Meet Cliff Ismay!
Cliff is the author of...
For over 100 years, J. Bruce Ismay has been the scapegoat of the Titanic disaster. He is the villain of every film and TV drama: a fit and able-bodied man who sacrificed the lives of women and children in order to survive. Some even claim that it was his fault the Titanic sank, that he encouraged the captain to sail faster.
An interview with Cliff Ismay...
Interviewer: Terri Bey, Titanic Book Club Officer, with questions from book Club Members.
Terri: Mr. Ismay, we at the Titanic Book Club thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your book & for being a member of our club! Your relative, J. Bruce Ismay was on the ill-fated RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage and was Chairman of the White Star Line which operated the ship. Your book tells of a man who saved passengers throughout that terrible night and of a man who suffered what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome for the rest of his life, as well as his family life. Let's start with your personal background.
Q: Can you give us some general background information about yourself, so we can get to know you?
A: I was born in Workington, Cumbria, which is an industrial town on the West Cumbrian coast, just a short distance from the English Lake District. Once my schooling was complete, I was fortunate to be offered an electrical apprenticeship in 1972, receiving my trade certificate four years later. Throughout the following years, my trade took me on many journeys throughout the UK. Later in life, I found a position with Her Majesty’s government as an electrical engineer, working in armaments, and later, the nuclear industry. Although I’m now retired from the electrical industry I remain in Workington with my children and my wife Annette.
Q: I want to discuss your family connection with J. Bruce Ismay. For our club members who may not know, can you tell us how you are related to him?
A: My relationship to Bruce Ismay is 5th cousin (once removed), therefore, our common connection is with our grandfathers of several generations previous. The paternal name ‘Ismay’ ended with Bruce’s son George; in as far as his particular branch of the family is concerned. There are many direct descendants of Bruce, but they no longer have the Ismay birth name.
Q: Jill Carlier wants to know that she's always felt a special empathy for Ismay. She asks, "Did you always know you were related? Did your family talk about him?" and "Thank you for bringing this story to life."
A: I first became aware of my relationship to Bruce when I was only eight years old. I was watching the 1958 film ‘A Night to Remember’ when my father said to me ‘Son, you’re related to the man who owned that ship’. Of course, Bruce never owned Titanic, but that was good enough for an excited eight-year-old! I believe that my grandfather William had met Bruce on a couple of occasions but the private conversations they had died with my grandfather.
Q: As J. Bruce Ismay has not only been vilified in the press in 1912, but he also has since been vilified in books, movies, and documentaries. Even today, there are those in Titanic circles and the general public who view Ismay as a villain. Has this historically bad reputation affected you personally, when you introduce yourself to strangers as "Cliff Ismay?"
A: I frequently found that on introducing myself, on a social and business level, some people would ask ‘oh, are you related to the coward of the Titanic?’ I would answer ‘I don’t believe there were any cowards aboard Titanic, but I am related to Bruce Ismay’
Q: What inspired you to write, "Understanding J. Bruce Ismay: The True Story of the Man They Called 'the Coward of the Titanic?" Were you especially motivated by the historically bad reputation that J. Bruce Ismay has received?
A: My family never believed that Bruce deserved the bad reputation which followed him around since the Titanic disaster. In recent years I began to question the thought process behind these claims. The first rumour which drew my attention was that Bruce had dressed in women’s clothing in order to gain a seat on one of the lifeboats. Although this rumour was generally dismissed long ago, I was curious about the source of this rumour. Secondly, I considered the allegations that Bruce had jumped into one of the first lifeboats to leave the stricken vessel. Had either of these rumours been true my attitude toward Bruce would have been very different. I soon realised that there was another side to Bruce and his actions during the night of the disaster. This was a story waiting to be told!
Q: Club member Meri Izzy asks, "How long did it take to write the book?"
