‘To the editor…’


This page is intended to provide a concise index of various short letters which have been written by Mark Chirnside to various maritime journals or newspapers. In the Table of Contents, the letters are listed oldest to newest; the actual letters are provided with the latest ones at the top. Please use the links to navigate this page.


SUBJECT: Titanic‘s Lifeboats (2012)

[Unpublished letter to The Times, London]

To the editor,

‘Further to your article ‘Titanic inspector feared losing job if he complained about lack of lifeboats’ (1 November 2012), it is important to note that Titanic’s owners voluntarily exceeded the minimum number of lifeboats required under British government regulations.’

Further to your article ‘Titanic inspector feared losing job if he complained about lack of lifeboats’ (1 November 2012), it is important to note that Titanic’s owners voluntarily exceeded the minimum number of lifeboats required under British government regulations. Titanic’s design, equipment, materials, and lifeboat plans were all submitted to the British Board of Trade during construction and approved accordingly. The ship’s lifeboat outfit was approved almost two years before she sailed. Clarke’s task was to inspect that she met the current regulations, and he passed the ship for sea.

The regulations in force at the time were significantly flawed when they were introduced eighteen years earlier: basing lifeboat capacity on the size (gross tonnage) of a passenger ship, rather than the number of passengers and crew carried. Titanic was by no means unique in having insufficient lifeboats for all passengers and crew. A number of smaller liners were in an even worse position as they carried more people and had even fewer lifeboats. The professional consensus at the time was that shipbuilding had progressed to the point that, even if a ship was fatally wounded, she would remain afloat until help arrived: a view that proved tragically flawed.

Titanic’s crew were only able to launch eighteen of the ship’s twenty lifeboats; the remaining two floated off as she sank. Additional trained seamen would have been needed to handle any additional boats. In that context, it’s questionable whether more lifeboats would have been of any significant benefit at all.

Mark Chirnside.
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SUBJECT: Financing the ‘Olympic’ Class Ships (2011)

Voyage 2011: Issue 78.

To the editor,

‘It is interesting to consider how the ships were financed, because it also demonstrates the scale of the project for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line). Contrary to popular belief, J. P. Morgan did not bankroll construction.’

I have received the most recent two quarterly issues of Voyage (76 and 77) and they were most interesting. It is good to see Olympic getting the attention she deserves and the work that goes into the journal is much appreciated. I am grateful for the very warm acknowledgement when my own work was cited (‘Selling off a Legendary Liner’ by Charles A. Haas, Voyage 77, pages 33-37).

It is interesting to consider how the ships were financed, because it also demonstrates the scale of the project for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line). Contrary to popular belief, J. P. Morgan did not bankroll construction. The company mortgaged their entire fleet in order to raise the necessary capital. Whereas Cunard enjoyed a £2,600,000 government loan (at a low 2 ¾ percent interest rate), repayable over twenty years and coupled with an annual subsidy for Lusitania and Mauretania, White Star did not enjoy government assistance.

Companies generally have three ways to find capital: through existing cash flows and retained earnings; by issuing additional shares; or borrowing against their assets by issuing bonds. Although profits were strong and rising, the cost of the project was simply too great for existing resources. Almost all the company’s shares were held by J. P. Morgan’s American based International Mercantile Marine (IMM), through the British registered International Navigation Company. The issuance of enough additional shares would have substantially diluted these holdings. Unless IMM was willing to allow its share of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (and its entitlement to that share of the profits) to decline, it would have needed to make substantial further investment, a mere six years after the generous offer made when the line’s previous shareholders were bought out in 1902. Whatever the precise details of the argument, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company decided to borrow the money.

In September 1908, the company’s existing twenty-three ships were valued at £4,850,000. The company issued £1,250,000 in the first series of bonds (paying 4½ percent interest) in October 1908, for redemption in full by 1922; £1,500,000 was issued in a second series, at the same interest rate, in July 1914, for redemption in full by 1943. Unfortunately for the second series bond holders, the outstanding liability remained at just under £500,000 in 1930. When the depression set in, the company was unable to make further payments to reduce the liability, and the prosperous shipping company of 1914 had ceased to be by the time the Second World War was underway.

