The First ‘Titanic’ Publication

Author: Gordon Lucy

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Gordon Lucy


Filson Young, writer and journalist, was born in Ballyeaston in 1876 and secured his niche in history as the author of first book about the sinking of the Titanic. He finished writing it just twenty-three days after the sinking, and it was published on Thursday the 22nd of May 1912, a mere fourteen days after that. Both the author and Grant Richards, the publisher, expected significant sales but, despite the fact that it was beautifully written, the book did not sell well. The publication was neither widely advertised nor reviewed. Richards is said to have been prepared to put money into the promotion of the book, but in the event the carrying out of this intention is thought to have been hindered by a problem with cash flow.

Young had had two notable successes with previous books. He was prompted to write the ‘Titanic’ book for a variety of reasons. Firstly, he had a wider interest in maritime disasters. In March 1912, there had been two collisions in the English Channel, in one of which the liner Oceana had sunk with considerable loss of life. Young had twice appealed in his Pall Mall Gazette column for a proper inquiry into these events, and claimed that the only way to avoid such disasters in future was for all ships to carry wireless.

Secondly, there was the Belfast (or Ulster) connection. This had prompted him to visit Belfast in the summer of 1911 to see the Titanic under construction. His account of this in the book is a masterpiece of descriptive writing.

Thirdly, there was a personal dimension. Young knew two of the passengers who had not survived: the multi-millionaire J J Astor (whom he had met in New York in 1909), and Christopher Head, a member of Lloyd’s and former Mayor of Chelsea. Grant Richards, the publisher, had lost his friend and former mentor W T Stead, the celebrated journalist.

Young’s final motivation was that he thought the story of the Titanic would make for an interesting book. This may appear something of an understatement in the light of the current level of interest in Titanic; but the tragedy has not been a source of continuous interest since 1912. Significantly, after 1913 no new books appeared on the subject until the 1950s, not least because the tragedy of the Titanic was overtaken by the infinitely greater tragedies of the Great War, the Depression and the Second World War.

The publication of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember in 1955, and the film of the same name (released in 1958 and starring Kenneth More as Second Officer Charles Lightoller), ‘stoked the fires of public interest’ at the time. Dr Robert D Ballard’s discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and the release of James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) in 1997 gave later impetus to renewed interest in the ship and its fate.

The quickly-written 1912 book, however, did receive one or two reviews, and the one published by the Daily News sheds some light on the way the book was received immediately after its publication. While it grudgingly admired Young’s writing — calling the text an ‘entirely absorbing narrative’ — it then went on: ‘It is only before and after reading it that our sense of decency revolts at the idea of applying such gifts as Mr Young’s to the exploitation of a grief which is as yet neither new nor old, neither a matter of historical fact nor the urgent emotion of the moment’. The word that springs out at the reader is ‘exploitation’.

We must remember that this was written before the days of television. Having become accustomed today to public attitudes that, to varying extent, consider it acceptable for the media to intrude on personal grief seeking comment, on the one hand, and for excessive mass emotion to be displayed by a public in no way directly connected with the particular tragedy, on the other, the Daily News opinion seems quite foreign to us in the twenty-first century. Discretion no longer seems so desirable.

Another factor in the lack of interest with which the book was greeted may have been the perception that Filson Young had ‘rushed to judgement’, and in particular the The Norddeutscher Lloyd company of Bremen was incensed that Filson had criticized their ship the Frankfurt for being slow to respond to the Titanic’s distress signals. However, time has proved Young’s account to have been substantially accurate.

The hard-back book’s cover illustration did not help. By prominent maritime artist Norman Wilkinson, it pictured the ship at an extreme angle, dramatically sinking by the stern. Richards had had reservations about its appropriateness, but suppressed them in the knowledge that a reworking would delay publication.

In 1932, during the period of Young’s association with BBC radio, the BBC asked him to dramatise his book for radio, and subsequently leaked its plans to the press. This resulted in another outcry, in which Filson Young and the BBC were accused of failing to consider the effect on the feelings of the survivors and the bereaved. No dramatisation was ever broadcast.

We may wonder what was in Filson Young’s background that led to his involvement in the story of this maritime tragedy long before the plethora of modern versions. He was a son of the manse. William Young, Filson’s father, who was born in 1840, had studied Classics in Belfast and Theology in Edinburgh. Having been ordained into the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in 1866 he became the minister of Ballyeaston, County Antrim.

Filson’s mother was Sarah Filson from Portaferry. At the age of 28, she married the Reverend William Young on the 2nd of June 1869. One of Sarah’s elder sisters became the mother of the well-known Millisle-born missionary to India, Amy Carmichael.

Filson was the youngest of four children. The family moved to Salford in 1877 when Filson was only one. Since he had left Ballyeaston at such a young age, he had never formed an emotional connection with the village, but the location of his childhood summer holidays had left him with an abiding love of Portaferry, a love that was shared by the extended family.

Highly-talented and eclectic in his interests, Filson Young displayed a standard of writing that was vastly superior to that of most modern journalists. He had a lifelong love of music and wrote several pieces himself. The motor car was another abiding passion. In fact, his life story reads like a James Bond novel in parts. He rubbed shoulders with the great and the good, and for a time engaged in spying activity for the Admiralty. However, his personal life was tumultuous.

This may well have contributed to his death from heart disease at the relatively early age of 61, the year before the start of the Second World War, in which both his sons were to lose their lives.



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