Ismay and the speed of the Titanic


malcolm john cheape

Bruce Ismay has been accused of effecting the running of the the Titanic, both the speed and the navigation. I have a question , given the known position and the speeds and conditions prior to sinking and the expected time of arrival, was the Titanic travelling faster than would have been expected at the time of the accident?and was it in the position that would have been expected?
>>given the known position and the speeds and conditions prior to sinking and the expected time of arrival, was the Titanic travelling faster than would have been expected at the time of the accident?<<

In my Running at one's best possible speed or at the very least, the highest service speed expected in all conditions short of bad visibility was just standard operating proceedure on the North Atlantic run. The Titanic had been gradually working up to that throughout her voyage, much as the Olympic did and was very near the mark when the accident happened. That there was nothing unusual about the Titanic's operation was an embarrassing fact that came out in the inquiries themselves.

That's not to say that Ismay may not have been a part of the picture, but I think his influnace may not be quite what we think it is. His over-confidence and that of the Titanic's officers was if anything, all too typical of the age.
Thank you for the reply Micheal
When you say over-confidence do you mean in the design of the vessel or the fact that they could easily avoid any danger?
Malcolm, I've done the sums on this. Titanic was going just fast enough to beat Olympic's maiden voyage time by three hours or so. This was nothing remarkable. The conditions were particularly good and Titanic's propellers had been adjusted in in the light of experience with Olympic.

Captain Smith's record shows that he was a bit of a driver and didn't need Ismay to encourage him. On one voyage, he had pushed Olympic much faster than Titanic, arriving much earlier than expected or wanted by White Star.

As Michael says, overconfidence was a feature of the time. In particular, the officers believed that on a clear night they would always be able to see ice in time to avoid it.

I have a personal opinion that I can't rigorously prove. From what I can gather, the officers overconfidence was founded on inexperience with ice. Ice records show that ships on the New York run did not meet ice frequently. There are suggestions in the evidence that the officers were not used to meeting ice. Fourth Officer Pitman, for instance, had never seen ice at night. Captains who regularly sailed to Canada treated ice with more respect, as did their lines.
While I'm at it, the idea that the officers or Ismay were influenced by the design of the ship belongs in the tabloid press. All liners of the day, and some older ones, were considered practically unsinkable. No sailor in his right mind operates a ship with its degree of sinkability in mind. My own little yacht is rather strong and it would survive quite a collision, but I don't sail round merrily running into other boats, jetties and stray sailboarders.
>>When you say over-confidence do you mean in the design of the vessel or the fact that they could easily avoid any danger?<<

Neither. I'm talking about the overall attitude of the age. Dave mentioned the inexperience of Titanic's officers with ice. I'll add that it didn't help that in close to 40 years of operations, there had been very few shipping casualties among liners and no signifigent loss of life due to any being shipwerecked. A lack of any major disasters...the Republic vs. Florida collision notwithstanding...tends to give the impression that whatever your practices are, they're "obviously" working. Hell, even with the Republic, they had time to evacuate the ship so the Ship as Her Own Lifeboats concept "obviously" worked too. Why not stick with it?

Well, they all found out why and it took 1498 deaths to give them a reason.

Tough lesson but there's rarely any other kind.
To give figures, in the 20 years to 30 June 1911, 85 passengers died as a result of shipwrecks of British ships on the North Atlantic. Of these 7 were in sailing ships, leaving 78 in steamers. Most were lost in twos and threes from various small ships. The biggest loss of passengers was from Mohegan (4,510 GRT) on 14 October 1898. This small ship struck the notorious Manacles Reef in Falmouth Bay for reasons that were never discovered. Another 11 died on Scotsman (3,867 GRT), which struck the NE end of Belle Isle on 22 September 1899. Both these ships were small and had "boats for all".

In the case of Mohegan, the boats were almost useless, due to rough seas. Scotsman had better luck and 388 of her company were saved in her own boats.

It can be seen that things seemed to be going pretty well. It wasn't broke and they didn't fix it!
very interesting what you both say and i agree with your conclusions, Bruce Ismay himself brings a lot of what you say up in his statement to the press on april 21 1912 mainly in the last paragraph[ page 205 'the Ismay line ' by john oldham] it is the same statement that shows the standing instructions to commanders. i am interested in the aligations leveled at Ismay at the time and after in relation to the speed of the titanic, back seat driving etc.
From Ismay;s point of view what he said and others said at the two inquiries was enough to exonerate him[not enough evidence] he was not guilty, whilst that is clearly enough for the white star line , for Ismay himself he really required a could not be quilty. As the following letter explains the position more clearly i will copy it in full i believe it is printed in the Ismay line , but for those who have not seen a copy here it is . The letter is from F.M. Radcliffe i think the signature is hard to read

