The best books on the Titanic

Christopher Ward Author Of And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank
By Christopher Ward

The Books I Picked & Why

A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic

By Walter Lord

A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic

Why this book?

After the sinking of the Titanic, public interest in the disaster ended abruptly with the all-consuming tragedy of the First World War. It wasn’t until 1955 when Walter Lord wrote the definitive account of the sinking, A Night To Remember, that interest in Titanic was reignited across the world. Lord had sailed on the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic as a child and developed a fascination with the Titanic, collecting old newspaper cuttings and memorabilia. His parents thought him very odd.  

Lord carried his preoccupation with Titanic into adult life. While working in an advertising agency in New York in the 1950s, some forty years after the sinking, Lord realised that many survivors would soon be reaching the end of their lives and would no longer be able to tell their stories. He took out advertisements inviting survivors to get in touch, interviewing sixty passengers and crew.

A Night To Remember became an immediate bestseller and to this day is considered to be the definitive account of the sinking – as is the black-and-white movie of the same name, based on Lord’s book. As Newsweek put it at the time, "It tells you what it’s like to be on a sinking ocean liner."


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Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy

By John P. Eaton, Charles A. Haas

Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy

Why this book?

If Walter Lord’s book is the definitive account of the sinking, this large-format encyclopaedic volume, almost large enough to sink a ship, is the definitive story of the Titanic, from the drawing board to the bottom of the ocean, with nothing omitted between the two events. It is an epic work of research so comprehensive that it deserves a wholly new category of publishing: more than a book, Titanic – Triumph and Tragedy, is a museum.

First published in 1986, it was updated in the 1990s to include new information and photographs following the discovery of the wreck, which Eaton and Haas, both acknowledged Titanic experts, had seen for themselves from a submersible. 

The book’s structure is that of a sequential archive illustrated by more than a thousand contemporary photographs, including Harland & Wolff’s original architectural plans and engineering drawings. It moves from the launch in Belfast to life at sea, with copies of menus, then on to the sinking, the rescue of survivors, the operation to recover bodies, and the two public enquiries into the disaster. It also has the most accurate passenger and crew list to be compiled. Both editions of this book have been my guiding light on Titanic over the years. If you are interested in the Titanic, this is a must. If you aren’t at all interested in the Titanic, you soon will be after opening this unsinkable opus.


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The Truth about the Titanic

By Colonel Archibald Gracie

The Truth about the Titanic

Why this book?

Of all the eyewitness survivor accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, this is the most compelling and descriptive, as well as one of the first to be published. As the Titanic foundered, Gracie was swept into the sea by a giant wave, the undertow of the sinking liner sucking him deeper and deeper below the surface. So long was he underwater that by the time he surfaced, “I could see no Titanic in sight”.  He clung on to a wooden crate which kept him afloat long enough to find an overturned collapsible lifeboat.

Gracie never recovered from his ordeal. He died eight months later, most likely from organ failure caused by hypothermia. But, as a writer and historian, he put every day to good use, writing this gripping eye-witness account – not just of Titanic’s death throes but every moment from the collision with the iceberg to the loading of the lifeboats and the rescue of survivors by the Cunard liner, Carpathia. I have often wondered, as the grandson of a bandsman who lost his life, what kind of death he suffered. After reading Gracie’s book, I knew that it was a terrible way to die.

Many years ago, I managed (expensively) to find an early copy of Gracie’s book in an antiquarian bookshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But it is deservedly still in print today and available on Amazon in all formats. If you’re a new reader of Titanic books, this is a good place to start.


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Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters

By Violet Jessop

Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters

Why this book?

Violet Jessop’s story is remarkable in that she survived not only the sinking of Titanic but, four years later, the sinking of Titanic’s identical twin, Britannic, which went to the bottom in 55 minutes, its watertight compartments proving to be no more watertight than the Titanic’s. But at least Britannic had an excuse – she had been requisitioned as a hospital ship and hit a mine ferrying wounded soldiers home from the war in Europe.

Violet had been a stewardess on board the Titanic and had volunteered for service as a nurse when war broke out. Understandably, she was somewhat disconcerted to discover she was being posted to a ship which, in every respect, was the same as Titanic. She consoled herself with the thought that lightning never strikes twice.

There were about a thousand on board Britannic when she foundered, many of them wounded, but remarkably only 28 people died – the warm water of the Aegean and Britannic’s proximity to the Greek island of Kea saving their lives. For the second time in her life, Violet found herself writing in her diary, “The wonder of finding myself alive will always remain in my memory”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Violet who was one of the last people to see my grandfather, Jock Hume, alive. Jock, a violinist in the band, was “always so full of life”, she writes. As Titanic was sinking, she passed him on the stairs as the band headed up to play on deck. Jock looked pale but smiled and said, “we’re just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit.”

Violet’s account of life ‘below stairs’ as a crew member on Titanic provides a different perspective to the familiar stories of first-class passengers scrambling for places in the lifeboats. Before boarding Titanic, she had already had one lucky escape five months earlier on Titanic’s other ‘twin’, Olympic, which collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke as she left Southampton on her fifth voyage since launch. Hawke, its bow ripped open, almost sank, and Olympic limped back to Belfast for repairs, delaying the completion of Titanic in the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Violet, who came to be known as “Miss Unsinkable” lived to 83 dying peacefully at home. She never learned to swim.


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The Titanic Reports: The Official Conclusions of the 1912 Inquiries Into the Titanic Disaster by the Us Senate and the British Wreck Commis

By Senate Us Senate

The Titanic Reports: The Official Conclusions of the 1912 Inquiries Into the Titanic Disaster by the Us Senate and the British Wreck Commis

Why this book?

Public inquiries these days last ten years or more, often without reaching a conclusion. But the American Senate inquiry into the sinking of Titanic opened the day after survivors docked in New York and was wrapped up in five weeks, with all the ugly facts laid bare.

Like its British counterpart some weeks later, the Senators had the advantage of questioning witnesses while events were still fresh in their minds and before stories could be conveniently changed. No stone was left unturned: the ice warnings about the danger of icebergs, the inadequate number of lifeboats, the Titanic’s unanswered SOS calls from nearby ships, the shameful statistics of those who lived and those who died…and so on. The White Star Line’s chairman, Bruce Ismay, was accorded no favours.

A single page sets out the stark reality of how the class system determined who lived and who died. More than half the children on board lost their lives. Yet not a single child travelling in first or second-class accommodation died. More than half the women travelling in steerage died, but only four women travelling First Class lost their lives – having chosen, bravely, to decline the offer a place in a lifeboat, preferring to remain with their husbands.

This book is a dry read, devoid of drama and stripped of humanity, but tells more about the disaster than a hundred other books combined. Even Walter Lord’s book, depending substantially as it does, on the account of witnesses forty years after the event, their stories changing with every re-telling of the drama, can’t beat this for hard facts. 

Alas, neither inquiry was able to provide any certainty to one question: did the band play "Nearer My God To Thee" as the ship went down? And, if so, which version of the hymn? My grandfather could have told them but never lived to tell the tale.


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