Critically evaluate different categories of source material relating to the Titanic.


On the 15th April 1912, the White Star Line’s Titanic sank after an unfortunate collision with an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean causing the deaths of 1500 people.[1] The tragedy, conveniently for historians, provides a variety of source types including material culture, textual evidence, and oral testimony on which this essay is based upon; however, there are also image and film sources available on the topic. With regards to the material culture, I have focused on oceanographer and maritime archaeologist Robert Ballard’s time consuming expedition in the 1980’s to find the wreckage of the Titanic and his consequent documentation of it. Nick Barratt and Steve Turner came to the majority of their conclusions through the use of oral testimonies from survivors of the Titanic, although it is questionable as to whether their samples are representative due to the class and gender of the survivors being largely biased. Furthermore, the definition of Oral history has to be questioned, particularly with regards to Barratt’s work as although his book’s title implies a complete ‘oral history’, these sources could also be categorised as being textual. The historians utilise these sources in differing ways, with one emphasising the source and downplaying his engagement, whilst the other turns to paraphrasing and commentary; both methodologies raise issues to be discussed within the main content of the essay with regards to individualism versus a lack of historic analysis, raising the question of which is most valuable in the context of the case study. In most cases Barratt cross-references the oral testimony with textual sources such as the US and British official enquiry reports in order to validate the witness’s statements. However, I question the authority of these and his reliance upon the written text due to them having largely originated from oral testimony, once again blurring the lines between the categorisation of oral and textual evidence. As textual evidence takes other forms such as letters and newspaper articles, evaluation of text as a source can take place not just in relation to other source categories, but can also determine which type of textual source is more beneficial for historians to use regarding the Titanic sinking.

Main Text

Whilst not a historian, Robert Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic and consequent documentation of his findings can be classed as a historical use of source due to the archaeological nature of the expedition. Material culture as historical evidence increasingly been used by historians alongside the technological development which allows such materials to be discovered and preserved.[2] As a primary source unadulterated by choice of vocabulary which may otherwise be censored or edited out of oral or textual sources, artefacts and architecture is considered in Mauss’s opinion, as being the most reliable evidence due to its authenticity.[3]

Through delving deep into the ocean and locating the wreckage of the Titanic, Ballard has furthered our understanding of the tragic sinking by firstly, disproving the reported location by finding error in the coordinates, and secondly realising that, contrary to previous statements, the ship split and sunk in two pieces due to the absence of skid marks and differing directions of the two halves separated by 1970 ft.[4] As the wreckage is buried too deep to be recovered and has suffered from severe rusting over about a (then) 70 year period, Ballard’s team took over 53,000 photographs from differing angles, lightings and depths in order to make this magnificent piece of evidence accessible to a wider audience; of these, 100 were used to create a scaled mosaic of the wreckage which would have been impossible for contemporaries – or even historians from a decade earlier to achieve due to their insufficient technology.[5] However, due to the ‘highly technical’ nature of the expedition, trialling new pieces of hardware and exposing them to dangerous levels of water pressure, not to mention the time consuming and costly task this turned out to be, this ‘hands on’ experience is not available to all.[6] This perhaps gives Ballard’s approach a uniqueness as others are unlikely to study this topic in the same way for these reasons, however to the wider audience, they are unable to immediately engage with the primary sources, they can only learn second-hand from Ballard’s work.

