The centenary of the Titanic disaster on 15 April has brought extensive media coverage of this historic event. But how did the New Zealand media of the time – which in 1912 meant newspapers – cover the tragedy? A glance at the wonderful resource of Papers Past, the National Library’s digital newspaper archive, gives us some clues.
The Titanic disaster received wide-ranging newspaper coverage in New Zealand. The fact that the ship was equipped with modern Marconi wireless meant that word of the sinking was transmitted to Britain and North America as it was happening. This in turn meant that newspapers in London and New York were cabling news outlets around the world with accounts, often not very accurate, of the unfolding drama.
Titanic sank at 2.20 a.m. (ship’s time) on Monday 15 April 1912, less than three hours after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic. This was around 5.20 p.m. on 15 April in New Zealand. The first reports of the accident were in the New Zealand papers the next day. The Evening Post’s headline was typical ‘Shipping Disaster: Titanic Sinking: Mammoth Liner Collides with Iceberg’ (Evening Post 16 April 1912 p. 7). The Evening Post gave little detail of the accident, but commented on the size of both Titanic and of the ice floes in the Atlantic, plus details of previous accidents with icebergs. Some of the distinguished passengers on board were mentioned. At this point New Zealand papers simply reprinted the cables they received on the disaster, including the line that all the passengers had been saved (Marlborough Express 16 April 1912, p. 5).
The next day’s papers brought the grim news of ‘Fifteen hundred drowned: Titanic gone under: Unprecedented disaster‘. Some papers gave figures for the number of survivors, varying between 675 and 866. These seem to have been more guess work by journalists than based on any hard information. (Bay of Plenty Times, 17 April 1912, p. 5, and Ohinemuri Gazette, 17 April 1912, p. 2.)
The reading public was already familiar with Titanic and its sister ship Olympic, as New Zealand newspapers had carried many reports on the planning and construction of the ‘mammoth’ White Star liners (Grey River Argus, 24 January 1910, p. 4, and Poverty Bay Herald, 22 February 1910, p. 5 ). Titanic had been heralded as the ‘Largest ship afloat’ on its launch at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast (Marlborough Express, 24 July 1911, p. 2).
Within days of the sinking, the papers recounted tales of manly British heroes going down with the ship. Americans were also conceded to be heroic, being of course members of ‘the English-speaking race’. Those passengers and crew from France or from southern or eastern Europe did not rate a mention (Grey River Argus, 18 April 1912, p. 4). Some papers went beyond the tales of heroism to ask why the disaster had happened. Were the liners too big, was the route safe, had the ‘rage for speed’ in trans-Atlantic crossings led to neglect of safety? (Evening Post, 18 April 1912, p. 6.)
New Zealand papers also began to report the accusations against some of the male survivors, in particular Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line. It was reported that Ismay claimed he was ‘simply a passenger’ on the Titanic and did not make any suggestions to the captain regarding the ship’s speed or route. He also claimed to have only entered a lifeboat when there were no women or other passengers remaining on deck (Evening Post, 23 April 1912, p. 7).
Some of the reactions of New Zealand newspapers to the sinking of Titanic seem very familiar. One of the earliest questions asked was ‘Were there any New Zealanders on board?’ (Poverty Bay Herald, 19 April 1912, p. 5.) The papers were unable to identify any New Zealand passengers, but did find the lucky Mr J. A. Frostick, of Christchurch. While in Britain he had booked to cross the Atlantic on Titanic, but was forced to cancel the trip due to business engagements (Grey River Argus, 19 April 1912, p. 5).
A number of papers reported that the ‘adventuress’ May Hallet had been made a widow, as her husband, Donald Campbell, was assistant purser on Titanic. May Hallet was a jewel thief, car thief and confidence trickster who, between 1909 and 1911, had gained notoriety in New Zealand through conning the well-to-do. Her husband, an Australian, had formerly been purser on the Ulimaroa, a trans-Tasman steamer (Wairarapa Daily Times, 14 May 1912, p. 4, The Observer, 18 May 1912, p. 5 and NZ Truth, 30 January 1909, p. 4).
New Zealanders rallied round, raising funds to help the victims of the Titanic sinking (Marlborough Express, 25 April 1912, p. 4). Special church services and concerts were held to raise money for survivors, while sailors gave money from their pay to help the widows of their fellow seafarers (Evening Post, 19 April 1912 p. 7). One unnamed Wairarapa resident offered to adopt the one-year-old child who had been saved from the disaster (Wanganui Chronicle, 2 May 1912, p .4).
The Titanic disaster raised many maritime safety issues, including the shortage of lifeboats on liners and other passenger ships. New Zealanders were led to question whether the ships that plied their own coasts were safe and whether they had adequate provision of lifeboats (Colonist, 23 April 1912, p. 5).
While all parties saw the Titanic’s sinking as a tragedy, the varying conclusions drawn from it illustrate the polarised views common in 1910s New Zealand. A. A. Adams, rector of the state school of Greymouth, lectured his pupils on the King’s Birthday. He explained that ‘the thrilling accounts of the wreck of the Titanic … cause us to thank God we are British’ and went on to hail the heroism of the British seaman ‘from the humble stoker to the commander’ (Grey River Argus, 5 June 1912, p. 2).
In contrast James Thorn, writing in the socialist newspaper the Maoriland Worker, analysed the death rate among the different classes of Titanic’s passengera. He argued the disaster illustrated the results of class distinction and that charity towards the survivors was being ‘utilised to shield from well-deserved censure the negligently criminal powers that be.’ (Maoriland Worker, 14 June 1912, p. 2.) He also pointed out that the chivalry of male passengers was being used by British politicians as an argument against giving votes to women.
This assertion was also being used closer to home, as in a Press article that considers whether ‘women and children first’ is an outdated rule (Press, 8 June 1912, p. 10). It concludes:
There comes now and then a time when man proves himself greater than Nature, when he commands the survival of the weakest instead of the strongest. The ’sacred law of the sea’ must abide. And no true man would have it otherwise.