J Bruce Ismay – a summary

Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of White Star shipping, survived the sinking of the Titanic, one of his ships, and has been condemned by history for taking a place in the last life boat.

J Bruce Ismay was born in Crosby, near Liverpool, on 12 December 1862.  He was the eldest of seven children born to Thomas Henry Ismay, an industrialist, and Margaret Ismay (née Bruce).

Ismay’s family had strong connections to England’s shipping industry. His paternal grandfather, Luke Bruce, was a prominent ship-owner and his father was partner in the shipping company, Ismay, Imrie & Company.  When the younger Ismay was almost 7 years old, his father established the White Star Line shipping company.

As a young boy, Ismay attended Elstree preparatory school, before being sent to Harrow, a first-rate public school.

Father and Son

It has been said that the relationship between Ismay and his father was fraught, with Ismay Snr in the habit of humiliating and bullying his son at every opportunity.  The fractious interactions between father and son had a profound effect on the impressionable boy, who would become shy, withdrawn and emotionally isolated.  This was a pattern which would be perpetuated into adulthood – Ismay had very few friends, and when he wasn’t working, lived a hermit-like existence.

His difficulties with his father did not, however, dissuade him from entering the family business.  Upon completing his education, he was given an apprenticeship with Ismay, Imrie & Company and, after four years learning the ropes, he travelled to America to take up the position of the company’s agent in New York City.

In 1888, Ismay married Julia Florence Schieffelin, an American heiress, with whom he would have four children, two boys and two girls.  Three years after the marriage, they returned to England, where Ismay took up a position as partner in Ismay, Imrie & Company.

White Star

Upon his father’s death in 1899, Ismay took over the running of the family firm.  He displayed a considerable flair for the shipping business, and despite his innate shyness, the company continued to thrive under his stewardship.

J Bruce Ismay’s acute business acumen was in evidence in 1901, when he thrashed out a deal to sell his firm to International Mercantile Marine, a shipping conglomerate owned by American financier, JP Morgan.  Under the terms of the agreement, ownership of the company passed to Morgan, while Ismay remained at the helm of White Star Line as Chairman and Managing Director.

In the blueprints for the design of the Titanic, the ship could hold up to 46 lifeboats.  However, fearful that the first class promenade decks would be overcrowded with the cumbersome and unsightly vessels, Ismay insisted that the number be reduced to the minimum requirement of 16 (with a further four collapsible rafts, known as Collapsible A – D, positioned above the officer’s quarters).

In his capacity as Chairman, Ismay travelled on the maiden voyages of all White Star’s vessels, and RMS Titanic was no exception. On 10 April 1912, he boarded the ship, fully aware that the successful completion of this maiden crossing would be his crowning achievement.  Little did he know that the opposite would prove to be true – that this particular voyage would, in fact, be the death knell which would signal the end of his distinguished career.

The Last Lifeboat

On the night of the disaster, Ismay’s actions were commendable – at first.

He patrolled the decks, giving orders, and helping to load the lifeboats with women and children.  But when the ship was close about to go under, his sense of duty abandoned him.  Faced with the prospect of an almost certain death when the ship foundered, Ismay made a split-second decision which would haunt him for the rest of his days – he decided to save himself by stepping into the last lifeboat as it was being lowered away.

The fact that Ismay was Chairman of White Star, coupled with the fact that he survived the sinking when so many others had perished, meant that he became a target for those looking for somebody to blame for the tragedy.  His actions were widely pilloried, and in the court of public opinion, condemnation was swift and brutal.

He was widely ridiculed in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, with cartoons lampooning his perceived cowardice.  The American press were particularly unrestrained in their assessment of the White Star Line’s Chairman, bestowing on him such monikers as ‘The Coward of the Titanic’ and ‘J Brute Ismay’.  His reputation would never recover.

Ismay left the White Star Line in 1913.  He lived out the rest of days dividing his time between his homes in Ireland and London.

J Bruce Ismay died, aged 74, of a blood clot in the brain on 17 October 1937.  He is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery in London, England.

‘What do you think I am? Do you believe that I’m the sort that would have left that ship as long as there were any women and children on board? That’s the thing that hurts, and it hurts all the more because it is so false and baseless. I have searched my mind with deepest care, I have thought long over each single incident that I could recall of that wreck. I’m sure that nothing wrong was done; that I did nothing that I should not have done. My conscience is clear and I have not been a lenient judge of my own acts.’  J Bruce Ismay.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Read more about the Titanic in Titanic: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

See also articles on Captain Edward Smith, the ship’s captain; and Charles Lightoller, Second Officer on board the Titanic.