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RMS Titanic 3

RMS Titanic

The series Downton Abbey is launched, quite literally, by the events surrounding RMS Titanic[1] and its fateful encounter with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, taking the presumptive heirs to Downton with it and creating chaos with the entail and associated title.

Holding such a pivotal role in the series, some mention would seem appropriate as to how the actual events surrounding Titanic unfolded and how they play out in the fictional world of Downton Abbey. More specifically, what date in history is represented by the opening of the series?


Stöwer Titanic

Titanic sinking Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic

The story holds legendary, even mythic status on both sides of the pond, and has been portrayed in iconic films including A Night to Remember and the 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, as well as numerous documentaries and mini-series. The events are well known. Titanic, the largest ship of its day and thought by many to be unsinkable, encounters an iceberg on the evening of April 14 and sinks in the early hours of the following morning, taking over 1500 lives with it.

The story is so well known that it can easily pass without notice that the timeline is known based on Titanic time initially, and as the reports come out, New York time (US Eastern Time). Thus, in the first episode it is easy to presume that the early morning telegraph message comes on the morning of the 15th. As the timeline in the subsequent section shows, this would have been quite impossible. So which is the actual date on which the opening episode of Downton Abbey intended to portray?

Timeline April 14-15, 1912[]

Titanic voyage map

Route of Titanic

The following table shows how the events of April 14 and 15 unfolded relative to New York time, local Titanic time, and GMT, the time zone of Downton Abbey. To minimize confusion, all times are represented in 24 hour clock format[2].

April 14 April 15
EST (NY)[3] Titanic Time GMT (UK) Event
21:00 23:00 02:00 SS Californian[4] to RMS Titanic: "Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice".
21:40 23:40 02:40 Lookout Frederick Fleet[5] alerts bridge of iceberg immedately ahead, but it is too late, Titanic strikes the berg tearing a long gash in the starboard side. The location is about 375 miles South of Newfoundland.
22:15 00:15 03:15

First distress signal sent. RMS Titanic to any Ship: "CQD[6] Titanic 41.44 N 50.24 W".
Note: SOS not used at this point and position is off by about 12 NM.

22:05 00:05 03:05 Captain Smith [7] orders the crew to prepare the lifeboats and get the passengers and crew on deck.
22:20 00:20 03:20 RMS Titanic to RMS Carpathia[8]: "Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W"
Note: Position corrected.
22:25 00:25 03:25 Ham operator Arthur (Artie) Moore[9] hears "CQD CQD SOS de MGY[10] Position 41.44N 50.24W. Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We have struck an iceberg. Sinking." 3000 miles away in Gelligroes, Wales. Moore reports this to the local constabulary, but is not believed. For some hours to come, he will be the only person in the British isles knowing that Titanic is in serious trouble.
22:45 00:45 03:45 First lifeboat is lowered away.
RMS Titanic to RMS Olympic[11]: "SOS[12]"
23:45 01:45 04:45 Last signal from RMS Titanic heard by RMS Carpathia: "Come as quickly as possible old man: the engine-room is filling up to the boilers".
00:20 02:20 05:20 Official time RMS Titanic foundered as given by RMS Carpathia.
01:00 03:00 06:00 If the first episode of Downton Abbey was to represent April 15, this would be the time Daisy knocks on the doors of the other maids and says it is six o'clock.
02:00 04:00 07:00 Approximate time RMS Carpathia arrives near the position last given by RMS Titanic.
06:30 08:30 11:30 Survivors of last lifeboat picked up by RMS Carpathia.

Subsequent Notable Events[]

