SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS- SOME MARITIME MUSINGS FROM THE PAST FEW WEEKS

Happy days; the dainty little Deutschland is off to Poenix Seereisen

Happy days; the dainty little Deutschland is off to Poenix Seereisen

While I was enjoying myself swanning around the Caribbean the other week, several quiet but subtle developments were going on behind the scenes in the cruise and ocean liner industry. Here’s my take on some of them.

First up, a big, heartfelt ‘well done’ to all at the SS. United States Conservancy for managing to secure another lifeline for this valiant, fabled ship. The story of their struggle would make for a wonderful movie script, even if we know that the final chapter has yet to be written. Hopefully, it will prove to still have a happy ending.

On the Dubai front, I’ll have something to say about the latest QE2 developments in a separate, upcoming blog. Stay tuned for that one.

Truly wonderful is the news that Phoenix Seereisen will take on the troubled, unsettled Deutschland. Not only does this put this gorgeous little jewel box back under German ownership, but it will also see her welcome return to the German cruising market. And, as an added bonus, this lovely little ship will finally be refitted with the ‘Juliet’ balconies that were bruited for her back in the last days of Peter Deilmann ownership. These should help to give this lovely little ship some kind of competitive edge, and ensure she remains a viable cruise option for a good few more years.

Sadly, almost inevitably, the end has come for the former Kungsholm of 1966. I suspect that politics played a part in the ship not being able to find a permanent future berth in either Stockholm or Gothenburg, and now the venerable, 28,000 ton paragon has left on a final, one way voyage to the scrapyard.

In any event, she was a ship with a hugely storied career. Many in the UK in particular will remember her as the Sea Princess, a long standing and popular member of the UK cruising market. Even with the unsightly truncation of her original forward funnel, she was a fine, stately, beautifully crafted paragon of an ocean liner that made a successful transformation into a long serving, hugely popular cruise ship.

But, on a final optimistic note, it was heartening, indeed, to hear that Viking Ocean Cruises has ordered another pair of vessels in its hugely anticipated ocean going fleet. Lead ship. Viking Star, has thus far cut an enviable swathe through the cruise industry, and continues to garner huge praise. And, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke- don’t fix it.

As ever, stay tuned.

WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.

Why?

Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.

THE ILE DE FRANCE- THE ENDURING ‘IT GIRL’ OF THE ROARING TWENTIES

ILE DE FRANCE NY POSTWAR

The Ile De France steams down the Hudson in her post war guise; her original trio of funnels have been replaced by a more stocky, substantial pair

It’s a fact that, while many ocean liners achieve fame, few actually achieve immortality. And those that do very often do so on the back of some catastrophic event. Those that actually become immortal over the course of a long career can probably be safely counted on the fingers of one hand.

That point made, I’d argue that if any liner can be called immortal, it is surely the Ile De France.

Why the Ile De France?

At first glance, she might seem a strange choice to some. Viewed externally through the prism of history, she was neither the biggest nor the fastest liner in the world when she emerged in 1927. And the hull, with its knife like bow and three towering, black and red funnels, looked as if it could just as easily have been a product of Edwardian designers. Yes, she was proud and dignified but, from afar at least, she was hardly cutting edge.

But inside, she was a very different lady indeed.

The entire, fabulous interior of the Ile De France was sheathed in bow to stern Art Deco styling, rivalling the greatest and most luxurious hotels ashore. Whereas all of her slowly ageing, sometimes ponderous rivals were decorated in a pre war style that made them resemble so many fusty, Edwardian theme parks, the Ile De France was stunningly, totally modern. Those new interiors were the architectural equivalent of a brick hurled through a frosted up window. They were like nothing ever seen before and, after her, nothing on the Atlantic would ever be the same again.

The French Line insisted that ‘To live is not to copy; it is to create’, and in the concept and completion of the Ile De France, that notion- one that was to become something of a hallowed mantra- was carried through to massive acclaim. In short order, the Ile De France became so popular that veteran travellers were prepared to wait an additional week or more to make sure that they could sail on her. She was new, and she had panache; as such, she was bound to prosper in the early days.

So what, then, explains her extraordinary longevity? Not until 1959 would the veteran liner call down ‘finished with engines’ for the very last time. It had to be something more than could be created by that initial, sensational splash. Something deeper and more grounded. Something far more subtle was at play here.

For sure, she had flair. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items nightly. On her maiden voyage, one particular lady upbraided her captain, saying that the Ile was neither the biggest or the fastest. The captain’s reply was pure class;

‘No, madame. But neither is the Ritz’…..

And that single sentence sums up the Ile De France with more singular brilliance than I ever could. With her all French crew, including the scarlet jacketed little bell boys who were there solely to operate the lifts, the Ile De France took every strand of the hallowed French Line traditions of exemplary service and matchless cuisine, and then wove them into the most internally dramatic and stunning ship ever built.

The result was pure magic. Noel Coward was so enchanted with her that he worked a reference to the Ile De France into the lyrics of These Foolish Things. Even when the far bigger and faster Normandie made her sensational debut in the mid thirties, the Ile De France continued to be one of the most popular ships afloat; one that had, indeed, by that time already developed a true cult following.

And, of course, her war record was nothing less than heroic. Taken over and managed by Cunard Line during the Second World War, the grey shrouded Ile De France carried literally thousands of troops to all the major theatres of war. It took a huge toll on her, both materially and mechanically. Not until 1946 would the battered, grimy trooper make her first return home to France in some seven years.

Already twenty years old, the Ile De France needed drastic rebuilding and refurbishment; a task easier envisaged than accomplished in a devastated, post war France. It would be 1949 before the ‘new’ Ile De France emerged to resume first rate French Line service on the Atlantic.

Though as lavish and loved as ever, and with her three funnels replaced by a pair of stockier, newer models, the Ile De France still had an exterior that was obviously from another era when she arrived back in New York to a fabulous, fire boat and siren welcome. But, with her return to service, the French Line served due notice to the opposition. The legend- and she was already that- was back. And how.

The service and cuisine remained as lavish as ever. On the Ile De Franc, onion soup was offered for breakfast even in tourist class. In those first, post war years, the Atlantic liner trade boomed as never before.

Paired with the reborn Liberte, formerly the rival German Europa, the Ile De France offered the most highly styled and diverse service afloat. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger and faster; the French duo had that same effortless, elegant sense of art de vivre that made the French Line the natural first choice of the beau monde. For years, the two ships raked in massive profits for the French Line.

