Thomas Andrews, Shipwright

b 1873 Belfast, d 1912 North Atlantic

What do you do when things go maximally wrong? When time is short, when no one knows what's happening, when everything is failing? You are one of those responsible. People are panicking. People are behaving badly. You have to do something, and you have to do it now.

Well, you can do what Thomas Andrews, the chief designer of the "Titanic", did when he was summoned to the bridge on April 14, 1912. You assess the problem as quickly as you can, you confer with others on the solution, you do as much as possible for those in your charge, and then (and this is the key part), you stay out of the lifeboats. Taking responsibility means taking the blame. None of us (I hope!) will ever have to face a crisis as stark as his, but we can learn from how well he acted.

portrait of Andrews


Andrews was born to a fairly prominent family in Belfast, Ireland in 1873. His father was a local politician, and his mother was the sister of William Pirrie, the controlling owner of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. Pirrie had worked his way up through the shipyard starting as an apprentice, but was a partner at age 27. Pirrie was made a Baron in 1906 and a Viscount in 1921.

His nephew, Andrews, also started as an apprentice at the yard at age 16. He spent his whole career at Harland & Wolff, eventually working his way up to head of the drafting shop and managing director. A lot of the design on "Titanic" and her sister ship, "Olympic", was done by the previous director, Alexander Carlisle, but Andrews was responsible for the final fit-out and much of her decor.

In 1908 Andrews married Helen Barbour and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1910. Passengers mentioned that he spoke frequently of his wife and two-year-old daughter. He was well-known in the shipyard. He once brought a man down from an 80-foot scaffold who had been trapped up there by high winds. People in the crew knew and liked him too. First Officer Murdoch came to him for advice when worried about a promotion, and quarreling stewardesses turned to him for arbitration. So there he was in 1912, with a loving family, the respect of all of all who knew him, and having just completed the greatest ship in the history of the world.

\ This photo shows the "Titanic" in dry-dock in Belfast on Feb. 3, 1912. The propellors are being fitted and a final coat of paint applied. It and the photo of Andrews came from Titanic - An Illustrated History.

Actions During Disaster

When the ship hit the iceberg, Andrews was in his stateroom going over some changes to the ladies' writing room. It was meant to be the equivalent of the gentlemen's smoking room as a place to retire to after dinner, but even in 1912 the ladies were not retiring as much as they were expected to. He planned to convert part of it to two more staterooms.

Like most of the first-class passengers, he hardly felt a jar from the collision. Forty-six thousand tons of steel are not easily jolted. He soon received a summons to the bridge, though, from the ship's captain, E. J. Smith. The two of them inspected the forward holds. Other officers had already reported on the damage, but the captain and the builder had to see for themselves. They returned through the A deck foyer, which by that time was thronged with worried passengers. None of the passengers gained a clue from looking at their faces. The two of them must already have realized that the ship was in profound trouble, but a lifetime of British self-control let them not alarm the passengers.

They conferred back on the bridge. Fourteen feet of water had come in in ten minutes, far more than could be pumped away. As the water came in, the ship would settle towards the bow. Eventually the water would come up to the top of the transverse bulkheads that separated the holds. These were what was supposed to make the ship unsinkable. The bulkheads were fitted with watertight doors. A single hold could fill with water without flooding the rest of the ship or affecting the way she lay in the water. Even if the ship had been rammed at one of the bulkheads, causing two of the holds to fill, she would still have stayed afloat. Five holds, though, were just too many. This was an unforeseen failure mode. The collision was not particularly hard, but it happened in a way that just wasn't accounted for.

Andrews calculated that the ship could only float for another hour or two. Even so, all was not lost. If she could stay up long enough, help could arrive from nearby ships. Although there were only lifeboats for half the passengers and crew, perhaps more could be ferried off if help arrived in time. The key thing was to keep the ship's systems running and get as many people off as possible.