Date Event
April 15 American press reports that Titanic was being towed to port by SS Virginian[13], and that in addition to the Carpathia, there were survivors taken on the Virginian and SS Parisian[14]. The initial reports would reflect an optimistic bias, a state that would extend into the 16th in the British press.
After 12:00 PM EST Olympic begins relaying messages as the wireless of Carpathia, Virginian and Parisian are not powerful enough to reach shore. Carpathia captain Arthur Rostron[15] heatedly refuses an offer of assistance from Olympic captain Herbert James Haddock[16] fearing a second transfer to a "mirror image" of Titanic would panic the survivors. Olympic then continues East to Southhampton.
8:20 PM EST The New York office of the White Star Line officially confirms that Titanic has been lost along with most of her passengers and crew. The only survivors are those on the Carpathia.
Crowds of people start showing up at White Star Line offices in London, New York, Liverpool, Belfast and most notably, Southampton, home to about 80% of the crew.
April 16 The New York Times publishes a list of approximately 90 survivors in first class.
The Daily Mail (UK) reports "No Lives Lost" and "All Passengers Taken Off". Due both to the time difference and that events happened closer to New York, British papers were generally running a day behind their US and Canadian counterparts.
April 17 Mackay-Bennet[17] is the first of four ships dispatched to retrieve bodies. 
April 18 Carpathia docks at Pier 54 with 705 survivors. A crowd of some 40,000 people are waiting in a pouring rain.
April 20 Mackay-Bennet arrives in the area Titanic went down to begin the process of retrieving bodies. 
April 22 First complete list of casualties is released.
May 13 The last lifeboat belonging to the Titanic is found adrift in the Atlantic by the RMS Oceanic[18]. Three bodies in the boat are buried at sea.
May 22 The last body recovered was that of steward James McGrady.

Morse Code at Opening of Episode 1[]

Morse code
First Snippet
Morse Code[19] Letter
dah T
dah dah dah O
dit dah dit dit L
dah dah dah O
dit dah dit R
dah dit dah dah Y
dah dah dit G
dit dah dit R

Presumably meant to say "TO LORD GRANTHAM". It's a Y (dah dit dah dah) instead of D (dah dit dit). A mis-key?

Second Snippet
Morse Code Letter
dah dit N
dah dah dit G
dit E
dit dah dit R
dit dah dit dit L
dit dit I
dit dit dit S
dah T
dit dah dit dah dit dah .
dit dah dah dah J
dit dah A

Presumably meant to say "PASSENGER LIST", full stop, "JAMES".

Newspapers Delivered to Downton Abbey[]


London Times Titanic Page

Owing to the late delivery, Mr. Carson instructs William to "do the Times first" because he (Lord Grantham) "only reads that at breakfast". The specific issue is difficult to identify from the available image, but most likely is from April 16.

The version of the Daily Sketch[20] read by Cora, however is quite easily identified and was published sometime on April 16.

Daily Sketch

Cora Reading The Daily Sketch


Daily Sketch, April 16, 1912

Possible Dates[]

April 15[]

If not for the shift in time zones, the 15th would seem like the day represented in episode 1. The telegraph message comes in during the middle of the night and at least some information is in a delayed morning newspaper. If, somehow, the information did get into the papers this quickly, then the news could come as the complete surprise portrayed.

Alas, adhering to the strict timeline of historical events, not to mention the April 16 issue of the Sketch held by Cora, makes it impossible for these events to have occured on the morning of the 15th as the telegraph message would have come in before the Titanic had  even sunk, and Daisy was waking everyone up at the time the survivors were still sitting in lifeboats waiting to be rescued. 

April 16[]

The 16th at least has the virtue of being temporally possible without resorting to Dr. Who's Tardis[21]. It is also clear that Cora is holding an April 16 issue of "The Daily Sketch". However, this date also has at least two significant problems. First, given that the story of Titanic had been spreading like wildfire, it would seem unlikely that the telegraph message would wait until the middle of the night, or that news would remain a complete surprise until the morning of the 16th.

Secondly, on the other end of the timeline, it would seem much too early to know the fates of James and Patrick. The full list of casualties would not be out for almost another week, and even for the wealthy, their first real opportunity to phone home would not come until late in the evening of the 18th New York time, which would be well into the morning of the 19th back in Downton.

April 17[]

If it was already highly improbable that Downton remained sheltered from news of Titanic until the morning of the 16th,  it taxes credibility that it could have remained so until the morning of the 17th. In addition, it does not improve significantly on the possibility of knowing the fates of James and Patrick. 


Given the problems with any of these dates, it must be concluded that Julian Fellowes is using the day represented in the first episode to portray a composit of events that in actuality played out over several days to a week. If the 15th is ruled out as chronologically impossible, then the most logical date would be the 16th, since the 17th or any succeeding date does not offer any improvements and becomes even more incredulous. Thus, if a date in fact needs to be picked, it is best represented by April 16, 1912.

External links[]

The RMS Titanic Radio Page
The Titanic radio operators last transmissions  at
Downton Abbey Series 1 Episode 1 Morse Code at John Grahm-Cumming Blog
New York Times, April 16, 1912 at Times Machine of the New York Times