Catherine Ollerhead De Santis

One hundred years after that ship’s fateful journey, a group of Titanic aficionados (and those just a little curious about Edwardian life) had a chance to experience what it would be like to live and dine in 1912, thanks to a U of G master’s student.

The Chatham-Kent Museum in southwestern Ontario has in its collection one of the dinner menu cards from a third-class passenger on the doomed Titanic. With the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking last month, the museum decided to use the menu card as the inspiration for a special event and fundraiser.

On April 14, about 300 guests enjoyed a seven-course menu (based on the Titanic’s last dinner offered to first-class passengers, which was actually 12 courses) or a four-course meal (based on the Titanic’s third-class menu). They were invited to dress in period costume.

Why is there such fascination with the Titanic?

The event’s guest speaker, Catherine (Caitrin) Ollerhead De Santis, who is both a master’s student in history and a clinical support staff member at the OVC Health Sciences Centre, says: “I think it’s because the Titanic was a microcosm for all that was going on at the time. British society then was based on a rigid class system, and on the ship you had the very rich living in luxury with all their toys, then it went all the way down to the people in steerage, who saw the Titanic as their way to escape that class system and start new lives.”

Of course, she adds: “It wouldn’t mean so much if the ship hadn’t foundered on its maiden voyage. People always have a morbid fascination with tragedy.” Perhaps the contrast between the opulence of the ship and its ultimate resting place at the bottom of the ocean fascinates people.

On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the Cannon was painted like the doomed vessel.

Ollerhead De Santis gave her presentation dressed in period clothing that evening – clothing she’d made herself, right down to the corset. (A corset can be quite comfortable, she claims, providing it is properly fitted.)  She had been invited to speak to the group, who paid $100 for the first-class meal or $60 for the third-class version and the chance to listen to her.

“My talk was not about the number of rivets in the Titanic,” she says. “I focused on social protocols, what it was like to dress for dinner and how the Edwardians navigated their social circles. How did they actually manage to eat a 12-course meal? What kind of music did the people like to listen to?”

If we were magically transported back to the Titanic’s first-class dining room, she suggests, most of us wouldn’t do well. We wouldn’t know, for example, that before introducing a woman to a man, you must first ask the woman privately if she wants to be introduced to him. Most of us also wouldn’t know which knife to use with which food, or which topics could be safely discussed in the presence of women (no comments on politics or religion, and certainly no mention of what you do for a living).

Ollerhead De Santis, fortunately, was able to share this etiquette information with the guests at the Chatham-Kent event, giving them a vivid sense of life in 1912. She adds that while the class structure was very restrictive, for many it provided a sense of security: “If you were a woman, you knew doors would be opened for you. If you were a man, you knew what your role in society was going to be.” Not long after the Titanic sunk, much of that changed. World War One challenged the class system, women got the vote and trade unions helped establish rights for working-class people.

Guests wore period costumes during a lecture about the Titanic.

“But the Titanic still gives us a window into that time and that way of life,” says Ollerhead De Santis, who is an enthusiastic participant in many types of historical re-enactments. For example, she rides side-saddle wearing authentic clothing she made, on rescue horses she helped to train. A few years ago, she earned a certificate from Parks Canada that allows her to fire cannons at historical sites.

The first-class guests ate:

1st course: consomme Olga and cream of barley soup

2nd course: poached salmon with mousseline sauce

3rd course: chicken Lyonnaise and vegetable marrow farci

4th course: punch romaine

5th course: roasted squab on wilted cress

6th course: asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette

7th course: peaches in chartreuse

Third-class guests enjoyed:

1st course: rice soup

2nd course: fruit

3rd course: roast beef, gravy, red jacket potatoes, seasonal vegetables and rolls

4th course: peaches in chartreuse

But after all the etiquette lessons and the elaborate feast, Ollerhead De Santis reminded her audience that, in the end, this was a tragedy. “About 62 per cent of those travelling in steerage died and about 25 per cent of those in first class,” she says. In honour of those who lost their lives that day, she concluded her presentation with the poem “A Sailor’s Prayer” that included the line “Protect me in the dangers and perils of the sea and even in the storm grant that there may be peace and calm within my heart.”