Olympic’s cost was put at £1,764,659 (an estimate apparently including the cost of the 1912-13 refit, prepared in 1916); Titanic’s at £1,564,606 (according to Mark Warren’s research) and Britannic’s at £1,947,797 (according to an insurance valuation produced after her loss). In cash terms, therefore, the three ‘Olympic’ class liners cost more than the entire fleet of twenty-three ships was valued at in 1908!

Yours truly,
Mark Chirnside.
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SUBJECT: Titanic‘s Structural Design (2009)

Voyage 2009: Issue 70

To The Editor,

One or two comments about many false accusations made against Titanic’s structural strength in recent years, pointing out that the design was entirely in keeping with the standards of the time.

I was pleased to enjoy another fine issue of Voyage. Mention of the recent Brad Matsen book Titanic’s Last Secrets brought to mind a number of claims (from various sources) that have been made against Titanic’s structural design in recent years; so many of which are not true.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to do justice to them in a short letter or article, but I would like to offer some very brief comments upon a mere two of them, if I may:

Claim: Titanic’s hull plating was too ‘thin’
A ship’s hull is a complex structure. Hull plating is merely one structural element of many. The plating varied in thickness throughout the hull. Generally speaking, it was one inch thick amidships, doubled for extra strength at areas such as the turn of the bilge and the bridge sheer strake. The claim that Titanic’s hull plating was too thin is demonstrably false. Looking at similar large vessels built around the same time, from Lusitania (1906), Homeric (ex. Columbus, 1913), Aquitania (1913) and Majestic (ex. Bismarck, 1914), we can make some comparisons. And, generally speaking, we see a variation in thickness from 0.94 inches (Homeric); 1 inch (Olympic and Titanic); 1.02 inches (Majestic) to 1.1 inches (Lusitania and Aquitania). A general thickness of 1.25 inches would have been exceptionally heavy for a large vessel of this type.

Aquitania was very similar in size to Titanic. Even though Cunard erred very much on the side of caution, sometimes increasing one of her specifications over and above what their shipbuilders thought was needed, Olympic’s scantlings (and plating generally) were only ‘somewhat lighter’ than Aquitania’s in the words of Cunard’s naval architect Leonard Peskett. Olympic’s design was very much in line with the highest standard.

Claim: Titanic’s expansion joints were ‘badly designed’
Olympic and her sister need to be understood within the context of their time. As liners grew in size, it was particularly important that their long superstructures were able to ‘work’ at sea while the hull girder flexed. Earlier White Star liners had not employed expansion joints: the number of expansion joints, their location and design were all a matter for consideration. Olympic and Titanic’s design featured two expansion joints, dividing the superstructure into sections. At a basic level, the design served Olympic fairly well over a quarter of a century’s service. However, shipbuilding and engineering involve continuous improvement, as practical experience with newer and larger vessels supplemented past theoretical knowledge.

It was in this context, early in 1912, that Harland & Wolff examined Olympic. After a harsh winter on the Atlantic, including a storm in January 1912 that Captain Smith had described as the worst he had seen in forty years at sea, it was clear that the number of expansion joints could be increased; and the design improved by altering the shape of the base of the joint. Although they performed their intended purpose, the two expansion joints were not sufficient to prevent small, localised cracks at the corners of deckhouse windows in close proximity to the expansion joints. These were not a major concern, as the light plating of the superstructure was not part of the structural hull, yet it was hoped an additional expansion joint would improve the design. Harland & Wolff were aware of this information before the Titanic disaster, and it seems entirely probable that the changes to Britannic stem from that. No primary source evidence has been produced to the contrary. (See my article Olympic’s Expansion Joints.)

There is a long list of further claims that are equally questionable or demonstrably false – whether they relate to the ‘true’ purpose of the new inner skin on Olympic and Britannic; other claims that the hull was unduly ‘weak’; or that the aft expansion joint was a cause (rather than a symptom) of Titanic’s break-up – but I hope that some of my comments above will help put some of them into context. It is often worthwhile to cast a very sceptical eye on some of the rather sensationalist claims that inevitably appear with such a famous subject matter.

