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.

MARCO POLO TO THE BALTIC- DEPARTURE FROM NEWCASTLE

Sailing day; it still leaves me with that ‘kid-on-Christmas-Day’ feeling….

Add in the fact that I’m sailing on one of my favourite ships-the magnificent Marco Polo, celebrating her 50th anniversary this year-and you’ll perhaps understand why my adrenaline was running like tap water as we pulled up at the North Shields passenger terminal.

Originally designed to service the overnight ferries sailing to and from Amsterdam, the terminal- used for Newcastle/Port Of Tyne sailings- doubles up for cruise use on seasonal summer sailings from the Tyne. And, for someone used to making the long treks down to Southampton, Dover and Harwich to board a ship, the sheer ease and convenience of being able to rock up at my local home port never fails to amaze me.

Check in was arranged deck by deck and, though the ship had sold out (Capacity 800, adults only), the boarding process took exactly twenty five minutes. That’s from entering the terminal to walking into the warm, Balinese themed lobby of the Marco Polo. Pretty damned good, that.

Though she is as pretty as a postcard, the Marco Polo remains refreshingly intimate. More comfortable than luxurious, the feeling of boarding her is akin to sagging gratefully into a pair of favourite, comfortable slippers. There’s a feeling of gentle, contented ease that comes from being cocooned in something that is at once instantly welcoming, and yet wonderfully familiar. On both counts, the Marco Polo hits the bullseye.

A thorough but relatively short lifeboat drill follows, by which time my luggage is already outside my room. I have time enough to check out the daily programme, before being pathetically overcome by the need for that first, invariable ‘bon voyage’ drink.

Almost inevitably, I take this on the gorgeous, curved terrace that frames the outside of Scott’s Bar, overlooking the stern. Sat back on cafe chair, feet braced against the deck railings- the classic Marco Polo cruising stance- I tip my vodka and cranberry briefly in the direction of ‘Rudy’, the statue of Rudolf Nureyev that forms a focal point on the aft lido deck. Rudy and I have become well acquainted over the course of three decades.

This contented little reverie is gently shaken by a muted trembling that passes through the deck rails; one that always sends a shiver of delight running up my spine. I glance to port and, to my sheer, infantile joy, the Port Of Tyne terminal is already falling away like a fading souffle. The gangway is gone, as are the ropes. Those last, little tenuous links with reality are no longer needed.

Poised and perfect as a swan, the Marco Polo gives a first, tentative surge forward. Her whistle roars out a stately triple salute to the Tyne as a squadron of gluttonous, over fed gulls shriek, scream and swoop in her wake like so many demented dive bombers. People on house balconies lining the stately, steel grey river look over and wave as this fantastic floating time machine surges majestically past them, almost close enough to touch. Another vodka and cranberry appears at my elbow. I can’t help but smile.

Now out, past Tyneside’s historic breakwater, following in the wakes of the Mauretania, the QE2, and many other famous legends of yesteryear. Out of the Tyne, on a ship still writing chapters in her own, imperishable legend. One we are sharing, even as we savour it.

The North Sea welcomes us with benign skies, and sparkling sunlight dancing on languid, lapping waves that seem to speed the lady on her way. A stately, gentle roll begins to assert itself; the immutable overture to our voyage up ahead. Feet back up on the railings, I sit staring at the clouds, drifting by in the sky like fleets of ghostly galleons.

A sense of freedom dances in the ether around me. It clinks the ice cubes together in my glass as if in celebration. At least, that’s how it seems right at that moment.

And so, we are off. It begins again….

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo- 'Rudy' is centre stage

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo- ‘Rudy’ is centre stage

FLASHBACK; 1935 SOUTHAMPTON DEATH ROW; MAURETANIA AND OLYMPIC

The maritime community in 1935 was awash with interest in the future. After a long, stagnant period of inactivity, work on the brand new Queen Mary was racing ahead on the Clyde at a frantic rate of knots. The inauguration of the new Cunarder was now just over a year away.

Even more imminent was the debut of the Normandie; the first ever of the 80,000 ton, 1,000 foot long ocean liners was due to sail on her maiden voyage in May and, in every respect, the new French flagship was expectd to make an enormous splash.

