100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, 15 April: A grand vision and an enduring tragedy

6th April 2012 at 01:00
The stories surrounding the sinking of Titanic, from class divide to the end of empire, strike a chord 100 years on, says Kester Brewin

It is almost a century since that symbol of power, privilege and luxury, Titanic, was ripped apart by an iceberg and swallowed by the treacherous sea, with the loss of 1,517 lives. But long before global audiences sat enraptured in cinemas, watching an elderly woman being asked if she was "ready to go back to Titanic" in the 1997 film, my grandmother had utterly engrossed me and my siblings with her memories of a disaster that was her 911.

Born in 1899, my grandmother was 12 years old when Titanic was lost on the ship's maiden voyage to New York. She remembered every detail of the luxuries on board: a full lending library, a squash court and a mind-bogglingly modern Marconi radio system, through which passengers could send and receive messages. That was the ultra-modern world, populated by a glittering cast of celebrities who had paid the equivalent of about pound;60,000 to be on that first crossing.

But among the horrors were stories of class, courage and - as with 911 - the agony of helplessness. And there, in the days that followed, were the now-familiar tales of conspiracy, blame and vilification. Was Titanic actually the hastily repaired Olympic, deliberately scuppered as an insurance scam by the owner of both ships, White Star Line? My grandmother was happy to clutch at conspiracy theories, just as we do today.

In the classroom, Titanic has an obvious place in history lessons. Built in Belfast and the largest man-made moving object of her time, she was from a family of three, the names of which, Titanic, Olympic and Britannic, spoke of the confidence and swagger of Britain at its zenith. For those studying the background to the First World War, the sinking of Titanic could be seen as a symbol of the first crack beneath the surface of apparent calm and peace between European empires. Just two years later, British men were fighting in the filth of the trenches, the social optimism about unsinkable human progress lying holed up in Flanders Fields. It also marked the beginning of the erosion of the class system.

Titanic's nine decks had been stratified by class, and her sinking was the first dent in the bows of the rigid structure Britain had known for so long. Sociologists may find it fruitful to compare how the relative values have changed - or held up - in the wake of the sinking of Costa Concordia earlier this year. "Women and children first" was the cry heard on both vessels, but to what extent did they actually take priority?

For those studying media, Titanic represents a fascinating example of the power of the press to sway public opinion - though, ironically, the first newspaper reports were grossly incorrect, claiming that the ship was "being towed to Halifax with no loss of life". J. Bruce Ismay, the ship's owner and inheritor of the vast White Star Line fortune, was one of the first to be vilified in a press hate campaign, condemned for jumping into a lifeboat with women and children and rowing to safety. (The captain, Edward Smith, went down with the ship, unlike Captain Francesco Schettino of Costa Concordia, who is under investigation for manslaughter and abandoning ship.)

At the inquiry into the Titanic disaster, some loyal White Star Line employees tried to exonerate Ismay, claiming that he had been thrown into the lifeboat by staff. But Ismay refuted any suggestion that he had simply obeyed orders. It was a brave decision but one that tarred him with the disgrace of cowardice.

Long gaps between cruise ship tragedies have allowed us to grow confident in the "absolute safety" of such a comfortable form of transport. So, as with Titanic, the sinking of Costa Concordia shattered public illusions. But why are we so prepared to believe that anything is indestructible or that nature can be so easily tamed by technology?

Titanic was the technological wonder of her day. The largest ship of her time, she contained 200 miles of electrical wiring, powering 10,000 light bulbs. And yet her hull was forged in a time before arc welding, using 1,200 tonnes of rivets holding together 1-inch iron plates. There is a potentially interesting chemistry discussion here: recent work has established that the iron used had an unusually high sulphur content, which may have made the hull dangerously brittle. In other words, Titanic was iPhone technology set into an ancient Bakelite case. Like the Twin Towers, her vastness and luxurious complexity made her seem untouchable, yet both crumpled under unexpected forces in very different periods of history, with war and terror following soon after. And each took down with it something of our belief in human superiority and infallibility.

The story contains multiple narratives at many levels - English and drama departments will find rich resources here. Titanic has held a huge personal interest for me since my grandmother spoke in hushed tones of the disaster. Yet she was equally eager to communicate that the ship also represented the grandness of human vision, of the desire to build incredible machines and do incredible things with them - a desire and passion that we, as educators, should strive to pass on. There may have been folly in such heady constructions as Titanic but, 100 years on, this most famous ship reminds us that we are an indefatigable and optimistic species, given to grand projects that stretch and awe - even if they also leave us open to tragedy.

The wreck of Titanic was discovered in 1985 by the renowned American oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard, who also found the Bismarck in 1989. But this year, a century since Titanic sank, will be the last time tourists that can visit the hull in submersibles. Though her legend will never die, her wreck is finally to be left in peace.

Kester Brewin is a consultant for BBC Education and teaches in southeast London


Why not take a trip to Titanic Belfast? Explore the story of the ship in this six-floor museum, which opened last weekend. www.titanicbelfast.com

Key stage 1: tragic Titanic

Follow the tale, from ship of splendour to shipwreck, in a visual display from seemavirdi.

Key stage 2: back to 1912

Sort the events in order and design a poster for Titanic's maiden voyage in a lesson shared by leighbee23.

Key stage 3: a giant obsession

Why does Titanic still fascinate us today? And is this a bad thing? Discuss, argue and persuade using TES English's speaking and listening tasks.

Key stage 4: captain culpable?

Who was to blame? Evaluate the evidence with Kanet's thinking and reasoning skills task.


Teachers are sharing ideas about how to use the sinking of Titanic as a topic in primary schools.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources029.


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