Down Amongst the Black Gang: The World and Workplace of RMS Titanic's Stokers

Down Amongst the Black Gang: The World and Workplace of RMS Titanic's Stokers

by Richard P. de Kerbrech

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Down in the fiery belly of the luxury liner RMS Titanic, a world away from the first-class dining rooms and sedate tours of the deck, toiled the ‘black gang’. Their work was gruelling and hot, and here de Kerbrech introduces the reader to the dimly lit world and workplace of Titanic’s stokers. Beginning with a journey around some of the major elements of machinery that one might encounter in the giant ship’s engine and boiler rooms, those with a technical mind would be sated, while the accessible style would aid the lay reader in this more specialist title. The human side of working for the most famous liner is also involved in an exploration of stokers’ duties, environment and conditions: what it was like to be one of the ‘black gang’.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750954884
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/03/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 7 MB
Age Range: 7 - 9 Years

About the Author

Richard P. de Kerbrech served a marine engineering apprenticeship, was a naval inspector, and studied naval architecture and shipbuilding. He is the author or coauthor of 15 books on maritime subjects, including Ships of the White Star Line.

Read an Excerpt

Down Amongst the Black Gang

The World and Workplace of RMS Titanic's Stokers

By Richard P. de Kerbrech

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Richard P. de Kerbrech
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5488-4



In a ship so large for its day, the Titanic (and also the Olympic), was driven by a combination of steam reciprocating engines and a turbine. These were overseen by a staff of twenty-two engineers and six electricians.

The main engines were very large, but not the largest as has previously been believed, and were twin four-cylinder, double-acting, triple- expansion steam reciprocating engines. The term 'reciprocating' denoted the nature of the motion of the engine parts upon which the steam acted, such as an up and down or a backward and forward motion. A simple steam double-acting reciprocating engine consisted of a steam cylinder inside which a piston moved up and down, according to the arrangement, a piston rod and a link or connecting rod worked a crank on a shaft which delivered the power for the work to be done. The reciprocating motion of the piston and piston rod was converted into rotary at the shaft by the crosshead and guide mechanism. Developments in single then compound (double) steam engines made more efficient use of the expansion of steam.

In 1911 with high steam pressures, the triple-expansion engine made further use of the properties of steam. The Olympic and Titanic had four cylinders arranged in line on the top of the engine structure, supported on columns. Each cylinder had two columns, 'forked' at the lower end, which rested on the base or sole plate carrying the shaft with four cranks, one for each cylinder. On Titanic and her sisters, the combined effect of lower weights and four cranks instead of three on each engine, helped reduce overall vibration. The piston rods passed out of the cylinder bottoms, the outer ends being guided between the columns to the crossheads, and the connecting rods joined up with the crankshaft. On the side of each cylinder there was a chamber for receiving or collecting the steam, ready for admitting it to the cylinder, and in these chambers there were special valves, worked by eccentric mechanisms from the crankshaft which admitted the steam and allowed it to escape at the correct instant.

These enormous engines worked on external combustion in which coal was burned in the boilers to generate steam from water which was then in effect, recycled. The pressure when all twenty-four boilers were in operation was 215psi, and this 'live' steam was supplied by the boilers via common steam main pipes which then travelled through the boiler rooms to the two main steam stop valves on the engine room side of the bulkhead. The main steam lines from the boilers also incorporated a bypass branch line known as the 'silent blow off' line. This could be used when warming through the main engines prior to start up, or as an emergency dump line for excess steam to a large exhaust to the condensers. Therefore if the engines were stopped, steam passed to the silent dump to prevent high-pressure exhaust steam venting off through the boilers' safety valves and up to the waste steam pipes to the funnels.

From the main steam stop valves the steam entered the high-pressure cylinders via the regulator valve (or throttle) on each engine and expanded driving the piston down. Then it exhausted into the intermediate-pressure cylinder to do further work. As the steam expanded, each cylinder in turn was of a larger diameter or bore to accommodate the larger volume of the expanded steam. As the 'live' steam at high pressure was in turn used to expand through the three stage cylinders of her engines and converted the heat energy to mechanical energy, this in turn drove the ships two 38-ton, three-bladed outer propellers.

The expanded energy at this stage could not be used in a reciprocating engine properly because of cylinder size limitations. The combination of reciprocating engines together with a Parsons low-pressure (LP) turbine was first introduced by Harland & Wolff on White Star's Laurentic of 1909. It was found that the superior economy of the system was due to the fact that increased power was obtained with the same steam consumption by further expanding the exhaust steam at a much greater volume from the reciprocating machinery in the low-pressure turbine beyond the limits possible with the reciprocating engine.

The trials and operating experience of the Laurentic led to Harland & Wolff adopting the combination machinery for the 'Olympic'-class trio. The other option if manoeuvring or steaming at less than 15 knots, was the turbine could be bypassed by changeover valves which diverted the steam directly to the condensers.

Abaft of the main engines and on both sides of the LP turbine, were the condensers in which steam was condensed back into water and a vacuum formed.