As the fifties picked up pace, the veteran liner finally began showing her age. But in July 1956, the Ile De France made world wide headlines once again, when she rescued most of the 1600 plus survivors of the Andrea Doria, after the beautiful Italian liner- the very emblem of 1950’s built, ocean going modernity- sank after being rammed in thick fog off Nantucket. There was life in the old girl yet.

In the winter season, the Ile De France sailed on leisurely, lavish cruises to the Caribbean from New York; a role in which she was to prove surprisingly popular. During the course of one of these, she ran aground and damaged her keel. Though taken back to Newport News and repaired, the Ile De France was clearly on borrowed time. And, when it came, her end caused uproar across her native land.

In 1959, the thirty-two year old Ile De France was finally sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. But, before commencing the task, the Japanese hired the Ile De France out to a Hollywood movie company. She was about to become the biggest floating film prop in movie history.

Over the course of The Last Voyage, the Ile De France- restyled as the S.S. Claridon for the sake of the film- suffered the indignity of having her forward funnel being toppled onto the superstructure, followed by numerous dramatic internal ‘explosions’. Then, the veteran liner was sunk in shallow water as a climax of sorts. Once raised post filming, her devastated, degraded carcass was patched up, and towed away to be butchered in a scrapyard.

And yet…..

Even that final, degrading barbarism has done nothing to diminish the reverence and sheer awe in which the Ile De France is still held, both in her native land, and by the maritime community as a whole. For the Ile De France had not just panache; she had soul. She was the absolute epitome of finely styled, ocean going finesse and elegance. Of a truth, she was beloved, and in a way that few, more pretentious vessels ever were, or will be.

Those striking, Art Deco interiors marked her out as a true, ocean going game changer; a ship as bold and daring as she was beautiful and dramatic. And, of course, she was fun.

Abreast of her smoke stacks, on either side, giant electric letters used to spell out her name. And, even now, it is all to easy for the mind’s eye to see those same, brilliant letters blazing out across the Atlantic at sunset as the cocktail hour approaches.

At the same time, they were both her epitaph, and the endorsement of her own, immortal legend.

ILE DE FRANCE.

THE BREMEN; GERMANY RESURGENT

Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

In the annals of vanished Atlantic liners, the names of Bremen and Europa are synonymous with rebirth, prestige, and the extraordinary succession of ‘ships of state’ that the post Great War era produced. Yet Bremen herself had only ten years in service for her owners, while her illustrious sister ship went on to a second, post World War Two life as the Liberte.

So why is this fabled German giant, so initially dominant but so soon eclipsed by foreign rivals, still seen as one of the great leaps forward in maritime history? Hopefully, this post will get across just some of her mystique and posthumous allure.

Please note that this is not a concise summation of the ship and her career. Other, more knowledgeable writers have already defined that in far more depth than I ever could.

Simply put, the most miraculous thing about the Bremen is that she was ever built at all. With the German economy a train wreck after the war and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, even finding the finance to put these two remarkable sister ships together was an astonishing achievement in itself.

The sheer, naked ambition was also undeniable. From the start, the Bremen was intended to snatch back the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic from Great Britain, after an absence of some twenty- two years. There was no subtlety here whatsoever; the Bremen was designed to be a winner first, and a practical passenger ship second.

And the Bremen was brutally, relentlessly modern, as much in design as intent. Her twin funnels were squat, low, oval shaped anomalies; so low, in fact, that they rained soot on the boat deck so much that both had to be doubled in height; an addition that improved her appearance immensely.

She was the first liner ever to have a bulbous bow; a kind of underwater forefoot that helped the ship to gain aerodynamic momentum in the water. So successful was this that almost every liner built thereafter had the same feature. And her forward superstructure was curved, rather than flat, to decrease wind pressure on the forward momentum of the ship. Again, this was a feature that would be widely copied.

In addition, the Bremen had the unbeatable cachet of being the largest liner to be built since the end of the war. She represented a seismic break with the past. Her designer said that she gleamed ‘like a new planet’ when the plans for her were first released.

Not that the Germans were above copying as well as innovating. In their early days, both Bremen and Europa carried a catapult plane, an idea taken from their raffish French rival, the Ile De France. As with the French ship, these proved to be ultimately impractical, and would be subsequently removed.

And her interiors attempted to emulate the Ile De France by making a complete break from the ageing Edwardian showpiecess of Cunard and White Star. But while the Art Deco styling of the Ile De France was sensational and legendary, the Bauhaus interiors of the Bremen gave her a cold, almost sterile stance. One of the first things the French did with the post war Europa was to rip it all out, and replace it with bow to stern Art Deco. Those original interiors were efficient, rather than engaging.

It had been originally intended to sail the two new sister ships on a tandem maiden voyage, so that they could take the record together. But a severe dockyard fire delayed the Europa by a full year. Hence it was the squat, solid Bremen that emerged to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard in June of 1929.

Twenty years of advances in marine technology could not be denied, and the Bremen did exactly what she was built to do, taking the Blue Ribband from the ageing, dowager Mauretania at the first attempt. It was  a stunning triumph; a real slap across Britannia’s imperial face.

It also triggered the greatest shipbuilding race in maritime history. Even as the delayed Europa emerged to join her sister on the Atlantic, the hulls that would soon become Rex, Normandie and Queen Mary were already beginning to take shape in their respective home countries. The race was on, and how.

The two sensational new German sisters now indulged in a kind of maritime ping pong with the speed record, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. But their timing was disastrous; within four months of the sensational debut of the Bremen, the Great Depression enveloped the world like poisonous fog. Within two years, passenger numbers on the Atlantic were down by fifty per cent, and even the two new liners were suffering.

Later, when the market had begun to recover, they were unfairly associated with the new Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, and many people simply would not set foot aboard either of them. Then came bigger, faster ships such as the Rex and the Normandie, which completely outclassed the German ships. All the huge advances they seemed to introduce were set at nought.

In the late thirties, the Bremen made a sensational cruise around South America, becoming the largest ship ever to pass through the Panama Canal. But even this was eclipsed in the public imagination by the legendary Normandie cruise down to Rio Carnival that same year.

A few days before war broke out, the Bremen- painted slate grey, and with her upper deck rigged with explosives- slipped out of New York to avoid the certainty of looming internment. Her crew gave the Nazi salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she slipped past it.

British navy cruisers were lying in ambush for her just outside the harbour, but the Bremen was still fast and nimble enough to avoid these. After a tense few days, she took shelter in the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk. She remained there for three full months.

That December, shrouded in fog, the Bremen battled through a series of howling gales, ghosting down the coast of Norway. The fleeing liner briefly danced into the cross hairs of a British submarine periscope, but not for long enough. By the skin of her teeth, the Bremen made it back to her home port of Bremerhaven.

