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RMS TITANIC – Third Class or Steerage Passengers aboard the ill-fated liner.

RMS TITANIC – Third Class or Steerage Passengers aboard the ill-fated liner.


Last photo taken of the RMS Titanic – Sailing away from Queenstown, Ireland. 

The majority of the 700-plus steerage passengers on the RMS Titanic were emigrants. Only 25 percent of the Titanic’s third-class passengers survived, and of that 25 percent, only a fraction were men. By contrast, about 97 percent of first-class women survived the sinking of the Titanic.

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Newspapers sensationalized the Titanic sinking with fabricated stories… 

The term steerage originally referred to the part of the ship below-decks where the steering apparatus was located. However, over time, the term came to refer to the part of a passenger ship below-decks where third-class passengers were housed.


Third Class Ticket – RMS Titanic

On the Titanic, third-class passengers shared common bathrooms, ate in dining facilities with other third-class passengers, and slept in cabins four to a room.

By the standards of the day, the accommodations on the Titanic for third-class passengers were excellent. In fact, the Titanic provided nicer living conditions than many of the steerage passengers were accustomed to at home. It was said that the Titanic’s third-class accommodations resembled other steamships’ second-class accommodations:

• Third-class cabins on the Titanic had running water and electricity.
• Steerage passengers were provided with meals, which were a wonderful perk; most steamships that carried steerage passengers at the time required them to bring their own food.
• Passengers could clean up in their cabins in a washbasin. However, only two bathtubs served all 700-plus third-class men and women.
• Bunk beds in third class had mattresses, pillows, and blankets, but no sheets or pillowcases.

This fact wasn’t a problem because most third-class passengers, who were leaving their native lands forever to start over in America, had all their belongings with them, including their sheets and pillowcases. For these passengers, anything that the ship provided was a bonus that made the voyage more pleasant.


Titanic’s third-class dining room…

Third-class passengers ate three meals a day in two common dining rooms called the dining saloons. These rooms were located on F Deck between the second and third funnels, exactly two decks below the first-class dining room.

Third-class passengers did not get individual tables; they ate on rows of tables lined up next to each other. Combined, the two third-class dining saloons could hold only around 475 people, so diners were served in two seatings.

Titanic’s third-class entertainment options

ba604737a9(General Room Left) The Titanic provided the General Room, where steerage passengers could sit, read, play cards, and otherwise pass the time. Steerage passengers weren’t allowed into the areas of the ship boasting other entertainments, like the gymnasium or the pool, but they could have their own parties and dances.

The party scene in James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic offers a perfect example of the spontaneous gatherings in third class, complete with fiddle players and plenty of beer.

Interestingly, all the sitting surfaces in the General Room were made of wood. (Lice can’t find a home on slatted benches the way they can in fabric and upholstered surfaces.) Third-class men also had access to a smoking room complete with spittoons.

The RMS Titanic was build in Belfast as the second in a trio of sister-ships for the White Star Line, to operate the lucrative transatlantic run between Southampton and New York (via Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland). The RMS Titanic was the largest ship in the world at the time, eclipsing her 1-year-old sister ship RMS Olympic by just over 1,000-tons. (The cause of the weight gain between the two sisters had been extending one of the 1st class restaurants, enclosing the front half of the A-Deck Promenade, adding two larger suites with their own private verandas in 1st class on B-Deck, adding a Parisian café for 1st class passengers and making various adjustments to the 1st class bathrooms, such as installing extra marble baths and cigar holders next to the sinks.) Had she remained afloat, however, the Titanic would only have held the honor until May 1913, when a 52,000-ton German liner, SS Imperator, was launched into service for the Hamburg-Amerika Line.


Third Class Passengers on Deck – They provided strong revenue for the White Star Liner…

Although White Star realized that enormous sums of money could be made from providing the most luxurious 1st class accommodation onboard its flagships, as with all the transatlantic companies, a huge percentage of their profits would came from the booming immigrant trade between Europe and America, with most of the immigrants traveling in 3rd class – sometimes known as “Steerage.” Europe was already over-populated by 1912, particularly in its cities, and it was a place that had not altered much since the Congress of Vienna. To many it seemed that to triumph and become a man of enormous wealth when one was not born into it was the exception in Belle Époque Europe, not the rule. But America, on the other hand, was a vast continent, under-populated, new in comparison to the “Old Countries” and brimming with opportunities – either real or imagined. So, like the Olympic, the Titanic was designed to capitalize on the surge in transatlantic migration with room for 1,134 3rd-class passengers.

Unlike the slightly melodramatic view of impoverished but inexplicably cheery 3rd class passengers offered in James Cameron’s Titanic, the Olympic and Titanic’s steerage accommodation was both of a higher standard and therefore a higher cost than most other 3rd class cabins on smaller ships or upon White Star’s German rivals. (The cheapest 3rd class ticket cost as much as 3-4 weeks’ wages for a skilled labourer.) The result was that the White Star Line’s 3rd class clientele was usually upper working-class or lower middle class. A typical passenger would have been the likes of Frank Dean, who had purchased 3rd class tickets for himself, his wife and their two young children, when he decided to emigrate to join relatives in Kansas, where he could open a tobacco shop, much like he had in London.

