Joseph Bruce Ismay was born in Crosby, Liverpool, on 12th December, 1862. The eldest son to Thomas Ismay, the founder of the White Star Line and partner of Ismay, Imrie and Company, Joseph grew up to serve as the White Star Line’s company agent in New York.
J. Bruce Ismay returned to his native country in 1891 and was made partner of the White Star Line. When his father died in 1899, Joseph became the head of the business, and it was in 1901 that he formed a conglomerate of shipping companies, known as the International Mercantile Marine Company.
It was one summer evening in 1907 that changed the face of the White Star Line forever, as J. Bruce Ismay and his wife, Julia Florence, attended a dinner party at Downshire House in Belgravia, London. The host, Lord Pirrie, a partner of Harland & Wolff, a Belfast shipbuilders, came to discuss with Ismay the idea of creating three major luxury sea liners: the RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and the RMS Britannic.
The ships were expected to rival liners from competitor Cunard, who had recently launched the Lusitania and Mauretania, which offered a different class of luxury in comparison with other ships. The liners were faster and bigger than any other vessel before it. Agreeing that speed was not an issue, Ismay and Pirrie decided to launch the most luxurious, largest and comfortable ships on sea. The three liners hoped to help the company maximise the growing immigration trade, which is why they offered different accommodation classes to suit wealthy and low income travellers.
Ismay traditionally boarded every ship on its maiden voyage, so travelled on the RMS Titanic on 10th April 1912. When the ship began to sink after hitting an iceberg at 11.40pm on 14th April 1912, J. Bruce Ismay chose to escape the liner he helped design by taking a seat in a lifeboat. Reports state that Ismay refused to turn back and look at the sinking vessel, and it is believed his hair turned white overnight.
Life After the Titanic
His decision to escape on a lifeboat haunted him for the rest of his days. The world’s press branded him a coward for leaving two-thirds of the passengers to drown on the ship. While Ismay insisted that he only escaped on a lifeboat once the ship’s deck was clear, yet many survivor accounts state otherwise.
Following the tragedy, Ismay faced inquiries about the ship’s speed, lifeboat shortages and iceberg warnings; however, he was cleared of any accountability, despite the claim by the Titanic’s chief designer that it was Ismay’s idea to limit the number of lifeboats onboard. His wife spoke of how Ismay regularly suffered from nightmares that would wake the house, and that he often received hate mail. He later refuse to talk about the night or events surrounding it in both public and private. In his later years, J. Bruce Ismay gave £11,000 to create a fund that benefited the widows of lost seamen. In 1919, he founded a fund that recognised the contribution of merchantmen in the war.
J. Bruce Ismay died on 17th October 1973, leaving behind two sons and two daughters.