The Story of RMS Olympic - The Titanic's Forgotten Sister

The Story of RMS Olympic – The Titanic’s Forgotten Sister Vessel


Did you know the Titanic wasn’t the only vessel of its kind? The lavish and infamous ship was actually part of a White Star Line fleet, made up of three large vessels RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic.

Built by the White Star Line Shipping Company to compete for the lucrative transatlantic passenger business in the early 20th century, this is the fascinating story of what happened to RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s long-lost sister.

A New Class of Liners

In the early 20th Century, 1906 to be exact, the White Star Line’s biggest rivals, Cunard, launched two of the world’s fastest passenger ships, the Lusitania and Mauretania. This was a huge blow to White Star, who were falling behind in the title race for the most innovative shipping company.

In response, the White Star Line’s Chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, decided to focus his next vessels on scale and luxury, rather than try to win in a battle of speed. This idea really took off after Ismay and his wife, Julia, attended a lavish dinner party hosted by Lord Pirrie, a partner of Harland & Wolff Belfast shipbuilding company. During the dinner, Ismay and Pirrie discussed and agreed on the idea of building three luxurious Olympic class cruise liners, RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic.

These vessels were to be a new class of liner, much bigger and more luxurious than any before them. The White Star Line commissioned them, and work soon began at Harland & Wolff shipyards on the first of the trio, RMS Olympic.

RMS Olympic and Titanic
Olympic and Titanic side by side / Source: Wikipedia:Soerfm

Shortly after work began on RMS Olympic, they started to plan her slightly younger twin sister, The Titanic. The two vessels were built side by side between 1909 and 1912 and because of the sheer size of the ships, Harland & Wolff had to combine three existing slipways into two larger ones. Altogether, the company employed over 3000 men to build the first two liners in the new White Star fleet and White Star paid £3 million for the vessels, plus a 5% fee and “extras to contract.”

RMS Olympic Sets Sail

In October 1910, RMS Olympic was officially launched. The vessel spent the next eight months being fitted out and first sailed from Belfast to Liverpool in May 1911. This trip was perfectly timed to coincide with the launching of her younger sister, RMS Titanic in Belfast.

Her maiden voyage commenced on 14th June 1911 from Southampton. She would call at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown in Ireland before arriving at her destination of New York on 21st June. An identical route to the one RMS Titanic would plan to take just 10 months later.

First captained by Captain Edward John Smith, who would later command RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic was an impressive 882 feet long with a beam of 92 feet and a gross registered tonnage of 45,324. When she set sail, RMS Olympic was the largest ship in the world, only to be replaced by the Titanic at 46,328 GRT.

A Triumph for the White Star Line

RMS Olympic was a roaring success, she was the largest and most luxurious cruise liner the world had ever seen. She could carry over 2,500 passengers in three classes of service and featured multiple dining rooms, smoking rooms, libraries, a gymnasium and a carved grand staircase.

Her beautiful interior was a stunning rich mix of styles, with marble features, ornate golden detailing and magnificent plush furnishings. One lucky traveller commented: “You may sleep in a bed depicting one ruler’s fancy, breakfast under another dynasty altogether, lunch under a different flag and furniture scheme, play cards or smoke, or indulge in music under three other monarchs.”

RMS Olympic
RMS Olympic’s carved grand staircase / Source: Wikicommons

When RMS Olympic arrived in New York, she was opened to the public and over 8,000 visitors came aboard to be the first to catch a glimpse of this impressive vessel. When the ship left New York, more than 10,000 came to wave her off!

Over the next 10 months, RMS Olympic was the talk of the world, gaining huge fame on the Atlantic. She was much more famous that her sister, Titanic, because she was the first of her class. Only after RMS Titanic sank did she eclipse the Olympic’s fame.

Disaster Strikes

On 20th September 1911, RMS Olympic was involved in its first maritime disaster when the huge vessel collided into HMS Hawke, a British warship. On the fateful day, both ships were running parallel to each other through the Solent when disaster struck. HMS Hawke, unaware of the wide radius of RMS Olympic, impacted the hull when the large vessel turned starboard. The British warship tore two large holes in Olympic’s hull, above and below the waterline.

This near catastrophic damage resulted in water filling two of RMS Olympic’s watertight compartments and significant damage to the propeller shaft. While HMS Hawke was nearly completely capsized, RMS Olympic sailed safely back to Southampton.

This maritime disaster proved very expensive for the White Star Line. The Royal Navy held RMS Olympic responsible for the damage to both ships, which resulted in large legal bills for the company and a big repair bill.

HMS Hawke
HMS Hawke after the collision / Source:

Thankfully, RMS Olympic recovered very quickly from the damage. She was patched up within two weeks at Belfast and permanently repaired within 6 weeks of the incident. However, this maritime disaster forced Harland & Wolff to delay the completion date of the Titanic. This was mainly due to them having to use a propeller shaft for Olympic that was meant for the Titanic.

RMS Olympic was allowed to return to regular service on 29th November 1911. However, just three months later, the vessel lost a propeller blade on a voyage to New York and was forced to return to Belfast for further repairs. This delayed the completion of RMS Titanic even further.

The Titanic’s Fateful Maiden Voyage

In April 1912, as the Titanic set sail on her infamous maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, RMS Olympic was sailing eastbound for Southampton. In the early hours of 15th April, RMS Olympic received a distress signal by radio stating that her sister had collided with an iceberg.