A: I first began writing my book about three years before publication, but never imagined that I would ever be published. When The History Press demonstrated an interest in my book proposal I was hugely encouraged by their interest and began to think that my dream could become a reality. I was honoured to have the encouragement of George Behe.
Q: Club member Marrissa Harris asks: "Was there anything you discovered about Bruce that took you by surprise? Either a myth that was disproven or something the community said that just wasn’t true?"
A: A great many things took me by surprise, all of which are detailed in my book. If I were to single out any narrative, it would be the fact that while retiring from presidency of the International Mercantile Marine Co. Bruce Ismay had a change of heart and expressed a desire to remain within the company as Chairman of the White Star Line. This is evidenced in my book by previously unseen letters from the archives of a distant cousin, and great-grandson of Bruce. I will be forever grateful to him for allowing me unrestricted access to his archive and for his hospitality.
Q: Club member and author of the recently published, "Why the Titanic Was Doomed," (2022/White Owl Publishing) Bryan Jackson asked: Bruce Ismay remained in shipping-related activities, although I think he tried to stay out of public view. Perhaps asking about his activities after Titanic. In what ship-related activities, if any, did Mr. Ismay take part, post-Titanic?
A: After retiring from the presidency of the IMM Bruce remained with the company for a short while as a member of the British Committee. He now had time to pursue his other business interests, including British railways. In 1922 he was selected to serve on the board of the newly formed railway company, London Midland & Scottish Railway. After happily accepting this directorship he served on the committees for Traffic, Rolling Stock, Shipping, and Stores.
Q: What has the reception been to your book from family members and the Titanic community?
A: Since the release of my book, I have been contacted by several of Bruce Ismay’s direct descendants; all have highly commended my book. Generally, those who have contacted me from the large Titanic community have been full of praise for the evidence shown, which I’m repeatedly told ‘presents a different story of Bruce’. On the other hand, there has been a small minority who say that ‘Clifford would naturally be biased because of his relationship to Bruce’. It’s up to each reader to form their own opinion and I welcome any reader feedback.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
A: During my research, it became clear that there was another side of Bruce’s story waiting to be told, and many myths to be confronted. By using evidence from both the American and British enquiries into the Titanic disaster, along with unseen letters and the diary of Bruce’s mother, I set about documenting everything. I do not hope to steer anyone in a particular direction; I just hope that my readers will form their opinions considering the evidence my book presents to them.
Q: Do you think readers of your book will change their viewpoints about J. Bruce Ismay after they have read your book, or do you think that the impressions in their heads thanks to portrayals of him in books, films, etc., are too ingrained in their minds?
A: Many major films, books, and documentaries have three main ingredients; a hero, a love story, and a villain or coward. In most cases, Bruce has invariably fallen into the latter category. Among other highly debated issues, my book also details how Bruce saved many lives before leaving the stricken vessel in the penultimate lifeboat to be successfully lowered from the sinking vessel. I have received many messages from readers within the Titanic community who clearly state that they now see Bruce in a different light. However, Hollywood is a powerful media; therefore, it’s likely that Hollywood’s portrayal of Bruce will remain for some time to come. This is a subject which I would very much like to discuss with a famous Titanic film producer…
Let's conclude with a couple of questions about the RMS Titanic, do you have a favorite room or section on the RMS Titanic, for example, the forward Grand Staircase?
A: Given that I’m an Electrical Engineer I would have to say that my favourite room is the Dynamo Room, probably because I can begin to relate to the difficulties those brave men faced while performing their duty.
Q: My final question is do you have anything else to say to our Book Club?
A: The Titanic Book Club has performed a marvelous and unbiased service since 2018. It has provided an excellent platform for anyone interested in Titanic-related literature to share their thoughts by discussion etc. The Book club is also great for keeping members informed of new works which may otherwise be overlooked. I’m honoured to have my book Understanding J Bruce Ismay: The True Story of the Man they Called 'The Coward of Titanic’ featured here.
Thank you so much for interviewing with us, Mr. Ismay!