Final twilight of the Titanic

Final twilight of the Titanic

This Saturday’s sale of the violin that belonged to Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley brings to the surface a whole tidal wave of memories, emotions and controversy. One of the things that has been running through my mind is the contrast in attitudes and behaviour of two men, namely Hartley and his ostensible employer, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line.

The death throes of the Titanic brought these two men into an uncomfortable mutual proximity. Both were well aware of the situation they were in, and it is fascinating to analyse and compare how each reacted under such extreme pressure. Let’s look at how they got to be there in the first place, and then take a look at how their individual fates played out across that memorable night in April of 1912.

J. Bruce Ismay was making the maiden voyage of the Titanic to see how she performed; a role he had also undertaken aboard her sister ship, the Olympic, in the previous June of 1911. The chairman had a meticulous eye for detail; he was said to be in the habit of boarding his ships unannounced, and then running his finger along the tops of cabin doorways, looking for signs of dust.

While describing himself as simply ‘an ordinary passenger’, Ismay was anything but. When the Titanic stopped briefly at Queenstown, he sent for Chief Engineer Bell, and told him the speeds that he wanted to see the ship reach during the crossing. This was a stunning piece of high handed interference, even by the chairman’s autocratic standards. Such decisions should be the sole preserve of the captain. Bell did not survive the sinking, but his reaction was no doubt incredulous.

Ordinary passengers are not customarily handed telegrams warning of ice up ahead by the captain, as Ismay was on the afternoon of April 14th, 1912. And they certainly do not sit down and discuss lighting the last five, cold, boilers with the captain, as Ismay did. These are not the hallmarks of an ordinary passenger, by any means. Ismay seemed obsessed with increasing speed to a quite extraordinary degree.

By contrast, Wallace Hartley should not have been on the Titanic at all. He was the regular bandmaster on the rival Cunarder, Mauretania. The 33 year old had decided to leave the sea to get married but, apparently, the musical director of the White Star Line personally persuaded him to sign on just for the maiden voyage of the Titanic; a sixteen day round trip from Southampton to New York.

...sawing gamely away at ragtime on deck......

…sawing gamely away at ragtime on deck……

But Hartley probably had another reason for turning his back on the sea. In the last six months, his wages had been halved by his employers.

Originally, musicians on liners were classed as part of a ship’s crew, and paid accordingly. That changed in 1912, when a Liverpool based company called C.W.& F.N Black persuaded both Cunard and White Star to sell all the musicians’ contracts to them. The Blacks bought up all these musicians’ contracts, meaning that any aspiring bandsmen now had to sign up with them in order to get any work at all.

The Blacks then re-hired the musicians back to their former employers. At half the original wages, naturally. But there was also insult to add to injury.

As part of the new contract, the musicians were no longer classed as employees of the White Star Line, but as second class passengers. And, because of American immigration laws, that meant that they had to prove personal possession of $50 in funds on each New York arrival, in order to show that they were not destitute scroungers. Despite all this, they remained under the authority of the captain on whichever ship they were embarked.

The person who signed off on this act of legalised theft was J. Bruce Ismay. Such a decision could never have been made without his collusion or approval.

We now come to the night of April 14-15th, 1912, and the nightmare scenario of the slowly sinking Titanic.

There were 2200 plus passengers and crew board the sinking ship, and lifeboats for less than 1200. The nearest responsive rescue ship- Carpathia- was four hours’ hard steaming away, The Titanic had around half that time to live.

The original plans drawn up by Alexander Carlisle, chief architect of Olympic and Titanic, had proposed no less than forty eight lifeboats. His successor, Thomas Andrews, endorsed these plans when he took over as supervisor. Potentially, that would have been far more than enough for every soul on board the Titanic that night. It was also well in excess of the legal requirements of the time.

That idea was overruled. By Ismay.

The end in sight, and the music is still playing.....

The end in sight, and the music is still playing…..

He knew full well that the law required only sixteen boats, and he subsequently agreed to provide twenty. As the man remained obviously tight lipped on the subject after the sinking, we will never know his reasoning. But more boats would have taken up more space, and required far more crew members to adequately man and lower them in an emergency. It would have meant finding extra cabin space for all those extra bodies. Even on a ship as big as the Titanic, this could only have been done at the cost of using  revenue earning spaces.

