Have you ever fallen in love with a historical figure? It can happen in an instant, or it can be a long, drawn-out love affair as you discover more about them, and your imagination fills in the rest. I’m fond of historical love affairs, of finding people in history you admire, with traits that make them stand out from their peers, or best of all, historical figures who have been in some way misunderstood all these years.
Thomas Andrews isn’t misunderstood, but I am very fond of him, both as a famous face from the disaster and as a human being. Not much is known about him, but what is known is that he was a good-natured Irishman and along with that good nature went a kind heart. Once, after being partly responsible for shenanigans that got him into trouble at a hotel, he decided that since this would require him to buy a brass bedstead (he and his friends apparently were jumping on it), he ought to find the bed a new home – and he did, taking it apart and shipping it downtown via the use of his friends and a friendly tram conductor to the needy, sick husband of a hotel employee.
The ambitious, perfectionist Thomas started working in the Yard at Harland & Wolff at age sixteen, and worked his way up through every department, until he was the Chief Designer and head of the drafting department. This not only made him well known and liked in the company, but allowed him to understand every facet of the labor, construction, and design of great ships. He knew how it all worked, he had been part of the labor force, and his compassion toward workers is shown in the minute details of Titanic, such as the unexpected water fountain found in the firemen’s quarters, at the top of the spiral staircase. Andrews was in many respects fearless; once, when a hot rivet nearly hit him on the head, he simply kicked it aside, laughed, and went on about his day.
Like any shipyard, the building process of Titanic was fraught with occasional mishaps and accidents. In one instance, an associate and friend of Andrews’ called Anthony Frost climbed 80 feet of scaffolding to secure some loose boards. Once up there, Frost became terrified and incapable of climbing back down, so Thomas went up to rescue him before securing the boards himself. (Tragically, Frost and Andrews both went down with the ship.) His kinship to the men of the yard was so great that not only did he refer to them as his “pals,” but all deeply mourned his death.
While many have criticized the design of Titanic’s watertight bulkhead doors, the true merit of Andrews’ immaculate design is revealed in the manner of her submersion. Titanic was struck on one side, but sank at an almost even keel. Her submersion by the head permitted time enough to launch all the lifeboats safely, with the exception of the collapsible (which floated off the deck.) Compare this to recent ship collisions in which cruise liners listed to one side and then rolled over, rendering many of their lifeboats unusable. Andrews’ design was not flawed but safer than most modern feats of ship engineering.
Though still aware of such small details as the wrong choice of paint color or too many screws in the stateroom hat racks, Andrews was quite satisfied with Titanic, and remarked on April 14 that “she is as nearly perfect as human brains can make her.” Yet, that very night he was forced to assess the damage, encourage passengers to put on their life belts, make certain the staterooms were evacuated and assist women into the lifeboats.
Thomas Andrews died as he lived – with grace, honor, and dignity.