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Violet Jessop: The nurse who survived all three disasters aboard the sister ships: The Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic

Nikola Simonovski

White Star Line was a prominent British shipping company, famous for their luxurious liners. Founded in 1845, the company had their first liner, the Oceanic, built in 1870.

The ship had a successful run; it was taking passengers across the Pacific until 1895 when it was decommissioned and sold for scrap. Encouraged by this success, White Star Line ordered three more vessels from Harland & Wolff, the same company that built the Oceanic. The new trio of luxurious ships were named Olympic-class ocean liners, which were constructed in the period from 1908 to 1914, and one of those ships later became the most famous vessel of all time.

Violet Jessop in Voluntary Aid Detachment Uniform
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The three sister ships were all constructed in Belfast, Ireland. The first ship built was named Olympic, and it operated from 1911 until 1935. It was the only ship of the Olympic-class trio not to have an ill-fated end, although it did have two accidents. The Olympic collided twice with other ships during its long run, but none of the accidents were too severe.

The second ship was given the name Titanic, started its maiden voyage on 10 April 1912 and sank only five days later after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. The third and the largest of all three ships was proudly named Britannic. It began operating in 1915, but its operational life lasted for only one year. In 1916, the Britannic hit a mine in the Aegean Sea, planted by a German submarine during World War One. Together, the two unfortunate ships took the lives of 1533 people. However, many survived as well, and there’s one person who survived both the sinking of the Titanic and the Britannic. Not only that, but she was also aboard the Olympic when it had one of its accidents. This woman’s name is Violet Jessop.

S.S. Britannic ship
S.S. Britannic, the world’s largest ship which was torpedoed, according to a report in the Aegean while doing duty as a hospital ship. More than 1000 wounded were on board. Fifty were lost. The Britannic was a White Star Line with a gross tonnage of 50,000 tons. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bettmann

Violet was born on 2 October 1887 in Argentina to Irish parents. Violet defied death even as a child. At a young age, she contracted tuberculosis, but despite the pessimistic opinions of the doctors, she managed to survive.

After losing her father when she was only 16 years old, Violet moved to England with her family, where she started school. At the same time, she had to take care of her younger siblings, as her mother was working as a stewardess on cruise ships and spent a lot of time at sea. When her mother became sick, young Violet left school and in 1908, at age 21, she started working as a stewardess for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.

Violet had had a hard time finding a job. Most of the women working on the ships were middle-aged, and Violet was young and attractive. Employers considered this to be a disadvantage, so the young lady was forced to wear old clothes and use no makeup, all to make herself less attractive looking.

Her efforts were, however, in vain and she still received three marriage proposals while working as a stewardess.

Violet enjoyed working on a cruise ship, even though the salary was minimal. In 1910, she became an employee of White Star Line and started working on the biggest civilian vessel of that time, the Olympic. On 20 September 1911, the Olympic collided with HMS Hawke, a British warship, specially designed to ram into other ships and sink them. The Olympic had its hull breached but still managed to sail into port. Violet Jessop was not harmed in the accident.

RMS Olympic ship in harbor
The RMS Olympic arrives at New York on her maiden voyage in 1912.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Several months after the Olympic mishap, Violet joined the crew of the RMS Titanic. The luxurious and now biggest ship in the world left Southampton on 10 April 1912 and struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean four days later. Two hours after the accident, the ship sank, and 1503 passengers lost their lives.

The young stewardess boarded lifeboat 16 and was later rescued by RMS Carpathia, together with many other passengers. While on the lifeboat, Violet was given a baby to hold by one of the Titanic’s officers. She took care of the baby until the next morning, when the baby’s mother took if from her arms. Miss Jessop was 25 years old when she survived the second ship accident.

When WWI began, the third of the Olympic-class luxurious ocean liners was employed by the British naval authorities as a hospital ship. On 13 November 1915, the Britannic was renamed as HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) and was put under the command of Captain Charles Bartlett. The ship transported wounded soldiers from the Mediterranean back to Great Britain, and Violet Jessop was working as a nurse at the mobile hospital. The ship completed five successful voyages on this route, before suffering a tragic destiny similar to that of her sister, the Titanic. On 21 November 1916, the Britannic was in the Aegean Sea when she hit a mine planted by a German submarine. 57 minutes after that, the grandiose ship was already at the bottom of the sea.

artist's depiction of lifeboats around sinking of titanic
The sinking of SS Titanic, 14 April 1912. She was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of her time, and thought to be unsinkable. In the collision five of her watertight compartments were compromised and she sank. Out of the 2228 people on board, only 705 survived.
Photo Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images

There were 1605 passengers on board, and 30 lost their lives. Having learned the lesson from the Titanic tragedy, the Harland & Wolff company installed more lifeboats on the Britannic, hence the significantly smaller number of casualties. Violet Jessop found her way into one of those lifeboats and was nearly killed when a piece of the ship’s propeller hit her in the head. She suffered a head injury but still managed to survive her third maritime disaster.

When the war was over, Violet continued her employment at White Star Line. Before retiring in 1950, she worked for two more cruise companies: the Red Star Line, and again with the Royal Mail Line. She traveled around the world twice and had a short marriage.

Read another story from us: The real Titanic love story of Ida and Isidor Strauss

When she retired from her job as a stewardess, she settled down in Suffolk. A few years later, Jessop received a strange phone call from an unkown woman who asked if Violet was the savior of a baby during the Titanic tragedy. Violet confirmed, and the woman then said that she was the baby Violet saved and hung up the phone. Violet told her friend and biographer John Maxtone-Graham that she never told the story about the baby to anyone, denying his claims that it was a prank call from the local children. Violet earned the nickname “Miss Unsinkable” and died in 1971, at the age of 84, due to a heart failure.

Nikola Simonovski

Nikola Simonovski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News