Of the 880 crew aboard the RMS Titanic, 600 came from Southampton and of those, 549 perished.
“The whole town was in mourning. Virtually everyone in Southampton had a relative, neighbour or friend on the ship,” explains Len Goodman, who’s been fascinated by that ill-starred vessel ever since he worked as a welder for the company that constructed it — shipbuilders Harland and Wolff — in his youth.
“Obviously there were no emails or mobile phones back then so people had to hang around outside the White Star Line offices in Southampton to find out if their loved ones had survived or not. They had to wait days. Sometimes they got it wrong and people thought to be safe weren’t and vice versa.”
The agony of losing so many in a single night also meant money worries because the loss of the breadwinner left their families destitute. Nor were the handful of survivors out of trouble.
“As the ship went down, White Star Line sacked everybody. The surviving crew was left to fend for themselves in New York. Even on that tragic night all the company thought about was their bank account and profit columns.”
When the usually upbeat Strictly Come Dancing judge discovers this in Titanic with Len Goodman, his three-part documentary exploring the human legacy, he stutters, understandably shaken. “It’s almost beyond belief that this could happen!”
So what did happen when they finally landed in New York, traumatised and penniless?
“Good old Woolworths came to the rescue. The company said: come and work in the shop and whatever you make you can keep to spend on food and clothes. A lot of them then had to work their passage on ships to get home.”
“What Southampton shows us is that the tragedy of Titanic isn’t just about those who died that night,” continues Goodman, who reveals that the family of White Star Line boss Bruce Ismay rapidly distanced themselves from the disaster; and that the Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, wasn’t cleared of failing to come to the Titanic’s rescue until 1985 — two decades after he passed away, still fighting to clear his name.
“It’s about thousands of other people as well: parents, wives, children and the survivors were all faced with the struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of the giant ship.”
Titanic with Len Goodman is on BBC1 at 8:30pm tonight.