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Around 11:30pm on April 14, 1912 a crew member of the RMS Titanic spotted an iceberg nearby. He frantically rang the alarm bell. It’s believed only 37 seconds later the unsinkable ship struck the iceberg floating in the North Atlantic.

Believed to be Unsinkable

The RMS Titanic was the largest and the most luxurious of its age. She was equipped with reciprocating steam engines and a turbine engine to power its three propellers. A double plated bottom and sixteen watertight compartments on the hull of the ship with doors to close if water entered were designed to make the ship unsinkable.

The Fatal Assumptions About Titanic Being Unsinkable

The belief in its invincibility led to several fatal assumptions. The ship only carried 20 lifeboats when it could have carried 64. Of those, many of them launched only partial filled as some still believed they would only be in the water a short time until the ship was stabilized. The first life boat didn’t launch until one hour after the collision.

It was later estimated the berg was anywhere from 50 to 100 feet above the water and 200 to 400 feet long. The Titanic was about 882 feet long and 92 feet high. Captain Edward Smith believed the ship had merely grazed the iceberg and didn’t at first believe there would be much damage.

The berg had made a 300 foot gash in the hull of the ship and by the time the crew assessed the site of the impact: five of the compartments had already flooded and the bow was starting to submerge.

Many of the 2,223 passengers and crew heard the collision and even saw the ice from the berg laying on the Titanic’s decks. Few were concerned. They believed they were onboard an unsinkable ship. Less than three hours later the Titanic slipped into the deep taking the lives of over 1517 people.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Instance

Among the dead was my great-grandfather, Thomas Instance. He was a member of the crew, a fireman, who are also known as stokers. They had the job of shovelling coal into the boiler furnaces.

Thomas was 31 years of age at the time of his death. He was working his passage to join his family who were already in Canada. My grandfather, Cyril Instance, had arrived in Canada aboard another White Star liner, the SS Laurentic in August 1910. My great-aunt Emma would follow the following year.

I grew up hearing that my great-grandfather had been a stoker on the Titanic and had gone down with the ship. But, had known nothing else about him. In 2012, my sister discovered a report on the net about a memorial service in Southampton marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking.

Finding Out More About Thomas

In the article she found that the grandnephew of Thomas had laid a wreath during the memorial. She did a search and sent a letter off looking for information on the family. Within a week, she heard back from another member of the family who had been researching the family.

Emails flew back and forth across the Atlantic. Details were exchanged. Thomas was born in Southampton in 1881 and resided there up until his death. He had married Georgina Orman around 1900. Thomas had five known siblings; four brothers and one sister.

Records showed Thomas was assigned to the third watch when he signed onto the crew. The third watch was on duty during the hours of 8am to noon and 8pm to midnight. He would have been on duty when the Titanic struck the iceberg and likely remained on duty while the engineering crew struggled to keep the ship alive.

The Engine Department on the Titanic

The Engine Department was responsible for generating the energy for the ship’s engines and electrical power. There were 325 men in the department, 159 of them were firemen.

The firemen needed to shovel 600 tons of coal a day to keep the 159 furnaces fed which in turn kept the 29 boilers doing their job. Each fireman would be responsible for three fire holes on their shift. The three holes would be one side of a double-ended boiler

The Engine Department’s loses were 253 men including 115 firemen. Many of the first deaths would have been in the Engine Department as the berg hit hardest near boiler room 6. Survivors reported the lights remained on until about two minutes before it sank, indicating some of the crew members were trying until the last to save the ship.

The Aftermath for Our Family

One piece of family history I’d heard often over the years was that at the time of the sinking of the Titanic, my grandfather was employed sweeping floors in a lawyer’s office in Toronto. Grandpa was fourteen.

The lawyer helped the family make application for compensation. My great-grandmother and my great-aunt received compensation. My grandfather was considered to be self-sufficient and was denied. Self-sufficient at the age of 14. How times change.

The compensation would have come under the Workers Compensation Act which covered the crew. The likely payout would have been around £300 which would have been around $393USD, a substantial sum in those days.

The experience of losing his father on the Titanic apparently didn’t keep my grandfather away from naval service. He joined up to serve in the Navy in both world wars. During WW1 he saw active service and participated in the Battle of Ypres. During WW2 he was a training officer stationed in Halifax.

The Engineering Memorials

Many memorials to those who went down on the Titanic are found on both sides of the Atlantic. One of those is at St. Nicholas Place, at the Pier Head in Liverpool, England. Liverpool is the city where the White Star Line which owned the Titanic was founded. The Memorial to the Engine Room Heroes of the Titanic. It was built in 1916 and originally dedicated to the engine room fatalities of the Titanic and later broadened to include all during duty in WW1.

It was the first monument in the United Kingdom to depict the working man. Another memorial for the Engineers in Southampton included only the engineering officers.

The Idiom “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic”

A very common idiom which emerged from the sinking of the Titanic is the reference to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” to refer to futile actions in the face of impending disaster.

The idiom was first used in print in a 1969 article in Time Magazine. It was used to reference reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Timeless Story

It seems as though the story of the Titanic is timeless. The last survivors have passed into history but the fascination with all things Titanic continues.

The wreck of the Titanic took until 1985, 73 years later to locate. Dr. Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and a team of American and French researchers discovered the wreckage with the help of a robot submarine.

The ship broke in two as it slipped below the surface that fateful night. The two parts made their way to the seabed some 2.5 miles below the surface and came to rest about 2,000 feet apart. The location is about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

A microorganism, named Halomonas titanicae, is a bacteria which is literally eating the wreck of the Titanic. Eventually, it will disappear completely. It seems as though, while that happens the story will not be going away as the mysteries of what happened that night and why endure.

References:

57 fascinating facts about the Titanic
Guide to the Crew of Titanic: The Structure of Working Aboard the Legendary Liner 
Memorial to the Engine Room Heroes of the Titanic 
Encyclopedia Titanica