Titanic : The Ship Magnificent

Titanic Review

Dave Gittins reviews Titanic: The Ship Magnificent, the ambitious two-volume edition that describes the achievement that was "Titanic" in detail as never before.

To be published in two massive volumes on 15 April 2008, this truly magnum opus is claimed by the publisher to represent ‘a culmination of a life time’s research and study into the famous ship’. It is easy to agree. No work about Titanic comes close to it for the sheer quantity and quality of information. Volume I covers the construction of the ship’s hull and its external and mechanical equipment. Volume II is devoted to passenger and crew accommodation and facilities.

First, what’s to dislike? There are a few details to quibble over.

The editing, by Art Braunschweiger, is generally sound. The prose is eminently readable, if inevitably prosaic, and is almost devoid of spelling errors. I personally dislike the use of single spaces between sentences, a common feature of books produced digitally. This does the reader’s eye no favours. In many places, the spacebar appears to have gone missing in action. One hopes this has been corrected in the final printed edition.

When the authors depart from their areas of expertise, they produce a few howlers. One of the worst of these is on page 509.

The reported bearing of Titanic’s foundering was latitude 41° 46' N., longitude 50° 14' W. Titanic’s final position was determined not by celestial observations, but by dead reckoning. As history now records, this position was off by about thirteen-and-a-half miles, the ship’s actual position at the time of collision being further along her course track than estimated. This apparently resulted from 4th Officer Boxhall overestimating Titanic’s speed by about two knots.

A position is not a bearing. Titanic was not as far along her course as Boxhall thought. Boxhall correctly estimated Titanic’s speed at 22 knots, in line with her observed speed for more than 24 hours. The reason for his navigational lapse has never been definitely ascertained, in spite of suggestions by this reviewer and American researcher, Sam Halpern.

There are other incorrect statements about navigation, but they are far out-weighed by the overall excellence of the work.

The very sobriety of the writing is a much-needed antidote to the endless gushing about ‘the ship of dreams’ that has bedevilled so much writing about Titanic. From the outset, the authors make clear their view that Titanic was not ‘an example of groundbreaking, state-of-the-art naval architecture in anything other than her size’. The ship is placed in perspective and the realities and limitations of her construction and appointments made clear.

The authors have taken pains to gather material from primary sources, including some previously unknown gems, such as Cunard naval architect Leonard Peskett’s account of his voyage on Olympic in 1911. Credit is given to those who made such items available. A few shots are directed at collectors who adopt a dog-in-the-manger attitude to their Titanic material, a practice known to this reviewer.

The books are copiously illustrated with more than 1,500 photographs, drawings, contemporary advertisements and diagrams. A few of these will be familiar to enthusiasts, but most are not widely known. Many show little-known features of the Olympic class ships. Others show the men of Harland and Wolff at work, even using stills from a contemporary publicity film. Because very few photographs of Titanic exist, extensive use is made of pictures of her sister ships. When this is done, the subjects are clearly identified, a feature missing from certain other books.

The section about the building of the hull draws heavily on accounts of contemporary shipbuilding. We are given a basic course on the complexities of the half-model, the taking off of lines and the scrive board. There is an extensive account of the materials used to build the ship and the various forms of steel plate and beams. Rivets are covered in great detail, together with the methods of using them. This information is accompanied by numerous plans, including drawings of every watertight bulkhead. The early chapters are by far the most technical parts of the books and will repay careful study.

A section that especially pleased this reviewer explains the workings of the watertight doors, including the hand-operated doors on the decks above the orlop deck. Good use is made of photos and the working of the mechanisms is clearly displayed.

Amid the minute details, several topics are particularly relevant to the sinking. These include the ship’s plating, the expansion joints, the lifeboats, the ship’s radio and the engines. These are covered in great detail and many frequently asked questions are answered. Somebody, one suspects the eagle-eyed Bruce Beveridge, has noticed discrepancies between the capacities marked on the lifeboats and the evidence given in Lord Mersey’s court. This is indicative of the depth of the research.

Volume II is less technical and is somewhat easier reading. It opens with a very informative section about the treatment of the various classes of passengers upon their arrival at the ship and during the voyage. This is followed by a general description of the passenger accommodation. A special feature is a detailed explanation of the various styles of furniture and interior decorations, accompanied by numerous illustrations. Drawings show how elegant cabins were fitted into what was essentially a big steel box, full of structural elements that had to be disguised.

Titanic’s sanitary arrangements are described in detail. Starry-eyed enthusiasts would do well to read this section and imagine the hard realities of life for most passengers. A real surprise is the finding of notes from Thomas Andrews about the insanitary habits of certain third class passengers.

A chapter is devoted to the culinary arrangements and the tableware and accessories. Some readers might be surprised at the high degree of mechanisation in the galleys.

The book moves on to describe each deck and its features in turn, working downward. The authors first take pains to clear up misunderstandings about the names of the decks.

Among many other things, the following chapters explain the wide variations in the accommodation provided to passengers and crew. In all areas, there were established pecking orders. Even in third class, some passengers were more third class than others. Details are given of arrangements for lighting, sanitation, ventilation and headroom on each deck. Many will appreciate the detailed description of the illumination of the domes over the two main staircases. Some unromantic facts about the swimming bath and its faults are given.

The books include a very detailed marine glossary and are very well indexed. They are not referenced in the conventional scholarly manner. As the authors explain---

A bibliography has been provided to list all the sources for all research material used, although because of the wide range of period resource materials employed, specific references as to sources have not been provided throughout the text. Where they do appear in some specific cases; they are referenced as numbered endnotes. In addition, end notes have also been used when additional explanatory text is required.

There is much to be said for this approach, as in such a complex work there is a danger of producing more references than book, while constantly de-railing the reader’s train of thought. In any case, many of the illustrations constitute primary source material.

Such large books are inevitably expensive, but purchasers can console themselves with the thought that they will never need to buy lesser publications about the construction and appointments of the most famous ship since Noah’s Ark.

Dave Gittins is author of Titanic: Monument and Warning


Dave Gittins