In the 'open feed system', as it was known, after passing through the Parsons turbine, the now 'dead' or 'spent' steam then entered the two condensers, which had a combined cooling surface of 50,500ft2 and worked under a sub-atmospheric pressure of 28in. To condense the steam back to water, seawater at 60°F was circulated through nests of tubes by four compound steam driven centrifugal pumps with a suction and discharge pipe diameter of 29in. The steam was effectively condensed back into water to be used in the cycle over again. Dual air pumps on each condenser outlet sucked out the water and air, and it was pumped into two 2,790-gallon feed tanks. From these the condensate gravitated down to two 300-gallon capacity hotwell tanks. It was here that the condensate came into contact with the air, and any boiler water lost through steam leakage was made up with fresh water from the fore peak or from distilled water supplied by one of the Titanic's three 60-ton capacity evaporators.

The water from the hotwells was drawn off by four hotwell extraction pumps, and to ensure that the feed water was free from oil and other impurities, was discharged through four main feed filters to the surface feed heater which was capable of dealing with 700,000lb/h (312.5 ton/h) of water when supplied with 50,000lb/h (22.3 ton/h) of exhaust steam from the generators at a pressure of 5psi. Thus the feed water temperature was raised from 70°F to 140°F. The water then passed to a direct-contact heater which could also handle a capacity of 700,000lb/h of feed water using exhaust steam from the auxiliaries such as the steering engines, the two refrigeration compressors, numerous pumps and windlass, the steam temperature was further raised to 212–230°F. After this the feed water then gravitated to four main feed pumps that returned the heated feed water back to the boilers above boiler pressure, to replenish and recycle the water back to steam once more. For continuous operation of the engines the rate of steam production in the boilers had to equal the rate of consumption.



The following table gives the muster of engine and boiler room personnel - the Black Gang - which formed the major part of the engineering department aboard the Titanic.


The engineers in 1912 were not considered as officers (for they wore no 'executive curl' on their sleeve insignia), and were responsible for the management and organisation of men in the engine and boiler rooms, together with the smooth, efficient and safe running of the boilers and main steam engines. In the engineer's structure, the chief engineer did not stand a watch but worked day-work and was in overall charge of the engineering department and its personnel. He was responsible for the safe and economical running of the engines, its fuel consumption and overseeing any breakdowns. In ships of the day his day probably started at 6 a.m. and before breakfast at 8 a.m. he had been round the bunkers to ascertain the amount of fuel remaining. This was a very important matter as it was uneconomical either to run short of coal or to have more than was reasonably necessary to complete the voyage. The former involved deviation to the nearest port to bunker; while the latter meant carrying coal bought, perhaps, in a port where it was more expensive than another port where it could be purchased cheaper.

In a ship as large as the Titanic the chief engineer would allocate about two hours' work to be done in the forenoon for writing up details of the ship's performance and keeping the top copy of the engine room log up to date. He would either take or delegate the third engineers of the watch to take 'indicator cards' to ascertain the indicated horsepower of the engines. He would also complete any records of any overhaul or adjustments that were made on the machinery.

About 11 a.m. he may well have had a meeting with the commander, the chief officer and doctor prior to any daily inspection of the ship. In this case the chief engineer's particular interest was in the auxiliary machinery throughout the ship, electric light fittings, etc., as the latter in a vessel of the Titanic's size were apt to be damaged if they were not closely watched.

For this massive responsibility the Titanic's Chief Engineer Mr Joseph Bell was the second highest paid man on the ship on £35 per month. This compared with the commander, Captain E.J. Smith, who was on a salary of £1,000 per annum!

In the structure there were six second engineers which meant two on each watch, one in charge of the engines and the other responsible for the boilers. There were five third engineers and a senior fourth engineer and this would have allowed for a further two certified engineers on each watch, most likely overseeing the boiler rooms. The remaining nine fourth, fifth and sixth engineers meant that another three engineers per watch could be allocated, giving a total of seven engineers to each watch at sea. This would have allowed for four engineers in the engine rooms overseeing the reciprocating engines, the LP turbine and other ancillary machinery such as pumps and also the steering gear, whilst three engineers would have been responsible for the boiler rooms. The senior most second engineer would likely to be on the four to eight watch, morning and afternoon. This enabled him to set the various day workers and to arrange with the storekeepers for the handing out of the stores necessary for the work that had to be done. All seconds on watch would determine the density of the water in the boilers by sampling the salinometer cocks and estimate the weight of ashes rejected from the furnaces.

There were two deck engineers who were on day work and were responsible for all deck machinery such as winches, capstans, and the windlass and lifeboat davits. Likewise the refrigeration engineer (extra fourth engineer) mainly oversaw the steam-driven refrigerating plant and covered the chilled spaces.


There was at least one electrician on watch in the electrical engine room with its four steam-driven 400kW generators, with the remaining three, including the chief electrician, on day work. Their responsibility also covered all the electrical driven auxiliary machinery, lighting throughout the ship and navigational lights. (Oil- and paraffin-burning lights were the responsibility of the lamp trimmer.) The Titanic was installed with about 10,000 electric lamps ranging from 16 to 100 candle power!

