Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How a socialist paper reported the sinking of The Titanic

The Daily Herald in 1924

Though I am very far from being a 'Titanorac' (someone obsessed with the sinking of The Titanic - the hundredth anniversary of which is fast approaching), I was leafing through Raymond Postgate's biography of left-wing Labour leader George Lansbury, of 'Poplarism' fame, when I was reminded of how the Daily Herald covered the sinking of The Titanic. The Daily Herald was then edited by Lansbury - it tragically later became taken over by Rupert Murdoch and re-launched as The Sun - and at the time was a working class paper. As Chris Harman noted,

'In April 1912, it [the Daily Herald] resumed publication, and although its initial capital amounted to only £300 it enjoyed amazing success for the next two years. Its exact sales are not known, but estimates suggest its circulation ranged between 50 and 150,000. This was not as large as the two most popular dailies of the time, the Mail and Mirror, which sold between 750,000 and one million copies, but it was in the same league as the Express and Telegraph whose sales were 200,000-300,000 – especially since its sales were to manual workers who had not yet normally developed the habit of buying a daily as opposed to a Sunday paper. The Herald’s success is even more remarkable when it is noted that the official Labour Party leadership started a daily of their own in competition with it, the Daily Citizen, with much greater financial backing, in the summer of 1912.

The new version of the Herald unashamedly used the latest techniques of popular newspaper production. So its third issue quite naturally had the banner headline, ‘TITANIC FLOUNDERS’. But the techniques of sensationalism were, as often as possible, turned against the existing system. And so day after day it asked questions on its front page as to the circumstances of the sinking – safety precautions in the ship, the conditions of its crew, above all why the male first-class passengers were allowed into the lifeboats while women and children steerage passengers were forced to remain on the sinking vessel.

But the most marked feature of the Herald was not its use of these techniques, but the way it combined them with a close identification with workers’ struggles. It was known as the ‘rebel paper’ because, as George Lansbury put it, ‘it always found itself supporting workers who were out on strike ... All men and women struggling to better their conditions instinctively turned to the Daily Herald in those first years ...’

Anyway, what follows is a short extract from Lansbury's book
The Miracle of Fleet Street: The Story of the Daily Herald which records how the Herald broke the news about what really happened when the Titanic went down:

As the first issue of the Daily Herald went to press on April 15, 1912, the Titanic was sinking. The ship had been pronounced unsinkable. On this first voyage it was trying to make a speed record with the Chairman of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, on board. At first faked messages of 'all's well' were sent out, but it was soon realized that 1,300 persons were drowned. As soon as it realized this, the Daily Herald struck a distinctive note. W. R. Titterton was sent to Southampton to meet the rescued seamen and passengers. On April 18 the following appeared: 'Mr Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, has been saved … Why is it that so few of the steerage passengers have been saved?'

It was not till the 26th that the full story was known, and then, under the 'streamer': 'Women and Children Last!' the Daily Herald published a biting analysis. It pointed out the 121 steerage women and children were saved, 134 were drowned; 246 first and second class women and children were saved, and only twenty drowned; fifty-eight of the 173 first-class men passengers were saved. More than half the steerage children were drowned. The following biting words were printed: 'Where were those fifty-three steerage children, Mr Ismay, when you saved yourself?' The White Star Line's profits were pilloried as follows: 'They have paid 30 per cent to their shareholders and they have sacrificed 51 per cent of the steerage children. They have gone to sea criminally under-equipped with means of life-saving; they have neglected boat drill; they have filled their boat with cooks and valets, with pleasure gardens and luxurious lounges; they have done all this to get big profits and please the first-class passengers.

And when the catastrophe came they hastened to get their first-class passengers and their Chairman safely away. Fifty-three children remained to die. They were steerage passengers! One hundred and thirty-four women and children were slain. They were steerage passengers!'

Anticipating what was to come, the Daily Herald denounced firstly the Board of Trade for its criminal negligence, and the appointment of Lord Mersey (previously named Bigham) to head the British Inquiry, which was delayed and dragged out interminably. It recalled Lord Mersey's behaviour in the Penruddock case: 'That was a case of infamous cruelty to a child. The cruelty was undoubted, the infamy glaring. The sentence was nominal. The defendant was a woman of good station. A first-class passenger … Here is a case of steerage children dead and a rich company on its defence. What is likely to be Lord Mersey's judgment here?'


At 4:07 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Titanic Flounders' -- shurely shome mishtake.

Ships 'founder'; people 'flounder around' in the water.

So one can say that the Titanic foundered, whilst unfortunate passengers floundered around in the water.

Dr Paul


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