Regardless, the submarine-like equipment allowed the team to enter the Titanic, taking images of the architecture and furnishings, including an ‘almost perfectly preserved’ chandelier, chamber pots, wine bottles, headboards, space heaters, and bathtubs.[7] Arguably, this doesn’t really further our understanding of the Titanic in terms of the architecture and material usage of the time, given that we know the ship was designed to be the most luxurious contemporary steamship, of which the materials and furnishings were documented through blueprints and promotional photographs taken before the maiden voyage began.[8] For this reason, although maritime collectors would have certainly paid thousands for artefacts from the Titanic – which could have easily been recovered with the technology being used for the discovery expedition, the Titanic holds ‘no true archaeological value’, therefore any item retrieval would be considered as a greed-hungry treasure hunt, unlike the excavation of the Egyptian pyramids and tombs, of which Ballard stresses the historical need to retrieve, examine and document the contents in comparison to those of the Titanic. In contrast, the ocean is perceived to him as being a permanent resting ground for the ship’s wreckage, as a memorial to those that lost their lives in the tragedy.[9] Furthermore, the removal of the Titanic’s structure or artefacts might provoke further harm or destruction due to the exposure to air or light and sudden change in preservative conditions; for these reasons I agree with Ballard in his decision to leave the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean from both archaeological and respectful perspectives, despite this perhaps limiting the engagement with the sources, as they cannot be properly examined or be made easily accessible in museums or collections for a general audience as artefacts relating to other historical events may be.[10]

Instead, Ballard’s comparisons between the archaeological images and their contemporaries are useful for both academics (whether scientist, archaeologist, or historian) in addition to the general interested reader, as this allows us to compare the condition of the artefact/s. Perhaps to an extent the artefact alone was in some instances unidentifiable due to its condition, and could only be identified through comparing the structure with that in the original photographs.[11] This particular section of the book is therefore weighted with comparative importance which could spark further interest in the preservation of material culture for the museum curator.[12]

Although as previously stated, the Titanic as material evidence doesn’t provide us with any further knowledge on architecture and design of the early 1900’s, the scattered debris included a Doll, which Ballard assumes belonged to a first-class passenger due to the known cost of around $40. He even goes as far as to suggest that it could have belonged to Lorraine Allison, the only first-class child who did not survive the disaster. Regardless, the evidence of the material belongings of the passengers aboard the Titanic makes the historical knowledge more personal and individual, rather than clumping all victims together as one, acknowledging that each had a different background and therefore experience on both the voyage and during the sinking.[13] With all material artefacts, the relationship between the object and the owner’s identity can be assumed, allowing the historian to create their social context, which Ballard has attributed.[14] This artefact shows the significance of the doll as it must have been considered a prized possession for the passenger to have carried it onto the ship (although arguably not important enough to have exited with it if Ballard’s identification is false).[15] From an economic viewpoint, this shows the increasing trend of early 1900’s consumerism moving from the participation of activities to the  ownership of products which is only possible after the biological and social minimum is met; whilst Ballard doesn’t use this artefact to consider the wider economy, this certainly supports his assumption that the doll belonged to a member of first class able to afford such luxury.[16]

Oral History

Whilst Ballard only gives a slight focus to select individuals in relation to identifiably personal artefacts, Nick Barratt’s ‘Lost Voices from the Titanic’ aims to completely individualise the victims of the Titanic by publishing the victim’s testimonies; however, in doing this, it is perhaps hard to sense the scale of the tragedy.[17] Barratt states in his introduction that he wishes the testimony to stand alone with as little commentary from him as possible so as not to draw away the power from the individual – only providing a brief biography beforehand.[18] Whilst I understand Barratt’s symbolic reasoning for this, his lack of engagement with the source perhaps devalues it from a historical perspective as the focus is purely on the individual’s experience aboard the Titanic, sometimes looking over indications to their social status and wealth which might give us insight into the wider historical issues of the time, such as their reason for travelling: in one instance to secure marriage.[19]

One of the biggest criticisms of Barratt’s use of oral history is through no fault of his own. Although not deliberate, there is a bias in the selection of Barratt’s interviewees.[20] As 1,500 perished in the tragedy, they are unable to give their experience, therefore the version of events we have knowledge about are dictated by the survivors of the Titanic: mostly first class women, or children who are perhaps too young to remember or understand the chaos unfolding around them.[21] This realisation makes me question Barratt’s choice of title with regards to the ‘Lost Voices’, as the testimonies included in his book are not lost, these people were alive to give their retelling, whereas the true lost voices are still that – lost, as their owners perished in the disaster.[22] This is particularly significant with regards to Captain Smith, as corroborating accounts from several surviving members of the crew lead to Barratt’s conclusion that the crew including the Captain were aware of the danger of ice on the night of the sinking, however Smith (possibly the most vital source) is unable to defend himself, therefore is it right for others to be able to speak on his behalf as this may not be his experience or recollection of events; it is possible that blaming those who perished was an easy way out for members of the crew perhaps struggling with guilt, therefore their words regarding blame should perhaps be weighted with less importance than Barratt gives them credit for.[23]