Time, space and tide would crown each of these great creations with it’s own garland of immortality. And yet, even as they prepared for their first apperances, other, once equally lauded liners sat languishing at Southampton’s Berth 108, waiting for that last, lonely voyage to the scrapyard.

Both Mauretania and Olympic were products of the pre- war Edwardian steamship race between Cunard and it’s great rival, White Star. Each had been a sensation in its day, and for many years beyond. Each had served its country during the Great War with great gallantry and energy. And each ship had lost a sibling in a ghastly maritime catastrophe.

Of the two, it was Olympic that was larger by half, and younger by four years. And Mauretania, as the unchallenged holder of the Blue Riband for two full decades, has left behind an imprint on maritime history that can never be equalled.

Each of the two liners had been the absolute epitome of style and glamour through most of the post war era. But a combination of natural ageing and plummeting passenger numbers courtesy of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, had made their retirements not just inevitable, but even necessary if the fragile new shotgun marriage of Cunard and White Star was to have a fighting chance.

In short, the past had to die so that the future- in the growing shape of the Queen Mary- might live.

For Mauretania, her last scheduled westbound crossing was in September, 1934. Now painted a shade of cruising white, the liner was laid up at Southampton’s Berth 108- a kind of maritime death row.

She was joined there by the Olympic in April of 1935, after her final transatlantic crossing from New York. Over the winter, the Cunarder’s paint work had grown grimy along her entire length. Now the Olympic was shackled to the berth just in front of her to await their fate.

Their silent, yet still dignified demise was in sharp contrast to the pair of great new hulls readying to take to sea in their stead in that spring of 1935. Both ships were soon enough to sail their final, desultory ‘green mile’ to the breakers.

Despite that, it is safe to say that the memories of each- what they were, what they achieved and, indeed, what they have become over the course of the years- continues to sail on to this day.

And that is exactly as it should be.

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

CUNARD TO OFFER COMMEMORATIVE LUSITANIA VOYAGE IN 2015

The Lusitania

The Lusitania

In an apt and respectful nod to the most tragic incident in its commercial history, Cunard will offer a seven night, commemorative voyage to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania back on May 7th, 1915.

The giant 92,000 ton Queen Victoria will offer a seven night round trip from Southampton, calling at St. Peter Port (Guernsey), Le Havre, Dublin and, most pointedly, Cobh on May 7th itself. There will be a series of commemorative services on board, as well as a special, temporary display of Lusitania artifacts curated by renowned maritime author, Eric Sauder. The voyage will also mark the launch of a new book on Lusitania by Eric Sauder, who has himself been down to the mangled wreckage of the former Cunard speed queen, just off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Cobh is sure to be an emotional lightning rod for all on board; the Lusitania went down just ten miles off the coast, on a brilliantly sunny day, after being hit by a single torpedo fired by the U20, then under the command of Kapitanleutenant Walter Schweiger. The giant, 31,000 ton liner capsized and went down in eighteen minutes, taking 1,201 passengers and crew with her.

The desperate, improvised rescue effort was mounted from Cobh. A total of 764 survivors were brought to safety here in the aftermath of the sinking. Some 124 victims were buried in a series of heartbreaking interments in the local Clonmel cemetery, where they remain to this day. The dead were still being washed ashore on the beaches here a full three weeks later.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Lusitania and her twin sister, the Mauretania, had been the unchallenged speed queens on the Atlantic crossing. On her debut in September 1907, the Lusitania- then the largest and most opulent vessel afloat- had retaken the speed record, held for ten consecutive years by a succession of German liners. With their sharp, graceful lines, quartet of tall, raked smokestacks and sumptuous interiors, the two sisters played ping pong with the Blue Ribband for a full seven years. Sailing between Liverpool and New York, the two sisters continued to beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

The story of the last voyage of the Lusitania has been replayed often, and will no doubt be dragged up for air again next year by a whole conga line of armchair theorists. The bare facts are that the liner sailed from New York on May 1st, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool,  after German warnings had appeared in the press. These advised prospective passengers not to travel on ships said to be illegally carrying munitions to aid the British war effort on the Western Front. Based on this belief, Schweiger slammed his torpedo into the starboard side of the Lusitania on the early afternoon of May 7th, 1915, and sank the ship.