Here, she joined her long since shackled sister ship, the Europa, to wait out the end of the war. Both ships were painted in dazzle camouflage, and plans were afoot to use them as part of Operation Sealion, Hitler’s ultimately aborted invasion of Great Britain.

Their use would have been insane; such huge targets would have been unmissable for any stray bomber. Though huge ports were cut in their sides to accommodate the mass landing of troops, the idea- much like Sealion itself- was soon quietly abandoned.

In March of 1941, a disgruntled crewman set fire to the Bremen as she lay idly at her berth. In circumstances that have never really been properly explained, the liner burned right down to the waterline, and became a constructive total loss. Her charred, smouldering corpse was scrapped on site.

Without doubt, the barnstorming Bremen deserved better. Not for her the glittering, albeit estranged post war career of her sister ship.  And yet, in the parade of lost ocean liners, the spectacular Bremen will always hold a special place.

THE GREATEST SPEED RACE OF ALL TIME; NORMANDIE, QUEEN MARY, AND THE BLUE RIBAND OF THE ATLANTIC

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

At 11.03 on the morning of June 3rd, 1935, the French Line’s brand new SS. Normandie thundered past the Ambrose Lightship. just off the coast of North America. As she did so, a thirty metre long blue pennant was unfurled at her mainmast, and her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream. Normandie, newest and greatest of all ocean liners, had taken the North Atlantic speed record at the first attempt. And now she was letting the world know about it.

Of course, she had not been openly trying for the speed record. No blue blooded ocean liner ever did. But there’s no doubt that the French desperately wanted the Blue Riband; France had never held it before.

The fallacy was exposed when every single one of the maiden voyage passengers was presented with an engraved silver medallion to commemorate the event, complete with the date. As for the actual Blue Riband pennant; that just ‘happened’ to be on board at the time. A happy coincidence, indeed.

That barnstorming maiden voyage of the Normandie was unquestionably the most successful in the history of ocean liner travel. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the River Hudson to witness her triumphal entry into Manhattan. Her debut attracted newspaper and media coverage fully equal in scale to the first Moon landing, some thirty four years later. And yet, even at the height of all the hoopla and celebration, the French Line directors back in Paris were casting nervous eyes over in the direction of Clydebank, where the Queen Mary was rapidly nearing completion for Cunard White Star.

One commentator summed it up perfectly when he said; ‘The coming of the Queen Mary will inaugurate the greatest speed race of all time. Which ship will be the faster; the Normandie or the Queen?’ It was a question that vexed people all over Britain and France alike. Nothing less than national pride was at stake.

In truth, the two liners had been rivals ever since they were laid down on their respective slipways in Scotland and France, right in the depths of the greatest financial depression that the world had ever known. They were of around the same size- 80,000 tons- and they were the first ships in the world ever to exceed a thousand feet in length. Each was designed to cross the Atlantic in around four days.

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

Normandie and Queen Mary were, essentially, vast, swaggering, sea going cathedrals, designed to showcase the greatest attributes and merits- both real and imagined- of their host nations. But, while work on the Queen Mary came to an agonising halt in the midst of the Great Depression, the French ploughed ahead with Normandie. She emerged in the late spring of 1935, and immediately swept the board on the Atlantic crossing. There had never been a ship like her and, in all truth, there has never been one quite like her since.

If the French were nervous about the coming debut of the Queen Mary, then their English rivals were equally jittery. The Normandie had taken every possible honour that the new British liner could hope to aspire to. If Britain was to regain its pre-eminent place as the number one maritime nation in the world, then the Normandie had to be beaten, and decisively at that.

It started well enough. On May 27th, 1936, the Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, high on jingoism and laden down with the weight of national expectation. Once clear of the English Channel, Commodore Edgar Britten put his foot down, and the big British liner thundered out to the westward. Then, two days out from New York, she hit the fog.

For eleven straight hours, the Queen Mary slowed to a crawl in the middle of a typical Atlantic sea of fog. When she finally cleared it, the big liner poured on power. She soon began to make up time.

But not enough time….

Queen Mary arrived in New York to a stunning, superlative welcome fully the equal of that accorded to her rival. But the next day, when the eastbound Normandie docked in Le Havre, she was still flying her Blue Riband pennant.

That same August, the Queen finally beat her French rival, taking the pennant in both directions. There was an air of general satisfaction back in Britain; the natural order of things seemed to have been restored.

Then, In March of 1937, the Normandie took back the eastbound record in the teeth of a ferocious storm. That same August, she also retook the westbound record as well. Game on.

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Finally, in August of 1938, the Queen Mary won back the record in both directions. Yet the British ship had always been the more powerful of the two. Her engines could generate 200,000 horsepower, compared to the 160,000 of her French rival. In theory, that gave the Queen an advantage of around twenty five per cent.

The actual speeds varied by only a fraction; both ships routinely ran at over thirty knots. Each in turn brought the crossing time down to a little under four days.

The Normandie benefited massively from her radical new hull design; sleek, clean, sweeping and modern, she was like a space ship compared to the doughty, conventional Cunarder. Her bulbous underwater bow and sharp, tapered prow combined with a broad waist and vast, soaring flanks to create a magnificent, aerodynamic dream of a hull, one as practical and successful as it was bewitching to behold.

By contrast, the Queen Mary was  a bigger, updated version of earlier, proven Cunard mainstays such as the Mauretania and Aquitania. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. For all of her considerable warmth and grace, she simply did not have the style, boldness and panache of the French ship.

But the Normandie was not quite the French masterpiece that her owners claimed. In fact, her hull was designed by a Russian emigre by the name of Vladimir Yourkevitch. Before the 1917 revolution, he had been an architect working for the Imperial Russian Navy.  Leaving Russia seemed a smart move at that turbulent time. And it was he who came up with the stunning hull design for the Normandie.

Yourkevitch was by no means prepared to work solely for-or with- the French. As specifications for both Normandie and Queen Mary were being worked out, Yourkevitch touted his revolutionary designs to both Cunard White Star and the French Line. The British sidelined the Russian refugee; the French did not.

And, in the most exquisitely agonising twist of all, Yourkevitch had to stand back and watch his great creation burn and die in front of his own eyes. As she slowly flooded and capsized at her Manhattan Pier in February of 1942, Yourkevitch begged the American admiral in charge of the scene to let him go on board.

He knew the Normandie blindfolded; better than anyone else. Yourkevitch could have opened the flood valves that would have ensured that the ship settled on an even keel. But this insignificant seeming little man was rebuffed. Admiral Adolphus Andrews told Yourkevitch that it was ‘a navy job’.

