Friday, April 13, 2012

The men in the Harland & Wolff Guarantee Group. Sometimes the lucky ones come in second.

This coming weekend, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is being observed.

Amazing the grip that this saga continues to hold on us, isn’t it?

A few years after the Titanic, the Lusitania sank, and an awful lot of folks were lost there. But in 1915, there was a war on.

Plus the Titanic got the Hollywood treatment, so we all know about the Jacks and the Roses, Nearer My God to Thee, the Unsinkable Molly Brown. And, of course, it was a maiden voyage. The grandest ocean liner ever. And, of course, with the Titanic, there was no U2 torpedoing it. Just a big old iceberg lying in wait.

Then there are those expeditions to plumb the depths and take an eerie look at the Titanic’s remains. Is there anything comparable for the Lusitania?

A little google comparison says it all: 3.7 million results for the Lusitania; 184 million for the Titanic.

In any case, the Titanic remains endlessly fascinating, and I’m as endlessly fascinated as the next guy.

One thing that I hadn’t known about it was that Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic, awarded a select group of employees who’d worked on it a berth on the maiden voyage. They did this for every new ship they launched, so that each shake down cruise would have on board a group of troubleshooters who knew the ship intimately. Getting selected for the Guarantee Group was a complete honor, a career-maker.

The prospect of a place on the Guarantee Group was a powerful incentive to work hard and make a good impression with the bosses. Being selected to the Guarantee Group represented Harland & Wolff’s confidence in you as an employee and was a reward for doing a good job. Only the best employees would make the grade and make the voyage. (Source: ITV)

I’m quite sure that Harland & Wolff was no easy-peasy place to work. The powers that be were no doubt class bound, paternalistic, anti anything that smacked of workers organizing. Maybe you had to be a politico, a suck up, to get tapped for the Guarantee Group. Still, I’m sure it was quite a coup.

The Titanic Guarantee Group was headed up by Thomas Andrews, a managing director of Harland & Wolff and the architect of the Titanic. Andrews, of course, got to travel first class, as did two of the others in the group. Robert Chisholm, the first draughtsman, and Henry Parr, the first electrician, got to go first, as well.

In first, they had a relatively good chance of survival. One-third of the men in first class survived, vs. an overall male passenger survival rate of 18%. It’s not clear how Chisholm and Parr met their end, but Andrews is reported to have helped move a lot of passengers into lifeboats, and tossed a lot of deck chairs to those bobbing in the waters, after which he retired to the first class smoking room and waited things out.

Most of the Guarantee Group went second class. They were fitters, plumbers, electricians, mostly young men, including a 15 years old apprentice electrician, Ennis Hastings Watson.

Forget the tacky plaque, the boring trophy. Can you imagine how exciting it must have been for a 15 year old apprentice electrician to be chosen to make this voyage?

Talk about the world as your oyster.

Sure, it was a busman’s holiday, but still…

And the bonus at the other end: New York City, baby.

In second class, however, the odds of survival as a male (even if you weren’t trying to right the ship while it went down) were pretty grim: 8%. Even the fellows in steerage fared better: 13% of them survived – a testimony to their toughness maybe? (Whatever class you traveled, you had a boatload better chance of survival if you were female or a child. They really did mean women and children first, bless them. Although it was pretty much first class women and children first; second class women and children second; and steerage class women and children a far third.)

The ship having been built in Belfast, there is, not surprisingly, a Taig (Catholic) – Prod (Protestant) story.

Harland & Wolff had a reputation for not hiring Catholics. In that, they weren’t alone among industries in the north of Ireland, before and after the country’s partition in the 1920’s.

Anyway, from the names of the Guarantee Group members, they “sound” Protestant. Now, having a Protestant sounding name sounds pretty dumb, but when you think about it... Take a name like Rogers, which doesn’t sound all that Irish. If you lived in Belfast, and your name were Sean or Patrick Rogers, folks would assume you were a Catholic. If you were named Kenneth or Reginald Rogers, well… Whether they were, indeed, all Protestants, for the Titanic Guarantee Group:

Originally a group of nine was planned but in the end just eight of the 14,000 shipworkers were onboard. Liam Flaherty, a Catholic shipwright and joiner, had a place on the Guarantee Group but in the end he didn’t go because his father, a fellow shipworker, was beaten up by some of the Protestant workers at Harland & Wolff and told not to return to his job. The attack saved Liam’s life.

Just as winning a place among the chosen unsaved the lives of the other members of the Guarantee Group.

So here’s a toast to the Guarantee Group.

Other than Thomas Andrews, it’s not known whether they died trying to save lives, or guarantee the Titanic. But I like the idea that they died with their work boots on: keeping the joints joined, manning the boilers, and, in the case of young Ennis Hastings Watson, trying to keep the lights on.

It’s not a great article, but the first reference I saw to the Guarantee Group was on Business Week. Info on the members of the Group came from one of the many Titanic sites out there. This one was Titanic-Titanic.  Survivor demographics came from an Ithaca College site.

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