Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Strong Women in History: Violet Constance Jessop – Survivor

by Suzie Johnson
When the White Star Line unveiled their plan for a trans-Atlantic ocean liner passenger service, they most assuredly couldn’t envision the tragedy that would befall all three of their ocean liners.

Knowing what we know about the way Titanic met her end; imagine what it would be like to be a young woman serving as a stewardess on the ship. But first we must go even further back into history.

October 1, 1887, and Irish couple living in Argentina welcomed their first of six children, a baby girl – Violet Constance Jessop. Even as a young child Violet was a survivor, winning a fight over tuberculosis even though doctors said she wouldn’t. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of what was to come, but more likely it was the hand of God because Violet had important work ahead of her.

When Violet’s father died, her mother moved her family to England and went to work as a ship’s stewardess for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Later, Violet herself would begin her eventful career on the same line. Research finds that this line served many purposes, among them delivering mail to the British West Indies and carrying passengers – immigrants especially – to places like New Zealand.

In 1910, Violet left Red Mail to work for White Line. She did it somewhat reluctantly, due to rumors of the passengers’ treatment of staff and the fact that White Line traveled the North Atlantic. She didn’t care for the weather conditions they would surely encounter. More foreshadowing? Or the hand of God?

On September 20, 1911, White Line’s RMS Olympic left port and Violet was aboard as one of its stewardesses. Almost right away, the navy cruiser HMS Hawke rammed the Olympic and left a forty-foot gash in her side. The propellers were damaged, but the ship made it back to port without sinking.

When the RMS Titanic, the Olympic’s sister ship, was ready for her maiden voyage, Violet was in place as one of the stewardesses – as she’d been talked in to switching ships by one of her friends. The night the ship hit the iceberg, Violet was “drowsy” in her bunk after having read a translated Hebrew prayer she brought along on her journey. The prayer was for protection against fire and water.

Violet stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses while women said tearful goodbyes to their husbands before stepping into the lifeboats with their children. In order to ease the fears of some of the female passengers, Violet and other stewardesses were asked to get into a lifeboat. While sitting there, a bundle was, as she described it, dropped in her lap with orders to take care of it. The bundle turned out to be a baby that Violet guarded with her life. Later, while on the rescue ship Carpathia, a woman claiming to be the baby’s mother snatched the baby out of Violet’s arms.

Surviving the ordeal that was the Titanic would have been enough for most women to walk away from anything to do with boats and water. But not Violet. She eventually ended up on the HMHS Britannic – which was originally named the Gigantic because, as hard as it is to believe, the Titanic’s other sister ship was much larger.

The Britannic wasn’t in service as an ocean liner for very long before WWI began and it was put in to use as a hospital ship. By then Violet was a Red Cross nurse, taking care of the war’s injured and sick men on the Britannic.

But surely Violet’s time aboard the Britannic would be uneventful? Unfortunately, no.

In 1916, just over four years after her Titanic sister sank, the Britannic struck a German mine in the Aegean Sea – with Violet aboard.

Accounts differ on how Violet ended up in the water. Some state she jumped overboard because there was no time for lifeboats. Others state she jumped out of the lifeboat to avoid being sucked into the propellers. However she ended up in the water, Violet hit her head on the ship’s hull and was knocked unconscious.

Thankfully she was rescued and amazingly, once again, remained undeterred by tragedy on the water. After the war, Violet went back to the White Line and the Olympic. Later she joined the Red Star line and spent the rest of her career cruising the world.

Three sister ships, the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic, all involved in disaster of different proportions; one woman of faith who survived all three. Coincidence? Providence? Whichever it was, Violet’s is an incredible story of survival.

Do you think Violet was placed on the Titanic for the purpose of saving the baby?

What about the Hebrew prayer? Do you think Violet was saved by faith?

If you experienced a tragedy like the Titanic hitting the iceberg, would you go to work on an even larger ship? Or would you even go on a boat at all?

Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, is out now from White Rose Press of The Pelican Book Group. Her second novel, True North, will be out later this year. She is a regular contributor to the Inkwell Inspirations blog, a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. Suzie and her husband are the parents of a wonderful grown son who makes them proud every day – even though he lives way too far away. Suzie and her husband live in the Pacific Northwest with their naughty little cat on an island that is definitely not tropical. You can visit her at the following places:

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  1. wow. i guess God wired her to cruise to oceans.

    me? i'd stay off those huge liners and stick to smaller ships.

    thanks for the peek at an amazing individual. very cool.

