She survived the Titanic—but it wasn’t the only time she faced death at sea
Before she became known as ‘Miss Unsinkable,’ Violet Jessop weathered a childhood plagued by illness.
On the morning of November 21, 1916, the British ocean liner Britannic—then outfitted as a hospital ship during World War I—was cruising the Aegean Sea on its way to the bloody battlefield of Gallipoli in Turkey. Nurse Violet Jessop had just come from morning Mass and was sitting down to breakfast when a muffled explosion shook the vessel. The Britannic had struck a German mine and was quickly sinking.
Ordered to the lifeboats, Jessop raced back to her cabin to gather a few valuables, including her prayer book and one particular personal care item. In her memoir, she recalled the words of a friend: “Never undertake another disaster without first making sure of your toothbrush.”
Jessop took that advice to heart because of past experience with maritime catastrophes, including the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic in 1912.
“There had always been much fun at my expense after the Titanic, when I complained of my inability to get a toothbrush,” she wrote in her memoir.
Remembered as the “Queen of sinking ships” and “Miss Unsinkable,” Jessop relied on her deep faith and strong will to endure these calamities at sea, as well as to overcome severe illness and personal tragedies. Despite her brush with death on the Britannic, the indominable Jessop continued serving on ocean liners until her retirement 32 years later.
“Quite simply, she needed the work, and a life at sea was all that she knew,” says author and Britannic expert Simon Mills. “She later wrote that she needed to get back to work as soon as possible before she lost her nerve, so it wasn’t long before she was back at sea.”
‘Fierce will to live’
Born in Argentina in 1887, Violet Constance Jessop was the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants who relocated to South America and became sheep farmers. Her childhood was plagued by illness, including typhoid and tuberculosis, the latter of which nearly killed her. Her recovery was miraculous.
“Violet’s stubborn, almost fierce will to live healed her,” wrote the late John Maxtone-Graham, editor of her memoirs.
After her father died in 1903, 16-year-old Jessop and her family moved to England. To feed her brood, mother Katherine became a stewardess—essentially a servant for wealthy passengers—aboard Royal Mail Line steamships crossing the Atlantic.
After five years at sea, Katherine fell ill and Violet, now 21, became the family’s sole supporter. She followed in her mother’s wake and became a stewardess. Though considered too young for the position, Violet’s pleasant personality and facility with languages—she spoke English, Spanish and French—helped her land the job.
In 1911 the youthful stewardess signed on with the sumptuously appointed R.M.S. Olympic—the largest ship of its day and the first of a trio of luxury liners operated by the White Star Line.
All went well until September 20, 1911, when the passenger ship collided with the British cruiser H.M.S. Hawke. The Olympic suffered a major rip below the waterline but managed to limp home to England.
With the Olympic docked for repairs, Jessop transferred to its sister ship, R.M.S. Titanic. Less than seven months later, on April 14, 1912, the elegant liner was four days into its maiden voyage when it struck on iceberg and sank. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perished.
At 11:40 p.m. on that dreadful night, Jessop had just finished her prayers and was in her berth when she heard a “low, rending, crunching, ripping sound.” At first, she assumed it was a drill. After all, the “unsinkable” Titanic couldn’t possibly be in danger of going down. But less than three hours later Jessop was adrift in a lifeboat watching in horror as the grand ship disappeared beneath the dark, frigid North Atlantic. “Surely it is all a dream,” she remembered thinking.
‘Huge chunk of faith’
When the Great War erupted in 1914, Jessop volunteered to serve as a nurse. She worked in land hospitals for a time, then got the chance to serve at sea aboard the Britannic. When the vessel struck a mine near the Greek island of Kea in 1916, Jessop was in a lifeboat when it was drawn into the Britannic’s still-churning propellers. The water turned red with blood as people and boats were chopped to pieces by the massive screws.
Jessop jumped into the sea and escaped death but suffered a severe skull fracture and deeply gashed leg. Later, aboard a British destroyer, she saw a pair of familiar faces: two doctors beside whom she had knelt at Mass early that morning. “I know what saved you today, young lady,” said one.
Jessop spent the next three years recovering from her injuries, during which time the war ended and ocean liners resumed crossing the Atlantic. After surviving three disasters at sea, another person might have been concerned about running out of luck. Not Jessop. In 1920 she signed on once more with the restored Olympic and continued working as a stewardess until her retirement in 1950 at the age of 63. She died in England in 1971, age 83.
What gave her the grit to overcome whatever life hurled at her? “Just the will to live,” she once told a friend. “And a huge chunk of faith in divine intervention.”