Olympic’s captain changed course immediately and raced to her rescue. However, the first ship to reach the wreck was the Cunard liner Carpathia. RMS Olympic offered to take on survivors, however the captain of Carpathia refused, claiming that the survivors would be traumatised if they were asked to board Titanic’s identical twin.

RMS Carpathia braved dangerous ice fields and diverted all steam power to her engines in her rescue mission. She arrived only two hours after Titanic had sunk and rescued 705 survivors from the ship’s lifeboats.

Improvements Are Made

After the huge Titanic disaster, it was clear that the White Star fleet needed a refit. The reason Titanic sunk was due to the design of the watertight compartments. The bulkheads between them did not extend to the top of the hull, meaning that as one compartment flooded, water flowed into the next.

RMS Olympic Liner - about Titanic artefact

Harland & Wolff corrected this design flaw by extending the watertight bulkhead to the top of the hull and adding an inner watertight skin to the boiler and engine rooms, creating a double hull. Whilst the ship was in Belfast, they also made some significant improvement to the interiors. They added more rooms with private baths, because these were hugely popular, they also added more lifeboats, increasing from 20 to 64, to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew.

The War Years

In May 1915, RMS Olympic was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and served as a troop transport. She was stripped of her peacetime fittings and armed with a 12-pound cannon and 4.7-inch guns.

Throughout World War One, Olympic carried 6000 troops at a time and made multiple runs between Britain and the Mediterranean in support of the Gallipoli campaign. In 1916-17, she was chartered by Canada to carry soldiers from Halifax in Nova Scotia to Great Britain. During this time, the vessel was painted with ‘dazzle’ camouflage to protect her from German U-boats.

In 1917, the United States entered the war and RMS Olympic shifted to start transporting American troops. In May 1918, while ferrying troops across the English Channel, Olympic encountered a U-103 on the surface. RMS Olympic rammed and sunk the submarine before it could open fire, the whole crew was saved.

Throughout the war, RMS Olympic safely transported over 200,000 troops, earning her the affectionate nickname, ‘Old Reliable’.

The Roaring 20s

After the war finally came to an end, RMS Olympic returned to Belfast to be refitted for civilian use again. Harland & Wolff completely modernised her interior and converted the engine from coal to oil, this reduced refuelling time from days to hours.

RMS Olympic library
RMS Olympic second class library / Source: Reddit

Olympic resumed her transatlantic route in 1920 and started a long stint which would become a high point in her career. Attracting many rich and famous passengers, she carried members of the British royal family and movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Many people flocked to travel on the Titanic’s sister, morbidly seeking a thrilling voyage on this near identical vessel.

The End of RMS Olympic’s Story

After the US passed a series of laws that limited immigration, all the major passenger ship lines suffered financial losses. The profitability of the transatlantic passenger business was centred around sales of one-way tickets purchased by immigrants travelling to America.

To compensate for this loss, the White Star Line made several upgrades to RMS Olympic’s accommodation offer, in the hopes it would attract more holiday travellers. However, even after these improvements, Olympic struggled to compete with newer ships like Germany’s SS Bremen, Italy’s SS Rex or France’s SS Île de France.

As a result of the Great Depression, the White Star Line merged with its rival, Cunard, in 1934. The British government agreed to loan the new company £9.5 million for the construction of two new liners, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

RMS Olympic scrapping
RMS Olympic arrives for scrapping in Jarrow / Source: Flickr

Sadly, as these new ships were completed, the decision was made to scrap RMS Olympic in 1935. She was dismantled in Jarrow, England in order to create jobs for unemployed workers. As Olympic sailed to her grave, her chief engineer sighed: “I could understand the necessity if the ‘Old Lady’ had lost her efficiency, but the engines are as sound as they ever were.”

Her Legacy

After Olympic was dismantled, many might have thought that was the end of the line for her. However, while the vessel was broken apart, her fittings and furnishing found new life elsewhere. The lavish interior fittings were sold to a number of buyers at auction in November 1935.

While many have been lost over time, there are still some sections of RMS Olympic that can be seen to this day. These surviving fittings give us an opportunity to discover the past and catch a glimpse of the Olympic’s grandeur.

By the time RMS Olympic was retired, she had completed 257 round trips across the Atlantic, carried 430,000 commercial passengers and travelled 1.8 million miles. Despite the misfortune of her younger sister, RMS Olympic is a true example of a technological marvel, a clever and wonderful response to the opportunities of the transatlantic passenger business.

Remembering RMS Olympic at 30 James Street Hotel

If you’d like to enjoy a slice of first-class life aboard one of the White Star Line fleet, discover 30 James Street Hotel. A unique and luxurious tribute to the ill-fated Titanic, our stunning hotel features a whole floor dedicated to RMS Olympic.

30 James Street Hotel

Filled with fascinating history and set within the building that was once the White Star Line headquarters in Liverpool, our beautiful hotel is the perfect destination for fans of luxury.

From opulent rooms and suites, to a stunning rooftop restaurant and bar dedicated to Carpathia and our tranquil Morgan’s Spa, 30 James Street – Home of the Titanic is much more than a luxury Liverpool hotel.

Call now on 0151 601 8801 or email to arrange a stay, meal,  spa visit or special event at 30 James Street – Home of Titanic.