Joseph Bruce Ismay 12 December 1862 – 17 October 1937) was an English businessman who served as chairman and managing director of the White Star Line. In 1912 he came to international attention as the highest-ranking White Star official to survive the sinking of the company's brand new flagship RMS Titanic, for which he was subject to severe criticism.
Ismay was born at Crosby, Merseyside. He was the son of Thomas Ismay, the senior partner in Ismay, Imrie and Company and the founder of the White Star Line. The younger Ismay was educated at Elstree School and Harrow, then tutored in France for a year. He was then apprenticed at his father's office for four years, after which he toured the world. He then went to New York City as the company representative there, eventually rising to the rank of agent.
In 1888, Ismay married Florence Schieffelin of New York, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Three years later, he returned with his family to the United Kingdom and became a partner in his father's firm, Ismay, Imrie and Company. In 1899, Thomas Ismay died, and his son became head of the family business.
Bruce Ismay had a head for business, and the White Star Line flourished under his leadership. In addition to his ship business, Ismay also served as a director of several other companies. However, in 1901, he was approached by Americans who wished to build an international shipping conglomerate. Ismay agreed to merge his firm into the International Mercantile Marine Company.
In 1906, Ismay met with Lord Pirrie of the Harland & Wolff shipbuilding company of Belfast. Together, they planned to build a steamer that would outdo the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania, the recently-unveiled marvels of White Star's chief competitor, Cunard Line.
Ismay's new type of ship would not only be fast, but would also have huge steerage capacity and luxury unparalleled in the history of oceangoing steamships. The latter condition was largely meant to woo the wealthy and prosperous middle class. Three ships were planned. One would be White Star Line's pride and joy, the RMS Titanic, which began its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City on April 10, 1912.
Ismay occasionally accompanied his ships on their maiden voyages, and Titanic was one of them. When the ship hit an iceberg south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and started sinking on the night of April 14, he was rescued in Collapsible Lifeboat C. Taken aboard the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, he arrived in New York on the 18th. Ismay later testified at Titanic disaster inquiry hearings held by both the U.S. Senate (chaired by Senator William Alden Smith) and the British Board of Trade (chaired by Lord Mersey).
After being picked up by the Carpathia, Ismay was led to the cabin belonging to the ship's doctor, which he reportedly did not leave for the entire journey. He ate nothing solid and received only a single visitor for the entire journey.
Ismay was staring straight ahead, shaking like a leaf. Even when I spoke to him, he paid absolutely no attention. I have never seen a man so completely wrecked. — Jack Thayer, First Class passenger on Titanic
After the disaster, he was savaged by both the American and the English press for deserting the ship while women and children were still on board. Some papers called him "J. Brute Ismay", some ran negative cartoons of him deserting the ship. London society ostracized him, and labeled him one of the biggest cowards in history. In 1913, he resigned as president of International Mercantile Marine, to be succeeded by Harold Sanderson.
After the Titanic tragedy, Ismay continued to be active in maritime affairs. He inaugurated a cadet ship called Mersey used to train officers for the merchant navy, donated £11,000 to start a fund for lost seamen, and in 1919 gave £25,000 to set up a fund to recognize the contribution of merchant mariners in World War I.
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