By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:
Violet Jessop was a Titanic Survivor (enough in itself to make her an interesting person) – she also beat the record of Bude’s Archie Jewell, Titanic survivor.
Not only did she survive the demise of the Titanic (which took 1523 lives), but she also survived two other sinking ships, whereas poor Archie only survived one more.
Bude remembers Archie Jewell. In the post of lookout in the ‘crow’s nest’ just before the Titanic struck ice, was 23-year-old Archie, who was born in King’s Street into a well known local sea-faring family. He was a quiet man, temperance, a non-drinker and non-smoker.
As quartermaster of the Titanic, his duties included watch-keeping on the wheel. His emergency duty was to coxswain one of the lifeboats, which fortunately secured his survival. His watch had finished two hours before the iceberg was struck.
After the Titanic, Archie was back at sea on the Britannic in 2016 when she was torpedoed. He survived again.
Not sure I’d have opted for a third crack at drowning, but Archie did, as an able-seaman on the SS Donegal and was, this time, less lucky. He died aged only 28 on crossing the Channel to bring back some war wounded, the hospital ship struck a rogue mine laid by a German submarine and sank in 1917.
So, how did Violet manage to survive three times – or more? Well, people call her lucky, but while she was lucky in life, love was rather more questionable.
Violet Constance Jessop lived in London but had been born in Argentina, child of Irish immigrants. Her parents had emigrated there so her father could become a sheep farmer. His well-to-do wife, Catherine Kelly, from a wealthy Irish family, hailed from a prestigious area of Dublin but joined the man she loved when he went to the Pampas grasslands near Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Violet had a few skirmishes with death. Even as a young child, she was not immune to the prospect. She contracted the killer disease, tuberculosis, and was given only months to live. Somehow, despite her poor prognosis, she survived, the eldest of six children.
After her father died, when Violet was only 15 (she was said to be devastated by his death), her mother returned to Britain as a stewardess on the Royal Mail Line and later remarried. Violet followed in her mother’s footsteps, when she left convent school.
Irish Central says she was good-looking (as her photos demonstrate) and had trouble finding work as a stewardess as employers felt her youth and good looks would be problematic in terms of relations with both passengers and crew, which is one reason perhaps why most of the women working on the ships were middle-aged widows of seafarers! Violet had an Irish lilt, burnished auburn hair, blue eyes and stood 5ft 3 in her stockinged feet, petite and pretty.
Indeed, she received at least three proposals on one voyage alone, one from a wealthy first class passenger.
When seeking employment, she was hired, eventually, after allegedly making herself look ten years older, frumpy with old clothes and no makeup. There was no political correctness in those days, obviously. She gradually worked her way up from working with third class (steerage) passengers to first class. It was tough employment. Her work on Majestic included 17 hour days for £2 10s a month (plus tips for good service). Violet (Vi) became the family breadwinner, as this video interview shows.
She later moved to the White Star Line (later taken over by Cunard), one of the most prominent shipping companies in the world, focusing on comfort for its passengers. It seems she was concerned about the rather demanding passengers and also bad weather conditions in the North Atlantic on passages to America. She also wrote:
“I did not like big ships. . . I was secretly afraid.”
Her second narrow escape was when working on the Olympic which was in collision with HMS Hawke in 1911 – the Olympic is probably where she met her husband-to-be.
She was persuaded to join the ‘unsinkable’ Harland & Wolff Titanic by friends telling her it would be an ‘amazing experience’. Well, it was certainly that.
In her memoirs, Violet says she was reading a translated Hebrew prayer in bed on the night of the sinking, dozy but not quite asleep. An old Irish woman had given it to her, and it was supposed to protect her from fire and water. As a committed Catholic, Violet believed strongly in the power of prayer, which definitely seemed to work on this occasion.
When the collision with the iceberg happened, 24-year-old Violet was helping her passengers off the ship before returning to her cabin to get properly dressed (!) before being hastened to a lifeboat by a ship’s officer under the policy ‘women and children first’, to show other women that it was safe to go in. As the lifeboat (with third class passengers – Vi’s ability to speak Spanish was meant to calm them down, as many seemed to be Hispanics) was being lowered, she was handed a bundle to take care of; it was a baby who had somehow been ‘forgotten’. After eight hours in the boat, in fortunately calm but freezing seas, Violet and the others were rescued by the Carpathia.