Yours truly,
Mark Chirnside.
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Britannic‘s Breadth (2008)

Titanic Commutator 2008: Volume 31 Number 180: Page 209.

Dear THS,

Noting that Britannic’s increased breadth had already been confirmed in October 1911, and that the increased length of her twenty-four double-ended boilers had also been settled by the start of January 1912.

I wanted to offer my thanks for another fine issue of the Commutator. On a personal note, you presented my own article very well and I am grateful for your professionalism.

Particularly interesting to me was Simon Mills’ fine article regarding Britannic and the name change debate. He is to be congratulated for making use of this source [the Harland & Wolff order book], which unfortunately has been overlooked for so long. His work demonstrates the importance of primary source material.

I did have one or two clarifications, however. The article refers to the eighteen inch increase in Britannic’s moulded breadth, from 92 feet to 93 feet 6 inches, and then the increase in the length of all twenty-four double-ended boilers from twenty to twenty one feet. It then goes on to say: ‘Exactly when these additions were made and, more importantly why, is unclear at this time…’

However, in terms of the boilers, it is quite clear from the document itself that the original size of 20’ 0″ has been crossed out, and then in red ink it has been replaced by 21’. There is a red pointer here which quite clearly dates this modification to January 3rd 1912, so this modification is dated very specifically, and although the copy in the article is in black and white it is visible in small print.

With regard to the change in the breadth, it’s absolutely right in that there’s no date given next to the amendment in this document. However, the increased breadth was confirmed as 93 feet 6 inches in a document presented to Lord Pirrie and dated October 17th 1911. Certainly, the moulded breadth was originally written as 92 feet and then amended to 93 feet 6 inches, so there seems no reason to doubt the date that has been documented.

Once again, the Commutator has shown itself as being at the forefront of original research.

Mark Chirnside, via e-mail, England.
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SUBJECT: Britannic‘s Loss Encourages Sea Scout Volunteers (2007)

Voyage September 2007: Issue 61; Page 45. [Published as a short article.]

To The Editor,

Following the sinking, an increasing number of people showed an interest in serving as sea scouts onboard hospital ships.

The reports of the bravery shown by the Sea Scouts onboard Britannic (Voyage 58) bring to mind some documentation that I ran across fairly recently, in the course of my continuing Britannic research. It seems that, as a result of the sinking, interest in serving onboard hospital ships increased.

Writing to the Secretary of State for War, on January 19th 1917, Lieut-Gen. Sir Robert-Baden Powell, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., (Chief Scout and Chairman of the Council, The Boy Scouts Association) noted:

‘Reports have recently been published commending in very high terms the services rendered by the Boy Scouts employed onboard the Hospital Ship Brittanic [sic]. As a consequence several Commissioners of The Boy Scouts Association inform me that a number of their Scouts are anxious to offer their services for similar work on board other Hospital Ships. The duties to which the boys are trained are principally those of signallers, messengers, telephone and lift operators etc., the average age of the boys being 16 – 17.’

Seven days later, the Admiralty’s Director of Transports wrote to inform him:

‘With reference to your letter of the 19th instant, which has been passed to me by the Secretary of the War Office, I beg to inform you that it is the business of the Owners of Hospital Ships to provide men for the duties referred to in your letter, and it is therefore suggested that your offer be addressed to the following Owners of Hospital Ships, who will no doubt be glad to avail themselves of the boys’ services…’

In the subsequent list of shipping companies, an address for Cunard was given but not one for the White Star Line, for their only remaining hospital ship – Britannic – had foundered.

Another example comes from March 28th 1917, when W. J. Bayliss, a sixteen-year-old Scout of 10 Bournevale Road, Streatham, SW 16 wrote to the authorities to offer his services:

‘I have heard that many Boy Scouts are being employed by the Admiralty, on their “Red Cross Steamers” if this is the case I should be glad if you would give me full particulars, as to how I could join.’

