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Sunday, 8 April 2012

'Titanic' and the London and South Western Railway - An Intimate Relationship

The London and South Western Railway had an intimate relationship with Titanic, the ship having sailed from the company’s Southampton Docks. However, the association goes deeper than just a doomed ship sailing from a south coast port that happened to be owned by a railway company. Rather, from its inception, Titanic had been destined to sail from Southampton.

The LSWR purchased the failing Southampton Dock Company in 1892 and set about expanding the port to make the best use of its new acquisition. Between 1892 and 1910 the company spent a total of £3,063,644 on what was dryly referred to in its accounts as ‘New Plant, Graving Docks, Warehouses and Various Improvements.’[1] This included new graving docks in 1895 and 1905, and new quays in 1898.[2] Consequently, the investment had the effect the LSWR’s directors expected; it grew the port's trade. In 1892 421,611 tons had passed through the docks and, given most of this was carried by the LSWR, it constituted 15.41 per cent of the company’s goods traffic. However, with increasing numbers of steamship lines serving Southampton, the tonnage of goods passing through the docks grew to 1,113,132 by 1908,  44.38 per cent of the LSWR’s freight traffic.[3]

Adriatic approaching Southampton
Indeed, by 1908 twenty-one companies were sailing from Southampton, including the Union-Castle Line, Royal Mail Steam Packet services, the American Line and, not unexpectedly, the White Star Line.[4] The White Star Line began its association with Southampton in June 1907 when its New York express service transferred there from Liverpool. On the 5 June that year, a day Railway Magazine labelled the docks’ ‘Red-Letter Day’, the White Star steamer Adriatic inaugurated the weekly service.[5] Months later, the company was claiming the move had been an ‘immediate success’, and on both inward and outward journeys  it was refusing customers.[6]

Therefore, the White Star Line’s decision to move its services to Southampton could be perceived as a rational one based on its assessment of where it could garner the most trade. Yet, on the LSWR’s June 1907 ‘report and statement of accounts’ there appeared the name of a new director; The Right Hon. Lord Pirrie,[7] who immediately joined the company’s ‘Docks and Marine’ Committee.[8]  Pirrie can be easily describe as a ‘shipping magnate’, and when appointed to the LSWR’s board he was a director of twelve other companies, nine of which were associated with sea-bound trade and commerce. Amongst these was his position as chairman of Harland and Wolff, who built the Titanic and its sister ships, and his directorship of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co, or White Star Line as it was more commonly known.[8]

Therefore, it is not surprising that the White Star Line transferred to Southampton; nor that in April 1907 Harland and Wolff opened a repairing depot at the docks to service White Star Line ships (amongst others).[9] However, the accommodation of Pirrie’s shipping interests by the LSWR did not stop there. In October 1907 the company began work on a new sixteen acre dock which, at the White Star Line’s request, was to be known as the ‘White Star Dock’ (although other companies could use it). This was opened in early 1911 and on 14 June that year Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, sailed from there. Furthermore, when the LSWR found out about plans for Olympic and Titanic, it extended its Trafalgar Dry Dock to accommodate them..[10]

It shouldn’t be assumed that the LSWR acting as an arm of the White Star Line by spending so much capital on the docks for it. The investments were mutually beneficial for both businesses, and both greatly profited. Indeed, Pirrie’s presence on the LSWR board was not to control its policies in his favour; rather, he acted as a bridge between it and the White Star Line (and Harland and Wolff) so their strategies were coordinated. Thus, Pirrie, the White Star Line and the LSWR should collectively held responsible for bringing Titanic to Southampton.

On the morning of 10 April 1912, the day Titanic sailed, two special boat trains are known to have left the LSWR’s Waterloo terminus bound for the doomed vessel. Second and third class passengers, as well as the first class passengers’ maids and valets, travelled on a 7.30 am train; arriving dock-side two hours later. Later, 202 First class passengers departed Waterloo at 9.45am, arriving at 11.30 am, only thirty minutes before the ship sailed.[11]

Therefore, the links between the LSWR and Titanic ran deep, and when the ship foundered on the 15 April it is no surprise the railways' board minuted the following:

‘Wreck of the White Star Liner TitanicThe Chairman mentioned that, under his instructions, a letter of sympathy had been sent to Messrs. Ismay, Imrie & Co. with reference to the terrible disaster that had recently befell the Titanic and upon his motion it was resolved: “That a donation of £500 be given for the relief of the sufferers and divided equally between the Mansion House fund which is being raised on the behalf of the relatives of those persons, whether crew or passengers, who lost their lives in this sad calamity and the Mayor or Southampton’s fund for the relatives of the crew.”[12]


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 1110/283 and RAIL 1110/284, London & South Western Railway – Reports and Accounts
[2] Faulkner, J.N. and Williams, R.A., The LSWR in the Twentieth Century, (Newton Abbot, 1988), p.142
[3] Railway Magazine, April 1909, p.402-406
[4] Railway Magazine, April 1909, p.403
[5] Railway Magazine, March 1909, p.297
[6] The Times, Monday 26 August 1907, p.4
[7] TNA, RAIL 1110/284, London & South Western Railway – Reports and Accounts, Half year ending June 1907
[8] South Western Gazette, June 1918, p.80
[9] Directory of Directors, (London, 1907)
[10] Faulkner, and Williams, the LSWR in the Twentieth Century, p.144
[11] Bevan, Mike and Chivers, Colin ‘The Titanic Centenary’, South Western Circular, 15 (April 2012), p.470
[12] TNA, RAIL 411/39, Court of Directors Minute Book, 19 April 1912

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