The Royal Mail Ship

Titanic’s full title was RMS Titanic, standing for Royal Mail Ship. The RMS designation, which dates back to 1840, is given to any seagoing vessel that carries mail under contract for the Royal Mail, the British postal service. Several shipping lines carried mail in the past, including the Cunard Line, Royal Mail Line, and White Star Line, owner of the Titanic. The title was seen as a mark of quality, because the mail had to be on time. Contracts included a penalty clause for even a minute delay. Today, overseas mail is usually handled by airliners. However, four ships still carry the RMS prefix, including the transatlantic liner RMS Queen Mary 2.

pennant royal mail

One of the pennants flown by ships with RMS designation

When RMS Titanic embarked on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, she carried hundreds of sacks of mail, each holding about 2000 letters. She stopped twice before heading for New York, in Cherbourg, France and in Queenstown, Ireland, dropping off passengers and picking up many more, along with more sacks of mail—approximately 3500 sacks in total, holding around 7 million letters and postcards.

sacks of mail in queenstown

Sacks of mail and luggage being loaded aboard Titanic at Queenstown

Passengers could post mail from Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown. Ida Strauss wrote from Southampton to a friend: “What a ship! Our rooms are furnished in the best of taste and most luxuriously…they are really rooms, not cabins.” Passenger Harvey Collyer wrote his parents on April 11th: “So far we are having a delightful trip. The weather is beautiful and the ship magnificent…it’s like a floating town.”

On board the Titanic, three American and two British postal workers sorted the mail during the voyage in one of the ship’s lowest decks. When the ship collided with the iceberg, the clerks were together celebrating one of their birthdays. Water immediately began pouring into the mail room. The men hurried to move the sacks of mail to the upper decks and possibly to safety. They were last seen working in two feet of water by a steward who tried in vain to get them to abandon their task. None of the postal clerks survived.


Titanic mailroom

The United States Postmaster General stated afterward, “The bravery exhibited by these men in their efforts to safeguard under such trying conditions the valuable mail entrusted to them should be a source of pride to the entire postal service … The loss of the men is deplored, but their example is a fine one for the traditions of the service and consistent with their previous records.”

Although all the mail was lost, it was believed that about $150,000 in postal money orders went down with the ship. Efforts were made to ensure payments to the beneficiaries. ”One of the first to be reimbursed for a lost money order was Miss Ethel Clarke, a maid who worked for President William Howard Taft's family. Her lost money order was for seven pounds. Based upon an examination of available postal records, a replacement U.S. money order was issued to her from postal service headquarters for $35.” Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica