J. Bruce Ismay

From SpottingWorld, the Hub for the SpottingWorld network...
J. Bruce Ismay
Born Joseph Bruce Ismay
12 December 1862(1862-12-12)
Crosby, Lancashire, England
Died 17 October 1937 (aged 74)
Mayfair, London, England
Occupation Ship-owner
Spouse(s) Julia Florence Schieffelin

Joseph Bruce Ismay (12 December 1862 – 17 October 1937[1]) was an English businessman who served as chairman and managing director of the White Star Line of steamships. He came to international attention as the highest-ranking White Star official among the 706 people (vs. 1,517 fatalities from crew and passengers totaling 2,223) to survive the maiden voyage of his company's marquee ocean liner, the RMS Titanic.[2]

He did not retire as long as business continued to deal with several companies in Liverpool and London, and founded two charities. It was not until 1934 that he finally retired. He died on October 17, 1937 at the age of 74.


Early life

Logo of the White Star Line

Ismay was born in the Liverpool suburb of Crosby, Merseyside. He was the son of Thomas Ismay (7 January 1837 – 23 November 1899) and Margaret Bruce (13 April 1837 – 9 April 1907), daughter of ship-owner Luke Bruce.[3] Thomas Ismay was the senior partner in Ismay, Imrie and Company and the founder of the White Star Line.[Note 1][4]. The younger Ismay was educated at Elstree School and Harrow, then tutored in France for a year. He 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, eventually rising to the rank of agent.[5]

On 4 December 1888, Ismay married Julia Florence Schieffelin, daughter of George Richard Schieffelin and Julia Matilda Delaplaine of New York, with whom he had five children (one of whom died in infancy):[6]

  • Margaret Bruce Ismay (born 29 December 1889), who married George Ronald Hamilton Cheape (1881–1957) in 1912
  • Evelyn Constance Ismay (born 17 July 1897), who married Basil Sanderson (1894–1971) in 1927
  • George Bruce Ismay (born 6 June 1902), who married Florence Victoria Edrington in 1926

In 1891, Ismay 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 Bruce Ismay became head of the family business. Ismay had a head for business, and the White Star Line flourished under his leadership. In addition to running 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.[4]

As the chairman of White Star Line

At the death of his father on Nov. 23, 1899[7] · [8], Bruce Ismay succeed him as the chairman of White Star Line. He decided to build four ocean liners to surpass the RMS Oceanic (1899) built by his father: the ships were dubbed the Big Four: RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic, and RMS Adriatic. These vessels, designed more for luxury and safety than speed.[9]

In 1902, J. P. Morgan & Co. financed the formation of International Mercantile Marine Company, an Atlantic shipping combine which absorbed several major American and British lines. IMM a holding company that controlled subsidiary corporations that had their own operating subsidiaries. Morgan hoped to dominate transatlantic shipping through interlocking directorates and contractual arrangements with the railroads, but that proved impossible because of the unscheduled nature of sea transport, American antitrust legislation, and an agreement with the British government.[10] In 1902, Ismay negotiated to have IMM bought the White Star Line. In February 1904, Ismay took his place at the head of the International Mercantile Marine Co. with the support of Morgan and obtained full powers. White Star Line then became one of IMM's subsidiaries.[11]

RMS Titanic

In 1907, Ismay met with Lord Pirrie of the Harland & Wolff shipyard to discuss White Star's answer to the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania[Note 2], the recently-unveiled marvels of their chief competitor, Cunard Line. Ismay's new type of ship would not only be fast, it would also have huge steerage capacity and luxury unparalleled in the history of oceangoing steamships. The latter feature was largely meant to woo the wealthy and the prosperous middle class. To accommodate the luxurious features Ismay ordered the number of lifeboats reduced from 48 down to 16, the latter being the minimum allowed by the Board of Trade, based on the Titanic's projected tonnage.[12][13] Three ships were planned and built. The second of these 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 10 April 1912. The first and third ships of this class were the RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic, which the firm had originally intended to name Gigantic.[14]

Ismay occasionally accompanied his ships on their maiden voyages, and the Titanic was one of them.[4] During the voyage, Ismay talked with chief engineer Joseph Bell about a possible test of speed if time permited[15]. When the ship hit an iceberg 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and started sinking on the night of 14 April 1912, Ismay was rescued in Collapsible Lifeboat C.[16] He testified that as the ship was in her final moments, he turned away, unable to watch his creation sink beneath the waters of the North Atlantic. He was taken aboard the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia and arrived in New York on 18 April. Ismay later testified at the Titanic disaster inquiry hearings held by both the U.S. Senate (chaired by Senator William Alden Smith) the following day, and the British Board of Trade (chaired by Lord Mersey) a few weeks later.

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, received only a single visitor, and was kept under the influence of opiates.[citation needed]

After the disaster, Ismay was savaged by both the American and the British press for deserting the ship while women and children were still on board. Some papers called him "J. Brute Ismay" and suggested that the White Star flag be changed to a yellow liver. Some ran negative cartoons depicting him deserting the ship. The writer Ben Hecht, then a young newspaperman in Chicago, wrote a scathing poem contrasting the actions of Capt. Smith and Ismay. The final verse reads: "To hold your place in the ghastly face of death on the sea at night is a seaman's job, but to flee with the mob, is an owner's noble right."[17] In the American state of Texas, the citizens of a new town named Ismay "decided to change the name of their community to something -- anything -- less ignominious." [18]

Some maintain Ismay followed the "women and children first" principle, having assisted many women and children himself. He and first-class passenger William Carter said they boarded Collapsible C after there were no more women and children near that particular lifeboat. Carter's behavior and reliability, however, was criticized by Mrs. Carter, who sued him for divorce in 1914; she testified Carter had left her and their children to fend for themselves after the crash and accused him of "cruel and barbarous treatment and indignities to the person." [19] London society ostracised Ismay and labelled him one of the biggest cowards in history. Strong negative press came particularly from newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst, who some claimed fostered a personal vendetta.[20] On 30 June 1913, Ismay resigned as president of International Mercantile Marine and chairman of the White Star Line, to be succeeded by Harold Sanderson.