Alternatively, Steve Turner searches for the next possible vital source – surviving Marconi operator Harold Bride. Whilst this is certainly selective, Turner’s inclusion of Bride’s testimony is paramount as he was the only person at the centre of the ‘drama’ to have survived, had direct contact with the Captain and communicated with nearby ships, in addition to witnessing the complete rescue being one of the last to have left the ships; furthermore, his position allowed him to explain the event in nautical terms.[24] Taking these factors into account, it is perfectly reasonable in this instance for Turner to have prioritised Bride as a source. However, in contrast to Barratt’s lack of interference with the sources available, Turner’s decision to paraphrase using perhaps the odd quote, conveying only the general idea of what Bride said, takes away from the personal element of the testimony, potentially devaluing it on a connecting level with the reader – despite historians needing to be objective when analysing evidence; it is perhaps hard to remain such when faced with such emotional and tragic retellings such as those of the Titanic, which I do not think in this instance should be quelled for the sake of professional objectivity.

Continuing with an evaluation of the use of interview subjects, as Barratt is researching and writing his book 100 years after the event, he is unable to interview the survivors himself to retrieve any specific information perhaps lacking in the original testimonies due to their natural deaths.[25] His research is secondary, relying upon interviews from previous scholars or official reports; arguably giving Barratt’s research less credit than Ballard’s as he only had to turn to the archives to retrieve transcripts and statements whereas Ballard undertook a more practical and immediate approach, allowing for flexibility. Even testimonies from earlier historian’s work, which Barratt includes, suffer from the passage of time due to the subjectivity in memory and hindsight, with information received after the event perhaps altering the individual’s recollection. [26] One subject admitted ‘at my age now at 65 ½ years my memory is not too good’, implying that historical enquiry, particularly from an oral approach, was occurring too late if reliability was valued.[27] On the other hand, it is more the nature of Turner’s enquiry that lends the oral testimony to bias, as he quotes the eulogy-like statements of those who knew the ship’s band: men with the ‘highest sense of duty’, ‘the nicest and most gentlemanly lads I ever knew’.[28] The issue here being that one is unlikely to dishonour a person’s memory; therefore, should these statements be taken as hard evidence for the band members’ character? Furthermore, this has little relevance to the event, but once again runs with the theme of individualism.

Overall, for the purpose of this essay I must question the categorisation of what Barratt calls ‘oral’ history due to the majority of his sources actually being letters of testimony. Whilst oral history is specifically defined as the recording of verbal interviews or statements, arguable the focus of this is the personal reminiscence from people who have lived through a certain time or event; this description certainly fits the nature of the letters featuring in Barratt’s book which were in response to a series of inquiry questions – therefore arguably taking the same form as an oral interview.[29] Regardless there appears to be no strict line between oral and textual sources due to the spoken word needing to be written in order to be used. With regards to the methodology, the nature of the ‘interview’ lacks engagement with the interviewer and interviewee, which could prevent the researcher from collecting information regarding the subject’s body language, but also more sensitive aspects of the disaster as they might be more reluctant to discuss such affairs with a stranger due to the personal nature; one writes ‘the rest is too awful to write about’, stressing the witnesses’ unwillingness to talk about the event in this form.[30] These written ‘interviews’ also assume that each witness experienced the same thing, and does not allow for the interviewer to adapt their questions or prod further into an aspect they have talked about, without it becoming a very time consuming task of letter exchange.

