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Miss Unsinkable: The Lady Who Survived The Titanic and Two Other Shipwrecks

They say cats have nine lives. Perhaps Violet Jessop is one-third cat, as she survived three of the most significant shipwrecks of the 20th century. Her story is truly remarkable and one filled with luck.

Born 1887 in Argentina to Irish immigrant parents, Violet Jessop’s fantastic ability of survival started from an early age. Six of her eight siblings died in early childhood, and Jessop suffered from tuberculosis with the doctor’s prognosis being that she had just months to live. In a sign of things to come, she defied the odds to beat the disease.

Jessop’s father died when she was fifteen, and so a grief-stricken Jessop, her two younger sisters and her mother moved to England. Her mother worked at sea as a stewardess, leaving Jessop, still a school student to care for her students.

Shipwreck one — the RMS Olympic

When Jessop was 21 years old, his mother became ill and could not work. So Jessop decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and also become a flight attendant on an ocean liner. At the time, most flight attendants were middle-aged, and when she was first interviewed, recruiters feared that her youth and good looks would make the crew and distracted passengers. To apply for a job, Jessop wore revealing clothes and no makeup, making herself look unattractive.

The tactic worked, and she got the job, commencing her life at sea in 1908. The life of a stewardess at the time was extremely tough — working seventeen hours a day — and the pay a mere £2 10s per month.

In 1910, she commenced work on the RMS Olympic, owned by the White Star Line company. A luxury ship, it was the largest civilian liner in the world at the time, a record it held until the construction of the Titanic two years later.

On September 20, 1911, the Olympic, in just its firth journey, was involved in a severe accident. While trying to pass through a narrow strait, it collided with a British warship — the HMS Hawke. Reports say the Olympic turned to starboard, and the wide radius of her turn took the commander of Hawke by surprise, and he was unable to take sufficient avoiding action.

Both vessels were damaged in the collision, but thankfully there were no fatalities. The incident did have substantial financial implications for White Star, Line, as they were found liable for the incident and not only had to pay for all repairs but also legal costs.

Shipwreck two- the RMS Titanic

With the Olympic out of service and under repair, Jessop was assigned to another ship in the company’s fleet – the RMS Titanic. At first, she was hesitant to work on the Titanic, but her friends convinced her that the first voyage would be a great experience. Jessop, “wearing a new maroon ankle-length suit”, joined the brand new ship at her docks in Southampton.

Perhaps the most famous vessel of all time, the fate of the Titanic is well known. On April 14, 1912, en route from England to the USA, it struck an iceberg and sank into the sea. Of the 2224 number of people on board, over 1500 died.

Jessop was initially asleep when the Titanic struck the iceberg. She recalls the incident;

‘’I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Some time after, a ship’s officer ordered us into the boat (16) first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered the officer called: ‘Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.’ And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.’’

Eight hours later, Jessop was rescued by the ship the Carpathia. She was still clutching the baby that had been thrown into her lap. A lady came past, took the baby and walked off. Jessop never got to speak to the woman, who she assumed was the mother of the baby, and was surprised to not even get a thank you from her.

Ironically, one of the ships that came to the aid of the Titanic was the Olympic. However, when it offered to take on rescued passengers, the offer was declined as asking “the survivors to board a virtual mirror-image of Titanic would cause them distress.”

The Titanic was lost to the sea, its remains only being discovered in 1985.

Shipwreck three- the HMHS Britannic

Many people would avoid the seas after these two near-death experiences. Jessop however was keen to continue her life as a stewardess. During World War I, she was employed as a Red Cross stewardess on the HMHS Britannic. This ship was also owned by White Star Line and was part of the same fleet as the Olympic and the Titanic.

The Britannic was deemed to be safer than both of those ships, with design improvements made after the Titanic sunk. The vessel was to be used as a hospital ship during the war to transport injured soldiers home to the United Kingdom.

On November 21, 1916, while in the Aegean Sea, the Britannic hit a German mine and began to sink. Jessop’s recollection of the event is of another very close brush with death;

‘’I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!’’

Jessop was undaunted by these close calls and continued to work on the big ships until retiring at the age of 63. Fortunately, there were no further incidents for the rest of his career. After retiring, Jessop received a phone call from someone claiming to be the child she saved on the Titanic. It was taken as a joke, but Jessop didn’t mean it, saying she had never told anyone about the incident before. Whether or not a Titanic joke and baby is still unsolved.

After an eventful life, Violet Constant Jessop died at the age of 84. Often referred to as “Miss Unsinkable” she may be the only person in history to survive three such significant shipwrecks.

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