Violet Constance Jessop (1887 – 1971) was an Argentine ocean liner stewardess, memoirist and nurse who is known for surviving the disastrous sinkings of RMS Titanic in 1912 and her sister ship HMHS Britannic in 1916. In addition, she had been onboard RMS Olympic, the eldest of the three sister ships, when it collided with a British warship, HMS Hawke, in 1911.
Jessop was born in Argentina of Irish immigrants William and Katherine Jessop, the first of nine children, six of whom survived. Jessop spent much of her childhood caring for her younger siblings. She became very ill as a child with what is presumed to have been tuberculosis, which she survived despite doctors' predictions that her illness would be fatal. When Jessop was 16 years old, her father died due to complications from surgery and her family moved to England, where she attended a convent school and cared for her youngest sister while her mother was at sea working as a stewardess. When her mother became ill, Jessop left school and, following in her mother's footsteps, applied to be a stewardess. Jessop had to dress down to make herself less attractive to be hired.
At age 21, her first stewardess position was with the Royal Mail Line aboard the Orinoco.
In 1911, Jessop began working as a stewardess for the White Star vessel RMS Olympic, a luxury ship that was the largest civilian liner at that time. Jessop was on board on 20 September 1911, when Olympic left from Southampton and collided with the British warship HMS Hawke. There were no fatalities and despite damage, the ship was able to make it back to port without sinking. Jessop chose not to discuss this collision in her memoirs.
The launch of Olympic on 20 October 1910
The Grand Staircase of Olympic – look familiar?
Starboard view of Olympic in 1911 – also look familiar?
Olympic (left) being manoeuvred into dry dock in Belfast for repairs on the morning of 2 March 1912 after throwing a propeller blade. Titanic (right) is moored at the fitting-out wharf. Olympic would sail for Southampton on 7 March, concluding the last time the two ships would be photographed together
Olympic arriving at New York on her maiden voyage on 21 June 1911
Images documenting the damage to Olympic (left) and Hawke (right) following their collision
Damage to Olympic.
The damage below the waterline was much greater.
Jessop boarded RMS Titanic as a stewardess on 10 April 1912, at age 24. Four days later, on 14 April, it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, where Titanic sank about two hours and forty minutes after the collision. Jessop described in her memoirs how she was ordered up on deck, because she was to function as an example of how to behave for the non-English speakers who could not follow the instructions given to them. She watched as the crew loaded the lifeboats. She was later ordered into lifeboat 16; and as the boat was being lowered, one of Titanic's officers gave her a baby to look after. The next morning, Jessop and the rest of the survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia. According to Jessop, while on board Carpathia, a woman, presumably the baby's mother, grabbed the baby she was holding and ran off with it without saying a word, crying.
Titanic’s Grand Staircase
During the First World War, Jessop served as a stewardess for the British Red Cross. On the morning of 21 November 1916, she was on board HMHS Britannic, a White Star Liner that had been converted into a hospital ship, when it sank in the Aegean Sea due to an unexplained explosion. During a major diving expedition on the wreck in 2016, it was determined that the ship had struck a deep sea mine. This was shown in the documentary film of that dive, The Mystery of the Britannic.
Britannic sank within 55 minutes, killing 30 of the 1,066 people on board. British authorities hypothesized that the ship was either struck by a torpedo or hit a mine planted by German forces. Conspiracy theories have even circulated that suggest the British were responsible for sinking their own ship.
While Britannic was sinking, Jessop and other passengers were nearly killed by the ship's propellers that were sucking lifeboats under the stern. Jessop had to jump out of her lifeboat, resulting in a traumatic head injury which she survived. The blow to her head "only" fractured her skull (a fact she didn't realize until years later after enduring constant headaches).
In her memoirs, she described the scene she witnessed as Britannic went under: "The white pride of the ocean's medical world ... dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child's toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths." Arthur John Priest and Archie Jewell, two other survivors of the Titanic, were also onboard and both survived.
Britannic was the largest vessel to sink during the Great War; there was no catastrophic loss of life, unlike with the Lusitania, and no deliberate targeting of a Hospital Ship was evident (although the possibility of a torpedo attack remained a possibility for many decades). As a result the story of the Britannic is now largely forgotten.
Jessop in her Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform while assigned to HMHS Britannic.
Britannic (right) during fitting out in Belfast alongside RMS Olympic
Britannic at sea in her intended White Star livery
John Priest, a survivor of the Titanic and Britannic.
Archie Jewell survived both the Titanic and Britannic sinkings but in 1917 was drowned when he was involved in another shipwreck.
After the war, Jessop continued to work for the White Star Line, before joining the Red Star Line and then the Royal Mail Line again. She worked as a stewardess for another 42 years but endured no further sinkings.
During her tenure with Red Star, Jessop went on two around the world cruises on the company's largest ship, Belgenland. In her late thirties, Jessop had a brief marriage, and in 1950 she retired to Great Ashfield, Suffolk.
Years after her retirement, Jessop claimed to have received a telephone call, on a stormy night, from a woman who asked Jessop if she saved a baby on the night that Titanic sank. "Yes," Jessop replied. The voice then said "I was that baby," laughed, and hung up. Her friend and biographer John Maxtone-Graham said it was most likely some children in the village playing a joke on her. She replied, "No, John, I had never told that story to anyone before I told you now."
Jessop, often winkingly called "Miss Unsinkable", died of congestive heart failure in 1971 at the age of 83.