Chapter 5, Part 1: The RMS Olympic
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
The setting for the first half of chapter five is the RMS Olympic. At its launch, the Olympic was the largest ship in the world. More than that. It was the largest man-made moving object in the world. It was a behemoth of a ship, capable of carrying almost 2,600 passengers from New York to Southampton, England in only a week. It was also the sister ship of the famously ill-fated RMS Titanic. The third ship of the White Star Line’s Olympic-class line, the RMS Britannic, had sunk in the Aegean Sea in 1916 after hitting a mine while acting as a hospital ship during the war. Talk about unlucky siblings.
As mentioned in the post on chapter 4, I chose the Olympic as my transatlantic steamer almost by coincidence. I spent HOURS upon hours trying to find the exact sequence of ships that would bring my travelers from New York to either Port Said or Alexandria, Egypt in November/December 1923. I thought it would be easy. After all, ships and shipping routes have been pretty well documented since at least the mid-1800s. I knew from travelogues that there were steamers from Naples and Brindisi, Italy to Alexandria and Port Said, and I inferred that there had to be steamers from England, too, based on how many Brits went to Egypt as tourists each year. I knew there would be no direct US to Egypt steamer, so I broke the trip into two legs: US to Europe, Europe to Egypt.
Since I struggled to find steamers that went from New York to Italy, I focused on the New York to England route instead. There were dozens of steam ships making that leg in 1923 (landing at Southampton or Liverpool, mainly), and I settled on the Olympic because I could confirm its sail day (Saturday leaving at noon) and likely the sailing time (seven days).
The choice to use the Olympic ended up being serendipitous, or as they say in the book, kismet. Unlike some steamers, for which there is very little information, there has been extensive documentation of the Olympic by people interested in maritime history. And the Olympic also has another unique characteristic: it was identical to the Titanic (it was only three inches shorter). As a result, anything that was true of the Titanic was almost certainly true of the Olympic. This is how one overcast Monday morning I found myself pouring over blueprints of the Titanic, trying to figure out where the first class single berths were located for the ships.
If you want to know more about what the inside of the Olympic looked like, here's what I found:
This site is a treasure trove of information about the first class accommodations on the Olympic
This site has the full floor plans of the Titanic (thus also the Olympic). In "The Lady Adventurers Club," the characters stay in first class berth A-35 (I considered putting them in a suite like A-5, but decided Anna would have had to economize). By coincidence, this berth was not occupied on the Titanic when it sank.
If you like virtual reality tours, the video game Titanic: Honor and Glory reproduced the Titanic's decks in 3D and you can find A and B deck on YouTube here.
In the first five drafts, I had way too much information included about the Olympic. It was exciting to be able to describe exactly what it would have looked like. And even then, there was a lot I couldn't work in, for example, that in the gym there was a sidesaddle for people to ride (for fitness?) and a mechanical camel, and that dinner was a 13 course meal lasting up to five hours. There was also no reason to mention the barber shop, squash court, pool, or men-only Turkish bath. In the end, I ended cutting 95% of what I'd written, so all that research didn't matter much anyway.
Speaking of research, while researching routes, I went down dozens of rabbit holes, learning about passenger liners that were converted to troop carriers or hospital ships in WWI and then sunk, steam liner mergers and acquisitions, passenger manifests and ephemera, and the history of the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company, whose complete records are currently on loan in non-electronic form to England's National Maritime Museum. Despite my absolute best efforts (and at least six hours straight of googling, no exaggeration), I was never able to pin down the exact name of a steamer that would have done the Southampton to Port Said route in November/December 1923. The route was definitely run by P&O and I was able to find a schedule for it (which of course I didn't screenshot and was never able to find again), but that was all. No names. After way too much time wasted, I think the following two ships may have made stops at both Southampton and Port Said in 1923:
SS Orsova: Built in 1908, this ship ran the P&O's England to Australia route.
RMS Kaiser e-Hind: Built in 1919, this ship ran the P&O's England to India route.
Ships would stop at multiple ports during their travels, so it wouldn't have been unusual for passengers to embark at Southampton and debark at Port Said, particularly on a ship destined for Australia or India. It appears Gibralter/Tangier, Marseilles, and Malta were common stops between England and Egypt. That said, it may have been more common or easier for travelers in the 1920s to use Italian or French passenger liners and travel to England by crossing Europe on a train. Around 1923, for example, Howard Carter and his visitors took the SS Vienna and the SS Helouan, which were part of the Lloyd Triestino Line, with connection points in Italy. Other travelers appear to have taken steamers from Marseilles in France.
A final word, on Mr. Arthur Pearce, a character who appears in this chapter. While trying to identify a steamer to Port Said, I found findmypast.com. Using the website, I was able to identify several passengers who traveled from Southampton to Port Said in 1923 (although not the name of their ship!). Mr. Pearce, whoever he was, was born in 1886, making him 37 at the time of the voyage. I moved him onto the New York to Southampton leg rather than the Southampton to Port Said leg for the purpose of this story, but kept the other details about him.
And finally, regarding the cotton industry, to which I associated him, anyone interested in the industry's history at the time might find this of interest. The sum of it is the American Civil War decimated the American cotton industry, and Egypt was well-positioned to take up the slack. Cotton accounted for 90% of Egypt's exports in the 1920s, but even by then the industry was already in economic decline in Egypt.