The theory behind providing higher levels of comfort for its 3rd class passengers was, predictably, a commercial one for the White Star Line. Whilst many shipping companies showed no real interest in making provision for genuine comfort for its steerage passengers, since they were emigrating and were therefore unlikely to be “return” customers, White Star Line knew that many immigrants were later joined by their family and friends from the homeland and so by making sure their journey to the United States was as enjoyable as possible, White Star Line hoped they would recommend travelling on the Olympic or Titanic to their acquaintances, thus increasing the company’s future profits.

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Captain Smith with officers aboard the RMS Titanic…

Third class passengers onboard the Titanic had access to a smoking room (male only), two dining rooms (above, divided in two by one of the ship’s bulkheads) and a general room, which functioned as a cross between a lounge and a nursery, although in the evening it became the recreational area. (It is there in the movie Titanic that Jack and Rose dance at the céilidh – although in reality, 1st class passengers were no more allowed to wander down to 3rd class than 3rd class were free to walk about 1st class.)

Cabins in 3rd class consisted of bunk beds for between 4 and 6 people, with a sink at the far end of the room and some small wardrobe space. An excellent reconstruction is pictured left from the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri. Private toilets in the ship’s cabins were unheard of and not even available in 2nd class and so large, clean, public toilets similar to what we might find in restaurants were provided, along with showers and baths. Food onboard the ship was simple but plentiful. The dinner served to 3rd class passengers on Sunday April 14th, destined to be the ship’s last day afloat, consisted of rice soup, fresh bread, biscuits, and roast beef with gravy, sweet corn, and boiled potatoes, followed by plum pudding, sweet sauce and fruit.

At the time of her maiden voyage, which began on Wednesday, April 10th 1912 in Southampton and after a collection of Irish passengers on the following day, the Titanic set out for New York with 708 3rd class passengers. Three days later, twenty minutes before midnight, the ship was involved in a side-on collision with an iceberg, which opened 300ft of the 882ft liner to the sea beneath the waterline. Two hours and forty minutes later, the ship disappeared beneath the waves with the loss of approximately 1,500 lives. As everybody knows, the percentage of 3rd class passengers saved, compared to those in 1st and 2nd class was appalling – of the 462 men in steerage, 75 survived; 76 of the 165 women escaped, along with only 27 of the 76 children.

The enormously high percentage of 3rd-class casualties led to the myth that they had been deliberately detained below deck until 1st- and 2nd-class passengers were boarded into the lifeboats. A version of events which was most memorably dramatized in movies like A Night to Remember and Titanic – A Night to Remember did, however, show that the passengers were eventually allowed up on deck, once the crew realized the ship was actually sinking, rather than just going through a temporary evacuation.

It is true that, at night, many gates in the ship were locked and that tragically this impeded the movements of some 3rd class passengers in trying to reach the Boat Deck. However, the real reason for the high percentage of 3rd class casualties was a lot less sinister, but nonetheless tragic: the 3rd class quarters were the cheapest onboard and, as such, they were located in the bottom section of the ship. As I have said, for some time after the collision, many members of the Titanic’s crew were unaware exactly what had happened – even some of the officers did not seem to know that the ship had suffered a fatal blow and it was not until an hour or maybe even an hour and a half after the collision that a list in the ship became truly noticeable. It therefore not only took the 3rd class passengers far longer to reach the lifeboats than the other passengers because of where their accommodation was, but they were also hampered by the fact that many of their stewards and stewardesses failed to impress upon them the gravity of the situation the Titanic was in.

Investigating the claim that it had been malice rather than incompetence which led to so many deaths in 3rd class, the British Enquiry into the disaster, chaired by Lord Mersey, concluded:

“It has been suggested before the Enquiry that the third-class passengers had been unfairly treated; that their access to the boat deck had been impeded; and that when at last they reached that deck the first and second-class passengers were given precedence in getting places in the boats. There appears to have been no truth in these suggestions. It is no doubt true that the proportion of third-class passengers saved falls far short of the proportion of the first and second class, but this is accounted for by the greater reluctance of the third-class passengers to leave the ship, by their unwillingness to part with their baggage, by the difficulty in getting them up from their quarters, which were at the extreme ends of the ship, and by other similar causes.”

When news of the Titanic disaster broke in Belfast, I can vividly remember my great-grandfather telling me when I was younger that in the Protestant working-class areas of the city, he could see grown men who worked in the Harland & Wolff shipyards, standing in the street crying at the loss of the “Great Ship.” He could still remember the song they sang to commemorate the loss and, at the distance of eighty years, the pride he took in his family having worked on the Titanic and her sisters was palpable.

The Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, continued in service for the White Star Line for the next twenty years, continuing to turn great profits and eventually being joined in the 1920s by two new running mates for the transatlantic run – the 56,000-ton Majestic and the 34,000-ton Homeric. On most of her sailings between 1911 and 1934, when the Great Depression began to strangle the luxury liner trade, the Olympic regularly sailed with most of the cabins – in all three of her classes – booked.

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