On April 2nd 1917 the Director of Transports and Shipping presented ‘his compliments to Mr. Bayliss, and begs to inform him, with reference to his letter of the 28th ultimo, that he should apply to the Chief Scout, who has had the question of the employment of boy scouts in Hospital Ships under consideration.’

The bureaucratic distinctions could be blurred. Baden Powell’s correspondence to The Secretary of State for War was forwarded onto the Admiralty’s Director of Transports, who had to respond and state that it was the owners of Hospital Ships – i.e. the shipping company – who were duty bound to provide them. Contrary to popular misconception, Olympic and Britannic were not commissioned into the Royal Navy during their war service. When Aquitania served as an armed merchant cruiser in 1914, records such as her deck log – giving details of her course, position, speed, fuel consumption, etc. – were preserved and can be found in Admiralty archival papers. However, the same is not true for the White Star sisters as they were essentially operated by the Ministry of Shipping.

Yours truly,
Mark Chirnside.
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SUBJECT: Double-Skinned Hulls (2006)

Atlantic Daily Bulletin March 2006: Pages 11-12.

Dear David,

Some of the pros and cons of adding an inner skin to Olympic and Britannic after Titanic’s loss; and a few popular misconceptions.

I really enjoyed the latest issue of the Bulletin, and I did want to comment on one of Trevor Platt’s points in his article ‘The Importance of Double-Skinned Hulls.’ He writes: ‘Far too much attention regarding glitter, opulence and sophistication was afforded to the upper decks and superstructure of these luxury liners, and far too little attention given to the orlop area down below regarding adequate safety and protection for the Engineers and “Black Gang” in the event of a calamity.’

While the omission of a ‘double skin’ in the initial design is an interesting area for debate, in my view a lot of the criticisms of the ‘Olympic’ class’s design come from hindsight. Olympic’s survival of the Hawke collision was seen, at the time, as an impressive vindication of the ship’s ability to remain afloat and stable with major flooding. Two large watertight compartments completely flooded, and several hundred tons of water in a third compartment. There are a lot of points that could be made about the safety of the original design, if space was plentiful, but I wanted to comment about the double skin.

Trevor states: ‘…without the essential box honeycombing (two skins only) the huge liner would have taken on a huge list to starboard with water flowing freely between the two hulls along the entire length of the liner and causing her to capsize rapidly. This is precisely what happened to her sister ship Britannic, which hit a mine and sank within an hour in the Aegean Sea in 1916. The Britannic had a double-skinned hull alright, but no watertight subdivision between the hulls, otherwise she might have survived the impact with the mine, relying then upon the transverse bulkheads and watertight doors to keep her afloat.’

In fact, the double skins fitted to Olympic and Britannic did have watertight subdivision within. When the Olympic was refitted in 1912-13, it was reported that: ‘The inner shell, or hull as it might be called, consists of strong steel plating. The space between the outer and inner hulls has been specially subdivided, both vertically and horizontally, by retaining out to the inner shell and the introduction of immediate watertight vertical subdivision between the two shells, while the top…of the structure and upper longitudinal have been specially fitted as watertight flats, so that each side of the ship has been converted into a series of watertight compartments.’ (When Olympic was it by a torpedo that failed to explode in the closing stages of the war, it only flooded a small section of the double skin – thanks to this subdivision.) Looking at Britannic’s builders plans, the watertight bulkheads penetrated the double skin (as was to be expected since they extended from side-to-side of the ship); and there was a watertight division (midway between the two watertight bulkheads of each boiler room, marked ‘W.T. division’) further subdividing the double skin. There is no evidence that water flowed freely along the Britannic’s double skin, nor was it capable of doing so. Unfortunately, it is a myth which has been – and continues to be – uncritically accepted.

Mark Chirnside.
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SUBJECT: Britannic‘s Number – G608 or G618? (2005)

Atlantic Daily Bulletin December 2005: Pages 9-10.

Dear David,

An examination of the two numbers, highlighting some of the written documentation and photographic evidence as of 2004-05.

