‘Women and children first’? No chance, says Titanic expert who sinks chivalry myth

·4-min read
A painting of the Titanic sinking by W. Pearson - National Maritime Museum, London
A painting of the Titanic sinking by W. Pearson - National Maritime Museum, London

It is one of the most enduring sentiments of a seemingly lost age of chivalry: “Women and children first.”

However, the most famous application of that rule, on board the sinking Titanic, was in fact a myth, according to a historian.

Claes-Goran Wetterholm, an author and expert on the doomed ocean liner, said it was “not true” that women and children survived thanks to the gallantry of men.

Of the last survivors escaping on the final lifeboats leaving the starboard side of the ship, he said, the majority were men.

Watch: James Cameron Sinks “Titanic” Theory

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine to promote a new exhibition about the shipwreck in London’s Docklands, Mr Wetterholm said it is important to look again at the tragedy to “dispel some of the myths”.

The exhibition will display 200 artefacts that belonged to passengers and crew on the Titanic, as well as recreate rooms on the ship to “submerge visitors in an unforgettable journey to the past”.

Asked about the public obsession with the 1912 disaster, which still captures the public imagination 110 years on thanks to the blockbuster film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Mr Wetterholm suggested there were still new stories worth telling.

The Swedish curator of the exhibition told the magazine it is “important to look again at the tragedy and dispel some of the myths”, including the notion of “women and children first”.

Officers on all sides ‘interpreted famous order differently’

Claes-Goran Wetterholm, pictured in 1998 - Brian Snyder/Reuters
Claes-Goran Wetterholm, pictured in 1998 - Brian Snyder/Reuters

The order, which famously came from the captain, was interpreted differently by officers on different sides of the ship, he said.

“While the story goes that those who survived were women and children, it’s not true: 323 men survived, 80 per cent of them got on lifeboats from the starboard side.

“They survived because first officer William Murdoch, who evacuated that side, didn’t prevent them from getting in.

“On the port side, second officer Charles Lightoller had the rule of women and children first and he took it literally.

“One boat that could take 65 people rowed away with 28, leaving men behind. Over on the starboard side, it was a different story. On the last boats to leave, the majority were men.”

Other common misconceptions include the nationality of passengers. According to Mr Wetterholm: “The fifth-largest passenger group were Arabs. They came from Syria and Lebanon in search of new lives, travelling by boat to join the Titanic at Cherbourg.”

The claim follows research at Sweden’s Uppsala University in 2012, in which economists produced an 82-page study about the survivors of shipwrecks.

It showed that captains and their crew are 18.7 per cent more likely to survive a sinking ship than their passengers, with “every man for himself” a more appropriate description than “women and children first”.

The study of 18 maritime disasters from 1852 to 2011 showed that, of the 15,000 people who died, only 17.8 per cent of the women survived compared with 34.5 per cent of the men.

Titanic: The Exhibition has been seen by three million people during its tour of museums, and is now at Dock X London where the 200 objects are on show in Britain for the first time. The Telegraph awarded the exhibition three stars.

Wireless operator on nearby ship ‘could not have saved Titanic’

A separate book is also seeking to overturn the previous understanding that a wireless operator aboard the ship nearest to the sinking Titanic could have saved lives.

Cyril Evans, who manned the telegraph equipment on the SS Californian 60 miles away from the Titanic, could not have saved the victims even if he had been awake to receive the distress calls, according to the authors.

Mr Evans went to bed at 11.30pm on Apr 14 1912, with a US inquiry later finding that had he “remained a few minutes longer at his post”, the Californian “might have had the proud distinction of rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew”.

Parks Stephenson, a historian who has co-authored a book with Titanic film director James Cameron, said: “In daylight, it took her [the Californian] over two hours to work her way slowly out of the ice into clear water and reach the scene of the disaster. At night, it would have taken much longer.

“In short, had Evans received Titanic’s distress call, it would have already foundered and most of the people in the water would have died from cold shock and exposure before Californian arrived.”

Watch: Kate Winslet was emotional during her reunion with Leonardo DiCaprio

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