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J. Bruce Ismay: Hero or Villian?

Joseph Bruce Ismay served as Chairman & Managing Director of the White Star Line from 1899 until his resignation in 1913.  As the only surviving high ranking official of the company, he was subject to severe criticism not only by the British press but also in America.  Was this criticism justified or was Ismay simply used as a scapegoat following the tragic disaster?


On the night of the disaster, Ismay helped supervise the loading of passengers into the lifeboats.  He claimed he only boarded the final lifeboat, Collapsible C when there were no more women or children.  Collapsible C was launched 20 minutes before the ship went down.

He was picked up 3 to 4 hours later, along with others by the steamship Carpathia. On board he sent the following message to White Star Line's New York office:

"Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning 15th after collision iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life, further particulars later."

Once sent, Ismay spent the rest of his time in the Doctor's cabin where he was seen to remain shaking, staring straight ahead and totally wrecked.  He ate nothing solid and was kept under the influence of opiates. 

Despite Ismay's actions being defended by the official British Inquiry he still received savage press, some newspapers calling him the "Coward of the Titanic" and "J. Brute Ismay".  Some passengers had testified that Ismay had pressured Captain Smith to increase the speed in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule and generate some free press about the new liner.  Others claimed that women and children remained on the ship when he took his place in Collapsible C.

Ismay remained in his post at White Star Line ensuring that hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of insurance claims were paid out to the relatives of the victims.

However, Ismay fell into a deep depression, already emotionally repressed in part due to his earlier relationship with his father, he never recovered from all that he witnessed on the night of 15th April 1912.  After the tragedy his wife Florence ensured the subject of the Titanic was never again  discussed within the  family.  One year before his death however, his grandson who had learned of his involvement in maritime shipping asked him if he'd ever been shipwrecked.  Ismay finally broke his 25 year silence by replying:

"Yes, I was once in a ship which was believed to be unsinkable."

In this portrait I have tried to convey the blank shell shocked 1000 yard stare of a man who has witnessed the utter horror no one should ever have had to see.  

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