Monthly Archives: April 2012
Tuesday, April 10th, 2012
By Eloise Aston, editor of A Woman of Temperament and co-author of 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic…But Didn’t!, a myth-busting guide to what really happened the night the Titanic sank.
The Duff Gordons – both Lucile (Lucy) and her husband Cosmo – get a pretty bad press, it seems. In the new miniseries Lucile is – on no evidence – shown to be a crashing snob who doesn’t want to be reminded that she ‘started a business’. And of course, there’s the old, old accusation about bribery in the ‘millionaires’ lifeboat’, which left with only 12 people – 5 passengers including 2 women and the rest male crew.
Occasionally ‘Sir Cosmo bribed the seamen not to go back and rescue people’ becomes ‘Sir Cosmo bribed people to stay out of his lifeboat’ or ‘Sir Cosmo bribed the officers not to overfill the lifeboat’, or any other ridiculous accusation thrown around with no factual basis, as though the Duff Gordons weren’t real people with family alive today. 100 years after the inquiry cleared them and the media is still declaring them ‘guilty’ – these days, presumably because they had the temerity to travel in First Class, which seems to some people to mean automatically that someone is narrow-minded, snobbish and with dubious moral principles. (Unless you’re free-spirited, female and have overbearing parents who match the above description.)
So what did actually happen? Lifeboat 1 was indeed very underfilled, with a total of 12 people and only five passengers – but this was nothing to do with the Duff Gordons. The officers were concerned about lowering the lifeboats at full capacity in case they broke (a groundless concern as they had been tested at full capacity before sailing), and there simply weren’t many people around on this part of the deck at the time when the lifeboat was being lowered. The officers knew that the lifeboats needed to get away as quickly as possible so didn’t attempt to fetch women and children from other parts of the deck, and when Sir Cosmo asked First Officer Murdoch, who was loading the boats on this side of the ship, whether he could enter the lifeboat as it was about to be lowered, Murdoch had no problem with this. Sir Cosmo certainly wasn’t taking a place from anyone else; what should he have done? Stayed and died, pointlessly?
When they were in the lifeboat, one of the crew commented to Sir Cosmo that while everyone in the boat had lost their things, for the crew it was much worse as they now had to buy all their own kit again, and their pay had stopped as soon as the ship went down. Sir Cosmo was struck by this and offered them £5 each towards a new kit – a substantial sum in those days, even granted that he was a wealthy man.
Once on board the Carpathia, Sir Cosmo sought the men out with his chequebook, saying that he had promised it so he had to give it to them. Wanting to buy their silence? That’s the uncharitable interpretation, and it’s true that this is Sir Cosmo’s own testimony.
One crewman in the boat, fireman Charles Hendrickson, claimed that Lucile and Sir Cosmo had prevented them from going back, saying it was too dangerous and that they would be swamped – although he also said that at this point the £5 had not been mentioned and he had no expectation of it at the time going back was discussed. Samuel Collins, another fireman, contradicted Hendrickson’s account, saying that there had been no discussion at all with Sir Cosmo about going back and no passenger in the boat had mentioned anything about swamping. The money received on the Carpathia was a complete surprise to Collins, who had known nothing about it beforehand. Sir Cosmo himself said that it hadn’t occurred to him that they could go back.
The Inquiry was satisfied that no bribery or untoward behaviour had taken place, but the Duff Gordons nonetheless suffered ‘trial by media’ and were viewed with deep suspicion – perhaps, as Lucile herself suggests, because ‘public opinion had to be offered some sacrifice’, amid the outrage and attempts to find someone to blame for the tragedy. It seems that little has changed today.
There are three chapters in A Woman of Temperament dedicated to the Titanic incident. Even though they were among the lucky ones, the disaster and its aftermath had a major impact on the Duff Gordons and continues to do so today in the way people perceive them. There was far more to Lucile’s life than the Titanic, and she deserves to be remembered for her achievements both before and after the disaster.
A Woman of Temperament – out now from Attica
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
Single mother. Fashion pioneer. Titanic survivor.
Now available from Attica for Amazon Kindle, and coming very soon in paperback, A Woman of Temperament is the remarkable story of Lucile, Lucy Duff Gordon, who grew an international fashion empire out of her need to support herself and her daughter. Lucile invented the catwalk show, the cult of the professional model and diffusion lines for department stores, and liberated women from the restrictions of ugly and oppressive Victorian underwear – her dresses, she thought, deserved something far nicer underneath than boned monstrosities!
With the Titanic centenary and the release of books and TV series about the disaster, Lucile has featured prominently – but often in a negative light. A Woman of Temperament is Lucile’s own perspective on fashion, class, ‘high society’ and what really happened in Lifeboat No. 1.