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The result? The needless, total destruction of the Normandie. With her went the chance of shaving up to six months from the end of World War Two.

Of course, the Queen Mary went on to a fabled, illustrious career that straddled both war and peace. She finally lost the Blue Riband to the barnstorming SS. United States in 1952. The new American liner had turbines developed for fast attack aircraft carriers in the Pacific theatre, and a hull shape that owed more than just a nod or two to the Normandie.

Both ships- Queen Mary and Normandie-  have rightly become immortal. They were designed, built and sailed with great style and panache. Everything about them was front page news at the time. Both survive after a form; the Queen Mary as a dilapidated, yet still dignified hotel cum tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. And as for Normandie, her reputation as the most beautiful, brilliant and daring ocean liner of all time is safe; cherished and inviolable, the magnificent French Line flagship remains the absolute epitome of luxury, style and glamour to this day.

MIDNIGHT CROSSING- SAILING FROM NEW YORK IN THE FIFTIES

ACTUAL LIBERTE

The magnificent Liberte setting sail on another Atlantic crossing

It’s near midnight in New York. Manhattan, on a balmy summer night in the mid- 1950’s, to be precise.

The French Line’s SS. Liberte is making ready to sail for Europe from Manhattan’s Pier 88. Fully booked, the ship is a mad rush of scarlet jacketed bellboys, delivering flowers, telegrams and cases of champagne to cabins already overflowing with hundreds of light hearted and laughing passengers. Last minute stores are coming aboard; valuables are being secured in the safes. Throngs of visitors mill around the palatial Art Deco interiors, their eyes as wide as saucers.

On the quay, mountains of baggage are being manhandled into the belly of the beast. Some people think nothing of sailing with sixty pieces of luggage for their extended European tours. A tidal wave of ambitious hacks turn the pier into a blazing neon dawn as each new limo swaggers up to the ship. Rumour has it that both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable are sailing tonight.

The quay fairly groans under the combined weight of an assorted fleet of Daimlers, Bentleys and Packards, delivering the stars of stage, screen and sport to the ship. The French Line has a reputation for food, service and sheer fun that is second to none; the Liberte has always been a magnet for the famous, the fussy, and the downright frivolous.

As sailing time, nears, an avalanche of brightly coloured paper streamers rain down from the Liberte’s decks to the crowd on the pier below, trailing an amazing technicolor splash along the length of the great liner’s soaring, floodlit flank. The siren roars out in the night; a deep, gut shaking boom.that reverberates in the humid, muggy air, before it disappears among midtown Manhattan’s steel and glass canyons of skyscrapers.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, she gets under way, backing out gingerly into the darkened Hudson. Like puppies trying to move a dinosaur, a quintet of feisty Moran tugs push, pull and cajole the nine hundred foot hull, until she swings lazily around into the midstream. The muted throbbing of their engines forms a surreal backdrop to the cheers of the passengers, and the popping of an entire salvo of champagne corks.

Now the Liberte is pointed downstream, and the famed Manhattan skyline is off to port; a million twinkling lights that form an unforgettable backdrop. Cars barrel along Twelfth Avenue at breakneck speed, tooting and honking in salute, or just out of sheer impatience at the idiot in front of them. Clad in all her luminous finery, New York City never looked sweeter or finer than on this warm, summer night.

Row upon row of the Liberte’s deck lights shimmer bewitchingly on the ink black Hudson, so far below. Artfully concealed lighting at their bases makes her two huge, red and black funnels stand out in a glorious show of bravado. Between them, huge electric letters spell out her name for all to see.

LIBERTE

Forward now. Streamers flail skittishly against her flank as she slowly gathers way, like some mythical sea goddess, gliding out of an enchanted fairyland. The siren roars again, sundering the night air as the tugs back off respectfully, like courtiers bowing to a queen.

Pale green and floodlit, the Statue of Liberty bids farewell to the Liberte and her human cargo with sightless eyes as she makes her stately progress downstream. On board, the supper club opens, and Xavier Cugat’s Mambo Kings are laying down some blistering salsa in the Cafe De L’Atlantique.

It’s summer in the city, and another crossing to Europe is under way…

A TYPICAL DAY ABOARD TITANIC; A FIRST CLASS TRIP ACROSS THE ATLANTIC

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When building the Olympic and Titanic, the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff went out of their way to create ships that provided a vast amount of space and comfort, far more than any rival then afloat. As might be expected, this showed up nowhere more so than in first class.

The two sisters were half as large again as their nearest rivals, the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. Those record breaking legends could cross the Atlantic in five days, but they were known as snappy rollers in any kind of bad weather. The Atlantic had bad weather in spades.

With Olympic and Titanic, White Star opted for slower, steadier ships that could make the crossing in six days. In effect, they eschewed speed for comfort and steadiness. And the sheer scale of the new ships allowed them to create unparalleled passenger spaces, both indoors and out.

A full two thirds of their vast interior spaces were given over to the 750 first class passengers. This included suites, cabins, and the most luxurious range of public rooms that had ever gone to sea. First class had the sole use of a salt water indoor swimming pool and an adjacent set of Turkish Baths, complete with masseuse. There was also a racket ball court nearby and, on the upper deck, a fully equipped gymnasium, facing out over the ocean.

There was a library, a smoking room and a barber’s shop. In an age where phones were still a relative novelty, the Titanic had a fifty phone switchboard. For those personal valuables too big for the purser’s room, there was an enormous, bank sized vault down on G-Deck, with walls of Belfast steel fully a foot thick. It is still down there.

There was a small garage and, irony of ironies, a huge ice making machine. Stenographers were available; there was even a florists.

The main dining room was joined by a separate, a la carte option, and a pair of veranda cafes that looked out over the ocean. Unique to the Titanic was the Cafe Parisien, the first real night club at sea. Full of wicker furnishings and climbing wall plants, it was a definite attempt to put a little bit of Europe into the heart of a British liner. One would be added to the Olympic in her massive, post Titanic disaster refit.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

Inside, the ships tended to have lighter, less heavily panelled spaces than the Cunarders. Combined with the sheer scale of these rooms, it gave Olympic and Titanic a feeling of almost endless, spectacular space. Casual luxury was very much the order of the day. Of the four elevators, the three forward ones were exclusively for the use of first class passengers.

The single remaining elevator was the preserve of second class; the first time on any ships that such a facility had been provided. As for third class, they were simply expected to walk to where they needed to go. Needless to say, their quarters were mere shades of the sumptuous show pieces up top.