letter head reads D Queen Insurance Buildings
10 Dale street
10 august 1912
Dear Mr Ismay,
The official print of Lord Mersey's judgement has not yet arrived, but i have read it carefully as printed in various newspapers.
It seems to me to afford you complete exoneration from the charge or suggestion that you were responsible for the speed of the Titanic at the time of the disaster. Moreover Lord Mersey expressly refers to the suggestion that your presence on board might have induced the captain to neglect precautions which he would otherwise have taken, and expressly finds to the contrary' The evidence shows that the captain was not trying to make any record passage, or indeed any exceptionally quick passage. He was not trying to please anybody,but was exercising his own discretion in the way he thought best'.It seems to me that nothing can usefully be added to this.
You may say that the phrase ' was not trying to please anybody' leaves it to be supposed that the captain might have thought that going at full speed would please you; and you and you would like it to be stated that he had no reason for such an opinion,but the contrary. In my judgement this is a point which you would be ill advised to labour, for many reasons
[1] The judgement is entirly in your favour on this point as it stands and i do not think it is open to the interpretation suggested.
[2] This is shown by the tone of the whole press, none of whom differ from this part of the judgement.
[3] To begin to supplement the judgement or dot its i's, or cross its t's, would only be to invite a correspondence in the papers, or in other words, put your head to be hit.
[4] moreover,while the question of the speed of the olympic, and the general policy of your line as to speed might usefully have been referred to in evidence, i am strongly of the opinion that the incident of the Olympic has a double edge. If you seek to use it as showing that you personally do not press for high speed, you must not be suprised if other people use it as showing that you are prepared to acquiesce in a higher speed than you yourself think necessary when others press for it for business reasons, and since the determining voice is yours, as chairman, the responsibility is yours. Captain Smith was captain of the olympic as well as the Titanic. There is no evidence that he knew the differences in office on this question or of your indivigual views; but if he did , he knew equally that you waived those views. I know all that is to be said on the other side; but i think, if you start a correspondence, you will be giving any ill disposed person pellets to fire at you, on such a doubtful basis; and i think you may well be content with the very clear finding on the matter.
[5] You have taken the whole affair calmly and with dignity. Do nothing to lead people to suppose that you are not satisfied with the vindication which is recognised to be complete.
The only dissentient note is the ill natured phrase in the leading article of the 'daily mail', obviously directed only to the incident of the boats. As i told you at the beginning,different people till the end of time will take different views and ethical questions. That you should have one dissentient voice only in all the respectable newspapers of England, is extraordinary evidence of the fact that public opinion is on your side on the question of your leaving the vessel, and i have only heard the daily mail article mentioned to be disapproved.
I suppose that when a good man is charged with an offence in a criminal court the verdict 'not guilty' always sound a little cold to friends. They would like something very much warmer, something which would embody their knowledge that he not only was not guilty, but could not have been guilty. That is not the way of the world. One has to think what it would have meant had the fallibility of human minds committed the monsterous injustice of bringing in an opposite verdict[as has happened before now] and be grateful.
I can heartily congratulate you on the termination of a long period of suspense, and on the judgement and on the attitude of the press. In my opinion the proper course is to regard the judgement, with its complete exoneration of yourself from blame, as pronouncing the last word on the matter.

that is the end of the letter

It is clear i believe that Ismay wished to clear his name more completely from any doubt that he in some way interfeared with the speed of the Titanic in the letter printed in the ismay line where he writes to mr Sanderson
' I am afraid we look at the position from entirly different points of view: you have not been attacked, whereas i have , so you can easily afford to sit still and do nothing.'
i think that clearly there is a difference of opinion between the other members of the White Star Line and Ismay. the choice Ismay faced on the completion of the british inquiry was whether or not to fight to clear his name or to leave the result to stand, quite clearly he is under a certain amount of pressure to remain silent.
in section 4 of the Radcliffe letter the question of the speed of the olympic is refered to . there is a draft of a letter that i dont think was ever released addressed to the editor of the times where ismays preference for regular arrival of the Olympic in New York on wednesday morning as opposed to tuesday afternoon whilst on the short track, this preference was opposed by some colleagues, the Olympic made three voyages before the restriction was withdrawn. The draft also includes teh sentence ' The instructions to the Titanic before leaving Queenstown was that she was not to arrive at the Ambrose lightship[ 23 miles from New York] before 5 am wednesday morning.
I think this clearly shows that Mr Ismay is not an advocate for speed; on the contrary, his preference is for regularity of arrival at the expense of speed, and captain smith well knowing his views in regard to this question could not have been influenced by his presence on board.'

