William Martin and Violet Jessop

Introduction: Stewards and Stewardesses on Passenger Liners

People who went to sea as waiters and cooks, and as personal attendants to the passengers on board liners were officially termed “seamen”. Thus they signed on and off vessels by the procedures that have become familiar to users of this site. The same kind of information is available for the men and women who worked as cooks, stewards and stewardesses as for deck seamen and fireman. Above we observed that this was the group of seafaring workers whose numbers were increasing most in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

At Memorial when we consult an Agreement that belongs to a North Atlantic passenger liner of the Edwardian period or later what impresses us first is that a standard archival box has space enough only for one or two voyages of a single vessel. Documentation for the crews of a dozen or so cargo vessels fits into the same size box. The difference made to the size of the crew by the addition of catering and steward department workers is thus tangible. Leafing through an Agreement for a large North Atlantic liner of this period, the specialist occupations surely claim attention. There are special cooks for soup, sauces, pastries, grills, and fish; h’or d’euvre assistants, wine waiters and assistant waiters, squash racket and Turkish bath attendants, bell boys, and elevator attendants, and more -- at times the list of personal service workers seems endless. It illuminates how, for those traveling first class, these steamships were manned as “floating hotels”. Travel was not the same for all, however, and stewards, cooks and waiters were not apportioned equally throughout the vessel (Marine Caterer 1911, 17). More work of a basic kind was done in the third class where migrants leaving Continental Europe and Britain were accommodated in large numbers. Having garnered all their resources to pay the fare, and perhaps borrowed money in addition, these passengers were prepared to “make do” aboard the vessel.

Stewards assigned third class duties on their early voyages looked to move up the ladder. Passenger gratuities augmented the wages of stewards and waiters who attended second and first class passengers. Seafaring autobiographers were impressed by the luxury that surrounded first class passengers, but still they complained of the self-indulgent demands made on them by well-heeled travellers (Jessop 1998; Marlow 1937). In addition there was tension in a relationship that saw these workers remunerated differently from other crew on the vessel. A significant part of what was earned each voyage by waiters and stewards came from gratuities. The extent and justification of tipping sustained some interesting comments about how labour should be properly rewarded (“Wages and ‘Tips’”). Insinuations that the work of the male steward was unmanly were rather frequent too, yet because there was no direct comparison between male and female jobs in the department, even liners with stewardesses aboard continued to be regarded as all-male workplaces.

Waiters, stewards and stewardesses could find themselves criticized for a patronage relationship that seemed servile. A trade union, established in 1908, in Liverpool, tackled some of the misnomers about their employment. “The travelling public is generous in its demands but not in its tips”, one of its officials opined (Union Magazine 1909, 12). His union, the National Union of Ships’ Cooks Butchers and Bakers, kept up a membership of several thousand into the post-war period, indicating that the barriers to organization amongst these most individualistic of sea-going workers were not entirely insuperable (Union Magazine1909, 2-3: Studies in Labour and Capital 1923, 47).

Liner company revenues owed more to emigrant travel than to first class luxury travelers. Without government mail contracts, and private freight carriage too, these companies might not have been commercially viable. Liner services functioned as communication links across the empire. The Peninsular and Oriental Company (P&O) availed the British civil service and military with links to India and beyond. At termini in Bombay and Calcutta the company recruited steward department crew in addition to stokehold workers. The Lascar contract and its terms are discussed in the website’s next section.

The subjects who tell their tales here, William Martin and Violet Jessop, worked mostly on North Atlantic services. Martin’s exposure to imperial concerns came during the Boer war when he was in Naval service. As a Royal Mail Steam Packet stewardess before World War I, Violet Jessop traveled to the West Indies and to Britain’s informal empire in South America. Much later, and eager to see more of the world, she signed up for cruise-ship work, but she confessed herself to be less happy with a six month period of deployment that the shorter North Atlantic voyages.

Jessop and Martin both demonstrate a satisfaction in their work. But there are clues as well to the impositions made upon them by employers who looked at stewards and catering department crew with different eyes than they did deck seamen and the stokehold gang. Their narratives indicate that personal appearance had a bearing on job prospects. Jessop’s dressing down anticipated the personnel department’s suspicions that she might be interested in a job only on the prospect of finding herself a husband among the wealthier passengers, or failing that, among her fellow crew members. Martin’s quite different experience in respect of his tattoo is fictionalized, but his discharge book is real enough. Our story plays upon the unrespectable connotations of body adornment in the 1920s. In addition it picks up on themes of workplace identity and identification.

Jessop’s published autobiography is a rich and revealing discussion of the thoughts and experiences of a career stewardess of the period. Not least enthralling is her account of the wartime sinking of the Britannic hospital ship. This eclipses in its vividness her recollections of the Titanic’s loss, but she is most likely to be remembered as one of the eighteen stewardesses who survived the wreck of that ill-fated vessel. Undoubtedly the interest in the event encouraged the publication of an edited autobiography, which is otherwise unavailable to the public. Titanic Survivor is one of the sources from which the website script was written, but for Jessop and for Martin too, further information was gleaned from transcripts of oral history interviews done by a project member in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although neither Jessop nor Martin were the subjects of those interviews, the effect here replicates the way that oral informants deliver their insights while reminiscing on the distant experiences that have shaped their personal histories.


Jessop, Violet, and John Maxtone-Graham. Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

Labour Research Department, Studies in Labour and Capital, vol. VI.  London : Labour Pub. Co. Ltd., 1923.

Marlowe, Dave. Coming, Sir! The autobiography of a waiter, etc. London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1937.

National Union of Ship’s Cooks, Butchers and Bakers, Union Magazine 1,1 (July 1909).

National Union of Ship’s Cooks, Butchers and Bakers, Marine Caterer, 1 (1911).