In a period of only five years, Violet Jessop survived three tragic shipwrecks; the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannic. This is the story of a young woman who, despite the challenges thrown at her, refused to set aside her natural curiosity and the inherent responsibility that came with her job. Would you like to know her story?
Violet Jessop: The woman who beat death
Violet Jessop has been labeled the “The Titanic Waitress.” Violet Constance Jessop Vivanco was born in Argentina in 1887, but her parents were Irish who having failed to find fortune in South America were determined to return to their native land.
As a child, Violet was not expected to live long. She had a short bout of tuberculosis which doctors believed would take her life. She managed to survive the often fatal disease. Her father died shortly after arriving in England, and her mother, who suffered a debilitating injury, left young Violet the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. She began working to support her family at a young age, and after several years she was able to secure a prestigious position on the White Star Line.
The White Star Line Co. had embarked on a great project in 1907, constructing three oceanic titans capable of carrying 4,000 people across transportation lines from Europe to America. These three “monsters of the ocean” were called the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (later christened the Britannic). You may be familiar with the names, and most certainly familiar with the way at least two of these ocean liners ended their story.
Violet Jessop was first employed on the Olympic. She was a young and determined woman, with a hint of stubbornness, who was hoping her new employment would help maintain her younger siblings. Most importantly, she was determined to make a respectable life, which often was the most difficult endeavor for young women in that day and age.
The three shipwrecks Violet Jessop survived
Her first encounter with a sunken ship came on September 20, 1911 while aboard the Olympic, a minor shipwreck when compared to the others. Violet had worked aboard the vessel for a few months as a waitress, a position which did not net her a great salary but which provided a living for her and her family despite a 17-hour work day.
She enjoyed the environment and her work, however. But on that fateful day of September 20, that likeness would turn into horror as night fell as the Olympic collided with the bulwark of the Royal Navy, the HMS Hawke. Fortunately, no deaths were recorded in the shipwreck, but both ships were completely destroyed.
The unfortunate accident shocked and dismayed Violet, and for a time she even considered leaving behind her work. Ultimately Jessop, with a family and career to consider, decided to stay on bolstering her strength and spirits. Fear wasn’t an option, and didn’t feed family or bolster her self-worth like being able to provide for herself and family would. As the Olympic, repaired, set off again on the ocean, Violet was offered a much better opportunity.
The White Star Line offered Violet a job aboard the Titanic. She would be part of a staff of 23 waitress, would earn a much higher wage and be part of what the company called one of the most historic moments in the world. The grand transatlantic giant would dazzle the world with its splendor, size and strength. While Violet at first considered declining the position, it was ultimately her family that convinced her to accept the position. Her job would bring her into contact with first-class passengers. Still with a 17-hour workday, she would ensure that the socialites aboard the ship were well cared for.
But as you well know, the night of April 14 and 15, 1912, the Titanic’s promise came to end when it collided with an iceberg and began to sink. Violet had just enough time after the collision, to go below to third class and advise in Spanish those non-English speakers to prepare themselves with life jackets to evacuate the ship along with those first class passengers she served. Violet joined the evacuation with luck. She watched, however, as 1,523 other lives were lost as the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean.
For several months following the tragic accident, Violet was in shock, unable to work or lead a normal life. But much like the first tragedy, she mustered the strength to go on. Pushing back the tearful memories, Violet was able to move past the tragic experience. She did not want the fear of sailing to be her most debilitating enemy, as she had made her living aboard ships and planned to continue with her career.
And when Violet was offered a position aboard the third giant built by the White Star Line, the Britannic, she took it. The First World War had just begun, and the ship had been outfitted to serve as a floating hospital and as a transport ship for wounded soldiers. This trip, Violet would act not as a waitress, but as a nurse with the Red Cross, helping treat wounded soldiers and the sick. On November 21, 1916, just as the Britannic was making its way in the Aegean Sea, a sea-based mine was detonated causing the ship enormous damage, and causing it to sink.
Twenty-nine people died in the disaster. The ship was lost, but a majority of its passengers were able to reach life boats and survive until help arrived, including Violet Jessop. This would be the third time during which one of the White Line’s “giants” would bring Violet to the very brink of death, only to have it pass her by.
What happened next? Many who had experienced the same tragedy would have chosen to move onto another line of work. But for Violet, the Earth’s oceans meant making a living, and she continued to work aboard ships despite the risk and danger.
She retired in 1950, purchasing a farm and small house which she would live her life in. Violet Jessop would become known as the woman who not only survived three shipwrecks, but also survived three of the largest maritime tragedies in history.