It must have been very difficult for Ismay to defend the fact that he did not interfear with the running of the Titanic, but the fact that he tried leaves me to believe that there is no foundation to any of the aligations, there is little or no proof that he did. The myth of Ismay's acts leading up to the accident still seems as strong as they were at the time,so much has been researched into what happened with the sinking, it seems amazing to me that so little has been done with reference to Ismay's role in the lead up . It certainly seems to me that for someone whose reputation was dragged through the mud, was exonerated , and yet still is blamed for the disaster by many, there seems to be so much more evidence that he was telling the truth than to the contrary. i am very mindful of what micheal said when i first joined this site about hidden agendas and making up your own mind after reading the evidence, i will be honest and say that i have an agenda, and i do believe Ismay is innocent on the point of speed, but i do have an open mind and would be interested in any evidence to the contrary
Ismay may have wished to clear his name completely, but there was no way in hell it was going to happen regardless of any verdicts, judgements or findings of the court. He had ben tried in the ever melevolant and utterly unforgiving "Court Of Public Opinion" and found wanting. With an executioner such as William Randolph Hearst hot on his tail with the poison pen and the power of the printing press, Ismay never stood a chance.

At least not in the U.S.A.

He wasn't treated nearly as savagely in the U.K. but he wasn't exactly percieved as coming out of it smelling like roses either.

I'd like to make something perfectly clear, I don't believe that Ismay's presence was without some consequence or influance on some level. When the owner or the owner's legal representatives are aboard, there's always a change in the atmousphere aboard. Things become a little more tense and nobody wants to appear to be a screwup. (You see the same thing happening on government vessels when elected officials or high ranking appointees step aboard.) I think however that Ismay's influance may have been on more day to day matters then in the actual navigation of the ship.

It's not impossible that he didn't have some impact on the navigation of the ship, but I suspect his role would have been more that of a curious busybody with whatever baggage applies.
Many of the attacks on Ismay in the US press were really motivated by a feature of US law. Under US law, White Star's liability for civil claims was limited to the salvage value of the lifeboats, plus the fares and freight charges for the voyage. This amounted to about $96,000. This law could be over-ridden if the owners (read Ismay) were aware that Captain Smith's navigation was negligent and connived at it. Lawyers for the claimants therefore tried to show that Ismay was "practically allowed to captain the ship". They also tried to show that White Star had knowingly sent an unseaworthy ship to sea.

The matter ended in stalemate and White Star eventually settled for $665,000, including more than $110,000 in legal fees.

In Britain, the law was more generous and hence the civil courts paid little attention to Ismay.
I have pondered what you have both said in this thread and agree. I do understand that the white star line could not lose on the point of ismay effecting the speed of the titanic, without being held liable . but it seems strange that they dont allow him to clear his name in at least that area , I have read numerous private letters between ismay and particularily radcliffe[ i'm not exactly sure who he is?] on this topic here is an example. typed letter same address dated 25th july 1912
Dear Mr Ismay,
After reading the papers this morning, i saw Mr Concanon and advised that he should at once go to london and see furniss and Findlay,as no one from the office seemed to be in charge of the case. I found that he was contemplating telegraphing to you to see if he should do so. I explained to concanon that the important thing was to get into Findlay's mind , before the speech, the atmosphere of the white star office- your views on speed generally, your advice to captains on sailing to 'keep out of trouble'- the fact that you had consistently declined to build for speed, or to extridite the boats even to the moderate extent suggested by the passenger department.
Some of these matters are not in evidence, and could only have been given in your examination or that of Mr Sanderson; but they all help to create the right atmosphere in Findlay's mind, and he may be able to use them, or at any rate, it will give him courage to check Isaacs if the need arises. I would have suggested Cocanon's going before,but i had not realised that no one from the office was there who would know these things, and would help Furniss. i also suggested that a table of the white star vessels should be given to Findlay, with their speeds, the dates they were built, and the speeds and dates of building of competing lines, so as to show you had always declined to enter on a speed contest. This he could quite well use,as it is matter of public knowledge. Cocanon is ,of course, very anxious to do all he can.
Of course you must be prepared for some criticism in speeches of counsel- it is their business. They have such uncommonly little fact to go on that they can only infer, or draw on their imaginations. If your council is properly instructed, as no doubt he will be, he can show how unsubstantial this all is.
You will realise that my personal position is very delicate, and i cannot do all i could wish to help as i am not in the case, and ought not to interfere.
I suppose the kind of thing you had in mind for a letter was the enclosed. It might be considered, if need arises, after the speeches. I hope it will not be necessary to contemplate it.Nothing should be done that could call forth replies in which there might be said more bitter things that ever, or that could make the judge feel there was an attempt to influence him or introduce fresh matter. We might easily make things worse. yours F M Radcliffe.

