GEORGE KEMISH, one of the ‘firemen” who fed and tended Titanic’s boilers, spoke often, in later years, about how brightly the sinking liner’s lights had burned almost till the moment she broke in half. He was one of the many survivors who wrote to historian Walter Lord after World War II, and though Mr. Kemish regarded himself as ‘not a very good writer,” his is one of the most wonderfully vivid accounts we have of what it was like to be a fireman or trimmer (the men who shoveled and shuttled coal from the bunkers), down in the bottom of an Edwardian era ship. Still’ through the intervening decades between the disaster and his first contact with Walter Lord, even a keen observer like George Kemish was vulnerable to occasional confusion about the details. During the passage of more than forty years, the Titanic’s bright lights appear to have morphed into recollections of a brilliant moon, though there was no moon at all in the sky during the night of the sinking.
The Kemish account dates from a June 19, 1955 letter to Walter Lord. Aside from his singular confusion about lights in the sky, Mr. Kemish’s deviations from other survivors’ accounts and factual details are minor, and mostly numerical. These can be summed up as a misnumbering of the boiler rooms and a recollection that the impact with the iceberg occurred at 11:25 PM ‘ the latter detail being consistent with the reports of other survivors who failed to keep pace with the latest resetting of the ship’s clocks during the drive west, and who were, like Kemish, fifteen minutes behind in their reporting. Thus, even the erroneous time stamp more upholds than undermines fireman Kemish’s memoir. It brings us closer to the chaos and the steam clouds in the engine and boiler rooms’ Closer to a chaos so extreme that when a fellow crewman named Shepherd fell and broke his leg, there was no time to do more than carry him away to the pump room (an enclosed space at one end of the boiler room) and to make sure that he was alive if not comfortable, before a watertight bulkhead burst and flooded the pump room’ Closer to publisher William T. Stead sitting calmly in the first class smoking room after 1:00 AM, amazing Kemish with his apparent determination to continue reading his copy of The Virginian no matter what happened during the coming hour’ Closer to the cries of the people in the water’
14 Begonia Rd. Bassett, Southampton England, 19 June, 1955
Sir: I have received your letter of 12 June. I am not a very good writer, but I will try to tell you what few incidents I remember as regard the wreck of the Titanic. It happened so long ago, [and yet] it certainly could not be a thing easily forgotten. But at my age ‘ now 65 ‘ years ‘ my memory is not too good, but I will try to give you a few truths of the Disaster.
The Titanic was a brand new ship, and a grand ship too in those days. She was a sister ship to the S.S. Olympic’ She was a ship within a ship ‘ with a distance of about three feet between the two shells [of the double-hulled bottom], and she was believed to be unsinkable. In those days the White Star Line ran a weekly service to New York from Southampton. (Titanic was called the biggest ship in the world, but she was really ‘ if you were ever able to check the actual plans ‘ bigger than Olympic by only nine inches, and only slightly different. She was almost an identical twin, as she was supposed to be. White Star had [intended] weekly New York to England service ‘ with two equally prestigious ships always at sea’ and eventually three such ships, when Britanic was added. The plan was to have at least one homeward bound and one outbound, at all times.) Being such a fine new ship, all the best ‘ the ‘cream” ‘ of Southampton seamen and Engine Room Department men were anxious to join her. Yes, the pick of Southampton went in her.
We sailed from here on the 9th of April, 1912, for New York.
We had six boiler rooms (stokeholds). Each boiler room had its own pump room for bilge pumping and boiler feed, and so on. There were five boilers abreast in each boiler room [only 4 in the forward-most]. We had 53 firemen, 22 coal trimmers, and five leading firemen on each watch. I forget how many greasers [were on watch, to keep the equipment oiled]. I guess there were 12 or 14 [oil men] on each watch. I was on the 8PM to 12 AM watch.
