April 10, 1912 dawned, as did so many days that spring, bright and clear. The sprawling docks, piers, and quays bustled with the seeming chaos of a busy seaport. At the White Star Line’s Ocean Dock lay the Titanic, plumes of smoke gently rising from her funnels, her white upperworks gleaming in the sunshine, her enormous hull dwarfing every other ship in the harbor. All morning long an endless stream of passengers and crew strode up the gangways and vanished into the bowels of the ship. The rush of people had begun a little after sunrise as the first of hundreds of firemen, greasers, trimmers, stokers, stewards, stewardesses, deckhands, and galleyhands began to make their way up to the giant ship. Every now and then a tremendous blast would issue forth from the Titanic‘s great steam whistles, rattling windows for miles around, the stentorian tones (the whistles were pitched at C”’) letting one and all know that this was a sailing day.
A maiden voyage was always cause for excitement in a seafaring town, even one as seawise as Southampton. Friends and families of passengers and crew, along with hundreds of sightseers, crowded down to the Ocean Dock. The Rev. William G. Hurley recalled years later “on the day it [the Titanic] sailed, all England was merry in the celebration of a holiday for the occasion. Flags were flying in the breeze in every city and hamlet. There was the inevitable speech-making. That gloriously martial air, ‘Britannia Rules the Waves,’ was the mighty theme-song of the day.”
It is a picture treasured by thousands to this day, as the great ship was preparing to depart on what would most assuredly be an epic voyage, the throngs cheering themselves patriotically hoarse, while brass bands played and overhead flew the Union Jack, inspiring one and all with the greatness of British maritime accomplishments.
Except it didn’t happen that way….
Like so many others have done on other occasions, the Reverend Hurley was recalling those wonderful days before the Great War “with advantages.” The Titanic‘s sailing day wasn’t a holiday, there were no cheering throngs, no masses of waving Union Jacks. While unquestionably a memorable event, the Titanic‘s first (and only) departure of the from Southampton was certainly not a brass-banded, bunting-behung, speechifying Auspicious Occasion; that had been reserved for the maiden voyage of the Olympic, as befitting her position as the first of her class, in June 1911.
For more than a week now the Titanic had been the center of attention in Southampton Harbour, the scene of almost constant activity. First came the provisions and foodstuffs for the voyage, being delivered daily in almost staggering quantities. For the five-day voyage to New York, the Titanic required the following supplies for her galleys:
Fresh meat–75,000 lbs; Potatoes–40 tons; Fresh fish–11,000 lbs; Onions–3,500 lbs; Poultry and game–25,000 lbs; Rice, dried beans–10,000 lbs; Salt and dried fish–4,000 lbs; Lettuce–7,000 heads; Bacon and ham–7,500 lbs; Tomatoes–2 3/4 tons; Sausages–2,500 lbs; Fresh green peas–2,250 lbs; Fresh eggs–40,000; Fresh asparagus–800 bundles; Flour–200 barrels; Oranges–180 boxes (36,000); Sugar–10,000 lbs; Lemons–50 boxes (16,000); Coffee–2,200 lbs; Grapefruit–50 boxes; Tea-800 lbs; Hot house grapes–1,000 lbs; Cereals–10,000 lbs; Fresh milk–1,500 gal; Fresh cream–1,200 qts; Condensed milk–600 gal; Ice cream–1,750 qts; Fresh butter–6,000 lbs; Sweetbreads–1,000; Jams and marmalade–1,120 lbs
Equally well stocked were the Titanic‘s cellars, holding some 20,000 bottles of beer, ale, and stout; 1,500 bottles of wine; 15,000 bottles of mineral water; and 850 bottles of spirits.
To serve the splendid meals that would be prepared from this vast array of foodstuffs, an equally impressive volume of glassware, tableware, cutlery and crystal was taken aboard. Included were such items as 3,000 tea cups; 2,500 breakfast plates; 1,500 souffle dishes; 8,000 dinner forks; 2,500 water bottles; 2,000 wine glasses; 12,000 dinner plates; 300 claret jugs; 2,000 egg spoons; 400 toast racks; 1,000 oyster forks; 8,000 cut tumblers; and 100 grape scissors.
While all these items and more were being brought aboard, the messy business of coaling was taking place. Ordinarily coaling was a routine if tiresome affair, but in April of 1912 it was a far from routine procedure. The Great Coal Strike had just ended in its tenth week, and supplies were still short. In order to avoid delaying the Titanic‘s maiden voyage again (it had already been postponed twice as urgent repairs being done to the Olympic delayed the Titanic‘s completion), the White Star Line decided that she would sail with full bunkers (she burned 600 tons a day) even if it meant taking coal from other White Star ships and leaving them tied up at their piers. That is exactly what happened: the Oceanic and Adriatic had their crossings canceled and their passengers transferred to the Titanic. The coaling was completed at almost the last minute, the last few tons being loaded on the morning of April 10. In all the haste to get the coal aboard, the crew hadn’t had time to properly wet it down. Dry coal and coal dust were a perpetual fire hazard, and a smoldering fire broke out in the starboard bunker of Boiler Room Number 6. Despite the best efforts of the boiler room crew to put the fire out, the bunker would continue to smoke throughout the voyage.
(Such fires were far from uncommon on the coal-powered steamships of the day–in fact, they were regarded as more-or-less routine. The word “fire” itself is misleaded, as some later historians would fabricate tales of some great conflagration taking place in the bunker of Boiler Room 6. The truth was that coal, which is always susceptible to low-level spontaneous combustion, will “burn” at a moderately low heat, producing a great deal of smoke but no actual flame. The usual method of putting out such a “fire” was to use the smouldering coal first if at all possible, or at least as quickly as was practical. Despite later claims made by ill-informed commentators, the “fire” in the Boiler Room 6 bunker was never serious, and never grew hot or extensive enough to even moderately damage the bunker itself, let alone the hull or the watertight bulkhead that made up the rear partition of the bunker.)
While the coaling was still underway, Capt. Maurice H. Clarke of the Board of Trade began the mandatory surveys of the ship. Distress rockets, flares, and other “fireworks” were examined and approved; lifeboats and floats were tested; charts and instruments were inspected. Second Officer Charles Lightoller recalled ruefully: “The Board of Trade Surveyor, Captain Clarke, certainly lived up to his reputation of being the best cursed B.O.T. representative in the South of England at that time. Many small details, that another surveyor would have taken in his stride accepting the statement of the officer concerned, was not good enough for Clarke. He must see everything, and himself check every item that concerned the survey. He would not accept anyone’s word as sufficient–and got heartily cursed in consequence.” Captain Clarke passed the Titanic as being in compliance in all particulars with Board of Trade regulations.