Ismay began his career representing his father's company in New York City and eventually became the company's agent.
In 1882, he co-established the 'Liverpool Ramblers' football club.
In 1891, Ismay moved back to the United Kingdom, where he partnered with his father in his firm, 'Ismay, Imrie, and Company.'
After Thomas died on November 23, 1899, Ismay succeeded him as the head of the family business and eventually became the chairman of the company. That year, the 'White Star Line' commissioned Thomas's transatlantic ocean liner 'RMS Oceanic.'
The 'White Star Line' flourished under Ismay's leadership. He additionally served as a director of several other companies.
In 1901, he was approached to collaborate on building an international shipping conglomerate. In April the following year, commercial and investment banking institution 'J.P. Morgan & Co.' announced that it had taken over the 'White Star Line,' while Ismay continued to be the chairman of the company.
The 'International Mercantile Marine Company' (IMMC) was thus established. Ismay merged his firm into ‘IMMC,’ and a deal of building four ocean liners was signed.
Ismay wanted the liners to be superior to his father's 'RMS Oceanic.'
In 1901, the 'White Star Line' passed an order to build the "Big Four'' ships: the 'RMS Celtic,' the 'RMS Cedric,' the 'RMS Baltic,' and the 'RMS Adriatic.' The ships were larger in size than that of the 'Great Eastern' and faster in speed, too.
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The 'White Star Line' eventually became one of the ‘IMM’ operating companies, and in February 1904, Ismay became the president of the ‘IMM.’
In 1907, Ismay met William James Pirrie, the manager of the Belfast shipbuilding company 'Harland and Wolff,' which had constructed all of his company's ships. They reportedly planned the launch of a line of huge luxury ships to survive the competition with the 'Cunard Line,' which had earned a massive profit with the 'RMS Lusitania' and the 'RMS Mauretania.'
According to the plan, the 'White Star Line' ships were supposed to be luxurious, with higher capacity, but they were not to be as fast as 'Cunard Line.' Ismay primarily focused on the lavishness of the ships, to attract the wealthy class.
Three ships of the 'Olympic Class,' in order of capacity, were the 'RMS Olympic' (1911 to 1935), the 'RMS Titanic,' and the ‘RMS (later HMHS) Britannic' (1911 to 1914).
Ismay was so confident about the fact that the 'Olympic Class’ liners would never sink, he did not want any lifeboats on the ship. However, he allowed 16 lifeboats, which was the minimum number allotted according to the 'Board of Trade.'
He often accompanied his ships on their maiden voyages, and he did the same with the 'Titanic.' During the voyage, Ismay had reportedly asked chief engineer Joseph Bell and Captain Edward J. Smith to conduct a speed-test, if possible.
On the unfortunate night of April 14, 1912, 'Titanic' collided with an iceberg somewhere at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The collision resulted in a huge crack, through which water gushed inside. The rescue process started immediately, and that was when Ismay realized his blunder of limiting the number of lifeboats.
The speed at which the ship was sinking made people think it would be fully immersed long before it could be rescued. The women and children on the ship were allowed to board the lifeboats first. However, Ismay managed to board the ‘Collapsible C’ lifeboat, the last one to be lowered.
He later said that he had boarded the boat because no women or children were found in the area, a claim that eyewitnesses subsequently challenged.
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The ‘Collapsible C’ lifeboat was picked up by the rescue ship 'Carpathia' about 3 to 4 hours later. ‘Carpathia’ later stopped in New York.
The vice president of the company, Philip Franklin, received Ismay in New York. He was summoned to appear before a senate committee regulated by ‘Republican’ senator William Alden Smith. The subsequent hearings were also held by the British 'Board of Trade' chairman, Lord Mersey.
The investigations reported that Ismay had denied encouraging Captain Smith to increase the speed despite warnings about the icebergs. The British and American media largely labeled him a coward for deserting the ship while many passengers were yet to be rescued. Thus, Ismay was shunned by people.
His reputation was further ruined because of his irresponsible actions on ‘Carpathia.’ Reportedly, Ismay had locked himself up in a private cabin of the ship's doctor, Frank Mcgee, and had refused to leave until the ship docked in New York. Throughout the voyage, he survived only on opiates.
Ismay retired from his positions at ‘IMM’ and the 'White Star Line' in 1913. Harold Sanderson succeeded him.
Following the official British inquiry, Ismay was given a clean-chit. However, he never recovered from the trauma and shame that the incident had brought him.
He went into depression and completely withdrew from society.
Ismay lived for some time in a massive cottage called the 'Costelloe Lodge,' located near Casla in Connemara, Ireland. However, he continued to be active in business and handled 'The Liverpool & London Steamship Protection & Indemnity Association Limited,' a company founded by his father.
Ismay also remained involved in maritime affairs. He inaugurated the cadet ship 'Mersey' for Britain's ‘Merchant Navy,’ made donations to a ‘Navy’ fund, and set up a fund for merchant mariners who participated in World War I.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Ismay got married to Julia Florence Schieffelin (on December 4, 1888) and had five children: Margaret Bruce Ismay, Henry Bruce Ismay, Thomas Bruce Ismay, Evelyn Constance Ismay, and George Bruce Ismay.
Florence ensured that the tragedy was never discussed in the house. According to his granddaughter, historian and author Pauline Matarasso, he was like a "corpse" in his later years. He, however, once discussed the incident after a grandson from his daughter Evelyn asked about it.
He was mostly solitary in his final days. He, however, could never keep himself from thinking about the incident and the possible ways of preventing it from happening.
Around 1930, Ismay's health deteriorated. His diabetes worsened in early 1936, resulting in the amputation of his right leg and leaving him bound to a wheelchair.
On the morning of October 14, 1937, he had a massive stroke. He died 3 days later. He was buried in 'Putney Vale Cemetery,' London.
Upon his death, Florence renounced her British subject status to restore her American citizenship.
Other actors who have portrayed Ismay on screen are Ian Holm (in the TV movie 'S.O.S. Titanic’), David Garrison (in the ‘Broadway’ musical 'Titanic’), David Haines (in the ‘Broadway’ musical 'Titanic’), Eric Braeden (in the TV documentary 'The Titanic Chronicles’), Ken Marschall (in the documentary 'Ghosts of the Abyss’), Christopher Wright (in the documentary 'Titanic: Birth of a Legend’), Mark Tandy (in the documentary 'The Unsinkable Titanic’), Christopher Villiers (in the TV series 'The Curiosity: What Sank Titanic?’), Gray O'Brien (in the TV series 'Titanic: Blood and Steel’), Julien Ball (in the play 'Iceberg – Right Ahead!’), Michael Maloney (in the audio play 'Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner’), and Derek Mahon (in the poem 'After the Titanic’).