Being a new ship on her maiden voyage ‘ with everything clean ‘ she was a good job in the stokeholds. (Not what we were accustomed to in other old ships ‘ slogging our guts out and nearly roasted with the heat.) Even so, the Titanic would have burned over three thousand tons of coal on each trip. Well, being what I have called a good job, we just had to keep the furnaces full and not keep on working them with slice bars, jacker bars, and rakes. We were sitting around on buckets ‘ [on] trimmers’ iron wheel barrows, and such. I had just sent a trimmer up to call the 12 AM to 4 AM watch. It was 11:25 PM [actually 11:40 PM], the 14th of April, when there was a heavy thud and grinding, tearing sound. The telegraph in each section signaled down: STOP. We had a full head of steam and were doing about 23 knots per hour. We could have given much more steam pressure had it been required. [Separately to Walter Lord, in conversation, Kemish said that the order to bring Titanic up to 23 knots had come down sometime during the final hours before impact. He was uncertain whether or not this order came down from the bridge specifically on his shift, but he ‘thought it might have.” He also said that in the stokeholds, as far forward as Boiler Room 5, the collision with the iceberg felt more like a running aground or rolling over something, instead of being a mere side-swipe.]
Impact. We had orders to ‘box up” all boilers and put on dampers to stop steam [from] rising and lifting the (steam) safety valves. Well, the trimmer came back from calling the 12 ‘ 4 AM watch and he said, ‘Blimmie, we’ve struck an iceberg.”
We thought that a joke, because we firmly believed she had gone aground off the Banks of Newfoundland. Well, then some of them went up on deck and came down again, and told us ‘ ‘Yes, the trimmer is right. She has struck a berg.”
Now, counting Boiler Room sections, Number 1 started forward, Number 2 next, and so on. [Error: In reality, Boiler Room 1 was aft, just ahead of the engine rooms, and Boiler Room 6 was forward-most.] From the forward Boiler Room there was a long tunnel which took us to a winding ‘ spiral ‘ stairway that led up to our quarters, dining rooms, infirmary. After climbing about 60 steps [you] came to the 12 ‘ 4 room [where the men of the 12AM ‘ 4 AM shift were quartered]; another 30 steps up, the 4 ‘ 8 room; another flight up, the 8 ‘ 12, and Leading Firemen, and Greasers. You then came out on the forward Well Deck and the Recreation room for the crew. Engineers [went] up and ordered all Firemen down below to draw all fires [to draw coal out of the hot boilers], because ‘ with the engines stopped ‘ excessive steam pressure was blowing joints [in the pipe systems].
All bulkhead watertight doors (separating the boiler rooms) were closed, so we had to go along what they called the working alleyway [E Deck’s ‘Scotland Road,” along the port side, above the boiler rooms] ‘ we went along the alleyway and [climbed] down over the boilers [on] escape ladders. We certainly had a Hell of a [hard] time pulling [and raking] those fires out. When we went to our quarters again, the 12 ‘ 4 AM men were packing their bags and dragging their beds up to the Recreation Deck because their rooms [forward of, and above the boiler rooms] were flooded. Oh, we thought this a huge joke and had a good laugh.
We went down below [where the hatches at the tops of the forward-most boiler rooms were by now being permanently closed against water flowing aft, along the upper bunk room decks, where the rising tide from the bow was threatening to spill down through any open hatch in its path] ‘ we went down again to see if everything was all right. Engineers were very busy with valves. I saw one engineer slip and break his leg [Engineer John Shepherd]. We placed him in a pump room and did anything we could to help the other Engineers. Ship’s Carpenters were constantly taking soundings. They may have known, but no one else (except Skipper Smith), that things were going to happen.