Thanks for your note, re.: Britannic’s hospital ship number. I was very pleased to hear that your correspondent enjoyed reading my book, The ‘Olympic’ Class Ships – Olympic, Titanic & Britannic. There is an interesting discrepancy with regard to the Britannic’s number. Prior to 2004, to the best of my knowledge there was a historical consensus that Britannic’s number was G618. Simon Mills’ latest book, Hostage to Fortune, even noted that the number ‘G608’ (as written by Captain Bartlett in his report following the sinking) was incorrect. It was in January 2003 that the manuscript of my book was delivered to my publisher, complete with the solitary reference to ‘G618.’ However, in 2004 the photograph that is reproduced on the back of my book surfaced, and as your correspondent rightly noted it shows the number ‘G608’ on Britannic’s bridge front; the discrepancy was unnoticed by me prior to the book first going to press in October 2004. The photograph was taken early in 1916, and so shows the Britannic during the earlier phase of her career. With this photo available, it then seemed to be a historic fact that the number ‘G608’ was displayed on the Britannic, and that therefore this was her correct number.

(Based on this new information, I even commissioned a painting of the Britannic from maritime artist Stuart Williamson which showed the number ‘G608.’) However, nothing is clear with this ‘ship of mystery’ and there has been another twist to the debate in recent months: Britannic researcher Michail Michailakis (webmaster of www.hospitalshipbritannic.com) came into possession of an October 1916 photograph which showed the number G618 on the ship’s bridge front. Although I had thought it too ‘neat’ for the ship’s number to change by a single digit, it does appear at the moment that the Britannic’s number was changed sometime between early 1916 and October 1916, from ‘G608’ to ‘G618.’

There is no known reason for the change as yet, and it is currently taxing the minds of a number of Britannic researchers. What is a matter of historic record is that the number displayed on the Britannic changed (as shown by the photographic record), but exactly when this happened and why it happened, it is not yet possible to say. (I have been keeping a record of the debate on the news section of my website at www.markchirnside.co.uk)
Best regards,

Mark Chirnside.
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SUBJECT: Olympic‘s Medical Facilities (2001)

Titanic Commutator 2001: Volume 25 Number 156: Page 262.

Dear THS,

A summary of Olympic’s hospital facilities, including rare information about the hospital’s interior arrangement and decoration.

Thank you again for a magnificent Commutator, number 154, 2001. I have enjoyed reading it and, as always, learnt something new. On page 98, there is a question by Mr. Barry Hummel about medical facilities. There is a very long, detailed answer to the question, but it just so happened that I had been in front of my computer before I read the issue, looking at a work I am writing about Olympic which had some information about hospital décor and equipment:

Olympic’s Medical Facilities: Further aft on C-deck, at the extreme end of the first-class accommodation on this deck, was situated a doctor’s surgery and accommodation for several medical officers. Although three dispensaries were fitted in the ship – the other two situated under the forecastle deck for the use of the crew and for third-class passengers off the D-deck third-class entrance – the C-deck dispensary was the largest. Its floor was laid with black and white encaustic tiles, while the lockers and drug racks were made of white-painted iron. There was a table with a plate-glass top measuring six feet six inches by three feet, fitted in the room’s centre, while there was also a mahogany seat. The third-class dispensary was fitted with a small waiting room.

The ship’s hospital itself was well equipped, situated on D-deck’s starboard side abreast the main galley. The wards were lofty and airy, plainly panelled, and enamelled white, the floors being tiled throughout with black and white encaustic tiles. Accessible by a stairway leading from the C-deck dispensary, the hospital had five wards, one for infectious patients and a medical attendant’s room.

I enjoyed the two book reviews [in the previous issue] and can personally vouch for Paul Louden-Brown’s extensive research. In Liverpool a few months back [July 2001] I was visiting an archive and a lady approached me and asked if I knew of Mr. Louden-Brown and I said I did. She said something along the lines that he had visited some years ago and she recalled his studious attention to detail during his White Star research; even after all this time.

Mark Chirnside, England, via e-mail.
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