This still buoyant controversy in  no way negates the impact of the tragic deaths of 1,201 people, passengers and crew alike. Nor does it tarnish the tremendous achievement and seven years of largely forgotten success that the Lusitania still represents. One hundred years after her ghastly demise off the Old Head of Kinsale, it is entirely right and fitting that the maritime community in general- and Cunard in particular- pays due respect to this lost, enduring legend.

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.

CHILDREN OF THE MERSEY; LUSITANIA AND MAURETANIA

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.

They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.

That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.

One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.

At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.

The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.

In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.

And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……

From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.

At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.

The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.

Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.

For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.

That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.

Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.

For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.

But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.

The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.

The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey stormssometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.

As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.

Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.

The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.

This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.

CUNARD AND LIVERPOOL- 175 YEARS OF AFFILATION

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

Liverpool’s attempts to re-establish itself as a premier UK cruise port have received a massive psychological boost, with the news that Cunard will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2015 with a historic meeting of all three current Cunard Queens in the Mersey port on May 26th, 2015- 175 years after the diminutive paddle wheeler, Britannia, inaugurated Cunard service from Liverpool to the New World. Flagship Queen Mary 2 will actually arrive on May 25th, and overnight on Merseyside.

It is sure to be an incredible spectacle, and a massive media event. And, with Cunard having been largely homeported in Southampton for the better part of a century now, it’s perhaps worth remembering just how close the links once were between the first- and last- company offering a regular transatlantic service, and the famous port on the North West coast of England.

At the turn of the 20th century, Liverpool was the pre eminent port of the British Empire, at a time when it covered fully one quarter of the earth’s surface. The Royal Navy and the British Merchant Marine were the largest of their kind in the world. From Liverpool, liners sailed from the famous Landing Stage to quite literally all corners of the globe.

The flagship service to New York was handled by the newest and latest steamers of those two age old rivals, Cunard and White Star. Both companies had their head offices in Liverpool, and their ships came and went with the punctuality of express trains for decades. Famous names such as Campania, Lucania, Oceanic, Celtic and Caronia all began their lives on the Liverpool to New York run. Some continued to sail it right through their long working lives.

The Mersey port basically got used to being top dog, a position that became seemingly unassailable when Cunard inaugurated the 1907 express service with the immortal Lusitania and Mauretania. And, in the last days prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the palatial new Aquitania became the largest and most opulent liner ever to call Liverpool home. She made just three round trips before the conflict erupted.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

But there had been straws in the wind as early as 1907, even as the Lusitania made her record breaking debut. That same year, the White Star Line quietly moved it’s first string service to New York- the so called  ‘Big Four’- out of Liverpool, and down to Southampton, on the channel coast. The burghers of Liverpool were mortified; but White Star knew exactly what it was doing.

For a start, the Hampshire port was unaffected by the fast tides that saw the waters in Liverpool rise and fall a full thirty-three feet, twice a day. It also provided better wharfage and docking facilities than Liverpool. More importantly for White Star, Southampton offered easy, convenient access to channel ports such as Cherbourg, a rapidly growing place of embarkation and disembarkation for Europe bound Americans, while still being convenient for taking on the masses of Irish emigrants that kept the coffers of both major players buoyant.

Last, but not least, strong winds that buffeted the Mersey had the habit of blowing docked ships clean away from their moorings, with potentially dangerous ramifications. Both the Lusitania and the Mauretania suffered just such mishaps and Cunard, not unreasonably, became increasingly alarmed by such events.

It was amazing that Cunard stuck with Liverpool as long as it did; the premier express service continued to sail from there until the outbreak of war. But once the conflict was over, even that company bit the bullet. The surviving Aquitania and Mauretania left the Mersey for Southampton, never to return. The baton of number one passenger terminal had unquestionably passed to the Hampshire port.

