Titanic’s infamous “Black Gang” refers to the numerous men who worked deep within the bowels of the ship, to keep it moving. Titanic was set up in such a way that the members of this hardworking group were never seen by passengers. There were gangways and staircases for the exclusive use of the boiler room attendants. They were given the name “black gang” because of the coal dust that settled on their faces and torsos (they were almost always shirtless due to the intense heat from the boilers). The water pressure in the boiler rooms, which were usually 2 or 3 stories below the water line, would have been double what it is at the surface. The temperatures in these areas ranged from burning hot in the boiler rooms, to freezing cold in the coal storage bunkers.
When Titanic set sail, there was a coal strike going on. Because of the strike, Titanic carried enough coal to sail to the US and back, instead of counting on being reloaded in America. This coal accounted for a significant amount of the weight aboard the ship. Because of this, “trimmers” were used to keep the coal level and even within the bunkers, so it did not affect the trim of the ship. Wheelbarrows full of large chunks of coal were moved into the boiler rooms, where the boiler workers would break them down into smaller pieces about the size of a man’s fist. They would then shovel a specific amount of this coal into the boilers, and spread it out along the grates inside. Titanic has double boilers, meaning that there was an access door on both sides. The men worked in tandem so that these doors were never open at the same time, which could cause the fire inside to draft out potentially burning the workers.
Bosses in the boiler rooms were never very popular, because they would “knock” the workers on the head if they made a mistake. It wasn’t uncommon during this time, to hear someone in a bar telling a story of a boiler boss who was whacked with a coal shovel, and thrown into a boiler, only to be ejected into the sea with the ash and slag from the burning embers.
The Titanic’s “black gang” shoveled about 820 tons of coal a day, a ton and a half for every mile she traveled.
After the ship struck the iceberg, a call would have gone out to the engineers and boiler room crew that were off duty, to come assist the pump operations. It was their hard work and dedication that kept the Titanic afloat for as long as she was. Firemen kept several of the boilers running, to power the lights on the ship, which stayed on until the she went under. Most of the “black gang”, the engineers and firemen did not survive the tragedy. The ladders that led out of the boiler rooms and coal bunkers were steep and hard to navigate in normal circumstance. With the ship listing dramatically during the sinking, they would have been nearly impossible to climb. They probably didn’t even try. It is believed that most of them did not drown, as you would expect, but were probably crushed when the ship listed and the huge boilers rolled onto them. Some would have been killed when the miles of pipes in the bowels of the ship became dislodged and sprayed the workers with boiling hot steam.
The passengers onboard Titanic were unlikely to have seen even one member of the “black gang” during the short voyage, and were probably unaware of the bravery and sacrifice that saved many lives.