The "Black Gang"
Updated: May 15, 2022
"Their faces, blackened with coal dust, and streaked with sweat, had a dulled animal-like look, and they seldom smiled. It was killing work."
Sir James Bisset, one-time Commodore of the Cunard White Star Line, Tramps and Ladies: My Early Years in Steamers (memoir), 1959
Part of the RMS Titanic's mystique is the glamour, luxury, and opulence represented by the First Class accommodations. They were compared to the finest hotels in Europe, and the upper decks of the ship were billed as a floating palace. While most of us are drawn to the high society lifestyle, the lower decks of the ship were at the opposite extreme. Here, on G Deck, the engineering crew worked the coal-burning furnaces that powered the massive engines. With cramped quarters, poor ventilation, dim lighting, and coal dust in the sulfurous air, the conditions were not unlike a coal mine. Except the workers had to also contend with intense heat and smoke. Their faces blackened by coal dust, those who worked the furnaces of ocean-going steamship were known as the "black gang". These were rough men, brawlers, quick of temper, and prone to violent outbursts. It was not unheard of for men to come to blows and someone beaten by a shovel.
There is no photographic record of the Titanic's boiler rooms, but much can be deduced from other steamships, including her sister ship, the Olympic. The Titanic had six boiler rooms separated by watertight bulkhead doors. There were twenty-four double-ended 'Scotch' boilers as well as five single-ended ones. The boilers had three furnaces at each end for a total of 159 furnaces. The boilers stood at fifteen feet in diameter and twenty feet long. It is estimated that the Titanic could burn an average of 850 tons of coal per day. This is nearly 35 tons per hour and gave the ship a top speed of 24 knots (26 mph). When she left Southampton, the Titanic carried just over 6,000 tons of coal. Due to a coal strike in England, this was short of her full capacity. Therefore, she did no more than 22 knots (24 mph) for much of the voyage.
The Titanic's engineering crew numbered 280 men. (Only forty of those would survive the sinking.) This is included 13 lead firemen, 162 firemen or stokers, 72 trimmers, and 33 greasers (those who cleaned and lubed all the moving parts). Ten firemen and four trimmers would have staffed each boiler room.
The firemen and trimmers arrived long before passengers and started stoking the furnaces and prepping the engines for departure. They more often than not came aboard ship drunk. It was the job of the trimmers to move the coal. They loaded the coal into the bunkers. Even during a voyage, they needed to spread the coal around so that the ship maintained balance. They were also on the watch for coal fires. It was not uncommon for coal to spontaneously combust, and this did occur on the Titanic before it departed from Southampton. The trimmers shoveled coal into wheelbarrows and moved it from the bunkers to the furnaces. Running at full speed, they gathered momentum while dodging the maze of pipes and furnace casings. They dared not slow down as they knew their crewmates were fast on their heels.
It was up to the firemen, or stokers, to keep the fires going inside the furnaces. Each man worked two four-hour shifts each day. To keep the boilers fed, the firemen needed to shovel a ton of coal every two minutes. They shoveled coal for seven minutes. Then for another seven minutes, they cleared out the hot clinkers formed from the impurities in the coal melting together. Another seven minutes was spent raking the ashes. Afterward, they had a brief respite until a song signaled the resumption of work. The cycle would be repeated once more.
Naturally, they sweated profusely, making them look even more vastly underfed. The gray flannel shirts they wore did not help, and they removed them and wrung them out when drenched with sweat. This exposed the skin of their upper bodies to the intense heat and radiation of the fires. The skin on their hands, arms, and chest became blistered, and their hair would be singed. Even their feet were subject to abuse from hot ashes and embers spilling from the open furnaces. They wore a sweat rag tied about their neck and clenched the moist end in their mouth. This eased the urge to drink, which often led to cramping while working. The confined areas rang with the scrape of shovels, the roar of fires, and the pounding of damper doors. The din would have been deafening.
The lead firemen supervised the stokehold, the area in front of the boilers. The lead firemen struck the floor with a shovel to indicate when the furnaces needed to be stoked. They yelled at slackers giving them the nickname of "pushers." They monitored the steam pressure while ensuring the coals burned at maximum heat.
Sixty-four men slept together in one room. The two tiers of bunks provided just enough room to tie one's shoelaces. Few men ate a midday meal. No one wished to risk eating a heavy meal before heading down into the stokehold. Nausea, cramping, and heat exhaustion were serious side effects. Workers ate after their day's shift ended. Waiting for them was "oodle." This was a soup of beef, carrots, and onions that simmered all day.
On the night of April 14, 1912, Titanic Fireman Frederick Barrett and Second Engineer James Hesketh were in boiler room #6. They stood talking after completing an inspection for coal fires. Suddenly, the warning bell blared, and the lights flashed red. An ear-splitting crash followed shouts. Barrett and Hesketh later described it as the sound of rolling thunder. The whole starboard side (the right side) of the ship seemed to buckle. Then the sea cascaded into the boiler room, and it began to swirl about pipes and valves. Barrett and Hesketh leaped through the watertight door into boiler room #5 before it finished closing. They discovered that the situation in boiler room #5 was just as dire. A gash in the side of the ship extended nearly two feet beyond the door. Through this gash came a fat jet of seawater. Trimmer George Cavell was digging himself out of an avalanche of coal that tumbled from the bunkers. Boiler rooms #5 and #6 were in the forward part of the ship. The crew made their way to the boilers more aft. The scene was similar. Men picking themselves up and calling back and forth.
Up until this point, the trip had been relatively easy. It was a new ship on her maiden voyage. Everything was clean, and the crew just needed to keep the furnaces burning. At the time of impact, men were sitting around in between shifts. The thud, the grinding, the tearing took them by surprise. At first, no one could imagine what had occurred. When the realization of the seriousness of the situation sank in, many began to scramble up the escape ladders. Most were forced back down into the boiler rooms due to water from the upper decks spilling over the watertight bulkheads. The water became black and slick with grease. The order came to shut the dampers. Then the engineering crew spent the remainder of the night performing the back-breaking task of shutting down the boilers. The sudden rush of water threatened to form lots of steam all at once, and this could lead to too much steam pressure inside the boilers and pipes and cause a steam explosion. The men needed to control the wetting of the fires. Hot steam filled the boiler rooms.
Throughout the night, the crew managed to prevent the boilers from exploding while providing the ship with enough power to generate electricity. Electricity was vital. It kept the lights on throughout the ship, allowing people to find their way in the maze of hallways and stairways towards the lifeboats. Electricity also kept the wireless telegraph operating, and the operators could send out distress calls up to the last moment. There was enough power to work the bilge pumps in a futile effort of removing water. Many agree that the engineering crew's herculean labors bought the Titanic at least another hour before she sank. There is a memorial in Southampton dedicated to the efforts of the "Black Gang."
(The sinking of the RMS Titanic still fascinates us. Many are attracted by the questions that remain as to the how and why of the sinking. For me, it is the human side of the story. These were people making very human decisions. We should put aside our 21st-century mindset and step into the world these people lived in. Then we can better appreciate or at least understand the reasons for the events leading up to and during the night of April 14, 1912.)
Down Amongst the Black Gang: Richard P. de Kerbrech
Encyclopedia Titanica - an excellent resource for all things Titanic, including biographies about the passengers and crew aboard the ill-fated ship.