But this was not the end of Liverpool as a passenger port; far from it. Second string Cunarders continued to sail from Liverpool to New York, Boston, and numerous Canadian ports. White Star also introduced its new, medium sized Britannic and Georgic into service from Liverpool to America in 1930. And, when Cunard introduced a second Mauretania into service in June of 1939, this stately, mid sized matriach also sailed on the Liverpool to New York run, at least to begin with.

QE2's funnel became a familiar sight on the Mersey

QE2’s funnel became a familiar sight on the Mersey

Even post war, Cunard ran it’s premier passenger service to Canada- the 20,000 ton quartet of Ivernia, Franconia, Saxonia and Carinthia- from Liverpool. This continued sailing right up until 1967, by which time the liner trade- both from Liverpool and Southampton- was pretty much dead in the water in any event. It would take the slow initial growth of cruising to see any sort of revival for both ports.

But Liverpool has always remained a truly mythical port, steeped in memories and maritime lore. And, if anyone needed any proof on that subject, the first, emotional arrival of the Queen Elizabeth 2 in the Mersey in July, 1990, on the 150th anniversary of the maiden crossing by Britannia, definitely put that to rest. More than a million people blackened the banks of the river to see the legendary Cunard icon on that incredible day. Subsequent calls- and I was on board on both her 25th and 40th anniversary cruises- merely reaffirmed the deep, still unbroken bond between Cunard and it’s true, spiritual home.

So the convergence of the current trio of Cunard Queens on the famous Mersey waterfront in 2015 is sure to be a huge, highly charged media event. I am constantly amazed by the way at which even people who normally have no interest with either ships or the sea, can be moved and carried along by just such occasions.

And, with the iconic former Cunard building open for business as a cruise terminal by then, passengers should be able to embark directly aboard the monolithic Queen Mary 2 for her anniversary crossing on July 4th, 2015, an evocative ten day tempter to Halifax, Boston and, ultimately, New York. With this representing the first opportunity to sail direct from Liverpool to New York in half a century, I fully expect it to sell out in a couple of hours once bookings open.

For those lining the Liverpool waterfront, as well as those actually embarked on the Cunard trio on the day itself, this is sure to be one of those great landmark events that stay with you, long after the day itself is history.

THE AQUITANIA, CUNARD’S ARISTOCRATIC LEGEND

From sea to shining sea....

From sea to shining sea….

Aquitania. A ship whose very name is wrapped in romance, legend and maritime lore. She sailed for thirty six years, establishing a continuous service record only recently bested by another Cunard aristocrat, the Queen Elizabeth 2. Though Aquitania was dishevelled and worn out in her final days, he track record is still one of imperishable glamour.

She was built on the Clyde, to be a bigger running mate for the record breaking sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. Cunard needed this bigger, far more opulent ‘third wheel’ to run a weekly service from Liverpool to New York.

In terms of scale, design and execution, the Aquitania had far more in common with the rival Olympic than with her smaller siblings. Like the Olympic, Aquitania was meant to emphasise scale, steadiness and sheer, opulent splendour. The Blue Riband was something she never aspired to; she was intended to be a spectacular floating palace, a Palladian bordello writ large. For decades, her proud, four funneled silhouette would be a byword for style and sophistication at sea.

Her initial timing was disastrous. The Aquitania sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage only days after the Empress of Ireland had capsized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with the loss of over a thousand souls. The lost liner was very much a ‘Liverpool ship’, and the entire city was in mourning when the palatial new Cunarder arrived.

Aquitania managed just three round trips before the Great War decimated the liner trade. Both  Aquitania and Mauretania were requisitioned as the most improbable, fuel guzzling armed merchant cruisers ever, a role quickly terminated when they consumed every last bit of reserve coal in South Eastern England between them. Both ships were quietly laid up until some more practical role could be found for them.

She re- emerged to be used in a more realistic guise as a hospital ship, ferrying thousands of casualties back to the United Kingdom in the wake of the horrific, ill thought through catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign. Later still, she ferried American troops across the Atlantic to the charnel houses of the western front. Despite frequently sailing through areas known to be infested with German U-boats, the Aquitania emerged from four years of war without any physical combat damage.

