Thursday, April 18, 2013

Strong Women in History: Violet Constance Jessop

When the White Star Line unveiled their plan for a trans-Atlantic ocean liner passenger service, they most assuredly couldn’t envision the tragedy that would befall all three of their ocean liners.

Knowing what we know about the way Titanic met her end; imagine what it would be like to be a young woman serving as a stewardess on the ship. But first we must go even further back into history.

October 1, 1887, and Irish couple living in Argentina welcomed their first of six children, a baby girl – Violet Constance Jessop. Even as a young child Violet was a survivor, winning a fight over tuberculosis even though doctors said she wouldn’t. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of what was to come, but more likely it was the hand of God because Violet had important work ahead of her.

When Violet’s father died, her mother moved her family to England and went to work as a ship’s stewardess for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Later, Violet herself would begin her eventful career on the same line. Research finds that this line served many purposes, among them delivering mail to the British West Indies and carrying passengers – immigrants especially – to places like New Zealand.

In 1910, Violet left Red Mail to work for White Line. She did it somewhat reluctantly, due to rumors of the passengers’ treatment of staff and the fact that White Line traveled the North Atlantic. She didn’t care for the weather conditions they would surely encounter. More foreshadowing? Or the hand of God?

On September 20, 1911, White Line’s RMS Olympic left port and Violet was aboard as one of its stewardesses. Almost right away, the navy cruiser HMS Hawke rammed the Olympic and left a forty-foot gash in her side. The propellers were damaged, but the ship made it back to port without sinking.

When the RMS Titanic, the Olympic’s sister ship, was ready for her maiden voyage, Violet was in place as one of the stewardesses – as she’d been talked in to switching ships by one of her friends. The night the ship hit the iceberg, Violet was “drowsy” in her bunk after having read a translated Hebrew prayer she brought along on her journey. The prayer was for protection against fire and water.

Violet stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses while women said tearful goodbyes to their husbands before stepping into the lifeboats with their children. In order to ease the fears of some of the female passengers, Violet and other stewardesses were asked to get into a lifeboat. While sitting there, a bundle was, as she described it, dropped in her lap with orders to take care of it. The bundle turned out to be a baby that Violet guarded with her life. Later, while on the rescue ship Carpathia, a woman claiming to be the baby’s mother snatched the baby out of Violet’s arms.

Surviving the ordeal that was the Titanic would have been enough for most women to walk away from anything to do with boats and water. But not Violet. She eventually ended up on the HMHS Britannic – which was originally named the Gigantic because, as hard as it is to believe, the Titanic’s other sister ship was much larger.

The Britannic wasn’t in service as an ocean liner for very long before WWI began and it was put in to use as a hospital ship. By then Violet was a Red Cross nurse, taking care of the war’s injured and sick men on the Britannic.

But surely Violet’s time aboard the Britannic would be uneventful? Unfortunately, no.

In 1916, just over four years after her Titanic sister sank, the Britannic struck a German mine in the Aegean Sea – with Violet aboard.

Accounts differ on how Violet ended up in the water. Some state she jumped overboard because there was no time for lifeboats. Others state she jumped out of the lifeboat to avoid being sucked into the propellers. However she ended up in the water, Violet hit her head on the ship’s hull and was knocked unconscious.

Thankfully she was rescued and amazingly, once again, remained undeterred by tragedy on the water. After the war, Violet went back to the White Line and the Olympic. Later she joined the Red Star line and spent the rest of her career cruising the world.

Three sister ships, the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic, all involved in disaster of different proportions; one woman of faith who survived all three. Coincidence? Providence? Whichever it was, Violet’s is an incredible story of survival.

Do you think Violet was placed on the Titanic for the purpose of saving the baby?

What about the Hebrew prayer? Do you think Violet was saved by faith?

If you experienced a tragedy like the Titanic hitting the iceberg, would you go to work on an even larger ship? Or would you even go on a boat at all?