Unsinkable: The remarkable story of Violet Jessop and John Priest

People who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 were a select fraternity. After all, there were only a few hundred of them. But how many had the experience twice? As far as we know, there were only two: Violet Jessop and John Priest…and they probably never met.

Violet Jessop was a stewardess, sort of a female purser, on the Olympic, the first of three state of the art sister ships of the White Star Line. John Priest was a stoker, shoveling coal to feed the furnaces and make the ship go. They lived in different worlds; Violet dressed primly and mingled with the well-heeled passengers. while John worked stripped to the waist in 100 plus degree heat in the furnace rooms, never seeing the sun for weeks at a time. But one thing they had in common was a dependence on the ship that employed then to protect them from the hungry ocean on which they traveled.

The Olympic’s sister ships were the Titanic, and the Britannic. The ships were almost identical. On one of the first voyages of the Olympic, the ship collided with a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke. Although two watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to limp back to port.  Violet Jessop and John Priest counted themselves lucky to have survived a near disaster. A year later, they were on the new Titanic on her maiden voyage. When the ship hit the iceberg, Violet found herself in a lifeboat. As the boat was being lowered, someone thrust a baby in her hands for safekeeping. After a long night in the lifeboat, Violet, the baby, and the others in the boat were rescued by the Carpathia. On the Carpathia, Violet says, a woman took the baby from her and disappeared without saying a word.

John Priest’s experience was a bit different. With only light clothing, he had find his way up through the bowels of the ship, now listing and rapidly filling with seawater. When he finally reached an open deck, the lifeboats had gone and he had to swim in the frigid ocean until rescued.

Now they had survived two collisions in two identical ships.

Violet_jessop_titanicpriest But fate wasn’t through with Miss Jessop and Mr Priest just yet. In 1916, they were on the third of the sister ships, the Britannic, which was operating as a hospital ship carrying wounded in the Mediterranean. One night, the Britannic struck a mine (or was possibly torpedoed.) off of Greece while cruising with the portholes open for ventilation. Once again, Violet Jessop went into a lifeboat, after being sure to take her toothbrush, but jumped out to avoid the propellers which were not shut down soon enough. She was rescued from the water after hitting her head on the keel of the lifeboat. John Priest went in the water once again, and was almost killed by the propellers, but survived.

Britannic

The Britannic

Violet Jessop continued her seagoing career and was briefly married. At one point, many years later, she claimed she got a phone call from the now-grown baby she rescued on the Titanic, but the records aren’t clear.None of her subsequent ships sank. Violet married and wrote her autobiography, Titanic Survivor. She died in 1971.

After the sinking of the Britannic, Priest was in yet another hospital ship that sank, the Donegal. With him was lookout Archie Jewell, who had survived Titanic and Britannic (but had not been on Olympic). This time, Jewell did not survive. John Priest did survive, but  sustained career ending injuries and died in 1937.

Violet Jessop and John Priest remain the only known people to have survived the sinking of both the Titanic and the Britannic, as well as the collision of the Olympic- the trifecta of maritime disasters as far as the Olympic class ships are concerned.

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