The porthole that is a window onto the lives of the Titanic’s third class passengers
In the foyer of the Titanica exhibition in the Transport Museum at Cultra outside Belfast is a large glass case housing objects brought up from the Titanic wreck site two and a half miles down in the North Atlantic. Next to a silver soup tureen and a section of the hull is a porthole, tarnished with rust but with its thick glass still intact. The Titanic had nine different kinds of porthole used in its construction but the small size of this plus the 'clipped' sides shows that this was from one of the third class areas of the ship. For Jim McGreevy from National Museums Northern Ireland the porthole tells a powerful story.
Third class passengers were in the cheapest accommodation on their way to New York where they planned to enter the growing cities of the United States. This was the age of almost open door immigration and the Titanic was built in part to carry European immigrants. They were mostly in their teens or twenties, hoping to make a new life for themselves on the other side of the Atlantic. Over one hundred of these passengers were from Ireland and boarded the ship at Queenstown – today Cobh in County Cork. They were housed only a few decks below the millionaires in first class yet their lives were a world away, marked by poverty and hard work.
However, these young men and women were ambitious enough to invest the money it cost for a transatlantic crossing in their own futures. They knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. Conditions for them onboard were very good by the standards of the day and they ate well at tables covered in white linen. Even so it is easy to imagine the faces pressed to the glass of a porthole like this, looking out wondering if they were doing the right thing by leaving their homes behind. When the Titanic was going down they must have wished they had never set foot on the ship described as the greatest in the world.
After the sinking, an enquiry was set up by the British government to examine the disaster. One of the most contentious questions it looked at was whether third class passengers had been unfairly treated when the ship was being evacuated. There had been lurid stories of third class passengers kept below deck so the first class passengers would not have to share a lifeboat with them but the enquiry concluded that they were untrue.
The statistics for loss of life in the sinking are complex with men most likely to be casualties whether they were first, second or third class. However, it is undeniable that third class passengers suffered a greater loss of life than those in first or second. For instance, only one child in first or second class died yet in third class only 34% survived.
Various reasons have been given for this. Third class areas were below decks in the less accessible parts of the ship at the bow and stern. It was also said that many of the passengers were unwilling to leave behind their baggage as these were their only possessions in the world.
The porthole is a stark reminder of the aspirations and the tragic loss of the people in the Titanic’s third class cabins.