Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line from 1899 to 1913, was the eldest son of Thomas H. Ismay, one of the great shipping magnates of the last half of the nineteenth century and himself the son of a small Maryport boatbuilder. Thomas Ismay acquired the flag of the White Star Line in 1867, with, curiously enough, the financial assistance of the same Gustavus Schwabe who had backed Edward Harland, then promptly reorganized it as the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. The White Star Line was the successor to a small fleet of wooden sailing ships that plied the profitable Australian emigrant trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the elder Ismay was a perceptive businessman, and rewarding as the Australian trade was, he was shrewd enough to realize that there were far greater profits to be made on the transatlantic passenger run–the North Atlantic Ferry as it became known–bringing immigrants from the Old World to the New and shuttling wealthier passengers back and forth between the two. Almost immediately the White Star Line created a niche for itself by sailing liners that were fast and, by the standards of the day, luxurious. In 1870 Thomas Ismay formed a partnership with William Imrie, and created a holding company called Ismay, Imrie and Company, one of the first business transactions of which was to contract with Harland and Wolff of Belfast to build a fleet of iron steamships for the White Star Line. It was to be a happy union.
The first ship ever built for the White Star Line was the Oceanic, launched in 1870. She was constructed almost entirely of iron, as all-steel construction did not become standard in the shipbuilding industry until the mid-1880s. She was a large ship for her day, 420 feet long and displacing just over 3,700 tons. In many ways she would set the standard for all the White Star ships to follow, and within a year she was joined by three identical sisters–the Atlantic, Baltic, and Republic–and followed a year after that by the slightly larger Adriatic and Celtic (all White Star ships had names ending in -ic).
Ismay was clever enough to throw out conventional ideas of shipboard accommodation and passenger comfort, and in doing so established a new standard of luxury at sea with the introduction of the Oceanic and her sisters, Ismay not only gained a head start in a race between British, German, and American shipping lines to build faster, more comfortable ships for the North Atlantic run, but also laid the foundation for White Star’s reputation for unequaled elegance that the line would not relinquish for another half a century.
The Oceanic lay long and low in the water, sporting a straight stem, a single low funnel, and four gracefully raked hollow cylindrical iron masts. Her staterooms were larger and brighter than any of her contemporaries: they had electric bells for summoning stewards; taps for hot and cold running water, fresh or salt, instead of the traditional pitcher and basin; lighting came from adjustable oil lamps instead of guttering candles; and each cabin was provided with steam heat. With her unparalleled accommodations and stunning appearance–”more like an imperial yacht than a passenger liner” wrote one observer–the Oceanic established the White Star Line as the arbiter of comfort on the North Atlantic.
In 1874, Ismay ordered a pair of new 5,000-ton ships from Harland and Wolff, the Britannic and Germanic, both capable of 19 knots, and crossing the Atlantic in seven and a half days. In 1889 the Teutonic and Majestic appeared, nearly 10,000 tons each, with a designed speed of 20 knots, and every bit as handsome and sleek as their forebears. But these ships represented a point of departure for the White Star Line. Ismay had been studying the North Atlantic trade very closely, and came to some very definite conclusions about the line’s future in it: he decided that it was becoming too expensive to continue to pursue unrivaled speed and unparalleled luxury in White Star ships. Instead, since luxury had made White Star’s reputation, luxury would continue to be White Star’s hallmark. The Line’s ships would continue to be nearly as fast as its competitors’, but the out-and-out race for the Blue Ribband, the mythical prize that went to the liner making the fastest Atlantic crossing, east- or west-bound, would be run without the White Star Line.
It was at this time that Ismay’s son, J. Bruce, entered the family business. Born in 1862, the younger Ismay was educated at Elstree and Harrow, two of the most exclusive preparatory schools in England, and had spent a year as a pupil at the fashionable finishing school of Dinard in Paris, France, though he never acquired a university degree. After the year-long “world tour” that was customary for young men of Ismay’s station in that day, he went to work for the White Star Line. His first day was to be an illuminating experience, highlighting as it did the elder Ismay’s character as well as the nature of the relationship between father and son. Having left his hat and coat in his father’s office, the younger Ismay was startled to hear his father, in a voice loud enough for everyone in the office to hear, tell a subordinate to instruct the new office boy to leave his hat and coat elsewhere. Despite his imposing physical appearance–he stood six feet four and had grown up to be a handsome young man–and a carefully cultivated air of self assurance, Bruce Ismay found himself never quite able to move out of his father’s shadow, to follow comfortably in his footsteps, or to escape his dominating presence altogether. It created a hidden defect in his character, that would follow him aboard the Titanic and in one night shatter him.
In the meantime, though, dramatic changes were taking place in the steamship trade on the North Atlantic, with the appearance of an entirely new player. This one Junius Pierpont Morgan, who had the green gleam of money in his eye. Morgan, the greatest of a generation of trust builders, had conceived of a vast freighting monopoly that would control the shipping rates of goods and the fares of passengers being transported from Europe, from the moment they left the Old World until they arrived at their destination anywhere in the New. Since the American rail barons, and especially Morgan, had already monopolized the U.S. railroads, all that remained for Morgan’s dream to become reality was to gain control of the North Atlantic shipping lines.
Morgan’s first move in that direction came in 1898, when he acquired the financially troubled Inman Line. The elder Ismay had attempted to form a consortium of British shipowners that would keep Inman out of Morgan’s hands, but the attempt fell apart because too few of Ismay’s colleagues believed Morgan was serious. It was one of the few failures in Ismay’s career, and he rued it unti his death in 1899, foreseeing a fierce rate war on the North Atlantic.
He was right. The same year Thomas Ismay died, Morgan purchased a controlling interest in both Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher-Lloyd. A year later he gained either ownership or control of the Leyland Line, the Dominion Line, and the Red Star Line. Setting his sights on both White Star and Cunard, Morgan began cutting fares until his lines were offering a Third Class passage to America for as little as £2.
J. Bruce Ismay, who succeeded to the directorship of the White Star Line after his father’s death, was every bit as determined as his father to resist Morgan. Morgan, however, received help from an unexpected ally: Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff. Realizing that a rate war would leave White Star with little capital for new ships, and having made Harland and Wolff heavily dependent on White Star for new shipbuilding orders, Pirrie began to pressure the younger Ismay to accept Morgan’s offer to buy the line. Thomas Ismay would have told Lord Pirrie to be damned and fought the “Yankee pirate” tooth and nail, but though Bruce Ismay was his father’s son in many ways, he didn’t possess the innate ruthlessness his father had. Rather than stand up to the older Pirrie, the younger Ismay eventually caved in, and in 1902 Morgan’s shipping combine, now known as International Mercantile Marine (IMM), acquired control of the White Star Line.