The Curious case of Lloyd’s Register, The Times, and the Titanic

unsinkable titanic
Original drawing of the apparently “unsinkable” Titanic, image courtesy Lloyd’s Register HORIZONs Magazine

-By Christopher Browne, 

The message was brief and cryptic: “Struck an iceberg and sank in latitude 41.16 N, longitude 50.14 W”. It might have been just another daily entry in Lloyd’s Register’s Casualty Returns. But it hid perhaps the most infamous event in shipping history – the sinking of the Titanic.

That was 100 years ago – on 14 April 1912 to be precise. Since then a flurry of historians, scientists, investigators, conspiracy theorists and media pundits have pondered and puzzled over just why this great and ‘unsinkable’ vessel should founder on a lone iceberg.

A spectacular array of events are being held this year in the seven European and North American cities involved in the mighty ship’s last voyage. However behind the ritual and razzamatazz are some curious post-disaster stories including one about the role of Lloyd’s Register.

A few days after the incident, the national press wrote a series of reports suggesting the Titanic had been built ‘considerably in excess of the requirements’ of Lloyd’s Register. Although we had not classed the vessel, and the information was patently wrong, you could argue it was a form of faint praise by association. Although our Secretary at the time, Sir Andrew Scott, didn’t quite see it like that.

sir andrew scott letter to the times“I am directed to say that these statements are inaccurate. On the contrary, in important parts of her structure the vessel as built did not come up to the requirements of Lloyd’s Register for a vessel of her dimensions,” he wrote in a letter to The Times of London.

“I do not for a moment suggest that this circumstance had any bearing whatever upon the loss of the vessel and therefore, for obvious reasons, this letter has been delayed until after the close of the Inquiry (the Mersey Committee set up in the UK to investigate the loss). But in justice to this society and to those who rely upon its classification, it is felt to be only right to dispel the erroneous impression which might be created regarding the standard of classification of Lloyd’s Register for such vessels if the statements referred to remain uncontradicted.”

A pithy riposte indeed. As Andrew Scott points out, we were not involved in classing the Titanic, however we did approve her anchors which still lie intact on the seabed of the North Atlantic Ocean. We also classed the passenger liner Carpathia which arrived to assist the sinking ship a few hours later, saving 705 men, women and children from the Titanic’s lifeboats.

The tragedy with its disturbing death toll of 1,523 had an important sequel. In 1914, the impact of several inquiries in the UK and USA led to the set ting up of the fir st International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), its aim to improve maritime safety and help prevent any future catastrophes.

SOLAS’s principles – robust lifesaving appliances and lifeboats, improved vessel design and equipment, better fire protection, effective satellite communications, rescue planes and helicopters and properly trained personnel – have been the major safety code for the global marine industry ever since.

Christopher Brown edits Lloyd’s Register’s HORIZONS magazine.  His accolades include: Winner of the 2006 Consumer Broadsheet Journalist of the Year in the BIBA Awards; nominated in 2007; shortlisted for journalism’s Oscars, the British Press Awards; nominated four times for the IBP Journalism awards.