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 of steamships. He came to international attention as the highest-ranking White Star official among the 705 survivors (out of 2,208 passenger and crew on board) of the maiden voyage of his company’s newest ocean liner, the RMS Titanic.
Ismay was born in Crosby, Lancashire. He was the son of Thomas Henry Ismay (7 January 1837 – 23 November 1899) and Margaret Bruce (13 April 1837 – 9 April 1907), daughter of ship-owner Luke Bruce.
Thomas Ismay was 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 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. Bruce was one of the founding team of Liverpool Ramblers football club in 1882.
On 4 December 1888, Ismay married Julia Florence Schieffelin (5 March 1867 – 31 December 1963), daughter of George Richard Schieffelin and Julia Matilda Delaplaine of New York, with whom he had five children:
Margaret Bruce Ismay (29 December 1889 – 15 May 1967), who married George Ronald Hamilton Cheape (1881–1957) in 1912
Henry Bruce Ismay (3 April 1891 – 1 October 1891)
Thomas Bruce Ismay (18 February 1894 – 27 April 1954), who married Jane Margaret Seymour
Evelyn Constance Ismay (17 July 1897 – 9 August 1940), who married Basil Sanderson (1894–1971) in 1927
George Bruce Ismay (6 June 1902 – 30 April 1943), 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. In 1901, he was approached by Americans who wished to build an international shipping conglomerate, which agreed to merge his firm into the International Mercantile Marine Company.
In 1907, Ismay met Lord Pirrie of the Harland & Wolff shipyard to discuss White Star’s answer to the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania,[b] the recently unveiled marvels of their chief competitor, Cunard Line. Ismay’s new type of ship would not be as fast as their competitors, but it would have huge steerage capacity and luxury unparalleled in the history of ocean-going steamships.
The latter feature was largely meant to attract the wealthy and the prosperous middle class. To accommodate the luxurious features Ismay ordered the number of lifeboats reduced from 48 to 16, the latter being the minimum allowed by the Board of Trade, based on the Titanic’s projected tonnage.
Three ships of the Olympic Class were planned and built; the second was the RMS Titanic, which began its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, on 10 April 1912. The first and third ships of this class were the RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic.
Ismay occasionally accompanied his ships on their maiden voyages, and this was the case with the Titanic. During the voyage, Ismay talked with either (or possibly both) chief engineer Joseph Bell or captain Edward Smith about a possible test of speed if time permitted.
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. 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, Frank Mcgee. He gave Captain Rostron a message to send to White Star’s New York office: “Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life.
Full particulars later.” Ismay did not leave Dr. Mcgee’s cabin for the entire journey, ate nothing solid, and was kept under the influence of opiates. Fellow survivor Jack Thayer visited Ismay to try to console him.
[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
When he arrived in New York, Ismay was hosted by Philip Franklin, vice president of the company. He also received a summons to appear before a Senate committee headed by Republican Senator William Alden Smith.
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. The book The White Star Line: An Illustrated History (2000) by Paul Louden-Brown states that this was unlikely, and that Ismay’s record does not support the notion that he had any motive to do so.
Writing on the BBC News magazine website, Rosie Waites reports that Ismay was widely vilified in America after the sinking of the Titanic, due to the hostility of the press controlled by William Randolph Hearst, who had fallen out with Ismay.
Waites writes “Ismay was almost universally condemned in America, where the Hearst syndicated press ran a vitriolic campaign against him, labelling him ‘J Brute Ismay’. It published lists of all those who died but in the column of those saved it had just one name – Ismay’s.”
Following from the Hearst press depiction of Ismay, Waites writes that every subsequent film about the Titanic has depicted Ismay as a villain including the Nazi Titanic film, where Ismay is depicted as “a power-mad Jewish businessman”, A Night To Remember, James Cameron’s Titanic, and Julian Fellowes’ TV miniseries Titanic. Louden-Brown, consultant to the Cameron film, has stated that he thought this characterisation of Ismay was unfair and he tried to challenge this.
Louden-Brown said “Apart from being told, under no circumstances are we prepared to adjust the script, one thing they also said is ‘this is what the public expect to see’.”
Lord Mersey, who led the 1912 British inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, concluded that Ismay had helped many other passengers before finding a place for himself on the last lifeboat to leave the starboard side. Mersey stated “Had he not jumped in he would merely have added one more life, namely, his own, to the number of those lost.”
Ismay’s reputation never recovered, and he kept a low profile following the Titanic disaster. He lived part of the year in a large cottage, Costelloe Lodge, near Costelloe in Connemara, Ireland. Paul Louden-Brown, in his history of the White Star Line, writes that Ismay continued to be active in business, and that much of his work was for
The Liverpool & London Steamship Protection & Indemnity Association Limited, a company founded by his father. According to Louden-Brown: “Hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid out in insurance claims to the relatives of the Titanic’s victims; the misery created by the disaster and its aftermath dealt with by Ismay and his directors with great fortitude, this, despite the fact that he could easily have shirked his responsibilities and resigned from the board. He stuck with the difficult task and during his twenty-five year chairmanship hardly a page of the company’s minutes does not contain some mention of the Titanic disaster.”
Ismay maintained 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 (£1,026,075 as of 2015) to set up a fund to recognise the contribution of merchant mariners in World War I.
His health declined in the 1930s, following a diagnosis of diabetes, which worsened 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 stroke at the age of 74.
His funeral was held on 21 October 1937, and he is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery, London. He was survived by his wife, Florence Schieffelin. After his death, she renounced her British subject status 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.