Boilermaker and Assistant Boilermaker

Both time-served men, they were responsible for minor repairs on the boilers: replacing broken boiler gauge glass, seeing to leaking joints and leaking rivets, and also fire door hinges which were constantly in use. Both men were on day work and on call during watch hours. They were afforded junior engineer status and as such wore a thin braid ring on their tunic sleeves, edged with purple.


Also with junior engineer status, the plumber was responsible for all the steam pipes which took steam from the boilers and the pipes that returned the feed water back to the boilers. He would also be called on to tend the domestic plumbing requirements throughout the ship. His pay was £9 a month, all found.


At the top of the engine room, on both port and starboard sides, were flats which housed the engine room storerooms. In these were held various lubricants, including mineral, sperm oil and tallow grease. There were also brushes, asbestos packing for glands, rags, cotton waste, spanners, joint packing and boiler fittings. All these were in the safe custody of the storekeepers (who were equivalent to Royal Navy petty officer rank). They also oversaw the greasers' duties and their requirements, and were normally on day work starting at 6 a.m. and working through until 5 p.m.

Leading Firemen

Sometimes referred to as leading hand firemen, usually an older experienced man who more or less supervised the work of a gang of firemen to the satisfaction of the engineer of the watch on duty in the boiler room.


The proper treatment of hand-fired, coal-burning furnaces was a skilled job, and the fireman or stoker who fed the boiler furnace played a very important part in the efficient steaming of a ship. The fires had to be kept evenly spread, about 4–6in thick; the coal had to be well broken up; clinker and dirt had to be raked out; and the furnace doors should not have been kept open too long. They tended three fires, two high and one low, and the task of keeping them at full blast demanded a good standard of physical fitness. In this event the fires had to be regularly and evenly fed, governed by the reading on the pressure gauge and an eye on the water level. If they were sometimes (unwisely) stripped to the waist, sweat, burns and aching muscles were wreaked upon their bodies. Their pay was £6 a month, all found.


Also referred to in other companies as oilers, these men worked in the engine rooms and shaft tunnels. They attended to the cleaning, oiling and greasing of the moving parts that involved sliding, oscillating and rotating machinery. Regularly filling the oil boxes and cups, the crossheads and slippers and the main crankshaft and tunnel shaft bearings. When in port and machinery was not moving or rotating, they ensured that lubricators were not operating and wicks or 'worsteds' were not siphoning oil from the oil boxes. Their pay was £6 10s a month, all found.


Originally from the title 'coal trimmers', they supplied the coal from the bunkers to the firemen and also carted away any ashes from the ashpits. One of their major duties in port was to 'coal ship'. Their pay was £5 10s a month, all found.

A more detailed account of the firemen's and trimmers' duties will be given in Chapter 5, Stokers, Pokers and Smokers.


In the early part of twentieth century British steamship companies, and especially those plying the North Atlantic, preferred drawing their firemen and trimmers from Liverpool-Irish stock. Although by all accounts fiery in temperament and 'bolshie' by nature, they measured up to the onerous tasks and got the job done. German steamship companies preferred Romanians and Hungarians.

So where did the Titanic's firemen hail from? It is known that nearly 700 of her crew signed on at Southampton, just prior to her maiden voyage on 10 April 1912. These would also include firemen, greasers and trimmers of the Black Gang many of whom lived in the Northam district of Southampton. On 29 March 1912, just prior to the Titanic's builder's trials, originally scheduled for 1 April 1912, a Belfast engine room crew of 182 firemen, greasers and trimmers had signed on at Belfast, eighty-four of these had previously served on the Olympic. Their terms of engagement covered both the trials and the coastal voyage to Southampton and provided a payment of 5s for each day the trials were postponed by inclement weather.

One might think that it was logical for those that undertook the coastal voyage from Belfast to Southampton would sign off and re-engage for the maiden voyage. But this was not the case and only seven who signed on at Belfast, two greasers, four firemen and one trimmer, agreed to continue working on board once they had reached Southampton! Were all those that signed on at Southampton on 6 April local to the town? It is believed that many of those who did were in lodgings, hostels or the Seamen's Mission in the port and it is possible that many were of Liverpool-Irish origin; some may even have married and set up homes with local ladies in the town.


Excerpted from Down Amongst the Black Gang by Richard P. de Kerbrech. Copyright © 2014 Richard P. de Kerbrech. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Introduction to the Power Plant,
2 Engine Room Personnel, their Duties and Origins,
3 Coal, Bunkers and Bunkering,
4 About Scotch Boilers,
5 Stokers, Pokers and Smokers,
6 Main Propulsion Machinery,
7 Reputations, Stereotypes and Urban Myths,
8 The Low-pressure (LP) or Exhaust Turbine and Condensers,
9 The Black Gang's Struggle to Save Titanic,
10 Other Labour-intensive Auxiliaries to Attend,
11 Aftermath and Repercussions,
12 The Coming of Oil-firing but Coal Burners Steam on and on,
Appendix: List of Titanic's Engineering Department Including Electricians, Greasers, Firemen and Trimmers,

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