New Titanic Theory

Years ago, I met an Englishman who had made a pilgrimage to Neepawa to see for the first time the grave of his great-uncle who perished in the 1912 Titanic  tragedy. The man related that his great-uncle had embarked on the Titanic to start a new life in a new land. Unfortunately, his great-uncle did not survive his first sea voyage and only made it to Canada in spirit. 

When his body was recovered, the papers found on his person indicated he was bound for Neepawa under the sponsorship of the Independent Order of Foresters. Remarkably, the body of the man who had never set foot in Canada was buried in the Neepawa Cemetery — not in his native England. 

The Titanic tragedy has entered into folklore, and has has spawned countless books as well as two major movies: 1958’s A Night to Remember and Canadian James Cameron’s 1997 megahit Titanic.

Most are familiar that it was a collision with an iceberg that doomed the ship during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. But, as with any great story, there are some who have come up with their own theories to explain why a supposedly unsinkable ship should in only 40-odd minutes plunge into the depths of the North Atlantic. 

New evidence has been found that the builders of the Titanic, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland, used substandard rivets to hold the liner’s hull together. The real problem was that the ship builders were overly ambitious and attempted to build the Titanic and two sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic, at the same time.

In their new book, authors and scientists Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Timothy Foecke say it was a deadly mixture of low-quality rivets and lofty ambition that resulted in the death of over 1,500 people when the White Star Line vessel sank.

McCarthy told New York Times reporter William J. Broad that the ship builders’ archives revealed signs of panic during meetings. Harland and Wolff struggled to find quality rivets and the people necessary to secure them to the hull.

Experimenting with 48 rivets gleaned from the debris field of the Titanic wreck 3.2 kilometres below the ocean surface, the scientists determined the iron used for the rivets came from many sources, including small forges with less experienced/skilled workers making ship rivets.

The iron for many of the Titanic’s rivets was No. 3 bar, known as “best” — not No. 4 which was known as “best-best.” 

McCarthy said in the Times report that the company also discussed the shortage of skilled riveters from late 1911 and April 1912. According to the scientists, who are also metallurgists, it took a  great deal of skill to perform good riveting. Rivets heated to a bright cherry red had to be beaten by the right combination of hammer blows. 

The solution to poor iron rivets and potentially poor workmanship had been solved well before the Titanic sailed. Rival Cunard Line had already been using steel rivets hammered in place by machines for several years. Harland and Wolff also used steel rivets, but only in the Titanic’s central hull, where stresses would be greatest, according to the Times report. “Iron rivets were chosen for the stern and bow. And the bow, as fate would have it, is where the iceberg struck. Studies of the wreck show that six seams opened up in the ship’s bow plate. And the damage, Dr. Foecke noted, ‘ends close to where the rivets transition from iron to steel.’”

Even with the damage sustained, the scientists said the ship could have stayed afloat longer if stronger steel rivets had been used, resulting in more people being saved from the icy water off Newfoundland.

The charge was rejected by Harland and Wolff, with a company spokesman saying the sister ship Olympic sailed without incident for 24 years (the Britannic  sank after hitting a mine in 1916). But, the Olympic did not in 24 years afloat hit an iceberg.

It’s a fascinating theory and has the ring of truth, but many other theories for the sudden sinking of the Titanic are sure to become part of the folklore associated with the doomed liner, including its Winnipeg connection. Six of those aboard that fateful evening of April 14, 1912, were influential residents of the city, such as REALTOR® Mark Fortune and his son Charles. Others who perished were REALTORS® Thomson Beattie and Hugo Ross, real estate developer J.J. Borebank, as well as George Graham, a department manager at the Eaton’s Store in Winnipeg.

The Winnipeg connection was further enhanced in 1912 when a larger ward of the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital opened as the Titanic Ward. Mary-Alice Grassick 23 years ago read about the dedication in the book, A Vision Fulfilled: The Story of the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, 1909-1973, by Harry Medovy. The book revealed there had been a plaque associated with the dedication.

It wasn’t much of a reference, but Grassie wondered about the plaque that disappeared 45 years earlier. “I felt we were losing our history,” she told the WREN at the time. She relentlessly hunted for the piece of history for 20 years and then got a break when going through items in the basement of the Community Services Building, which once was the nurses’ residence and school, across William Avenue from the Children’s Hospital. After years of searching, she finally uncovered the mysterious plaque behind a filing cabinet. The plaque is now found in a small museum in the Children’s Hospital.

In April 2004, near the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, past-president of WinnipegREALTORS®, Tom Fulton, was contacted by Grassie to take part in a special rededication ceremony for the rediscovered plaque, containing the names of Fortune, Ross and Beattie. The plaque itself was commissioned by members of the then Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange: “To their heroic and inspirational memory ... Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The visit of the Englishman to Neepawa, the rededication of the plaque and the most recent theory of its sinking, show  the Titanic and its fate never really fades from memory.