Andrews had little to do with the first task - that was the job of the engineering crew. They performed heroically, keeping the power on until close to the very end, and all of them were lost. What Andrews could do was help get people into the boats. At this point few of the passengers realized how serious the situation was. It was bitterly cold outside, and few wanted to wear the uncomfortable life jackets or climb into the perilously swaying boats. If the ship really could stay afloat, and all thought she was unsinkable, it would be better to stay on board than risk getting spilled into the icy Atlantic.

A number of people remembered Andrews as being all over the deck, helping people get ready. Here let me quote Walter Lord from his book A Night To Remember:

A little later [stewardess Mary] Robinson bumped into Andrews on A Deck. Andrews greeted her like a cross parent:

"I thought I told you to put your lifebelt on!"

"Yes," she replied, "but I thought it mean to wear it."

"Never mind that. Put it on; walk about; let the passengers see you."

"It looks rather mean."

"No, put it on... If you value your life, put it on."

Andrews understood people very well. A charming, dynamic man, he was everywhere, helping everyone. And people naturally looked to him. He handled them differently, depending on what he thought of them. He told garrulous Steward Johnson that everything would be all right. He told Mr. and Mrs. Albert Dick, his casual dinner companions, "She is torn to bits below, but she will not sink if her after bulkheads hold." He told competent Stewardess Mary Sloan, "It is very serious, but keep the bad news quiet, for fear of panic." He told John B. Thayer, whom he trusted implicitly, that he didn't give the ship "much over an hour to live."

It took strenuous effort by Andrews and the crew to get people away. It wasn't until the bridge started firing distress rockets and the ship's list became noticeable that everyone realized how bad things were. There was then no more dallying about loading the boats with only first-class passengers, and then no more thought of sending the boats away half-loaded.

Survival Rates

To digress a moment, much has been made about how many more first-class passengers survived than third-class. People note that the percentage of first-class men who lived was about the same as the percentage of third-class children. I think much of this is in reaction to the boasting in 1912 about how many first-class men had nobly chosen to stay behind. After the destruction of the old order in World War I, few believed in those kind of pieties.

These days, though, the numbers don't look so bad. The Victorian Era ended in 1914, but the Modern Era that replaced it is now also ended; it fell with the Berlin Wall in 1989. We no longer have to treat the Victorians with the automatic contempt shown by the Moderns. The Victorians were racists and sexists, true, but their vices pale compared to the intellectual fanaticism displayed by Modernists. The Modernist paradigm of revolution-by-experts that they pursued in art, architecture, and politics is now seen as a ghastly mistake. Now that we are no longer the cultural children of the Victorians, we don't need to see them through family bitterness and bias.

So let's look at the actual numbers to see what happened:

Passengers      Lost    Saved

1st Class         118      57     Men
                    4     140     Women
                    0       6     Children

2nd Class         154      14     Men
                   13      80     Women
                    0      24     Children

3rd Class         387      75     Men
                   89      76     Women
                   52      27     Children

Total Passengers  659     146     Men
                  106     296     Women
                   52      57     Children

Total Crew        670     192     Men
                    8      20     Women

Total Souls      1329     338     Men
                  109     316     Women
                   52      57     Children

This table comes from the British Inquiry Report, as quoted in Walter Lord's The Night Still Lives On. The total number of women lost adds up to 114 instead of 109, but I don't know if the error is in Lord or the Inquiry Report, or is a result of some other uncertainty.

Remember that most of the first-class passengers went away in the early boats, when the crisis didn't seem so grave. Note that almost all of the second-class men died, and all of their children and most of their women were saved. At that point, the choice between saving men and saving women was clear. Note also that even if all of the first-class men had stayed behind, there still wouldn't have been space for all of the third-class women.

The true problem, to my mind, is that the half-empty boats did not return for survivors. There was space for another several hundred people in the lifeboats, but only one went back. In some cases this was because of explicit cowardice on the part of the seamen who were captaining the boats. The one that did return was under the command of Fifth Officer Lowe, who also collected several boats together and organized the passengers among them. Mention should also be made of Second Officer Lightoller, who managed to keep an overturned boat from flipping by carefully balancing the people standing on it. He also saved a number of people who were caught without boats in the freezing water. And he helped in the evacuation of Dunkirk 28 years later! A natural hero.

