A ‘vicious class antagonism’ at the heart of the Titanic disaster: the dockers’ union’s response

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in the early hours of 15 April 1912 was a shocking and traumatic event, felt particularly deeply in Belfast where the ship had been built and in Southampton which had been the home port for many of its crew. As news emerged that at least 1,500 people had died, there was a sense of anger throughout the country at the circumstances that had led to the disaster and at the appalling lack of lifeboats.

The dockers’ letter. Click for larger image

For the dockers whose members would have worked alongside and known the crew of the Titanic, however, there was a further and viscerally felt sense of grievance at the different treatment of first and third class passengers, and at the lack of life-saving equipment for the crew. This was a class issue.

Four days after the sinking, the marine department of the Board of Trade received a letter from the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union. Signed by its general secretary, Ben Tillett, the letter set out a resolution passed by the union’s executive, offering their ‘sincere condolences to the bereaved relatives of the Third Class passengers’ and ‘sincere regret to the relatives of the Crew, who were drowned’.

A later facsimile of that letter is reproduced here.

The letter went on: ‘We also offer our strongest protest against the wanton and callous disregard of human life and the vicious class antagonism shown in the practical forbidding of the saving of the lives of the third class passengers. The refusal to permit other than the first class passengers to be saved by the boats, is in our opinion a disgrace to our common civilisation.’

The letter called on the Government and the Board of Trade to insist on the provision of adequate life saving appliances in future for both passengers and crew, and expressed the union executive’s regret that ‘in order to save tie and cost, at the risk of life, shorter and quicker routes were insisted on, in spite of the knowledge of the presence of ice’.

It ended with a stinging rebuke: ‘We trust the saving of so many first class passengers lives will not deaden the solicitude of the Government for the lives of those who belong to the wage earning classes, and call upon the members of the Labour Party to force upon the Government the necessity of proper protection to the lives of all mariners and all passengers, irrespective of class and grade.’

An inquiry set up by the British government exonerated the captain of the Titanic, but made numerous recommendations for improving safety on board ships. And as the sinking became a cultural phenomenon, spawning works of art, books, films, and numerous expeditions to explore the wrecked ship, so debate about the catastrophe returned time and time again to the issues raised by the dockers’ union.

Later suggestions that third class passengers were literally locked below decks and forbidden to enter the lifeboats have been widely debunked. However, this was not the union’s allegation at the time. Rather, the letter speaks of the ‘practical forbidding’ of the saving of the lives of third class passengers.

The figures that emerged in the British inquiry (there was also a separate investigation by the US authorities) tell their own and very eloquent story.

Of the men on board, 33% of first class passengers, 16% of third class passengers, and 22% of the crew survived; of the women on board, 97% of first class passengers, 46% of third class passengers and 87% of the crew (20 out of just 23) survived; and of the children on board, 83% of first class passengers and 34% of third class passengers survived.