Ismay's reputation was irreparably damaged and he maintained a low public profile after the disaster. He did maintain an interest in maritime affairs. He inaugurated a cadet ship called Mersey used to train officers for Britain's Merchant Navy, donated £11,000 to start a fund for lost seamen, and in 1919 gave £25,000 to set up a fund to recognise the contribution of merchant mariners in World War I.

Later life

Ismay kept out of the public eye for most of the remainder of his life. He retired from active affairs in the mid-1920s, and settled with his wife in a large 'cottage', Costelloe Lodge, near Costelloe in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. His health declined in the 1930s, following a diagnosis of diabetes, which took a turn for the worse in early 1936, when the illness resulted in amputation of part of his right leg. He returned to England a few months later, settling in a small house on the Wirral across the River Mersey from Liverpool. J. Bruce Ismay died in Mayfair, London, on 17 October 1937, of a cerebral thrombosis, at the age of 74. His funeral was held on 21 October 1937, and he is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery, London.[21] He was survived by his wife, Julia Schieffelin. After his death, she renounced her British citizenship in order to restore her American citizenship on 14 November 1949. Julia Florence Ismay, née Schieffelin, died 31 December 1963, aged 92, in Kensington, London.


J. Bruce Ismay has been played by many actors in different versions of the Titanic story.

He is also referenced in Derek Mahon's poem 'After the Titanic'.


There are a number of controversies concerning Ismay's actions on board the Titanic.

During the congressional investigations, some passengers testified that during the voyage they heard Ismay pressuring Captain Edward J. Smith to go faster, in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule and generate some free press about the new liner. One passenger claimed to have seen Ismay flaunting one of the iceberg warnings at dinner time, waving it around, then placing it back in his pocket. These claims are neither supported nor contradicted by evidence from any of the surviving officers.


  1. Oceanic Steam Navigation Company was generally known as White Star Line, which was the name of the company purchased by Thomas Ismay.
  2. The duo themselves were designed to compete with the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and SS Deutschland (1900) owned respectively by the Norddeutscher Lloyd and the Hamburg America Line, the two German top shipping companies.


  1. The Times, Monday, Oct 18, 1937; pg. 16; col D
  2. "J. Bruce Ismay, 74, Titanic Survivor. Ex-Head of White Star Line Who Retired After Sea Tragedy Dies in London.". New York Times. 19 October 1937. "Joseph Bruce Ismay, former chairman of the White Star Line and a survivor of the Titanic disaster in 1912, died here last night. He was 74 years old." 
  3. Mr Joseph Bruce Ismay, Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 (French) Histoire de la White Star Line, le Site du Titanic. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  5. (Mark Chirnside 2004, p. 144)
  6. Married in early december, The New York Times, Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  7. Thomas Henry Ismay, The Ismay Family. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  8. Thomas Henry Ismay dead, The New York Times, Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  9. (Mark Chirnside 2004, p. 11)
  10. John J. Clark, and Margaret T. Clark, "The International Mercantile Marine Company: A Financial Analysis," American Neptune 1997 57(2): 137-154
  11. Griscom is no longer head of the Ship Combine, The New York Times, Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  12. 3-Nov-2008 Channel 4 documentary The Unsinkable Titanic
  13. (French) Les canots de sauvetage, le Site du Titanic. Retrieved 14 August 2009
  14. (Gérard Piouffre 2009, p. 39)
  15. (Gerard Piouffre 2009, p. 111-112)
  16. (French) Composition du radeau pliable C, le Site du Titanic. Retrieved August 14, 2009
  17. ISBN 0-688-04939-7 Walter Lord, "The Night Lives On." New York: William Morrow and Company. 1986. pp. 211-12.'
  18. ISBN 0-688-04939-7 Walter Lord, "The Night Lives On." New York: William Morrow and Company. 1986. pp. 212-13.'
  19. ISBN 0-688-04939-7 Walter Lord, "The Night Lives On." New York: William Morrow and Company. 1986. pp. 216-17.'
  20. Titanic Historical Society, Inc. - "Ismay and the Titanic"
  21. Kerrigan, Michael (1998). Who Lies Where - A guide to famous graves. London: Fourth Estate Limited. p. 285. ISBN 1-85702-258-0. 

External links

Further reading

  • Chirnside, Mark: The Olympic-class ships. Tempus, 2004 (ISBN 0-7524-2868-3)
  • (French) Piouffre, Gérard: Le Titanic ne répond plus. Larousse, 2009 (ISBN 2-263-02799-8)

ca:Bruce Ismay de:Bruce Ismay es:J. Bruce Ismay eo:Joseph Bruce Ismay fr:Joseph Bruce Ismay it:Joseph Bruce Ismay nl:Bruce Ismay no:J. Bruce Ismay pl:Joseph Bruce Ismay pt:J. Bruce Ismay fi:J. Bruce Ismay sv:Joseph Bruce Ismay