Titanic left Southampton on schedule at noon on Wednesday, April 10th, and called in for passengers and mail at Cherbourg that same evening. The next day found her briefly at anchor off Queenstown in Southern Ireland, where her last passengers came on board. While she was there, some local traders were allowed on board to set up a temporary market. Two hours later, the big liner was skirting the coast of Southern Ireland. As twilight fell, she stood out into the reddening Atlantic, and the voyage proper could really begin.

The Titanic was less than half full in first class. As was normal, each of the 322 first class passengers was given a booklet, explaining the ship’s routine, and the services available to them on board the ‘Floating Ritz’. They were also given a first class passenger list to browse; in this case, it was some twenty-eight pages in all.

The bars aboard Titanic opened at half eight in the morning, and closed- in theory- at eleven thirty at night.They had two sets of musicians to entertain them; a five man band led by the soon to be immortal Wallace Hartley, and a separate trio that played mainly in the reception room before dinner, and later in the Cafe Parisien.

They could use the new fangled Marconi wireless to send telegrams to anywhere in America, via the great transmitting station at Cape Cod. Ten words for 8s 4d, extra words sixpence each, address and signature for free. Up on the broad sweep of the promenade deck or outside on the boat deck, a deck chair could be hired, at four shillings for the entire crossing.

Downstairs, the racket ball court could be rented for two shillings per half hour session; this included the services of the resident professional, Fred Wright. He did not survive the sinking.

CNV00004Somewhere in that booklet, White Star took the precaution of intimating to it’s clients that certain professional card sharps were in the habit of crossing the Atlantic, hoping to make a killing. On that score at least, the Titanic would not disappoint.

On the back of the same booklet was a map of the Atlantic, and the information that the Titanic was expected to make thirteen round trip voyages to New York in 1912. Her first eastbound crossing, scheduled to sail from Manhattan on April 20th, was booked solid.

On the Atlantic crossing, successive days at sea tend to blend into each other. There was none of the round the clock entertainment that passengers expect now as their right. But on the maiden voyage of Titanic, many of the passengers were entertainment enough in their own right.

Fifty-eight millionaires were booked in the gilded glamour of first class. There were railroad owners and newspaper barons, movie stars and sporting icons; presidential aides and society matrons. Decorated military men and the simply obscenely rich of two continents. There were fashion house owners, steel barons, and a smattering of lords and ladies (though the British aristocracy continued to favour the Lusitania and Mauretania) as well as the odd art collector.

There was also an extraordinary menagerie of seven pampered pooches, housed in seriously swanky kennels. All things considered, it was a high rolling, demanding lot, and the crew would certainly have had their work cut out to keep them happy.

Maybe that is why Captain Smith cancelled the normal lifeboat drill. It was due to be held on that fateful Sunday morning but, for reasons we’ll never know, he decided not to go ahead with it.

By this time, a pretty agreeable vibe permeated the entire ship. The Titanic was two thirds of the way to America, and performing quite beautifully. The sea was incredibly calm. It had been like a millpond since the ship sailed. Surviving crew veterans later said that they had never seen such a continuous, calm sea on any crossing.

The sun shone continually, but the ship’s progress across the ocean generated a breeze that made it too cold to sit outside for very long. Inside, stewards patrolled the indoor promenades with carts of hot soup, and wrapped blankets around anybody who wanted them.

CNV00006Under this kind of subtle daily conditioning, a kind of pampered stupor overwhelmed the passengers on board the Titanic like some kind of sleeping sickness. When combined with the breezy complacency of the Captain and his officers- not to forget the owner- it created a fatal cocktail that went a long way towards numbing those same passengers to any sense of danger. So, when mortal peril came knocking that April night, the initial reaction was a mixture of confusion, disbelief and, in some cases, simple denial.

And that explains a huge amount of what happened as the ghastly black comedy- the sinking of the Titanic- unfolded. Anything-anything at all- seemed more likely and believable than the simple, fatal truth.

THE FRANTIC ATLANTIC- CUNARD IN THE 1920’S

CNV00015Like most of the major shipping lines, Cunard emerged from the Great War as a very much truncated version of it’s former self. Losses had been appalling right across the fleet, and the sinking of the Lusitania deprived the company of one third of it’s express service to New York at one fell swoop.

That meant that Cunard was right at the top of the pecking order when it came to making claims on surrendered German prizes of war. The company was gifted the proud, lumbering Imperator- a ship half as big again as the lost Lusitania- as compensation. Like all of the surviving post war Cunarders, she was converted from coal to oil burning.

Oil was not cheaper than coal as such; but it did permit a mass cull of the numbers needed to feed fuel to these monster liners. The legendary ‘black gangs’ of old were consigned to history, along with the tea clippers. Oil was also cleaner to use and load, and permitted quicker turn around times in both New York and Southampton.

Cunard moved it’s first string of express liners from Liverpool to Southampton after the war, to compete directly with their great rivals, the White Star Line. By 1922, each had a first rate trio once more working on the famous old New York run. The Imperator was renamed Berengaria and, by one of those inexplicable, random quirks of fate, she became the most popular and fashionable liner on the Atlantic, until the arrival of the French Line’s stunning new Ile De France in June,1927.

CNV00014She was joined by the proud, stately Aquitania and the the immortal Mauretania, still the holder of the Blue Riband. One of the three would leave Southampton each Saturday, bound for New York. A second ship would then leave Manhattan every Tuesday, heading for Europe. The third ship would always be at sea, heading in one direction or the other. In this way, Cunard could manage a smart, well balanced weekly service across the Atlantic. It was a pattern that continued more or less right up until the Second World War.

White Star ran a variation on the theme, with sailings from Southampton on Wednesdays, and New York sailings each Saturday, Their flagship service was maintained by the Olympic, the twin sister ship of the Titanic, which proved tremendously popular post war. She was joined by another war prize; a staunch, graceful twin stacker that the line named Homeric. The third ship was the Majestic, another ex-German that was the largest liner in the world for thirteen years. She was another proud three stacker- the sister ship of the Berengaria, in fact. The White Star Line advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the flagship of the line and, as such, she carried enormous prestige.

These two services were in more or less direct competition. But the Homeric found it hard work keeping pace with her faster sisters, and the White Star service never had the same smooth, even balance as that offered by their Cunard rivals. But as the twenties boomed, all these huge steamers prospered in a brave new world. Each line offered a call at Cherbourg in both directions, so that passengers could embark directly from mainland Europe if it suited their travel plans better. For both, it was a popular move.

