ISMAY, (Joseph) Bruce  [1862-1937]

In 1899 Bruce Ismay took over the running the White Star shipping line which had been founded by his recently deceased father, Thomas Henry Ismay. He proved a very able executive and under his leadership the business flourished. In the early years of the new century he launched a quartet of ocean liners named Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic built for size and luxury to ply the Atlantic routes. He might well have been largely forgotten along with many of the other Liverpool-based shipping magnates but for the consequences of his decision to build another three huge liners, one of which was the ill-fated Titanic, and his choosing to sail on her maiden voyage.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 after it struck an iceberg is probably the best-known disaster in maritime history and Ismay’s role has been at the centre of its retelling ever since. There were three main charges thrown at his door. Firstly his decision to change the design plans to reduce the number of lifeboats. Secondly, the allegation that he pressed the ship’s captain to go at excessive speed in order to complete the voyage ahead of schedule. Thirdly, and this was the most damning, that in getting into a lifeboat and surviving the disaster he had acted in a cowardly fashion ignoring his duty to help the remaining women and children. From the very outset the American press pilloried Ismay for this alleged cowardice. He maintained that he boarded the lifeboat (just 20 minutes before the ship went down) only when he could no longer find any women or children in its whereabout to take a place.

Ismay was cleared of any wrongdoing by both the American and British enquiries into the disaster, the British enquiry explicitly noting that he had helped many women and children into boats before taking a place himself. However, the damage to his reputation was irreparable and he himself was something of a broken man. He resigned as Chairman of White Star in 1913 and thereafter led a withdrawn life, out of the public eye but still involved in many charitable ventures. He and his wife moved to London where he lived out his days until dying after a stroke in 1937.

Ismay was born on 12th December 1862 in Crosby, the family home being at 13 Beach Lawn, a substantial house overlooking the mouth of the Mersey. It still stands today, bearing a blue plaque commemorating Thomas Ismay’s residence. Ismay’ Liverpool residence was the mansion Sandheys in Mossley Hill Road. He sold this in 1920 when he moved to London and it was subsequently demolished to make way for streets of new suburban semis. The house lay between what is now Rangemore Road and Tullimore Road L18 with its southern border on Mossley Hill Road.

Sandheys, Mossley Hill Road L18

The house appears similar in style to others in the area such as Sudley.


There is a comprehensive entry for Ismay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and on Wikipedia. You could fill a library with the number of books on the Titanic but I single out two which were written with the role of Ismay as their main focal point. How To Survive The Titanic or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay  by Frances Wilson [Bloomsbury 2011] is a thoroughly researched work of quality which painstakingly examines Ismay's actions and psychology. Wilton J Oldham's The Ismay Line: The Titanic, the White Star Line and the Ismay family [1st published 1961, published in book form in 2013] takes a more partial view and is written to provide a robust defence of Ismay's actions.