Violet Jessop: The person who survived 3 disasters at sea

Violet Jessop in a Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic in circa 1916.
Violet Jessop, circa 1916.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you know of the Titanic, you’ve probably heard of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a famous socialite who survived. But did you know she survived only one disaster? William Clark and George Beauchamp survived the Titanic and at least one other major maritime catastrophe. Yet none compares with Violet Constance Jessop, who lived through three legendary shipwrecks.

The oldest of nine children, born to Irish parents in Argentina, before she started her career, Violet survived tuberculosis, the death of three siblings, and a move to England after her father’s passing. As an ocean liner stewardess, she became a nurse, cleaner, and caretaker to the rich. It was a job at a company that would eventually lose thousands of lives and millions of dollars, yet somehow, Jessop always survived.

Surviving the RMS Olympic crash

White Star Line Ship, the RMS Olympic arriving at New York on her maiden voyage, 21 June 1911
RMS Olympic, 1911.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

White Star Line liners were designed to be the largest and most luxurious passenger ships in history. For a time, RMS Olympic was the largest ship in the world. On the other hand, Violet Jessop was a petite 24-year-old who needed the work to support her family. With grey-blue eyes and auburn hair, she was initially considered too attractive for the job. A potential “gold digger,” she’d been fired once when a captain said she’d been flirting with his crew. Yet Jessop made it to the Olympic’s 892-member crew, where she worked 17 hours daily for £2.10 per month (just under £200 today). 

The ship’s fifth voyage started on September 20, 1911. While traveling through a narrow straight, RMS Olympic took a sudden starboard turn, and the military ship beside it, the Hawke, could not react in time. Designed to sink ships by ramming them with its bow, Hawke tore two holes in Olympic’s hull, flooding two compartments and twisting the propeller shaft. Despite the damage, both ships remained seaworthy. In addition, no one was killed in what would be some of Jessop’s best luck at sea. Violet never talked about this incident publicly, but White Star capitalized on this event by using it to help advertise their ships as “unsinkable.”

The hull of RMS Olympic following her collision with HMS Hawke in 1911
Damage to the hull of the RMS Olympic following its collision with the HMS Hawke.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This incident would come back to haunt Jessop. Olympic’s damaged shaft was replaced with one from the yet-to-launch Titanic to repair the Olympic quickly. Then, months later, the Olympic lost a propeller blade. Once again, it came from the Titanic. All the Olympic repairs delayed the Titanic’s maiden voyage by three weeks. Violet didn’t want to join the Titanic at first. Yet her friends persuaded her to take its maiden voyage as a “wonderful experience.

Surviving the RMS Titanic sinking

RMS Titanic pictured in Cobh Harbour
RMS Titanic, 1912.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With its “unsinkable” reputation and led by Edward Smith, who also captained the Olympic during its crash, the Titanic prepared to set out to New York on April 10, 1912. Violet joined the crew “dressed in a new ankle-length brown suit” and prepared to deal with a clientele she was not thrilled to serve. She described them as having “many and strange needs” and “watch[ed] the agonized struggles of a couple of perspiring stewards tackling the job.”

Four days in, Violet Jessop described the early evening of April 14th: “… A soothing peace and an ever-increasing chill set in that drove one indoors, an excuse for bed and a good book. I slipped out on deck, my nightly custom before retiring, for a few moments alone with my thoughts. It was all so quiet, but how penetratingly cold it had become!… I shivered. It was indeed a night for bed, warmth and cozy thoughts of home and firesides.”

After striking the iceberg in the early hours of the 15th, the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in just 2 hours and 40 minutes. Violet was commended for her calm attitude during the evacuation. She described it as a misplaced calm because she’d already been through a crash on a nearly identical ship that had survived. She expected a similar result. Ordered into lifeboat 16, a ship’s officer thrust an unknown baby into her arms as it lowered. She held it close as they drifted in the freezing Atlantic for eight hours. Rescued by the RMS Carpathia the following morning, once aboard that ship an unknown woman snatched the baby from her arms without saying a word. She arrived in New York with the other survivors, but less than two months later, she was back serving aboard the Titanic’s twin and the site of her first brush with death, the RMS Olympic.

The iceberg suspected of having sunk the RMS Titanic photographed by the chief steward of the ship Prinz Adalbert on the morning of April 15, 1912, a few miles south of where Titanic sank. The steward hadn't yet heard about Titanic's sinking. What caught his attention was the smear of what appeared to be red paint along the base of the berg, suggesting it had collided with a ship.
An iceberg that may have collided with the Titanic, photographed on the morning of April 15th, 1912 a few miles south of where Titanic sank.  There was a smear of what appeared to be red paint along the base of the iceberg suggesting a collision with a ship occurred.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Years later, Jessop claimed she got a call from a woman who asked if she’d saved a baby from the Titanic. Violet replied, “Yes,” the voice said, “Well, I was that baby,” laughed, and hung up.

Surviving the HMHS Britannic sinking

HMHS Britannic photographed during World War I
HMHS Britannic, circa 1916.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Four years later, amid the First World War, the HMHS Britannic, younger sibling to Titanic and Olympic, had been converted into a hospital ship. Now, Violet served aboard as a nurse. This ship suffered a catastrophic explosion while operating in the Aegean Sea on November 21, 1916.

The casualty of a mine planted by a German U-boat, this time she could not reach a lifeboat in time. Jessop jumped overboard: ”I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head.” She then struggled to the surface where she was, “…surrounded by severed corpses and injured men.” She continued, “I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!” Even though injured, her fast action saved her as the Britannic sank within 55 minutes, with 30 deaths.

Over White Star’s history, they lost 17 ships and counted more than 2,500 dead – but Violet Jessop was never on the manifests of the lost. Instead, she retired in 1950 and moved to Great Ashfield, Suffolk, where she raised chickens and wrote her memoirs, eventually passing away from heart failure in 1971 at 83.

RELATED ARTICLE: The toddlers ‘orphaned’ by the Titanic disaster, April 1912


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