The rebound in passenger numbers was really surprising, considering that the Volstead Act of the early twenties choked off the vast westbound flow of immigrants that had filled steamer company coffers for decades. Luckily for the lines, the same era coincided with a phenomenal rise in tourism, Americans now wanted to see the old continent that so many of them had fought and died for. And come to see it they did. In droves. Within a year or two, the Atlantic liners were fuller than ever before.

CNV00013It was an incredible time; an era of flapper girls, baseball, steamships and jazz. The new, adventurous American tourist class were dazzled by the bright lights of Paris, the historic lore of London, and the indolent lifestyles of the French and Italian rivieras. With Prohibition kicking in back at home, thirsty young Americans soon found that the Atlantic was wet in more ways than one; Atlantic crossings became five and six day marathon house parties. The good times seemed set to roll forever.

This dual hegemony was rudely interrupted in June of 1927, when the dazzling new Ile De France made her debut. She was the first large, purpose built liner to emerge since the Great War. Rather than copy the old Edwardian decor so prevalent on the competition, the ‘Ile’ was swathed from bow to stern in the bold, new Art Deco style that was all the rage. With fabulous food and service, she suddenly made every other ship at sea look completely outdated. Neither Cunard or White Star had anything quite like her. But worse was soon to come.

Rebounding with incredible zeal from the post war loss of her merchant marine, Germany had begun construction of a pair of streamlined new giants, designed with the express purpose of recapturing the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for the Fatherland. They, too, were fast, streamlined and bold. Their designer said that they gleamed ‘like new planets’,

The second of these ships- Europa- was delayed for a full nine months by a dockyard fire that nearly destroyed her. But the Bremen emerged on time in the summer of 1929 to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard.

CNV00023Twenty years of steady advances in marine technology could not be ignored, and the Bremen did exactly what she had been built to do, taking the Blue Riband at the first attempt, and finally ending the amazing reign of the ageing Mauretania as the speed queen of the Atlantic crossing.

But even worse was still to come. Cunard and White Star would soon find themselves confronting a far worse storm than anything their big ships had ever ridden out at sea. The first signs of the Great Depression were already stirring, like some long dormant Kraaken. Soon, all of the great liners would be fighting for their very survival.

THE INCREDIBLE IMPERATOR; A CENTURY ON

ImageThe Imperator was a ship of many firsts; the first to weigh in at over 50,000 tons; the first to exceed more than nine hundred feet in length. The first of a world beating trio that was intended to dominate the lucrative Atlantic passenger trade like nothing ever had before. Even  one hundred years later, the sheer, spectacular scale of the towering, Teutonic three stacker is impossible to deny.

She was laid down for the Hamburg-Amerika Line (now known as Hapag-Lloyd) as a direct, dramatic response to rival British liners such as Olympic, Titanic, and the upcoming Cunarder,  Aquitania. She was the brainchild of the brilliant Albert Ballin, a man of uncompromising taste and style. Ballin had an eye for detail and a grasp of the truly sybaritic, perhaps equalled only by that of Cesar Ritz himself. Ballin was way ahead of his time.

That is probably why he hired the London Ritz architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, to create the fairy tale interiors of the Imperator. Ballin was determined to outclass all opposition, at every level. One example of this materialised just weeks before the ship’s maiden voyage.

News had somehow leaked out that the new Aquitania would actually be a few feet longer than the Imperator on her forthcoming 1914 debut. Within days, a huge crate arrived at the German liner’s fitting out dock.

It contained a monstrous, gilt trimmed, giant golden eagle, clutching a globe of the world in it’s talons. It was bolted like a figurehead of old onto the prow of the Imperator. And it did, indeed, have the desired effect of making her longer than her British rival.

The bird did not last. A howling Atlantic storm literally clipped the eagle’s wings within a few weeks of the Imperator’s entry into service. The rest of the largely unloved, scowling brute was discreetly removed soon afterwards.

The Imperator was launched in 1912, just six weeks after the apocalyptic sinking of the Titanic. The original, intended name was Europa but, with an entire continent now increasingly on edge at the sabre rattling in the royal houses of Europe, Ballin opted to name the ship Imperator, after his friend and mentor, the erratic, unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was jingoistic sleight of hand of the first order.

The first swing of the champagne bottle somehow failed to connect with the prow of the biggest man made object on the planet. The inbound bottle was deftly caught by the Kaiser himself, who smashed it neatly against the ship that now bore his name. Amid much pomp and ceremony, the huge hull slid sedately into the waters of the Elbe.

The inquiries into the Titanic disaster in both England and America resulted in a whole raft of new maritime legislation; none of which had been in force when the Imperator had first taken shape on a drawing board. The most obvious of these was a mushrooming of literally dozens of extra lifeboats, many of them stowed in impromptu bays, carved out of the lower superstructure. These unplanned, yet necessary changes upset her original centre of stability quite a lot.

Ballin sheathed her incredible, unmatched interiors in a byzantine brew of marble, gilt, and deep, rich carpeting. Potted palms flanked her vast, vaulting staircases in a series of triumphant cascades. Those sublime interiors were a cake rich confection of stunning old masters, over the top statuary, and vast chandeliers that held sway above a sea of deep, clubby sofas and chairs. It was, indeed, the ambiance of the Ritz afloat, and the overall look was quite simply stunning.

And it all conspired to make her hugely unstable. On her maiden arrival in New York, she leaned ominously to port as thousands of passengers rushed the railings to get a first glimpse of the Statue Of Liberty. New York harbour pilots promptly nicknamed her the ‘Limperator’. The tug boat captains there said that she never came in on an even keel.

What Ballin could do with her, he did. Thousands of tons of pig iron were added to her as ballast; some nine foot was cut from the top of each of her trio of towering smoke stacks. Inside, a token reduction was made in the opera house style, overblown splendour. It all helped but, to the very end of her days, both she and her two sisters would remain ‘tender’ ships at sea.

But the Imperator was an instant, immediate success. In her first year of service, she was one of the most popular and profitable liners on the Atlantic. The outbreak of the Great War found her safely at home in Hamburg, where she would remain for the duration of the conflict.

Her brand new sister was not so lucky. The Vaterland, second of the Ballin trio, was in New York, in the middle of her third round trip, when the war descended. Ordered to remain put, she was seized as a war prize by the Americans in 1917, outfitted as a troopship, and renamed the Leviathan. She never sailed under the German flag again.

And neither did the poor, proud Imperator. The 1918 armistice surrendered the entire German merchant marine- the largest in the world- to it’s former enemies. And, as the largest ships in the world, the Ballin trio were by far the biggest prizes of all. The only question was; who would get them?

