When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Violet Jessop — a 24-year-old ship’s stewardess — set to work helping passengers into boats. Then she returned to her cabin until she was ordered on deck to take her own place in a boat. In the chaos, she was handed an unknown baby. The next day, when the shipwreck survivors gathered aboard the rescuing RMS Carpathia, a woman came and took the baby from Jessop without saying a word.
It wasn’t Jessop’s first voyage. At 17, she had applied to be a ship’s stewardess with the Royal Mail Lines but was told she was too young and too pretty to get the job. She was eventually taken on, but she was instructed to avoid makeup and to wear dowdy clothes to appear less attractive. Nonetheless, in her own early-20th-century #MeToo moment, Jessop was eventually fired from the position for refusing a ship captain’s advances.
That didn’t keep her on land though. Jessop was next hired by the White Star Line, and over the next several years would live through not just the Titanic’s sinking but also two other naval disasters. Her career as a nurse was perhaps overshadowed by her reputation as history’s most unsinkable woman.
Born to Irish immigrant parents and raised largely in Argentina, Jessop overcame tuberculosis as a child. The Jessops had nine children but only six survived to adulthood. Violet’s job as a ship’s stewardess was no picnic either: On the White Star Line she worked 17 hours a day, for which she was paid a little more than 2 pounds per month — two-thirds the cost of a third-class ticket on the Titanic. Still, Jessop welcomed the work as a means for traveling and seeing new places.
In 1911, Jessop was working on the RMS Olympic, the largest civilian luxury liner, when it collided with a British warship. Despite holes punched in its hull, the Olympic managed to return to port under its own power, and the crash didn’t dissuade Jessop from continuing to work as a ship’s stewardess. She was reassigned to White Star’s newest ship, the Titanic. Less than a year later, the unsinkable liner steamed across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage with Jessop aboard.
Working conditions on the Titanic were better than on the Olympic. According to George Behe, author of On Board HMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage, the ship’s doctor took a fatherly interest in Jessop’s welfare, which helped deter overzealous potential suitors and harassers who might otherwise have made her life difficult. “The doctor’s interest in me had an added advantage,” Jessop wrote in her memoir, Titanic Survivor. “It kept away one rather persistent man, whose work on board placed him in a favorable position and whose overtures rather inclined to nocturnal ramblings and disregard for other people’s feelings.”
But we all know how the story ends. A few days after it launched, the Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Within hours, it had sunk. A devout Catholic, Jessop said she’d just finished reading a Hebrew prayer meant to provide protection from fire and water when the Titanic collided with the iceberg. She wrote in Titanic Survivor, “I knew that if I meant to continue my sea life, I would have to return at once. Otherwise, I would lose my nerve.”
“A second reason why Violet didn’t change careers was her health,” Behe says. “During her childhood, she survived a lung hemorrhage, scarlet fever and other ailments that left her with weak lungs.” Those lungs, he explains, meant she needed constant fresh air. ”So, despite my fear,” she once told an interviewer, “I chose the sea.”
Four years later, Jessop found herself again in the path of disaster. She had retrained as a nurse for the Red Cross, and in November 1916 was working on yet another White Star liner, the HMHS Britannic, which had been converted into a floating hospital. An explosion, still unexplained, killed 30 people and sank the ship within an hour. Jessop made it to a lifeboat but came close to dying when the lifeboat was nearly sucked underwater by the propeller blades of the sinking ship. She jumped back into the water, and her head struck the keel of the ship, resulting in an injury a doctor diagnosed years later as a skull fracture and had caused her frequent headaches.
Undeterred by the disasters, Jessop — who later spoke of a brief marriage that has remained a mystery to researchers — returned to work as a ship stewardess and nurse until her retirement in 1950. This included a second stint with the White Star Line in the 1920s and five world cruises.
Jessop eventually died of natural causes in 1971 at the age of 83. About a year earlier, according to Titanic scholar John Maxtone-Graham, who edited Jessop’s memoir, she had received a phone call late at night from someone asking if she was the Violet Jessop who had saved a baby from the Titanic — a story she’d never recounted to anyone. Whether the person was a prank caller or truly a grown-up Titanic survivor, she never heard from them again.