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Ismay, Joseph Brucefree

  • J. Gordon Read

Ismay, Joseph Bruce (1862–1937), shipowner, was born at Enfield House, Great Crosby, near Liverpool, on 12 December 1862, the eldest son in a family of nine children of Thomas Henry Ismay (1837–1899), shipowner and founder of the White Star Line, and his wife, Margaret (1838–1907), daughter of Luke Bruce. He was educated at a local school in New Brighton, at Elstree School in Hertfordshire and from 1876 at Harrow School. On leaving the latter in 1878 he went for a year to a tutor in Dinard, France.

On 30 September 1880 Ismay began an apprenticeship of four years in his father's office and then sailed to Australia and New Zealand on the Doric to see how the new White Star service was working there. He was then sent to the White Star office in New York for a year, at the end of which time he was appointed agent for the White Star Line in New York. During this period he enjoyed a liberated lifestyle, which ended when he met a New York society belle, Julia Florence (1880/1–1963), daughter of George R. Schieffelin, a prominent lawyer, and his wife, Margaret, a granddaughter of the New York shipping merchant John Ferris Delaplaine. They were married on 4 December 1888 at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, Manhattan, and returned to England in January 1891 with their two young children so that Ismay could take up his partnership in the family firm. During the crossing their son, Henry, became ill and died soon after they reached Thomas Ismay's residence, Dawpool, near Liverpool. Subsequently resident in the city suburb of Mossley Hill, the couple's relationship deteriorated rapidly, though another son and two daughters (one stillborn) were born before 1900. From 1911 Ismay and his family took 15 Hill Street, Mayfair, as their London residence.

After his father's death in November 1899, Ismay became head of the business. His management continued the tradition of commitment to quality, attention to detail, and firm grasp of commercial realities begun by his father. In 1901 he was approached by American interests towards forming an international shipping company, and after lengthy negotiations between him and J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM) was formed. Clement A. Griscom, the ailing former chief of the American Steamship Line, became president. He was succeeded in 1904 by Ismay. During this period the White Star Line reached its apogee in the building of the giant liners Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic II.

Ismay also held a number of appointments with other companies. He served as chairman of the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company, as well as being a director of Shaw, Savill, and Albion, and of several insurance companies. He was offered but declined the chairmanship of the London, Midland, and Scotland Railway (LMS). He was chairman of the Liverpool and London Steamship Owners' Protection Association and of the Liverpool and London War Risks Association.

Ismay was tall and handsome, with a somewhat contradictory personality. At times dogmatic, as in his decision to destroy many of the firm's archives after the Titanic disaster, he consulted in depth on big business decisions. He showed exceptional sympathy to the ‘underdog’, secretly helping all sorts of people, but he intensely disliked publicity. His reclusive characteristics no doubt sprang in part from being in his father's shadow, and were accentuated by the trauma of the Titanic sinking on 15 April 1912, which he survived in highly controversial circumstances. Having decided to retire as president of the IMM in late 1912, he had intended that the Titanic's maiden voyage would be his final in a professional capacity. At 11.40pm on 14 April 1912 the ship struck an iceberg. During its evacuation Ismay called for women and children to fill the lifeboats on the starboard side where he remained until—with the ship listing and the deck beginning to flood—he boarded Collapsible C, one of the Titanic's four canvas life-rafts, which then carried 43 passengers and had a complement of forty-seven. Collapsible C was the third-to-last boat to leave the ship on the starboard side. In total the Titanic carried twenty wooden and collapsible lifeboats, a number decided on by Ismay who favoured having only one craft per davit rather than a possible three; the decision gave a ship with more than 2235 passengers and crew a lifeboat capacity of 1100, though this provision exceeded the Board of Trade's then minimum requirement.

Testimonies at the US and British inquiries into the disaster differed widely with regard to Ismay's actions in the hours after the collision: some claimed that he had been one of the very first to leave the Titanic while others maintained he had taken a place on the last lifeboat, and then only on the orders of the ship's captain, Edward Smith. First questioned by US investigators on 19 April, Ismay maintained that he had not encouraged Smith to set excessive speeds, and described how he had 'stood upon the deck practically until I left the ship in the starboard collapsible boat, which was the last boat to leave the ship, so far as I know' (Wilson, 114). Ismay also stated that there had been no struggle in the vicinity of Collapsible C, and that the deck had been deserted, though this was at odds with other eye-witness accounts reprinted in the press. Though pilloried by the US press and rigorously questioned, Ismay was eventually cleared by his American investigators. In Britain he was treated more leniently by journalists indignant at his treatment in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. On 4 and 5 June 1912 he gave evidence to the British inquiry. Here Ismay was questioned about his knowledge of, and response to, news (received on the afternoon of 14 April) of an approaching ice field, and about his decision to enter a lifeboat when he knew that others remained on the lower decks. The verdict of the British inquiry, published on 30 July, was to find no one responsible for the loss of the Titanic.

Following the inquiries Ismay reacted swiftly by ordering that there must be enough lifeboats for everyone on all his firm's vessels from that moment on. His resignation from the presidency of IMM and of White Star in June 1913 was planned beforehand. He continued as an active director of many companies, and—despite popular claims at the time—did not become a recluse. At the time of the White Star Line's near demise in 1934, he was considering a rescue operation, although in the end the company was saved by merging with Cunard.

Ismay inaugurated the cadet ship Mersey for training officers for the merchant navy. Following the Titanic disaster he gave £11,000 to found a fund to benefit widows of seamen who lost their lives afloat and in 1919 presented £25,000 to establish the National Mercantile Marine Fund in recognition of the role of merchant seamen in the First World War. A natural sportsman, he excelled at tennis and became a first-class shot. An expert fisherman, he owned a fishing lodge at Costelloe, co. Galway, where he spent summer breaks; purchased in 1913, the original lodge was destroyed by the IRA in 1922 and then rebuilt by Ismay to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens with gardens laid out by Gertrude Jekyll. According to family members, the Titanic was never mentioned in Ismay's presence.

Ismay died of a stroke on 17 October 1937 at 15 Hill Street, Berkeley Square, London, where he had lived permanently since 1920. He was survived by his wife, who died, aged eighty-two, on 31 December 1963. A memorial service was held in St Paul's, Knightsbridge, and his ashes were buried in Putney Vale cemetery.


  • W. J. Oldham, The Ismay line (1961)
  • The Times (18 Oct 1937)
  • R. Anderson, White Star (1964)
  • J. G. Read, ‘Ismay, Thomas Henry’, DBB
  • W. H. Flayhart, The American line (New York, 2000)
  • F. Wilson, How to survive the Titanic, or, the sinking of J. Bruce Ismay (2011)


  • NMM
  • Northants. RO, Haselbech MSS
  • TNA: PRO, Titanic MSS


  • photograph (aged thirteen), repro. in Oldham, Ismay line
  • photograph (aged nineteen), repro. in Oldham, Ismay line
  • photograph (shortly before maiden voyage of Titanic), repro. in Oldham, Ismay line
  • photographs, repro. in Wilson

Wealth at Death

£693,305 17s. 6d.: probate, 25 Nov 1937, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]