Leviathan stayed with the United States Lines, who put her into passenger service in 1922. Prohibition crippled her from the start. Wet outside and largely dry on the inside, she never had a chance. She was withdrawn from service in 1934, and finally scrapped in 1938.

Third of the class, Bismarck was launched just weeks before the war broke out, and all work was stopped on her for the duration. She was completed for the White Star Line in 1922. Renamed the Majestic, White Star marketed her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the largest ship in the world until the debut of the Normandie in 1935. Ultimately converted into the cadet ship Caledonia, she burned and sank at her pier just prior to the outbreak of another global conflict in September, 1939.

The Imperator went to Cunard, as a replacement for the torpedoed Lusitania. She was converted to oil burning, painted in Cunard colours and renamed the Berengaria, before being put back into service on the Atlantic ferry from Southampton to New York.

The Berengaria was, in fact, the first Cunard liner to be actually named after an English queen; the lady in question had been the wife of Richard the Lionheart.

Cunard had the good sense to leave her plush interiors pretty much as they were, apart from some subtle rearranging of the first class public rooms. Her vast, beautiful Pompeiian swimming pool had been modelled after one that can still be seen at the Royal Automobile Club in London. Even today, it is still considered by many to be the most beautiful ever crafted on any ship.

The Berengaria sailed the gilded Atlantic run with her former rivals and new fleet mates, Mauretania and Aquitania. She became the Cunard line flagship and, by some inexplicable whim, she also became the most popular ship on the crossing. For several years, she was very much the ship to be seen on. In that incredible age of steamships, baseball, flapper girls and prohibition, the Berengaria was the brightest jewel in the company’s crown. As such, she was immensely profitable to boot.

That all changed with the 1927 debut of the splendid new Ile De France. Swathed in a stunning new Art Deco look, the swanky new French liner was an instant, spectacular success. Next to her, all the older, pre war liners suddenly looked dowdy, outdated, and hopelessly behind the times. And worse was to come.

The 1929 stock market crash, and the Great Depression that followed, decimated the liner trade on the Atlantic by almost half within four years. At the same time, a string of new, government subsidised, Italian and-ironically, German- ships began to appear on the run. State of the art and sleek, they were soon snapping at the heels of the doughty old timers still being operated by both Cunard and White Star. Soon, both premier British shipping lines were in deep trouble.

The Berengaria and her ilk survived by offering five and six day ‘booze’ cruises from New York, up to Halifax, and down to Bermuda. With her bars open around the clock, the iconic Cunarder earned the nickname of the ‘Dead and Bury’er’. It was the equivalent of expecting  Audrey Hepburn to appear in pantomime. Cruising eked out her life, at the expense of her soul and reputation. But time was still running out.

On Clydebank, the incomplete, rust shrouded hulk that would one day be the Queen Mary sat, deserted by everyone save the birds that nested in her. As a condition for lending the money to finally complete her, the British government forced the shotgun wedding of those age old rivals, Cunard and White Star.

With Cunard holding a 62-38 per cent majority shareholding in the new amalgam, the inevitable disposal of suddenly redundant, surplus tonnage hit White Star especially hard. It also largely explains why the Majestic  went to the block, while the Berengaria earned a reprieve.

By 1936, the ageing diva was still making the Atlantic crossing, but now in company with the brand new Queen Mary. Hopelessly outclassed by flash, new foreign tonnage like the Rex, the Normandie and-irony of ironies- the new Europa, her end was hastened by a rash of small, electrical fires that started to break out all over through the summer of 1938. She was finally sold for scrap that same December. Her eventual replacement would be the second Mauretania of 1939.

Her story had many ups and downs, but ultimately, Ballin’s dream ship endured for almost a quarter of a century. Her triumphs, style, and sheer splendour are undeniable; the stuff of true ocean going legends. One hundred years after her launch, the Imperator has truly earned her berth in the Valhalla of vanished North Atlantic nobility.

THE BANDLEADER’S BEQUEST- WALLACE HARTLEY, THE TITANIC AND THE WHITE STAR LINE (Updated)

CNV00004The discovery of Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley’s actual violin is almost as miraculous as if the ship herself had been somehow dragged up for air. But years of painstaking research seem to have established beyond doubt that it is, indeed, the real thing. The musical holy grail, no less. Without doubt, the single most potent musical instrument anywhere on the planet. Hendrix’ guitar or Irving Berlin’s piano? Not even close.

It is also easily the single most iconic artifact to surface in the wake of the disaster, and it’s subsequent century long voyage to immortality. As a talisman, it is right up there with the sword used to execute Anne Boleyn, or the Walther pistol that Hitler shot himself with in the bunker. A direct link with an event that seared itself into humanity’s soul forever.

The irony is that neither Hartley nor his violin should have been aboard the Titanic at all.

Wallace Hartley had been a regular bandleader on the Cunard sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. But he was due to retire from the sea to get married at the age of thirty-three. He was apparently personally persuaded to sign on to the Titanic by the musical director of the White Star Line. His contract was for the first round trip only; sixteen days, to and from New York. In a letter home, Wallace wrote; ‘this is a fine ship, and the boys in the band seem really nice.’

Like most seagoing musicians of that time, Hartley would almost certainly have been upset and angry about the terms and conditions that professional musicians such as himself now had to work under. Financially speaking, the ground had been cut from under their feet by greedy, unscrupulous employers. The wages he earned at sea would not have been enough to support his probably hoped for future family.

At the turn of 1912, musicians worked directly for the shipping lines themselves, and were classed as actual members of the ships’ crew.

Then, along came a Liverpool based firm of contractors called C.W. and F. N. Black. They persuaded companies such as Cunard and White Star to let all their musicians go. In effect, fire them. In future, they would hire only musicians signed up with the aptly named Blacks.

CNV00006The musicians- effectively screwed over by their former employers- were left with no alternative but to sign on with the Blacks. Those enterprising souls then re-hired the same musicians back to their former employers.

At half their former wages, naturally.

But there was more. The musicians were now officially classified as second class passengers, under the nominal authority of the captain. To add to the indignity, they each had to produce proof on each arrival in New York of at least fifty dollars in funds, to show that they were not, in fact, destitute, would be scroungers.

All of this needs to be borne in mind when you remember what Hartley and his seven shipmates- five Englishmen, a Frenchman and a Belgian- did on board the Titanic as she sank in the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912.

They were certainly a talented bunch. George Krins, the Belgian violinist, was poached from the London Ritz, especially for the Titanic. Thirty-two year old cellist Percy Taylor was a native Londoner. At least two of the musicians came from the Cunard liner, Carpathia. In an appalling piece of irony, it would be the Carpathia that rescued the Titanic survivors. The youngest of the bunch was the twenty year old French cellist, Roger Bricoux.

