Philanthropy and Social Control: The Administration of the Titanic Relief Fund 1912-1959

Sarah Gregson

This is an edited version of a talk presented to the Sydney Branch, ASSLH on 15 July 2009.

On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, killing almost 1,500 people. When asked what most people remember about the ship itself, ‘unsinkable’ is often the first word that comes to mind. However, Richard Howells’ research has revealed that the first widely disseminated reference to the Titanic’s purported invulnerability was made after the ship sank. As I have argued elsewhere, the belief that it was impervious to natural forces was a handy foil behind which those responsible for the paucity of lifeboats could hide.

While much has always been made of the wealthy men who stood back and allowed women and children of all classes to enter lifeboats, the survival statistics tell a very different story. In fact, for labour historians, the Titanic Sinking is more accurately portrayed as industrial manslaughter on a massive scale. Of the more than 900 crew members on board, barely more than 200 survived. In fact, in stark contrast to the mythology, a similar percentage of first-class men and third-class children were saved.

Although reverberations from the sinking were felt internationally, the people of Southampton were most directly affected. 535 of the crew had lived in the port city. Donations poured in from around the world for the victims’ families, many of whom had lived in extreme poverty even before their breadwinners were killed. However, while more than £414,000 in relief money was collected from the public, the Titanic Relief fund records reveal that many widows and children continued to live in poverty on pensions that were sufficient for only the barest of immediate needs.

Newspapers of the time created a popular narrative of shared grief and social unity, but class and gendered divisions were clearly evident in the way the money was distributed. The trustees, drawn from banking, judicial, government and church circles, believed that working-class people, and women in particular, were incapable of managing money responsibly and would only waste what was given to them. Like those on Poor Law relief, recipients of funds were adjudged ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ and treated as if their poverty was the result of personal  failings alone.

On the Saturday following the sinking, a memorial service attracting more than one thousand people was held at St Mary’s Church, Southampton. One paper reported that:

  • affluence and poverty had assembled there, not in any formal spirit, but in a comradeship of grief, greater than the small conventions of life … [where] room was thoughtfully reserved for those who were more closely associated with the object of the service – the sad-faced, mourning relatives.

Presiding over the service, the Bishop of Winchester interpreted the disaster as a much-needed divine warning about humankind’s faith in wealth and technology. ‘But let God rebuke’, he said, ‘not they. Let no words of bitterness or complaint or recrimination tarnish the holy sorrow of the day’. His generic, communal narratives explicitly warded off more critical readings of the disaster that may have attributed culpability to the managers of the White Star Line. In effect, from the beginning, these and other unitarist mythologies romanticised the suffering of the dead and partially deflected attention from untavourable assessments of the sinking and the skewed nature of survival patterns in favour of wealthy passengers.

A Public Trustee’s Office representative recommended that disbursement of the fund be guided by four key principles – to make the money last until the last dependant had died, to prevent the accrual of a large residual amount with no remaining claimants, to support but not increase the living standards of victims’ families, and to direct child dependants towards gainful employment and financial independence. A payment schedule was drawn up, calculated on the principle that half the weekly wages paid to each deceased worker would be paid to their widows, with a separate amount applicable for each child dependant.

Despite union misgivings about the inegalitarian principles applied to relief distribution, the executive committee expressed the view that ‘to assure to a widow for the rest of life half of her husband’s earnings is certainly generous treatment’. To keep even these meagre pensions, they were subject to ‘moral’ surveillance and patronising treatment from fund administrators. A lady visitor was appointed to check up that recipients were not frittering away the money and, in time, to channel the children into gainful employment lest they fall victims to the ‘microbe of poverty’.

The relief committee disbursed the large sum under their control with a parsimoniousness that entrenched rather than relieved poverty. The trustees were of the opinion that the fund was ‘not in a position to place dependents [sic] in a better position than they would have been in had the person upon whom they were dependent not been lost’. Upon receipt of information from anonymous sources, they cut widows’ pensions until their ‘undesirable’ behaviour was rectified. Children were removed from impoverished families and sent to homes and those who found themselves in the workhouse had their pensions discontinued.

Every month, the committee dealt with special requests for items that the pensioners’ regular income could not cover, such as dental work and prosthetics, spectacles, moving expenses, doctors’ fees and, all too commonly, funeral expenses for a child. Numerous dependants suffered severe illnesses, conditions often exacerbated by deprivation, such as diphtheria, St Vitus’ Dance, anaemia, bronchitis, whooping cough, rheumatism, tuberculosis, pleurisy and pneumonia. One item that recurred frequently in the fund minutes was the allowance of extra money to purchase food, like extra eggs and milk, for invalids whose existing diet was insufficient for recuperation.

Another means by which the Committee sought to preserve the fund was to view dependants’ right to income from the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1897) as an opportunity to cut fund payments. Under the Act’s auspices claimants, with the help of a solicitor, made application to the Court for redress. Upon a finding in the applicant’s favour, the company would pay the ordered amount into the Court and the Court would distribute the money to the claimant in small, regular payments based on family circumstances. Claimants could make application to the Court to vary the payment schedule to meet extenuating circumstances, but to have any chance of success they were required to provide a reason considered valid by the judge for their request. Even for money that was their ‘right’, victims’ dependants were forced to be mendicants.

Although the Titanic Relief Fund was amassed through the willing donations of thousands of sympathetic and generous contributors, it was distributed by trustees motivated principally by parsimony and  prejudice. Divided from the people they were pledged to support by social class, fund administrators held biased, gendered and condescending attitudes towards the people who needed their assistance. Presented with an opportunity to raise a relatively small group of working-class people out of lives disfigured by poverty and ill-health, they chose instead to dole out tiny sums designed only to provide immediate relief and entrench welfare dependence. Motivated by a desire to ensure that donors’ contributions were not wasted on the ‘undeserving’, they relied upon formal and informal modes of surveillance to monitor and control the behaviour of pension recipients.

Sarah Gregson is a Lecturer in Organisation and Management at the University of New South Wales and President of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.