Born on October 2, 1887, Violet Jessop would spend 42 years of her life at sea as a stewardess and nurse. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina where her father was a sheep farmer. She was the eldest of five brothers and sisters and her family later moved to England. Violet began her sea career at the age of 21 on the Royal Mail Line steamer Orinoco in 1908. She decided to follow in the footsteps of her Mother whom had herself worked on shipping lines as a stewardess. Her Father had recently died and her Mother had been taken ill, being forced into retirement from the sea. Violet realized that with no income for the family, she would have to seek employment. Working as a stewardess at sea appealed to her being familiar with the duties that her Mother had performed for so many years.
She originally had trouble finding work on ships due to her young age (most stewardesses were middle aged women in these days) and her strikingly good looks. She was even told at one job interview that her attractiveness could cause trouble with both the passengers and crew, which she found to be true in later years. She stood about five feet three inches tall, had blue-grey eyes, auburn colored hair, and spoke with a trace of an Irish accent. She mentioned that on one voyage alone, she had no less than three marriage proposals from passengers; one, a wealthy first class passenger.
At one point after being turned down at interviews, she wore no makeup and dressed in the most drab clothes she could find. She said she made herself appear ten years older, and was hired at the next shipping line she applied to. Working her way up the career ladder she ascended from working with third class passengers to working with first class passengers.
Her first employment experience with the White Star Line began in 1910 aboard the first Majestic. She mentions in her memoirs prior to joining White Star, "I had heard nothing but good about this company, sailing between England and America. But, I also knew the work there to be very arduous and the hours very long. Moreover, the type of passenger who patronized it expected all the service the company could give, and got it." Violet would work 17 hour days, and was paid £2 10s. per month. (About 6 or 7 dollars a month in today's standards)
Violet Jessop, in her mid twenties. (Picture property of Sheridan House)
On a more personal note, she wrote of her first romance in life and at sea. It began with an Australian junior fifth engineer on the old Orinoco named Ned Tracy. She described him as a clown, warm hearted when he wanted to be, and very opinionated. The two spent a great deal of free time together, and when working for separate shipping lines, continued to stay in touch and meet when possible. Ned seems to have been quite fond of Violet but appears to have been more loyal to his Mother. He once told Violet that he had promised his Mother he wouldn't marry until he was promoted; which at the time, was pretty far into the future. Heartbroken, Violet discontinued her relationship and mail correspondence with Ned Tracy. She was married for about six months in later years, but bore no children and never described any other romantic interests in he memoirs.
Violet Jessop experienced an interesting and almost unbelievable array of events that few others could match. Prior to joining Titanic, Violet served on the White Star Liner Olympic, (Titanic's sister ship) which she loved. She stated she was quite fond of Americans, saying that although often arrogant, they were less demanding than other passengers and treated her more like a person. While serving aboard the Olympic, she was in the collision with the HMS Hawke in 1911. Miraculously, considering the damage each ship sustained, neither vessel sank and they were both able to limp back into port under their own steam. The following year at the age of twenty-four, and at her friends insistence, she joined Titanic's crew.
Violet was asleep when Titanic hit the iceberg. ''I was ordered up on deck" she says. "Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Some time after, a ship's officer ordered us into the boat (boat 16) first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: "Here, Miss Jessop, look after this baby," and a bundle was dropped on to my lap.''
She goes on to describe her ordeal when the rescue ship Carpathia arrived on the scene. ''I was still clutching the baby against my hard cork lifebelt I was wearing when a woman leaped at me, grabbed the baby, and rushed off with it. It appeared that she put it down on the deck of the Titanic while she went off to fetch something, and when she came back, the baby was gone. I was too frozen and numb to think it strange that this woman had not stopped to say thank you." It is not known who the baby was.
Violet later served as a nurse with the British Red Cross during the First World War and incredibly was aboard the British hospital ship, Britannic, when it sank in the Aegean in 1916 after it struck a mine just recently laid by a German U-Boat. Violet wasn't as fortunate to board a life boat as she did in the Titanic disaster. In this instance, she was forced to jump as Britannic was quickly going down. She attributed her rescue from the sinking of Britannic to her thick auburn hair: ''I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship's keel which struck my head. 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!''
Violet Jessop, in her thirties. (Picture property of Sheridan House)
At the war's end, Violet rejoined the White Star Line on the Olympic once again. She served aboard Olympic between 1920 and 1925, took 7 months off, and then joined the Red Star Line. With law changes in immigrant traffic and a general change of the times, shipboard passage was changing. Oil fired ships were coming onto the scene and "steerage accommodation" was now known as "third cabin class." Ocean going vessels were no longer just a means of travel in the 20's; an era just a few years away from commercial airliners. Ocean liners were beginning to offer "Cruises." Violet's ship with Red Star was assigned to world cruises. She was was very excited about these trips and enjoyed them immensely. She continued these cruises until 1931.
In 1935, Violet rejoined her very first shipping line Royal Mail and worked there until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1945, she held a clerical position. In 1948, she engaged in one last episode of her career at sea . She signed on with Royal Mail once again for a 2-year stint at the age of 61.
In 1950, Violet Jessop now 63, finally called it quits and retired to a sixteenth-century thatched cottage in Great Ashfield, Suffolk called Maythorn. She raised hens and sold eggs to supplement her small pension. She took a keen interest in gardening and was known to have quite the "green thumb." Violet filled her home with mementos of her forty-two years at sea and was later interviewed for Woman Magazine when the film A Night to Remember was released in 1958.
Interestingly in the interview, she mentioned a couple of discrepancies in the film. Mainly the way the 3rd class passengers were portrayed in the film as having been deliberately kept behind locked gates and prevented from accessing the boat deck. She commented that this was not true to the best of her knowledge. Her other comment was the way American women were shown in the film to wear big hats of the era onboard, with the feather plumes and flowers etc. She said women did not wear these inside the ship.
Suffering from congestive heart failure, Violet Jessop died in 1971 at the age of 84.
1. Recommended reading and consulted source: Titanic Survivor by Violet Jessop. (Annotated by John Maxtone-Grahm) Sheridan House 1997.
2 .Woman magazine July 19, 1958
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