The word hero or heroine is easily used these days. There are a few people who actually earned it. Violet Jessop was a heroine; she didn't do any great deeds; she didn't show bravery on the battle field; she just got on with her life. And that life was quite astonishing even if she herself didn't think much about it. We are lucky she was induced to write down her memoirs for us to enjoy and marvel at.
Violet Jessop was born in 1887. She was one of six children in an Irish family living in Argentina. While still in Argentina, she contracted and survived tuberculosis. Her mother moved the family to England after the death of her husband. There, Violet Jessop's mother started working as a stewardess on a ship. To be able to do this, she had to place her four sons in an orphanage and her two daughters in a convent school.
As her mother’s health started to fail rendering her unable to work any further, Violet Jessop dropped out of school to start working. She took the first step in her extraordinary life as ship stewardess on the Orinoco, a Royal Mail liner. She continued working with the Royal Mail Line on the Oruba, the Danube, and the Clyde. In 1910, she was hired by the White Star Line to work on board the first Majestic.
After working on the Adriatic and the second Oceanic, she was transferred to the new Olympic immediately after it was completed. She was working on the Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke in 1911. Both ships managed to limp into port under their own steam despite of heavy damage to both. No lives were lost in the accident. Violet Jessop was unfazed by the accident, and after the Olympic was repaired, she went back to work on it. A year later, she joined the crew on the Titanic.
Violet Jessop wasn't asleep when the Titanic hit the infamous iceberg. She was ordered on deck from her cabin. Together with other stewardesses, she was ordered into a lifeboat to show passengers that this could be accomplished in total safety. Someone thrust a baby at her at the last moment, and together with that unknown baby she was later taken aboard the Carpathia.
Some people would have called it quits after that roaming the seven seas and would have started looking for a land bound employment. I know I would. No such thought crossed Violet Jessop's mind. She was back aboard the Olympic by June of the same year. Except for a stint on the P&O’s Malwa, she continued working on the Olympic until the Great War began.
At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Violet Jessop began training as a nurse (V.A.D.). On November 12 1916, she joined the staff on the second Britannic, sister ship to both the ill-fated Olympic and Titanic. The Britannic hit a German mine on November 21 1916, just over a week after Violet Jessop had joined the crew. The ship had previously done five successful runs in the Mediterranean since December 6 1915.
Almost all internet sites dealing with that particular incident put Violet Jessop on the first lifeboat to be lowered. That particular lifeboat was caught in the still running propeller of the Britannic causing it to sink with many of its passengers injured. Some even attribute Violet Jessop with a broken shoulder from that accident. This story is anecdotal and not based on fact. Rather, Violet Jessop jumped over board off the fast sinking ship. She hit her head on the rump in the process. It would be years later that it turned out she had broken her skull when jumping ship, and never had been treated for it.
This time round, Violet Jessop was kept land bound until repatriation in 1917. She then worked ashore until 1920, when she returned to work on the Olympic. She only left the Olympic upon the commissioning of the second Majestic (the former Bismarck). She continued to work as a ship stewardess until the outbreak of World War II.
If you are interested in reading her story in her own unexcited and understated words, her autobiography Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess was edited by John Maxtone-Graham and published by Sutton in 1997.
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