and the letter spoken of


Certain counsel in their speeches in this Enquiry have travelled outside the evidence given, and suggested that Mr Ismay's mere presence on board would simulate the captain to make a 'record passage', a feat totally impossible for a vessel of the engine power of the Titanic.These remarks are not likely to affect the tribunal,nor mislead those who know Mr Ismay, but they may leave a wrong impression upon the general public, who are ignorant of Mr Ismay's attitude towards speed in the atlantic trade. It is right, therefore, to say that throughout his connection with the white star line Mr Ismay has been a consistent advocate of moderate speeds;that he has declined to follow his competitors into the arena of record passages;that when other lines have built boats of high speed, he has responded by building boats whose outstanding feature was moderate speed, comfort, and regularity in arriving secured by leaving ample time for all the contingencies of the voyage;and that he steadily opposed any suggestions made by passenger agents or others for expediting the boats so as to compete in this respect with lines who make a greater feature of more rapid voyages.
That this is his policy, coupled with a caution regularly enforced by him, is well known to those employed by the line, and he is the last man of whom it could fairly be said- if it could be said of any- that his mere presence on board would simulate speed.

It seems to me reading these and other documents that any charges that Ismay interfered with the ships navigation are without any evidence, it does not make any sense that he should have interfered.why arrive early when there is no advantage in it. why make the captain go faster if he believed there was a danger and if they did think there was a danger why was the captain not on the bridge?
it seems to me as i try to understand the facts that the over confidence Micheal talked of was based on ignorance rather than arrogance. I dont believe anyone thought Titanic was unsinkable, prehaps less likely to sink.But then as the Gaelic proverb says A little hole will sink a big ship.[Bathaidh toll beag long mhor.] although i remain open minded i still dont buy the fact that Ismay interfered any way in the navigation of the ship.
>>I do understand that the white star line could not lose on the point of ismay effecting the speed of the titanic, without being held liable . but it seems strange that they dont allow him to clear his name in at least that area ,<<

Perhaps not as strange as you might think. Lightoller, for example didn't call the Mersey Wreck Commission a whitewash for nothing. He knew what he was talking about.

The whole Titanic fiasco was tremedously embarrassing to the U.K. and the last thing the powers-that-be would have wanted was one more thing to drag out the whole affair and thus keep it in the public's mind. It dragged out for far too long as it was and any attempt to "clear" anybody's name would only serve to draw it out at a time when White Star and the Board of Trade wanted the whole thing forgotten as quickly as possible.
Loath as I am to make a redundant incursion here I would just like to make three pertinent observations, viz.:

1. A ships' officer's first loyalty is to his enduring certification rather than to whomever happens to be paying him for his expertise at a particular time.

2. A passenger ship arriving early is an administrative embarrassment to all company/agency officials charged with receiving her.

3. Rather than encouraging recklessness, shipowners have historically tended to give short shrift to those employees who would take risks with their substantial capital assets - and reputations.

From which you may assume I give short shrift to any who would claim, presumably for their own devices, that Mr Ismay had any meaningful influence over the navigation of RMS Titanic.

“This law could be over-ridden if the owners (read Ismay) were aware that Captain Smith's navigation was negligent and connived at it.”

Interesting; this seems to pre-empt by not a few decades the recently formulated doctrine of “corporate liability” in the UK.

Naturally, the limit on damages was seldom over-ridden. However, while writing my book, I discovered a case in which the claimants did succeed in a claim. The ship Rio de Janeiro was wrecked near the Golden Gate in 1901. It was proved that the owners had knowingly engaged a crew of Chinese who spoke no English and officers who spoke no Chinese. Since the owners obviously knew of this unseamanlike situation, created by their own actions, damages were held to be unlimited.
On Monday, 21 November, 2005 - 11:48 pm Malcolm John Cheape wrote:

"I have pondered what you have both said in this thread and agree. I do understand that the white star line could not lose on the point of ismay effecting the speed of the titanic, without being held liable."

My personal opinion on this is that Mr. Ismay did not affect the speed of Titanic at all. Captain Smith had been Captain for a number of years on White Star Vessels and knew Mr. Ismay prior to Titanic’s sailing, I don’t see how he could have created an affect of navigation - - it wasn’t as if this was their first meeting. All were comfortable with one another, Officers included.

"I have read numerous private letters between ismay and particularily radcliffe[ i'm not exactly sure who he is?]."

Radcliffe was Mr. Ismay’s solicitor. He may have represented Bruce’s father as well, but at this point I’d have to do more research into it and right now I am pressed for time but when I return in a few hours time I will research that and hopefully come up with an answer.