Mark Chirnside Interview, July 2011


Antoine Resche asked a number of questions about The ‘Olympic’ Class Ships: Olympic Titanic Britannic (issued as a revised edition in May 2011) and ocean liner research in general. The original interview was in English, however a French translation is also available online.

Question 1. I read the 2006 edition of your Olympic Class Ships book. Apart from the new pictures and colour section, what are the major changes? Was there major discoveries between the first edition and the 2011 one? Did you change your mind about some points of the ships’ history?
A. The original edition, published in 2004 and reprinted in 2005 and 2006, had 352 pages. The new one, published in 2011, has an additional 32 pages and a 16 page colour section, for a total of 400 pages. It is therefore significantly bigger.

As well as the new colour section and additional text covering recent expeditions to the two wreck sites, the text in general was improved and a large number of minor errors corrected. Several appendices were added, including one examining Germanic/Homeric, rumoured to be a replacement for Titanic, but in fact intended for the Liverpool service, and another explaining in detail how the new ships were financed. Contrary to popular belief, the White Star Line raised the capital on its own, without direct assistance from J. P. Morgan. The index has been enhanced, and there are additions such as an explanatory note which outlines the reasons behind a number of the specific changes that have been made.

In general, my views have remained the same, but in some cases I have updated the book to reflect evidence that I was unaware of when the original book was written (2001-02).

Question 2. You began writing history books in your early 20s, for what I know: how did it come to you? Did you manage to connect this with your studies and was it hard to be published?
A. I was nineteen when the first edition was published. I think I was lucky in finding a publisher who recognised that my work contained new material and was an original contribution to the subject. I worked very hard, but combined it with studies and an active social life.

Question 3. OlympicTitanic and Britannic are in many way connected, but have very different stories. Did one of them interested you more than the two others?
A. I find all three interesting, although my focus is on Olympic and Britannic.

Question 4. Is there something else to discover about ‘Olympic’ class ships? Which points do you still want to deepen?
A. There is always something new to learn about any subject. If you find out some new information, that might lead to a discovery about something else that you had never considered before. Similarly, if inaccurate information is widely available, then it is important to correct it, even though it might be a slow and frustrating process.

For ninety-five years, from the moment Olympic completed her maiden voyage until the summer of 2006, it was believed that she had taken 5 days 16 hours and 42 minutes, averaging 21.17 knots, between Daunt’s Rock (after leaving Queenstown) and the Ambrose Channel Lightship (arriving at New York). However, as Sam Halpern and I delved into all the available evidence as to her departure, speed and arrival times, it became clear that an error of 100 minutes had crept into the calculations. Instead, she took 5 days 15 hours and 2 minutes and averaged 21.43 knots. Perhaps people might see that as a minor issue and, perhaps, it is: but if we are going to make the effort to record Olympic’s performance for history then we need to get it right. Even four years after we published our research as Maiden Voyage Mysteries, in the Titanic International Society’s Voyage journal and online at Encyclopedia-Titanica, the incorrect time is still widely used. By using the correct time, we know her average speed and coal consumption per day were slightly higher, which has an influence on other areas of research: such as Titanic’s maiden voyage performance compared to Olympic, and Titanic’s coal consumption.

In the past few years, I’ve uncovered details of Arthur Conan Doyle’s crossings onboard Olympic and an interesting description he wrote of the ship; the same is true for J. B. Priestley, who wrote the famous play An Inspector Calls, set in 1912 and making reference to the unsinkable Titanic. I hope to continue to find accounts from passengers who sailed on Olympic throughout her career, as well as those who were onboard during the war.

We have a reasonably good idea of how the design of the three ships evolved, including Harland & Wolff’s experience with other vessels such as Oceanic and Adriatic, but it is something that interests me and I’ll keep looking at it. I am interested in many aspects of their history and I will go on exploring them all.

Question 5. On a personal side, how and when did you become interested in Olympic class history?
A. I read the children’s book Exploring the Titanic when I was nine years old and then saw A Night to Remember (1958) and Titanic (1997). My interest in Titanic broadened out into Olympic and Britannic, which I made the focus of my research.

Question 6. Do you have any idea about the topic of your next book? You already wrote about Aquitania and Majestic: which other liner would you like to study?
A. Olympic Titanic Britannic: An Illustrated History is due out early in 2012, so I will be busy later this year working with the page proofs for that and reviewing the final book. It will also be nice to take it a bit more slowly with my writing. However, I foresee opportunities to explore ships such as the ‘Big Four’ (CelticCedricBaltic and Adriatic) and continue to examine specific aspects of the ‘Olympic’ class ships and their history. A revised edition of my Olympic book would also be a good thing. It is now out of print and some second hand copies have been sold for over £100!

Question 7. At last, the ‘trolling question’: what is your position in the infamous Californian controversy?
A. I was going to say ‘no comment’, but that would be too easy! I concur with the assessments made in the upcoming book Report into the Loss of the SS Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal (History Press, 2011). It is a collaborative effort led by Sam Halpern, involving a large number of researchers, which I made a small contribution to. The book is scheduled to be available before the end of the year.