Sailing superstitions ignored – did redheads, priests and women curse the Titanic?

April 5th 2012
  • New findings suggest sailors’ superstitions came true
  • New White Star Line crew records on board the Titanic rescued from a skip and released online for the first time by findmypast

New analysis of the records of those on board the Titanic when it sunk on that fateful April day suggest it could have been doomed from the start according to sailor superstitions.*

Six maritime myths rang true on that ill-fated day of 15th April 1912, including the presence of women, priests and red-heads on board the ship, according to the most comprehensive set of Titanic records launching on Tuesday 10th April at findmypast.co.uk, a leading family history website.

Debra Chatfield, family historian at findmypast.co.uk, commented: “The records going live indicate sailor superstitions were wholly ignored on the Titanic’s doomed departure from Southampton. Throughout history sailors have been proverbially superstitious, but I bet few ever believed the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic would succumb to superstition. It leaves you wondering whether the cumulative effect of women, priests, dogs, barbers, flowers and red-heads on board – all commonly held superstitions among sailors – angered the sea so much it steered her towards her ill fate.”

The Unlucky Six Sailor Superstitions:**

  1. Women on board – 353 female passengers
  2. Dogs near tackle – 5 dogs reported rescued
  3. Priests on board – 5 men of religion
  4. Cutting hair on board – 3 barbers
  5. Flowers – 2 crew members with flower tattoos
  6. Red-heads – 2 on board; one crew member & the infamous Violet Jessop***

(All original records and images available. Please refer to fact sheet for more detailed information.)

Most comprehensive Titanic records go online
Maritime birth, marriage and death records in association with The National Archives and White Star Line Officers’ books, are being launched online for the first time at findmypast.co.uk, sitting alongside the Titanic Passenger Lists and Merchant Navy Seamen records which are already available to view.

Janet Dempsey, Maritime Records Specialist at The National Archives, commented: “Death At Sea was an occupational hazard for those who made their living on the water but this rarely deterred mariners. Many who survived the Titanic went on to serve throughout the First World War and some even into WW2. The BMD registers really illustrate just how hard life was at sea even for those men and women who served on luxury liners that were just not expected to sink. With death so common place it was hardly surprising that seafarers were a superstitious lot.”

Superstitions passed down the generations
And still, 100 years on from the sinking of the Titanic, Brits are as superstitious as ever, especially when it comes to seafaring. One in eight (12%) is aware of the myth around un-christened ships bringing bad luck - something speculation famously claims about the Titanic - while the most well-known superstition for a third of Brits (31%) is an unbroken bottle during the christening of a ship.****

Top 10 Ship Superstitions – 100 years on:****

  1. It’s bad luck if the bottle doesn’t break during the christening of a ship – 31%
  2. Dolphins swimming with the ship are a sign of good luck – 23%
  3. Renaming a boat or a ship is considered to be very unlucky – 17%
  4. Women on board a ship make the sea angry – 13%
  5. An un-christened ship is bad luck – 12%
  6. It is unlucky to have priests on board a ship – 4%
  7. It’s bad luck to look back once your ship has left port – 3%
    8. Never say the word 'drowned' at sea – 3%
  8. Don’t step onto the boat with your left foot first, as disaster will follow – 2%
  9. A shark following the ship is bad luck - 2%

Today’s Brits call on a number of superstitions for good luck and safe travel when embarking on a trip. Avoiding travel on Friday 13th takes the top spot (6%), followed by carrying a lucky charm such as a coin (4%), spring cleaning the house before travelling, and wearing a lucky item of clothing (2%)****.

Debra Chatfield concluded: “We can’t lead our lives based on myth and superstition, whether travel-related or otherwise, but in hindsight when considering the tragedy of the Titanic, it certainly is an eerie thought.”