When disaster struck, Ismay was almost beside himself in his desperate anxiety to help load and lower the boats. Hardly surprising, as he knew full well that his previous decisions- based solely on his profit margins- meant that over a thousand people on board had nowhere to go but down. if you’re looking for a reason for his almost hysterical level of hyperactivity, there it is.

Hartley and his seven fellow musicians, woken by the chief purser, took their final stand at about 12.45 that fateful night. Whether they knew the full truth about the damage was questionable, but there is little doubt that they knew that the Titanic was seriously, perhaps fatally, compromised from the outset.

It has to be emphasised that the previous machinations of Ismay and the Blacks now meant that the musicians were classed as second class passengers. As such, they had no obligation to do anything other than to save themselves. Of course, we know now that they did not choose to exercise that particular get out clause in their contract. Hartley and his seven fellow musicians perished to a man.

Chairman Ismay, of course, did not perish. He left in one of the last boats, abandoning the Titanic, his captain, officers and crew, and the thousands of passengers who took passage on his ship in good faith. Doubtless he could still hear the music of the bandsmen he had deprived of both wages and, ultimately, a chance at life itself, as his boat tottered down the sagging, floodlit flank of the Titanic.

I sometimes wonder whether Hartley, or any of his bandsmen, glimpsed up briefly from their playing perhaps just long enough to catch sight of Ismay, climbing into the boat that carried him to a safety they would never see. God alone knows what they were thinking at that moment.

Yet Ismay was to die a little each and every day for the rest of his life. His self imposed exile in Ireland was doubtless two and a half decades of terrible, isolated torture. His wife often said that ‘the Titanic ruined our lives.’ Broken, and carrying an almost impossible burden of residual guilt, it is perhaps amazing that he outlived the shipwreck of his credibility by a full quarter of a century. And yes, it is certainly possible to feel some qualified sympathy for him in his long, slow foundering as a human being.

The last, shocking moments aboard the Titanic

The last, shocking moments aboard the Titanic

That sympathy is rightly qualified by memories of Wallace Hartley, Thomas Andrews, Bill Murdoch, Henry Wilde and yes, even Captain Smith, as they contemplated the unthinkable collapse of the glittering, gilded world they had all been in such thrall to.  However their individual actions can be dissected in the cold light of a century’s hindsight, they all stepped up at the moment of peril, and did the very best they could for those left helpless on the sloping decks of the Titanic. 

Like Smith, Ismay was ultimately damned whatever he did. Had he gone down with the ship like his captain, he would doubtless have been accused of being afraid to face justice and censure. In the simple act of living, he became an emotional lightning rod for all the grief, pain and rage of the victims’ families, and a handy scapegoat for an outraged and incandescent media. They went after him with both barrels.

In that latter role, he was a timely diversion indeed. For it was not Ismay, Smith or, indeed, Andrews who had described the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable’. It was that self same media. And that awfully misleading monicker was one of the reasons that so few passengers were initially willing to enter the lifeboats. It was an unchallenged myth that had spread through the psyche of two continents like some form of sleeping sickness.  And, on the night of April 14-15th 1912, it rebounded with ghastly consequences.

It would have been interesting to know what, if any, exchanges took place between Ismay and Thomas Andrews in particular that night. As for the handful of desperate deck officers on the Titanic, they would have been only too well aware that the nightmare situation they found themselves in was largely down to his earlier vetoing of Andrews’ original, forty-eight boat plan.

Two men; one night. One man lived, and was damned for it. The other one died and, by doing so, became immortal. Thirty thousand people lined the route of Wallace Hartley’s funeral cortege when his body was interred in his home town of Colne, Lancashire, that same May of 1912.  It was a truly extraordinary, hugely deserved tribute.

Hartley and Ismay truly were polar opposites. Their decisions, actions and respective destinies that awful night illuminated the extremes of human frailty, fear and selfless nobility just as starkly as the white distress rockets that exploded above the doomed ship itself.

And, in the final analysis, it’s hard to escape the idea that the Titanic ultimately claimed both of them in the end.


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