Titanic’s Third Class was divided into two groups of travelers. Single men and groups of male immigrants were berthed at the bow of the ship. Families, single women, and men traveling with women were berthed at the stern. These two groups didn’t usually mix, and even had separate Dining Saloons.
This post will attempt to create an idea of the soundscape of music in both areas of the ship. Apparently, it was quite lively.
Third class passengers were the most likely to travel with their own musical instruments, both familiar and unfamiliar to western ears.
Third Class at Titanic’s Stern
Passengers berthed at the stern had access to the Third Class General Room and it was here that passengers entertained themselves with music. There was an upright piano in this location, and it seems as though it was put to good use.
An Irish newspaper correspondent toured Titanic in Southampton prior to her departure, and remarked on the comfort Third Class passengers would enjoy:
Unknown correspondent, Irish Times, April 16, 1912:
“In the third class, or steerage, departments the loveliest linen, glass, cutlery were displayed ready for luncheon, while the easy chairs, card tables, pianos and settees reminded one of the first class accommodation on many liners twenty years ago.”
For Irish passengers destined for Titanic’s Third Class, the voyage’s music began on board the tender America that ferried passengers from Queenstown at midday on April 11, 1912. Eugene Daly was travelling with his cousin, Maggie and another friend from their hometown, Katie Gilnagh. He played his uileann pipes on board the tender, much to the delight of his captive audience.
Cork Examiner, May 9, 1912:
“He played many native airs on board the tender and as the latter moved away from the liner, the pipes were once more giving forth ‘A Nation Once Again.’”
On board Titanic, Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed the piper as he looked down into the next section of the ship.
Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S. S. Titanic, 1912:
“Looking down astern from the boat-deck or from B deck to the steerage quarters, I often noticed how the third-class passengers were enjoying every minute of the time: a most uproarious skipping game of the mixed-double type was the great favorite, whilst ‘in and out and roundabout’ went a Scotchman with his bagpipes playing something that Gilbert says ‘faintly resembled an air.’”
On the night of Sunday, April 14, 1912, the music in the Third Class General room was jovial and went late into the night. In fact, it seems to have continued on even after the iceberg was struck, based on several accounts:
Gershon Cohen, letter written on board Carpathia, April 18, 1912:
“I will explain how the accident happened. At 10:30 we were all sent to bed, lively shouting and singing and doing everything. At 11:45 we were awakened, as about a dozen crewmen came by our decks. We did not take the slightest notice and went to bed again, but we were awakened by the sailors to put on lifebelts. I did not have any because I could not find one, and still I was making a lark of it, and people were singing and playing the piano, the band was also playing.”
This band was not the White Star orchestra, but a gathering of musicians from the Third Class passengers, Eugene Daly among them.
Athlone Piper’s Story of Titanic Disaster: Scene of Jollity, Westmeath Examiner, 1912:
“In a letter to a former colleague in the Athlone Piper’s Band, Mr. Eugene Daly describes the scene of jollity on board immediately before the Titanic ran into the iceberg. They were, he said, having a great time of it that evening in steerage.
‘I played the pipes and there was a great deal of dancing and singing. This was kept up even after we had struck, for the stewards came through and told us that we need not be afraid, that everything was all right. There was no danger, they said.
‘Most of those assembled believed them until it was too late… I lost my pipes….”
In James Cameron’s 1997 movie, TITANIC, this evening was represented in a lively scene. The only thing missing was the piano, though it probably wasn’t known that there was a piano for Third Class passengers when the movie was made. The pipes form a prominent part of the band:
Daniel Buckley, another passenger in Third Class described his experience on Titanic, including the music.
Daniel Buckley, letter written on board Carpathia, April 18, 1912:
“…we had a grand time on the Titanic. We got very good diet and we had a very jolly time dancing and singing. We had every kind of an instrument on board to amuse us, but all the amusement sank in the deep.”
Third Class at Titanic’s Bow
In the book Titanic The Ship Magnificent there is a diagram and description of the Third Class accommodations in the forward part of the ship. The ship’s postal clerks were berthed there on F Deck alongside Third Class. The experience of Olympic‘s postal clerks was likely also true of Titanic’s.
Apparently Olympic’s postal clerks “…despised the location of their quarters as the noise from the Third Class area often continued well into the night. The clerks complained of doors slamming and musical instruments being played, not always by the most talented musicians.” [TTSM p. 434]
It is possible that the postal clerks had not yet developed their taste for World Music.
Male immigrants were berthed in Titanic’s bow section. Several of these were Syrian passengers who were traveling to a new life in America. They had journeyed from Beirut to France and boarded Titanic at Cherbourg, several carrying along their own musical instruments, the darbukah and the ud.
In a book entitled The Dream and then the Nightmare, The Syrians who boarded the Titanic, author Leila Salloum Elias tells a tale of Syrian passenger Al-Amir Faris Shihab, who sailed on steerage ticket 2631. He was able to speak English and on the night of the sinking it is told that, because of this, he was able to understand the situation and lead others to safety.
During the sinking when his fellow passengers fell into panic and despair, he picked up his ud and played a melody that instilled calm and courage in the face of trouble. He played so long that his own life was sacrificed for the good of others.
On board Titanic was a cross-section of human experience, culture, language, skin colour, economic station, and music. Perhaps this diversity is one of the reasons the ship and the events which befell her continue to transfix the global human imagination to this day.
- Titanic’s Third Class General Room and piano
- Maintaining Titanic’s shipboard pianos
- Titanic’s final number: Paddy Dillon’s testimony