On Sunday, it will be exactly one hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic. Certain, best not mentioned, persons on Twitter aside, it’s an event widely recollected, with many lessons that have gone into history. The main two of these are, of course:

1) Make sure your ship has enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

2) Don’t drive your ship at full speed into a known ice-field.

There were other lessons learned, such as the need for a ship’s radio room to be manned at all times – the nearest ship to the sinking Titanic, the Californian, could have saved hundreds of lives had it responded to the distress call. But it knew nothing of what was happening, as its radio operator had gone off duty.

But are there other lessons we could learn?

A couple of months ago, I found out something I’d not previously known about the disaster. My friend Jane was embarking on a craft project to weave a bookmark that recorded the death rates on the Titanic. You can read about this magnificent combination of geekiness and craft at the blog post she wrote about it.


So we were in the pub, talking about the death rates of the various groups on the Titanic. Her bookmark would distinguish between men, woman and children, and between 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class and crew (the latter having both men and woman, but no children).

In general, the death rates told the story you’d expect. Within any particular group, women and children were more likely to survive than men (although interestingly, children had a lower survival rate than women, at 51% compared with 74%). And course 1st class passengers were more likely to survive than 2nd class passengers who in turn were more likely to survive than 3rd class passengers.

But there was one significant exception, which was in the group who were least likely to survive. You would perhaps expect this to be either third class men, or male crew, but it wasn’t, although both those groups did still suffer horrific casualty rates: only 16% of third class men survived, and 20% of male crew (the latter chiefly being those who manned the lifeboats).

The highest death rate certainly wasn’t first class men: 33% of those survived, almost as high a rate as third-class children (34%). No, the group that statistically were least likely to survive were second-class male passengers, of whom only 8% survived.

This little factoid got me thinking. Was there a larger lesson, from life, here?

It seems to me that throughout history, the upper classes have laid down a definition of what it is to be a “gentlemen”, or an “Englishman”, but have never felt any particular responsibility for they themselves to live up to that definition. Rules are things they define for those lesser creatures beneath them; but those rules need not apply to them.

The upper classes will sneer at the working classes for supposedly all claiming benefits, even while they use dodgy accounting schemes to largely avoid paying any tax themselves.

The upper classes will damn the working classes for supposedly being drunken hooligans and vandals, even while they themselves join university drinking clubs whose sole raison d’etre appears to be the drunken destruction of pubs and restaurants.

The upper classes have always been happy to brand the workings classes as supposedly lacking in morals, even while keeping a mistress and several prostitutes on the side.

When the upper classes defined what it was to be an “English gentleman”, that was never a definition that they felt any need to live up to; they felt they were entitled to the respect a gentleman was supposedly due merely by virtue of the status into which they were born. No, it was the middle-classes who bought into the myth, who believed the bullshit, who thought that they too could be gentlemen if they only behaved as they thought their supposed betters were behaving. It was they who paid their taxes, and were faithful to their wives, and didn’t ever get drunk and smash things up.

Looked at it this way, is it in any way surprising that while the second class men were largely upholding the principle of women and children first, the first class men were more than four times as likely to board a lifeboat?

I should clarify that I can’t and wouldn’t blame any individual for climbing into a lifeboat. To not have enough lifeboat places put people in an inhuman position. And this tragedy was turned into a farce when there were cases of men being needlessly turned out of lifeboats that then sailed away half empty, the places vacated by those men, left unfilled. My interest here is the second-class male passengers’ largely unreported sacrifice and courage.

But is this the full story? I mentioned the above thought to Jane at the pub. However, when she then looked into it further, it emerged that there was perhaps a simpler, less heroic answer, which is contained in the following extract that she emailed to me:

From “The loss of the SS Titanic” by Lawrence Beesley

About this time, while walking the deck, I saw two ladies come over from the port side and walk towards the rail separating the second-class from the first-class deck. There stood an officer barring the way. “May we pass to the boats?” they said. “No madam” he replied politely, “your boats are down on your own deck,” pointing to where they swung below. The ladies turned and went towards the stairway, and no doubt were able to enter one of the boats: they had ample time. I mention this to show that there was, at any rate, some arrangement — whether official or not — for separating the classes in embarking in boats; how far it was carried out, I do not know, but if the second-class ladies were not allowed to enter a boat from the first-class deck, while steerage passengers were allowed access to the second-class deck, it would seem to press rather hardly on the second-class men, and this is rather supported by the low percentage saved.

So maybe there is a simpler message. The upper classes will attempt to divide the middle classes from the working classes by telling the middle classes that they are gentlemen. You are like us, they will say, not like those nasty working class oiks. Work with us, they will say, be our accountants, run our businesses, we’ll do right by you. And they will, right up until the shit hits the fan, at which point it’ll be the classes of privilege and power (them) on one side, and everyone else (us) on the other.

This was perhaps the lesson the second-class men learned when they found that they shared their boat deck with those from third-class. George Osborne et al are fond of saying that we’re all in it together. Well we weren’t all in it together then, and I suspect we’re not all in it together now.

Huge thanks to Jane for inspiring this post, providing the data, and for allowing me to use the image of her bookmark.