Trouble on Titanic's first course
In this April 10, 1912 file photo, the liner Titanic leaves Southampton, England on her maiden voyage to New York City. Five days into her journey, the ship struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.
The Associated Press
R.M.S. Titanic left Southampton, England, at noon on April 10, 1912, and it wasn’t long before the fears of Toronto’s Maj. Arthur Godfrey Peuchen started to seem like prophecy.
An experienced yachtsman himself, Peuchen thought Capt. Edward John Smith was, at 62, too old, and his career too star-crossed, to be guiding such a mammoth vessel on her maiden voyage.
Sure enough, Titanic was barely underway when disaster loomed.
As she churned out a narrow channel past two ships moored together at the dock, Titanic’s movement caused the mooring ropes to snap on one of those ships, New York.
With passengers watching in horror, New York started to swing out towards Titanic, a collision seeming all but inevitable.
“Full astern” came the order, and the sudden burst of water from Titanic’s portside propeller helped push New York away with only a metre separating the two vessels.
Tugboats eventually towed New York to safety, but the mishap had already put Titanic an hour behind schedule en route to her first stop, Cherbourg, France, where she was due to take on nearly 300 additional passengers, almost half of them in first-class.
That, and another stop in Queenstown, Ireland, would bring Titanic’s passenger list to nearly 1,400. The vast majority were emigrants, with the poor souls in third class, or steerage, “cooped up like chickens,” in the words of one, 25-year-old Neshan Krekorian.
A Christian Armenian, Krekorian and five others from the same village in Turkish-occupied Armenia were all fleeing the strife that had already taken the life of Krekorian’s first wife. They hoped for a better life in Brantford, Ont.
Steerage on board Titanic wasn’t completely grim - there was an outdoor recreation deck - but it was far removed from the glamour and romance so often associated with ocean liners.
Most of the men slept in dormitories or in cabins that housed up to 10 people. There were just two bathtubs for the roughly 700 passengers in third class, and to get to them, those housed in the bow would have to travel to the stern along a corridor, dubbed Scotland Road, that ran virtually the entire length of the ship.
The food was equally basic, and heavy on starch.
As the Titanic steamed toward France, the first meal served in third class - a traditional midday dinner - started with rice soup, then moved on through corned beef and cabbage, boiled potatoes, biscuits and bread, followed by peaches and more rice.
A working-class English tea would be served in late afternoon as the last meal of the day, typically along the lines of bread, currant buns, apricots and a ragout of beef with potatoes and pickles.
In stratified Edwardian society, it was inevitable that one snooty writer would look down on such fare from a great height: “This incongruous kind of food may, no doubt, be quite nice and tasty for this class of people, but it must shock anyone endowed with refined epicurean instinct.”
For epicurean delights, you’d need to join Maj. Peuchen in first-class, where almost nothing seemed too opulent.
If those in steerage arrived with not much more than the clothes on their backs, first-class passengers with names like Astor and Guggenheim came aboard with a mountain of luggage, most of it very much “wanted on the voyage.”
As Lady Cynthia Asquith later remarked, “It must be admitted that a very large fraction of our time was spent in dressing and undressing. We were forever changing our clothes.”
Dinners in the first-class dining room could run to 11 courses, and even those in the elegant restaurant everyone called the “Ritz” might still go to nine. These were formal occasions as much as meals, with everyone expected to be suitably attired.
“It was the last word in luxury,” wrote first-class passenger Mrs. Walter Douglas after one evening in the Ritz. “The tables were gay with pink roses and white daisies, the women in beautiful shimmering gowns of satin and silk, the men immaculate and well-groomed, the stringed orchestra playing music from Puccini and Tchaikovsky.
“The food was superb: caviar, lobster, quail from Egypt, plovers’ eggs, and hothouse grapes and fresh peaches.”
Putting on such feasts required a vast kitchen operation, with 60 chefs preparing a total of roughly 6,000 meals a day for the entire ship, including a total crew approaching 900 people.
While John Jacob Astor normally took his dinners at the captain’s table in the main dining saloon, Toronto’s Peuchen mostly shared a table with his friend Harry Markland Molson, of brewery fame, as well as stock promoter Hudson “Hud” Allison and his wife, Bessie.
That’s partly because Peuchen’s yachting chum, John Hugo Ross, was ill and all but confined to quarters.
Since leaving Toronto to take over his father’s real estate fortune in Winnipeg, Ross usually escaped prairie winters to spend three months in Europe with his prosperous pal Thomas McCaffry, president of the Union Bank. On this latest trip, they were joined by another Winnipeg bachelor, realtor Thomson Beattie.
Not long after Ross took ill in Paris, Beattie wrote to his mother in Fergus, Ont.: “We are changing ships and coming home in a new, unsinkable boat.”
A three-month sojourn in Europe was scarcely a novelty for the wealthiest on board, but there were also commercial travellers in first class.
George Graham, for instance, was a buyer with the T. Eaton Co. who’d been transferred from Toronto to the Winnipeg store. He was returning from an annual buying trip in Europe.
While Graham was away, his wife Edith returned to Ontario to stay with her parents in Harriston. She was supposed to meet Graham in Toronto when he got back from Europe, so after a couple of days on board Titanic, Graham duly stopped in at the purser’s office to send her word of his imminent arrival: “New York Wednesday Morning.”