  2. Amazing story, Suzie.

    I happy to know a bit about the baby Violet held ... when we saw an exhibit of Titanic artifacts in Las Vegas, we were each handed an identity card. My daughter's identity was Leah Aks. We did research later and read how a frantic passenger or crew member ripped Leah's baby, Frank, from her arms and tossed him in a lifeboat. Later, Leah was put on a different lifeboat, but we can only imagine her fear and horror! When she was aboard the Carpathia, she found Frank in the arms of an Italian woman who claimed to be Frank's mother. In a scene reminiscent of Solomon, the women had to take their quarrel to the captain. (Leah was Jewish, and her baby was circumcised, which is rumored to have clinched the deal.)

    Poor Violet. I can't imagine working on another ship again, much less wanting to sail on one. She must have been quite a spunky gal.

  3. Thanks, DebH. I am certain that because of her experiences, she could be an encouragement and comfort to others. I also wonder about that baby. How did he/she grow up? Did knowing about the event on Titanic shape that person's life experiences?

  4. Wow, Susie. That's amazing. I'm so glad Leah got her baby back. Violet received a phone call many years later asking if she'd held a baby on a Titanic lifeboat. When she said yes, the person said they were that baby and then hung up. The amazing thing wad that to that point, Violet had never told anyone about the experience with the baby.

  5. Fascinating all around. I often wonder how anyone ever got on a ship again after such instances! I did know about the Britannic because of my much-admired mystery series about Bess Armstrong WW1 Nurse, by Charles Todd.

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting story today, Suzie. These transatlantic liner stories fascinate me. I know that the same ship that took my Grandfather back and forth to France for WW1 also took my uncle (his son) to WWll.
    It takes a special kind of person to be a servant on a ship or airplane, I think. Concern about treatment by some people PLUS the inconvenience of such travel...and can we add danger?

  6. What an amazing story!
    I can't imagine setting foot on a ship again after being on the Titanic. I suppose it's the equivalent today of an airline steward or stewardess getting back in the air after surviving a crash. Yikes.
    I suppose it goes back to trusting God to have us in the right place at the right time for His purpose. We just tend to think His right time and place are going to be comfortable and safe... Hmm. Thanks Suzie, I'll be mulling this one over.

  7. Deb, I haven't read that mystery series. It sounds cool. I think you're right about the sterwarding thing. I've seen some rude behavior. Although, I love the water and being on a boat, so I don't think I'd mind going on an ocean liner even if I had to do a job to be able to be there.

  8. Hey there, Niki. Well I would be the last person to get on a plane if I survived a crash. But you're right. Trusting God is the only way to be comfortable and confident.

    I'm still mulling over your comment yesterday about being Christ-like vs being a Christian who fits the label.

  9. That is really amazing. The story of the Titanic always fascinates me. In fact, I'm trying to make time to see a big Titanic exhibit (in Fort Worth) before it goes away on the 28th.

    Amazing that this woman survived so many tragedies! God was with her.

  10. I can't imagine getting on another ship again after surviving the Titanic. Fascinating story, Suzie!

  11. DeAnna, I went ti a Titanic exhibit in BC a few years ago. Amazingly haunting, so I was glad to read about Violet.

  12. Truthfully, Gina, I was surprised she did. I really would love to know her thought process when it happened again. In every account I read, she made light of it.

  13. Amazing story, Suzie. Thanks for bringing it to us.

    I remember back in high school when I was on basketball team. I wasn't a good player, coach liked my ability to hang onto the ball. I would grab it, curl around it, and not let go until the whistle blew. I thought of that as I read about the baby being ripped from her arms. In a case like that, would I hang on to the babe like a basketball until a mother was proven? What an experience.

    Susie, thanks for the explanation. I like that a lot better.

  14. I would, too, Anita. She did say she was so cold and so frozen from clutching the baby against her cork life vest, and it wasn't until she thawed and processed it that she realized the "mom" didn't thank her for caring for the baby.

    Wouldn't it make an interesting mystery or suspense novel if it wasn't the baby's real mother and the baby was taken deliberately? Why did the mom leave the baby unattended and why didn't she come back for the baby? Hmmm....


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