The Titanic in Cherbourg

This welcome poster at the entrance to the parking lot of the Cité de la Mer (City of the Sea) in Cherbourg was probably just intended as a collage showing various elements of the Cité in no particular relationship to each other, but I still find it irritating because it gives a false impression of the place. I could imagine families coming out after their visit and using this picture for a game of “find the mistakes”.

(Those who have been to the Cité de la Mer might want to try this first, before reading on.)

The main mistake is that the Titanic is shown as being right next to the quay and right next to the big maritime railway station, which is not where it was at all. The Titanic in April 1912 was the world’s largest ship, and the inner harbor at Cherbourg was not deep enough for it, so it had to anchor in the outer harbor like all the other big ships and wait for the tenders to bring the passengers and their baggage.

The big maritime railway station on the quay was not even inaugurated until 1933, so there is no way that the Titanic, which broke in two and sank to the bottom of the ocean in 1912, could ever have been parked next to it.

Titanic in Cherbourg harbor with two tenders Traffic and Nomadic

This painting by Jacques Mignon, on display in the Cité de la Mer, gives a more accurate impression of where the Titanic was anchored during its ninety-five-minute stopover in Cherbourg harbor. The ship entered the outer harbor through the eastern gap in the dike, and anchored near the Central Fort (visible in the background).

The two smaller ships are the tenders Traffic and Nomadic, which also belonged to the White Star Line and were permanently stationed in Cherbourg. I learned in the Cité that the French word for ‘tender’ (or ‘ferry’) is transbordeur and that one of them, the Traffic, first disembarked fifteen passengers and some freight from the Titanic — apparently these fifteen people had just used the Titanic to cross the Manche aka ‘English Channel’ from Southampton to Cherbourg. (Imagine how they must have felt when the news of the Titanic’s demise was announced three days later.)

According to the Cité de la Mer website, 102 third-class passengers then boarded the Titanic from the Traffic. The other tender, the Nomadic, brought 151 first-class passengers (including some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time) and 28 second-class passengers. (Second-class was the equivalent of business class on today’s airlines.) All these passengers were in addition to the ones who had already boarded in Southampton.

The tenders also delivered “luxury French products such as champagne, wines and cheeses” to the Titanic, to be served to the first-class passengers during the voyage.

A different website, Titanic Belfast, gives slightly different figures and specifies: ”A gangway was erected between Nomadic’s flying bridge deck and Titanic’s E Deck to allow passengers to transfer, with fifteen 1st Class and nine 2nd Class passengers disembarking after making the cross channel passage. In difficult conditions, where one woman fell and twisted her ankle, several men held down the swaying gangway for the 142 First Class, 30 Second Class and 102 Third Class passengers to come aboard.”

The same website points out: “Only 21 of those who embarked at Cherbourg were French, with the rest from America, England, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Poland, Russia, Syria and Uruguay.”

Audio-visual display in the Cité de la Mer

The Cité de la Mer has an elaborate audio-visual display showing in great detail the Titanic’s stop-over in Cherbourg, as well as a minute-by-minute account of its sinking in the North Atlantic three days later.

View from the Titanic, as imagined in the audio-visual display

As I have mentioned in several other posts, I am convinced that my maternal grandfather, who was 35 at the time, went to London on a business trip in the spring of 1912, and that he initially booked his return voyage on the Titanic, from Southampton via Cherbourg to New York. But for business reasons he later changed his booking and returned on a different ship.

This conviction is based not on any sort of oral history in my family, but on a newspaper article that I used to have a copy of but can’t find at the moment.

The article was mainly about a different man who changed his booking because he had bought a car in England, and the White Star Line wasn’t able to transport it on the Titanic at such short notice. This man went on and on to the reporter about how the car had saved his life and he was never going to sell it; he would drive it until it fell apart and then put it in his front yard in New Jersey and plant flowers in it.

Only the last few paragraphs of the article were about my grandfather, whose story was mundane by comparison. Yes, he had changed his booking but no, he never had any sort of premonition about the Titanic. He changed his plans solely for business reasons, and no, he never had the slightest foreboding about the Titanic, not even a slightly uneasy feeling, he just needed a few more days in London to get his work done.

The moment (in the audio-visual display) when the lookouts saw the iceberg

Perhaps I should point out that changing ships was not at all unusual in that era, especially on the North Atlantic route, since on any given day there were bound to be two or three ships from different companies leaving Europe for New York, and that’s only counting the ones that stopped in Cherbourg on the way.

The sinking of the Titanic as front-page news

While writing this post, I came across a website called Encyclopedia Titanica, which as the name implies is intended to tell you more about the Titanic than you ever wanted to know, and then some. The site includes a satire from an American newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal, from April 1912:

To Date Only About 6,000 Were About to Take Titanic But Changed Their Minds

It’s certain that two boats the size of Titanic could not carry the crowds that ‘just missed taking’ the lost ship. To date 3,482 Americans, 2,950 Britons and 476 scattered, all more or less prominent, have entered the “Just Missed It Club.”
It appears that 4,965 of these had engaged passage, but canceled their reservations before the Titanic sailed. Of this number, 899 had premonitions of disaster. The rest were in Paris and couldn’t break away. […] Firesides of future generations are sure to be thrilled by grandfather’s story of how his paternal ancestor ‘just missed it…’

Versions of this satire appeared in other American newspapers, with even more wildly inflated numbers, so it would seem that stories of ‘passengers who cancelled bookings aboard the Titanic’ were common in the weeks following the catastrophe, and not all were necessarily true. This worried me a bit, since I can’t find that article about my grandfather and can’t find any other confirmation online, but I still think it’s true that he was booked on the Titanic and changed his booking at short notice.

My grandfather never spoke about this (at least not to me), but I assume the Titanic was one of his motivations when he and others founded the National Safety Council the following year. He was the Managing Director of that organization from 1913 until he retired in 1942.

My photos and text in this post are from 2021.

See more posts on Cherbourg, France.
See more posts about my family history.

14 thoughts on “The Titanic in Cherbourg”

    1. Thank you, Doug. Especially for the specifics about passenger boarding at Cherbourg. FYI–My British grandmother and extended family ((mother, sister in law, brothers) also planned to book passage on TITANIC, 3rd class accommodations. My grandmother recalled the story that her superstitious mother was warned by gypsies not to sail on TITANIC as it was doomed. They emigrated in Aug 1912 aboard OCEANIC.

  1. I am enjoying your posts about Cherbourg very much indeed! I have travelled through Cherbourg many times but have never lingered there, something I feel I should rectify in the future. This post particularly struck a chord with me because I have just returned from a short break in Belfast where I visited the Titanic Quarter which I found fascinating.

  2. I had never heard about the connection between Cherbourg and the Titanic. I hope you find that newspaper article to confirm your belief about your grandfather’s narrow escape!

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