Textual Evidence

The theme of individualism is carried over through to the presentation of both the testimony letters and letters written by the wives, parents, or children of those who perished aboard the Titanic. Not only does Barratt allow the source to stand alone, but where possible a photocopied print of the letter is inserted on the adjacent page, allowing the reader to study the handwriting of the person, strengthening the connection between reader and writer, making the source more immediate.[31] Arguably, the letters from those only affected by the tragedy, in terms of losing their ‘breadwinner’, are not really relevant to the topic if the researcher/reader are interested in an account of the events as they did not experience the sinking. However, what Barratt does highlight here in selecting these letters, is the personal relationships and social structure of society at this time, keeping the memory of the victims rather than letting them fall into a statistic.[32] Barratt makes good use of these sources for the reader, by providing the brief biography, as if these letters were to stand alone they would perhaps be useless as we would not necessarily be able to glean the subject’s role on the ship or their relationship to the person writing to the White Star Line for compensation, although their class and level of education can be assumed from their style of writing.[33] This is similar to Tuner’s inclusion of correspondence between members of the band and their friends and family; whilst they do not provide any information on the disaster as their stories perished with them, Turner is individualising the band, weighting their deaths with more tragedy which is good for their memorialisation.[34]

          On the other hand, Barratt perhaps regards the official British and American inquiry reports with too much authority, presuming them to be the most reliable of documents as impersonal textual sources are less subject to subjectivity.[35] In some instances, he is correct to do so, as the statistics show a breakdown of the passenger’s gender, class and percentage saved; from these he has made definite comparisons and conclusions as both reports can be cross referenced. However, the cross referencing of these reports showed that the figures are incorrect as, as they were collected from oral statements from the crew which are assumed to have been exaggerated to diminish the number of crew saved to make the best cause for themselves and the ship.[36] Here Barratt has acknowledged that written sources aren’t always reliable – even government reports, as although they set out to record the truth, the knowledge of this intention could lead to the manipulation of evidence for the sake of hiding undesirable truths.[37] For this reason it is in Barratt’s favour that he uses a variety of source type to draw his conclusions – such as the oral testimonies previously discussed; particularly as these textual documents reduce the victims to figures which are not nearly enough to support Barratt’s work on individualising the Titanic, whilst the reports do provide an easily accessible timeline.[38]

          Whilst it can be argued that the written record is lacking in personality found in other types of source, such as oral, with regards to band member Frederick Black, written record has added to individualism where images have failed. At the beginning of the 1900’s, photography was not widely accessible or used by the average person; as the only band member to be lacking in visual image, Turner has not wanted his individuality to suffer and therefore has included the next best thing: an army record describing his physical appearance. From this we are able to build an image of Black using details of his hair and eye colour, height, and weight, facts we would not know without this recording.[39]


In conclusion, Ballard’s examination of the material remnants of the Titanic make good use of the technology we have available for such research; however, the downside to this is that due to the preservative and respectful elements of the Titanic’s structure, a wider audience is unable to engage with the primary sources directly due to the high cost and time required for such expeditions. That said, Ballard makes the most of his engagement with the sources, and endeavours to make them visually accessible in his work by using highly constructed images. Arguably his findings provide us with little information given the extent of which was already recorded during the construction process in terms of materials and features, with the inclusion of images before the maiden voyage. Without these perhaps Ballard’s expedition would have proved even less fruitful due to the condition of the wreckage; the original images were necessary to identifying parts of the ship or furniture – implying that alone the material evidence would have been little more than something to look at rather than glean information. Nevertheless, by identifying items such as the doll, Ballard begins exploring the individual element of casualties rather than bulking them into impersonal figures as seen in the written reports used by Barratt. In comparison to both oral and textual sources, material evidence can be considered most reliable as it is not subject to opinions or manipulation unlike the testimonies and official reports – which also stem from oral testimonies, and have proven to be contradictory by Barratt with regards to their figures in an attempt by the crew to downplay the number of crew saved to diffuse any backlash. With regards to Barratt’s work, his oral testimonies, like the material evidence, transforms the history of the Titanic into a history of the individuals; whilst I understand the sentiment behind his lack of engagement with the sources as this would devalue the connection with the reader, perhaps this discredits the source from a historical viewpoint. However, Turner’s paraphrasing certainly takes away the individuality from the source and prevents the reader from establishing a connection and developing sympathy – which contrary to the strict opinion that historians must stay objective, I believe for this tragedy that emotional feeling should not be suppressed as the history of the Titanic is tied to the memory of the victims.