About 12:45 AM, the 15th of April, we got news: ‘Captain has ordered all hands to Boat Stations [to launch the lifeboats. This news probably came between the gradual flooding of the forward, number 6’ boiler room and the 12:45 AM implosion of Boiler Room 5 ‘ which was catastrophic and would likely have been noticed by Kemish]. The ship was as steady as if she had been in dry-dock, going down very steadily forward. But even at that time it was hardly noticeable. The Boat Deck was thronged with people. Many women and children had to be forcibly put into the boats. They felt much more safe on the decks of the big liner than in the small boats ‘ [being lowered from] about 90 feet above the water-line. Therefore the boats that got away first did not take half the number of people they could have [held], and then later when we realized things were really serious, the boats getting away were very much overloaded.
Time was also getting away’ The Band had stopped playing by now. About the last person I took particular notice of was the novelist William T. Stead, calmly reading in the first class Smoke Room. It looked as if he intended stopping [and staying] where he was whatever happened.
One boat ‘ I think it was either Number 9 or Number 11 [but it was probably number 15] ‘ was being lowered; but about five or six feet from the water-line, it was on a very uneven keel. One end of the boat’s falls had caught up, somehow. I imagined [to judge from the commotion] that they were trying to cut the entangled falls ‘ which I found out they eventually did. They could not unhook the tackles. They were shouting and screaming that there were no members of the crew aboard ‘ but they managed to free it.
I saw how desperate the situation was by now. [It seemed suddenly] all boats were away. (Gone. Almost all gone now.) We had been throwing deck chairs and anything movable overboard. I took a flying leap, intending to grab the dangling boat falls [from the empty davits of Boats 9 and 11, or 15] and slither down them to the water. But I missed the ropes. (I reckon a parachute would have been handy in that drop.)
I swam until I got aboard that Number 9 or Number 11 boat. I don’t know to this day [which] boat it was. A Deck hand named Paddy McGough [reported by Colonel Archibald Gracie as having reached the rescue ship Carpathia in Boat Number 9] took charge of her. She was overloaded dangerously [with 56 people, according to Gracie, 63 according to Boatswain Haines at the American Inquiry, and with a capacity for 70 people]. Picking up one or two more persons from the water would probably have meant drowning about 80 [people]; that was the number in her.
It was extremely cold now, and terrible for the women and kids. [The] few boats that were in view, then, tried to keep together. We were rowing aimlessly; our hands froze on the oars and we lost sight of the other boats. Until then it had been fairly bright (the moon). But mercifully clouds covered the (light in the sky) and it became very dark. Mercifully dark. When the Titanic took her final plunge there was a noise I shall never forget. Shouting ‘ screaming, and explosions. A hundred thousand fans at a cup Final could not make more noise. And’ well, we drifted about until it started getting daylight. We could just see the Berg. It had drifted on to the skyline with the help of the bump we gave it [and a berg was indeed photographed nearby, with a smear of paint from a ship on one side]. There was a low ice field practically all around us. Paddy McGough suddenly gave a great shout ‘ ‘Let us pray to God, for there is a ship on the horizon and ’tis making for us.”
Some of our crowd had already passed out, but those who were able did pray and cry. But the old S.S. Carpathia picked us up about 7 AM on the 15th of April. She took us to New York (took about 4 days, I think). Quite a few survivors died on the Carpathia. The first night aboard, quite a few died from exposure and frostbite [after having been in the water]. An officer ‘ of the Carpathia ‘ asked me to go to the ship’s mortuary. Four had died. He had an idea that one of them was a member of the Titanic’s crew, and that perhaps I could identify him. I jibbed it. It might have been one of my mates. I had had enough.
Reporters (from all the newspapers) were waiting right outside the Nantucket Light Ship. There were hundreds of River Boats. Nobody was allowed on board the Carpathia. We were even under guard when we got up to New York. West Street (11th Avenue) and 10th Avenue were packed with people ‘ but we did not get the chance [to talk to the reporters and] to make a few dollars. We members of the Titanic’s crew were escorted to Wrights Seaman’s Mission on West Street. We were measured up ‘ got two suits of clothes, two pairs of boots, two shirts, two suits of underwear. Ties, socks, etc. Gee ‘ I looked a typical Yank[ee] when I got home. We came home in the Red Star Line ship Lapland. We landed at Plymouth. All kinds of officials took our depositions for the Board of Trade Inquiry in London. We were to remain in Southampton while the Inquiry was on ‘ to receive five shillings a day. If called to London, another 3/0 per day.
