One of the enduring controversies surrounding the tragic sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912 concerns the presence of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line (which owned and operated the Titanic), on that voyage. Although Ismay was nominally just a passenger on the Titanic with no direct say over the ship’s operations, rumors persist that as the “owner” of the ship, Ismay interfered with the command authority of Captain Edward J. Smith in ways that made the ultimate fatal collision with an iceberg more likely (if not inevitable).
Specifically, it has often been claimed that Ismay pressured Captain Smith into running the Titanic at a higher speed than necessary — or safe — in order to generate favorable news coverage for White Star. This belief was incorporated into director James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, via a brief scene in which Ismay, seated at a dining table with Smith, observes to the captain that the ship is not yet running at full speed (as all of its boilers have not yet been lit) and implores Smith that the “this maiden voyage of the Titanic must make headlines”:
In 2021, TikTok “Titanic Guy” user @raf_avila picked up on this scene as an example of the film’s attention to finer points of historical detail, noting that the dialogue between Ismay and Smith was taken from a real-life conversation overheard by Elizabeth Lindsey Lines, a Titanic passenger (and survivor), who can be spotted in the background of the scene:
Elizabeth Lindsey Lines was indeed a passenger on the Titanic who (along with her daughter) boarded lifeboat #9 as the ship was sinking and was taken aboard the RMS Carpathia when it arrived on the scene several hours later. And she did indeed give a deposition at a liability hearing in November 1913 in which she recounted overhearing a conversation between J. Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith on the afternoon of April 13, 1912 (the day before the Titanic’s encounter with the iceberg).
However, Lines’ recollection of that conversation was considerably embellished and dramatized for the 1997 film. She testified that she overheard Ismay reference the distances the Titanic had covered each day of its voyage and compare them to those of the Olympic (Titanic’s sister ship), but she didn’t claim to hear Ismay directly urge Smith to increase speed or demand that the ship “must make headlines”:
Q: Are you able to state from your recollection the words that you heard spoken between Mr. Ismay and Captain Smith on that occasion?
A: At first I did not pay any attention to what they were saying, they were simply talking and I was occupied, and then my attention was arrested by hearing the day’s run discussed, which I already knew had been a very good one in the preceding twenty-four hours, and I heard Mr. Ismay — it was Mr. Ismay who did the talking — I heard him give the length of the run, and I heard him say “Well, we did better to-day than we did yesterday, we made a better run to-day than we did yesterday, we will make a better run to-morrow. Things are working smoothly, the machinery is bearing the test, the boilers are working well”. They went on discussing it, and then I heard him make the statement: “We will beat the Olympic and get in to New York on Tuesday.”
There was a great deal of repetition. I heard them discuss other steamers, but what I paid the most attention to was the Titanic’s runs, and it was simply that Mr. Ismay repeated several times “Captain, we have done so and so, we have done so and so, everything is working well.” He seemed to dwell upon the fact, and it took quite a little time, and then finally I heard this very positive assertion: “We will beat the Olympic and we will get into New York on Tuesday,” but he asked no questions.
They made comparisons in numbers which I cannot repeat, the number of miles run in various days. Mr. Ismay gave the runs made on certain days by the Olympic on its maiden voyage and compared them with the runs made by the Titanic on the first days.
It was comparison, and that the Titanic was doing equally well, and they seemed to think a little more pressure could be put on the boilers and the speed increased so that the maiden trip of the Titanic would exceed the maiden trip of the Olympic in speed.
Is it true, nonetheless, that Ismay pressured Captain Smith into running Titanic at a faster speed than the latter felt safe? That issue is clouded by the fact that Ismay survived the sinking but Smith did not, so we have only the former’s self-exculpatory words to go by.
For his part, Ismay maintained that “During the voyage, I was a passenger and exercised no greater rights or privileges than any other passenger. I was not consulted by the commander about the ship, her course, her speed, navigation, or her conduct at sea. All these matters were under the exclusive control of the Captain.”
We can certainly discount one prominent rumor, that Ismay wanted Titanic to capture the Blue Riband, a (metaphorical) award or accolade held by whichever passenger liner had to date achieved the highest average speed in a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Ismay knew full well that the Titanic’s top speed of 23 knots was not capable of matching that of ships from the rival Cunard line, such as the Lusitania and the Mauretania, which exceeded 25 and 26 knots. The White Star Line at the time was aiming to compete with its rivals by providing the most luxurious service, not superior speed.
Some evidence suggests that Ismay wanted to see the Titanic beat the average speed achieved by the Olympic on her own maiden voyage, or arrive in New York a day ahead of schedule (i.e., on Tuesday, April 16, rather than Wednesday, April 17). However, we can’t vouch for the accuracy of such evidence (Lines didn’t testify until more than a year and a half after the sinking, so there’s no telling how much her recollections might have been influenced by what she heard or read during the intervening period), or definitively state that Ismay took any actions that contributed to the ship sinking.
For his part, Ismay testified at both the American and British inquiries into the disaster that he did not consult with Captain Smith about the Titanic’s speed or course during the voyage, nor did he seek to have the ship make a ‘splash’ by arriving in port a day early:
A: I understand it has been stated that the ship was going at full speed. The ship never had been at full speed. The full speed of the ship is 78 revolutions. She works up to 80. So far as I am aware, she never exceeded 75 revolutions. She had not all her boilers on. None of the single-ended boilers were on.
Q: Did you have occasion to consult with the captain about the movement of the ship?
Q: Did he consult you about it?
A: Never. Perhaps I am wrong in saying that. I should like to say this: I do not know that it was quite a matter of consulting him about it, of his consulting me about it, but what we had arranged to do was that we would not attempt to arrive in New York at the lightship before 5 o’clock on Wednesday morning.
Q: Was it supposed that you could reach New York at that time without putting the ship to its full running capacity?
A: Oh, yes, sir. There was nothing to be gained by arriving at New York any earlier than that.
Q: [The ship’s revolutions] were increased as the distance [traveled] was increased?
A: The Titanic being a new ship, we were gradually working her up. When you bring out a new ship you naturally do not start her running at full speed until you get everything working smoothly and satisfactorily down below.