”I was still clutching the baby against my hard cork lifebelt I was wearing when a woman leaped at me and grabbed the baby, and rushed off with it, it appeared that she put it down on the deck of the Titanic while she went off to fetch something, and when she came back the baby had gone. I was too frozen and numb to think it strange that this woman had not stopped to say ‘thank you’.
People then were made of strong stuff. Far from never going on a ship again, which might be most people’s response had they survived the Titanic, Violet returned to sea as the breadwinner for her family.
She later served as a VAD (volunteer) nurse with the British Red Cross on board the hospital ship, Britannic (same ship as Archie Jewell) which transported wounded soldiers from the Aegean back to Britain. This, alas, was sunk, as noted earlier, but Violet once again survived.
She reckoned her thick auburn hair saved her this time but Harland & Wolff learning from their Titanic experience to add more lifeboats probably helped a great deal. Over 1000 people were saved but 30 people died:
”I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!”
Her personal life was rather more of a mystery. She was said to have had a long term relationship with a junior fifth-engineer on the Orinoco, Ned Tracy, an engineer who came from Australia, who would not or could not commit to marriage. The relationship is described in Titanic-WhiteStatShips.com thus:
She described him as a clown, warm hearted when he wanted to be, and very opinionated. The two spent a great deal of free time together, and when working for separate shipping lines, continued to stay in touch and meet when possible. Ned seems to have been quite fond of Violet but appears to have been more loyal to his Mother. He once told Violet that he had promised his Mother he wouldn’t marry until he was promoted; which at the time, was pretty far into the future. Heartbroken, Violet discontinued her relationship and mail correspondence with Ned Tracy.
She was 36 by the time she eventually married on Monday, October 29th, 1923, in an imposing yet drab Italianate church in Chiswick, London, called Our Lady of Grace and St Edward. The church was virtually empty for her wedding but she was given away by her Uncle Cecil Ridley. The marriage was blessed by one Canon Edmund Egan. There was no engagement, no fanfare, and no real reason known for her hasty marriage. Why she married at all at this point is a mystery, but spinsters did not enjoy a good press back then and she may have seen it as her last chance to have children. We will probably never know.
Her husband was the ten years’ older. John James Lewis, thought to be originally from Liverpool, a mariner (or actually, an uncertificated ship’s steward) or so it is believed. Whatever went wrong, the marriage was brief, barren and unhappy.
There are questions raised about whether the 46-year-old man was the ever bachelor he claimed to be.
Encyclopaedia Titanica says:
John James, a ship’s steward, married a Lancashire lass in 1903, with the pair eventually emigrating to the Dominion – where John James would finally give up the sea and become a farmer.
The family, whose forebear was married at 26 – twenty years before Violet Jessop jumped the broom – is not willing to believe that the census entry relates to the same man she married, 46-year-old John James Lewis, still a steward at sea.
A picture of Violet’s husband, John James Lewis, although submitted to the Canadian family some months ago, has not been commented on. The possibility of Violet Jessop marrying a bigamist remains nothing more than that, at least for the moment. There may be an innocent mistake made that would absolve all concerned.
Whatever ended the marriage remained Violet’s secret. She kept her married name for legal reasons, as they were separated, not divorced, but retained Jessop for everything else, while she also excised the marriage from her memoirs.
Indications (though disputed by his family) are that John James Lewis was already married when he wed Violet. As a Catholic at that time, Violet probably believed marriage was for life, so never had the opportunity to re-marry – anyway, she had never divorced, so was not free to do so.
She later retired to a sixteenth-century thatched cottage, Maythorn, in Great Ashfield, Suffolk, where she, a keen gardener, raised hens and sold eggs. She was part of the inspiration for the book and film, A Night to Remember.
Encyclopedia Titanica adds:
Violet’s niece says of John: ‘He never surfaced afterwards. After she died (in 1971), amongst the legal papers there was an agreement that there be no financial commitment between them.’
The National Archives says:
Violet continued to serve aboard ships and just before Christmas 1950, a 63-year-old Violet signed off the Andes and retired from her remarkable life at sea. She died of heart failure in 1971 and her memoirs came to light in 1996.
She was 84 when she died of congestive heart failure, having served 42 years at sea.
Her memoirs gave insight into life below decks, from cramped quarters and deaths to philandering and exotic passengers. She was also known to have disputed the film A Night to Remember, which asserted that third-class passengers were kept behind locked gates, prevented from accessing the boat deck. She said this was incorrect to her knowledge, so was probably part of the romanticisation of the film.
I hope Violet died a life well lived and happy despite her unfortunate experiences with the men in her life.