesteps the fact that the society people in the audience during the days of the Duff Gordons’ appearance actually comprised a vocal support system for them; they weren’t just there to take part in what had become a chic event, as you made it out.


Lee: "The Duff-Gordons were certainly not, as you suggest, welcomed back into the fold with open arms."

I didn’t suggest that. I was giving a more balanced account of the situation. Cosmo’s reputation was hurt in some circles but his close friends did not abandon him and many who did not know him supported him, privately and publicly. And while the sincerity of some of his contemporaries may be questioned, it is absolutely a fact that "Society" at least made a public show of embracing him, not just during the Inquiry, but afterwards. One news item from early June 1912 referred to the Duff Gordons as the "lions of the social season," stating that they’d received invitations to all the biggest parties. Cosmo, devastated by his treatment during the Inquiry, considered the good-natured invitations an annoyance, and therefore attended few events. Lucy, on the other hand, acknowledged the gesture, out of genuine appreciation for her friends’ championship but also in order to face down her critics —— and she largely succeeded. There are several examples I could give that prove the Duff Gordons weren’t publicly ostracized. That there was gossip goes without saying but this was done in whispers, not overt snubbing. All the research I’ve done bears out that the couple’s best known social contacts were undiminished in the wake of the Inquiry. Though he was less active than before, Cosmo continued hunting with Lord Lonsdale, yachting with the Duke of Westminster, etc., and remained a member of his London clubs. Lucy’s friendships with the Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith, and other influential women, also continued. Whatever was being said behind the scenes is immaterial because it didn’t affect the Duff Gordons as seriously as has been believed. Beyond that, I have found that neither the scandal nor the subsequent rumors affected Lucy’s business in the long run.

The quote you gave from Lucy’s book, by the way, I believe mainly refers to the extent of the negative international press she and her husband initially received. Of course, she may have been referring to some specific cases among her friends and clientele; I know of one example in particular. But my point is not that the Duff Gordons didn’t face criticism from contemporaries. I’m just trying to correct your broadbrushing and unsubstantiated statement that they became virtual social pariahs.

In closing, I realize my objections to your treatment of the Duff Gordons have sidetracked my appreciation of your otherwise valuable article. So I want to take time now to congratulate you for an original piece of research regarding Matania whose work is indeed under-appreciated, if not almost forgotten. I think you put Matania into perspective as a passionate as well as gifted news illustrator, a field in itself largely unappreciated, since it has practically disappeared. It was an area that needed focus, and kudos to you for filling the gap in the record with a fresh and thorough examination of this great artist’s contributions to the Titanic story.

Best wishes,
Randy