I was home for three months and then went to sea again. [Those three months] ‘ all we got out of it was what would have been the normal trip’s pay ‘ 23 days. Our money then was only 5 pounds per month. Our Seaman’s Union gave us three pounds for [the] loss of our kits ‘ [and] a ‘promise” from the White Star Line of a job for life. I have never had anything from them. I have had long unemployment at times, and some very hard times at present. I work as a Fitter’s Mate ‘ when I can get work. Nevermind. I suppose I am lucky to be here at all. – – Yours faithfully George Kemish
‘P.S. Sir: I said at the start ‘ I am a very poor writer. Writing is not one of my strong points. But I trust you can understand the scribble. I could tell you a lot more, but I think I have written mostly what you wanted to know. There were supposed to be thirty millionaires amongst the passengers. There were also some stowaways that went down with the ship. Stowing away in those days was quite easy; [as] it was very easy to walk ashore in New York. Restrictions then were not nearly so strict as now. [People even occasionally ended up Shanghied onto ships against their will, as did would-be Titanic passenger Howard Irwin, who ended up, against his will, as a crew member on an Egypt-bound freighter, instead of with his luggage and his diaries in the Titanic’s steerage class]. There was then a shortage of labour in the U.S. Seamen very often, when ashore, were invited by strangers to have a drink in the Saloons by strangers who eventually turned out to be Employment Agents. They were doped ‘ Shanghied ‘ and came to their senses well on the way to Buffalo, the Great Lakes, and other places where labour was short.
‘Jumping the freight” was another simple matter. No one knew who the stowaways were. Apparently they had no relations or friends. That type is to be seen in most big ports. Never missing, because they are never known ‘ just world wanderers. They were always welcomed by us because they would keep our quarters clean. – – G.K.
Some of George Kemish’s most lasting historical details are numerical: the proposal to bring the Titanic up to 23 knots’ the monthly salary of 5 pounds (150 Euros, or 150 year 2004 dollars) for a fireman or coal trimmer’ 30 pounds for a Marconi telegraph operator (900 Euros, or year 2004 dollars)’ his bitterness about the broken financial promises from the White Star Line’ his stretching of the number of people aboard Boat 9 from 56 or 63 to 80′ his insistence that he and one other survivor swam to Number 9, despite no mention in the British or American inquiries that any people were pulled out of the water by this boat, and despite steward Ward’s testimony that Purser McElroy and First Officer Murdoch had ordered ‘two or more” men into Number 9 to assist as sailors’ despite boatswain’s mate Haines’ testimony that when the boat was full and being lowered, two or three men jumped into the bow from the deck above’ leaving open the possibility that Kemish never made the leap and swim’ And yet in favor of Kemish’s leap and swim story, he accurately described the incident of boat Number 15 being caught on its lines, seen from a vantage point above, on Titanic’s deck, some five minutes or more after Boat 9 was lowered away.
Whether or not Mr. Kemish invented a swim as a face-saving maneuver(for all men who survived when women and children were still aboard were required to explain it, for the rest of their lives), his most lasting of all details are human ‘ among them the nameless stowaways who kept the firemen’s and trimmers’ sleeping and dining areas clean in return for keeping their presence in the forward cargo holds secret. No other survivor’s account has mentioned them. The fireman once told Walter Lord that he regretted having never learned their names. He was certain that the nameless bow people had been the first to die when the ice broke through. ‘They were young, penniless world wanderers,” he once lamented to Lord. ‘Adventurers. We had always welcomed them, and they us, for keeping the place clean and keeping their secret. Kept their secret too well, I guess. Their skeletons are still down there, I suppose, near [Mr. William Carter’s Renault town]car in the forward hold. No one will ever know who they were.”