But this is an issue that cuts beyond era-specific notions like Duty-Towards-Passengers and Women-And-Children-First. If you have the opportunity to save lives then you should do it, whether you are a Victorian in a lifeboat or a Post-Modern in a greenhouse-induced hurricane. Today we would probably not save women before men (although we would still save children first), and would probably not save people just because they paid someone something who also happened to be paying us. We would certainly not save first-class passengers first, nor would we ignore passengers who weren't Anglo-Saxons. But simple humanity requires us to save those that we can, and that's what most of the Titanic's lifeboats did not do.


To get back to Andrews, he was last seen a few minutes before the end by a surviving steward. He was in the first class smoking lounge, looking at a painting of the harbor of Plymouth, Massachusetts called "Entrance To the New World". His life jacket was strewn over a nearby chair. The steward asked "Aren't you even going to make a try for it, sir?", but Andrews didn't respond.

There's no telling what he was thinking in those last moments. He clearly didn't intend to save himself. At that point it was clear that saving himself would have cost the life of someone else. It was that cut-and-dried. There were only so many places in the boats. Any place that he took could have been occupied by someone else.

Contrast his behavior with that of J. Bruce Ismay, the president of the White Star Line, which owned the ship. Like Andrews, he had been assisting people into the boats, but when no more could be found and his boat was about to launch, he jumped in himself. For saving himself when 1500 people were lost on his company's ship, he earned eternal criticism. He was removed as president the next year, and lived as a recluse on his estate in Ireland until his death in the 30s.

Although Ismay had some defenders, the most potent case against him was made by Rear-Admiral A. T. Mahan (as quoted by Colonel Archibald Gracie (US Army) in The Truth About the Titanic):

For all the loss of life the company is responsible, individually and collectively: Mr. Ismay personally, not only as one of the members. He believed the Titanic unsinkable; the belief relieves moral guilt, but not of responsibility. Men bear the consequences of their mistakes as well as of their faults...

I hold that under the conditions, so long as there was a soul that could be saved, the obligation lay upon Mr. Ismay that that one person and not he should have been in the boat. More than 1,500 perished. Circumstances yet to be developed may justify Mr. Ismay's actions completely, but such justification is imperatively required...

We should be careful not to pervert standards. Witness the talk that the result is due to the system. What is a system, except that which individuals have made it and keep it? Whatever thus weakens the sense of individual responsibility is harmful, and so likewise is all condonation of failure of the individual to meet his responsibility.

Andrews lived up to his responsibility when Ismay did not. When the system fails, when all our plans go awry, it takes extraordinary individual effort, and extraordinary self-sacrifice to save what we can. This is the kind of heroism that Thomas Andrews displayed.


The Titanic story continues to draw enormous interest, of course. Even after ninety years there is enough new material to keep the Titanic Historical Society going.

Roy Brander has done extensive research into the issues around the engineering of the Titanic, which he has put into: Titantic & Risk Management, several excellent pieces on the underlying reasons for what went wrong.

M. A. Kribble has a good overall site devoted to Andrews here.

One of the oddest pages I saw was the Thomas Andrews collectible dolls and figurines from Maritime Heritage

Harland & Wolff are still in business, although their main line these days is off-shore oil and gas drilling equipment. Their archives are accessible here. One would think that this is not the sort of thing a company would like to be known for, but they must have decided there was no help for it.

There have been a number of films of the story. Of the ones I've seen, Andrews gets the most sympathetic portrayal in the latest version, "Titanic" (1997), directed by James Cameron.

The most accurate version is considered to be "A Night To Remember" (1958), directed by Roy Ward Baker with a screenplay by Eric Ambler, and I found it the most moving.

There is even a Broadway show, "Titanic: A New Musical", with Andrews getting the opening number.

There are a number of Web Rings devoted to the ship, with thousands of pages to them overall. Here is an index to the rings themselves.

(c) John Redford, May-99

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