What they did remains unrivalled as an act of musical heroism. Woken by the chief purser, Hugh  McElroy, they were asked to play for the rudely awakened passengers. No-one specified how long they were expected to play for. McElroy, party to the awful truth about the real nature of the ship’s injuries, would have been all over the place that night, trying to get things moving. He did not survive, either.

Nor do we know if McElroy told Hartley everything that he knew. That said, there is little doubt that all the bandsmen knew well from the start that the Titanic was seriously, perhaps fatally, wounded.

As second class passengers, there was no obligation for Hartley or the rest of the men to do anything other than save themselves. After all, they were classed as passengers, and not employees of the White Star line. Of course, we now know that they did not exercise that particular get out clause in their contract. Unlike, for instance, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who left his sinking ship- and his doomed passengers and crew- in one of the last lifeboats.

CNV00007Instead, for the first and last time, the two sets of musicians would play as a unified, eight man combo.The regular band- with Hartley as it’s leader- was a five piece outfit, common to all the White Star liners at that time.

But the Titanic also featured an additional trio that played in various venues around the ship. Though the eight musicians all roomed together and had another, shared room for their instruments they were, in effect, entirely different outfits.

This largely explains their choice of music over the next two hours, as the Titanic sagged into the Atlantic under their very feet. Without music stands, and with slowly fading light, they had to play stuff that all of them knew by heart. Operetta, light waltzes and, predominantly, happy, upbeat ragtime.

They took their doomed, final stand in the first class lounge, and launched into ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ at 12.45 that night; about the same time as the first lifeboat tottered down the floodlit flank of the Titanic. It was less than half full. Up above, the first white distress rockets spluttered uselessly in a brilliantly clear, starlit sky.

Some of the bandsmen were dressed in their green uniforms. Others had just slipped top coats over their pyjamas in their initial haste. Some wore life jackets from the start; others only donned theirs much later. But while their appearance was understandably haphazard, there was nothing wrong with the quality of their music that incredible night.

The impromptu band later moved to the vestibule lobby at the top of the Grand Staircase and, later still, out on to the sloping boat deck itself. What happened at this juncture to Theodore ‘Ted’ Brailey, the twenty- four year old piano player, is hard to say for certain.

The other seven musicians were all bassists, cellists and violinists. The Titanic had five pianos in all. One of these was in the vestibule lobby, but there were none out on deck. Yet shipboard musicians are a famously tight knit bunch; they work, live and often socialise together at all hours. My money would be very much on Ted remaining with his friends to give moral support, just as much as for the undoubted comfort he got from being with them.

CNV00008Of course, they perished to a man. Only three of the bodies were recovered, including Hartley’s. His mother said that she felt sure that he would be found clasping his violin. It now seems that he did, indeed, pack it away and strap it to himself only minutes before the Titanic’s final plunge.

The memory of what those matchless, marvellous men did was in stark contrast to the actions of their former employers. Neither the Blacks nor the White Star Line had taken out insurance on the eight musicians. Each blamed the other, pushed responsibility for the claims back and forth, and refused to pay compensation to the bereaved families. But even worse was to come.

The body of young Jock Hume, the twenty-one year old Scottish violinist, was one of those retrieved from the wreck site. He was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the time his fiance, Mary Costin, was pregnant with Jock’s first child. They had been due to marry on his return from the maiden voyage.

Two weeks after the disaster, Jock’s father, Alexander, received a letter from C.W. & F.N. Black. It said simply;

‘Dear Sir,

We shall be obliged if you will remit us the sum of 5s. 4d which is owing to us as per enclosed statement.

We shall also be obliged if you would settle the enclosed uniform account.

Yours faithfully,

C.W. & F.N. Black’

The Blacks wanted, among other things, recompense for the buttons on Jock’s bandsman’s uniform. Each one cost them good money, apparently. Jock had managed to throw a coat and muffler over the top of it before he began playing out on deck at some stage that night. He was still wearing both when his body was fished out of the freezing Atlantic.

The employers of the Titanic musicians may well have wanted to forget all about them. But the survivors did not. A year after the disaster, the Countess of Rothes- one of the more famous survivors- was dining out in New York, when she suddenly became overwhelmed by the sense of fear and horror that she always associated with the Titanic.

It was only later that she realised that the hotel orchestra had been playing excerpts from The Tales of Hoffman; the self same tune that Hartley and his bandsmen had been playing on the Titanic just after dinner that fateful night.

So the discovery of Hartley’s violin will act as a lightning rod for anyone with even the most tenuous emotional link to the Titanic, and the story of her brave musicians. It will start an unseemly bidding frenzy among collectors that will, no doubt, echo the style, taste and complete disregard of ethics shown by the Blacks, and, indeed, by the White Star Line as well.

Hopefully, it will also hold up a plain mirror to the unspeakable Clive Palmer, and his ghastly fantasy of turning the Titanic and her tragedy into a bizarre travelling circus; one where passengers can be photographed posing as ‘Jack’ and ‘Rose’ even as they sail over the all too real grave site of the sunken ship.

Is it too much to assume that Wallace Hartley and his comrades, so shabbily treated by both White Star and the Blacks, would be more than slightly disgusted at the money grubbing antics of those who claim ownership of such literally priceless relics as Hartley’s violin?

I can’t say for sure, of course, but I’m guessing they would be appalled to a man. Dead men tell no tales, but a violin- albeit one that has remained mute for over a century- still has a thousand or more stories to tell. The question is, who is really listening here?

UPDATE: MAY 23, 2013:

Hartley’s violin has now been subjected to a thorough CT scan to analyse the interior make up, in a final attempt to clarify it’s provenance. The scan revealed traces of salt water immersion, and also determined that the instrument is held together with animal glue.  This tends to melt in hot temperatures, not cold ones.  It would explain why it did not fall apart on contact with the water.

The scan, carried out at the BMI Ridgeway hospital, in Wiltshire, ends any residual doubt as to the validity of Hartley’s violin. The instrument will go on display in America this month, before being put up for auction later this year.

UPDATE: OCTOBER 10, 2013:

After being on display to the public in Belfast over the summer, Wallace Hartley’s violin will be auctioned on Saturday, October 19th at the Aldridge auction house in Devizes, Wiltshire.

With it are seven sheets of music for American ragtime tunes recovered in the valise.

The violin alone is conservatively estimated to fetch at least £400,000.

UPDATE: OCTOBER 19, 2013;

Wallace Hartley’s violin was today sold for £900,000. The buyer’s name has not been disclosed.