Overall, all source types have been cross referenced by the historian, Ballard compares contemporary images with the material culture in front of him whilst Barratt refers to both the US and British official enquiry; the volume of testimonies he draws conclusions from validate themselves, however he also makes references to the report to confirm or disprove the witness’s statements where possible. Ultimately, with regards to historians’ use of sources surrounding the Titanic sinking, it can be concluded that material artefacts provide us with little extra information although they can be considered the most reliable as they are not influenced by the individual in the same way that oral and textual evidence can be manipulated unintentionally or with purpose; given that the textual reports are largely based upon oral testimony, for this case study I believe the oral testimony to be most valuable for historians due to the volume of witnesses and vast amount of information which has be retrieved – despite the bias in subjects, as this is more an unfortunate circumstance than deliberate selection by the researcher.


Ballard, Robert D. Discovery of the Titanic, Warner Books, Madison Press, (1987)

Barratt, Nick. Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History, Preface Publishing, (2009)

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992)

Harvey, Karen. (Ed.) History & Material culture: A student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, Abingdon: Routledge, (2009)

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Oral history’, available at:, [accessed: 17.04.17]

Pearce, Susan M. (Ed.), Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World, Cassell, (1997)

Smith, Graham. ‘Historical Insights: Focus on Research Oral History’, in History at the HEA in conjunction with the Institute of Historical Research, (2010)

Turner, Steve. The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic, Thomas Nelson, (2011)

[1] Nick Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History, Preface Publishing, (2009), p.vii, p.xi

[2] Karen Harvey, ‘Introduction: practical matters’ in Karen Harvey ed. History & Material culture: A student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, Abingdon: Routledge, (2009), p.2

[3] Sean Hides, ‘The Genealogy of material culture & cultural identity’ in Susan M. Pearce (Ed.), Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World, Cassell, (1997), p.11

[4] Robert D. Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, Warner Books, Madison Press, (1987), p.67, p.88, p.202

[5] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.124

[6] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic p.71, p.83

[7] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.134, p.147

[8] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.138, pp.163-193

[9] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.138

[10] Julian Walker, ‘Afterward: Acquisition, Envy and the Museum Visitor’, in Pearce, Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World, p. 257-8

[11] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.163-193

[12] Walker, ‘Afterward: Acquisition, Envy and the Museum Visitor’, p. 257-8

[13] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.148-9

[14] Sean Hides, ‘The Genealogy of material culture & cultural identity’, p.11

[15] Ballard, Discovery of the Titanic, p.148-9

[16] Soren Askegaard & A. Fuat Firat, ‘Towards a Critique of Material Culture, Consumption & Markets’, in Pearce, Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World, pp. 114-139

[17] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.90

[18] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.x

[19] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.102

[20] Graham Smith: ‘Historical Insights: Focus on Research Oral History’, in History at the HEA in conjunction with the Institute of Historical Research, (2010), p.14

[21] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.xi, p.213

[22] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic

[23] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.xii, p.122

[24] Steve Turner, The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic, Thomas Nelson, (2011), pp.5-7

[25] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic

[26] Smith: ‘Historical Insights: Focus on Research Oral History’, p.4, p.11

[27] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.155

[28] Turner, The Band That Played On, p.33

[29] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Oral history’, available at:, [accessed: 17.04.17]

[30] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.162

[31] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic

[32] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.238

[33] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic

[34] Turner, The Band That Played On, p.111-119

[35] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.51

[36] Barratt, Lost Voices from the Titanic, p.213-14

[37] Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, p.52

[38] Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, p.56

[39] Turner, The Band That Played On p.22

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