But her machinery had been all but worn out, and a massive reconditioning was needed to bring the Aquitania back to her brief, pre war glory. At the same time, Cunard took the opportunity to convert the ship from coal to oil burning and, in this guise, she joined the Mauretania and the giant Berengaria on the newly established, post war express service from Southampton to New York.

Cunard's fabled 'big three' in the 1920's. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

Cunard’s fabled ‘big three’ in the 1920’s. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

This Cunard ‘big three’ service soon settled down to become the most reliable and consistent operation on the Atlantic. Each week, one of the three ships would sail from Southampton on a Saturday, bound for America. A second ship would leave New York each Tuesday. The third ship would be at sea, heading in one direction or the other.

With very little variation, the Aquitania maintained this pattern of sailings through most of the 1920’s, and well into the next decade. The Great Depression of 1929 combined with the advent of new, cutting edge, state of the art French and German liners to put the Aquitania and her pre war, Edwardian ilk on notice. Time for all of these ships was clearly running out.

The Cunard/White Star shotgun marriage of 1934 saw the Aquitania relegated more and more to short cruises, from New York to Bermuda, and even up to Nova Scotia. With two huge new sisters on order- the Queen Mary and the future Queen Elizabeth- it was clear to one and all that the doughty old Aquitania was on borrowed time.

Aquitania even made a cruise in 1938 down to Rio de janeiro for the Carnival, where she shared the harbour with much more modern masterpieces such as the Normandie and the Rex. If anything showed her advancing age and limitations, it was this mutual proximity to these two transatlantic speed queens.

Ironically, the outbreak of a second global conflict saved her. As Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, it became evident that the British Empire needed every last single potential troopship, no matter how old or jaded. For the second time in her incredible career, the Aquitania acquiesced to the grey guise of an ocean trooper.

In this second stint, the veteran Aquitania ventured to some amazingly unlikely places. Early in 1940, she formed part of an incredible convoy of liners that included the Queen Mary, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile De France, ferrying virtually an entire Australian army corps from Sydney to bolster General Wavell’s paper thin forces in North Africa. The likes of it would never be seen again.

Tired and yet priceless, the gallant old liner ended up back on the North Atlantic, ferrying American and Canadian troops to Britain in the build up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Once again, she managed to make her own unique contribution without ever kissing the edge of a U-boat’s cross hairs. All things considered, the Aquitania was, indeed, a very lucky ship.

At wars’ end in 1945, the Aquitania was returned to Cunard White-Star, and it was clear that she was almost totally worn out. But so desperate still was the shortage of tonnage that the liner spent four final years operating what was, in essence, an austerity service, ferrying both troops and a tidal wave of GI brides across the Atlantic to both America and Canada.

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Though her funnels were repainted in Cunard colours, very little else was done to recondition Aquitania. Her days were obviously numbered and, with both Queens back in profitable service on the Atlantic by the summer of 1947, the end was rapidly approaching for the Edwardian wonder ship.

She was an anachronistic sight indeed when she finally sailed off to a Scottish breaker’s yard for demolition in January of 1950. Sailing from Southampton for the last time into a thick fog bank, the Aquitania looked like nothing less than her own ghost.

Yet the Aquitania left behind an unequalled service record, both in terms of her peacetime luxury sailings, and through the course of the two most ghastly and destructive conflagrations on the face of the planet.  As a ship built for ‘comfort first, speed second’, she represented at that time a complete, radical change to the entire ethos of the Cunard Line. 

Unlike Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania was known throughout her long life as a good, solid, steady sea boat, and this also helped to make her hugely popular. In fact, those two words- ‘solid’ and ‘steady’- both work as singularly wonderful descriptive words in recalling the career, the achievements, and the sheer allure of that sumptuous, wonderful ship- the amazing Aquitania.

RMS OLYMPIC- THE OLD RELIABLE EVALUATED

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.

If ever the long and successful career of an outstanding ship was overshadowed by the ghastly demise of a younger sibling, then that ship was surely the Olympic. She made a triumphant debut in the summer of 1911, a full ten months before the disaster to her sister ship, Titanic, that changed sea travel forever.

It was the Olympic that was, in fact, the giant leap forward in terms of sea travel. She was half as large again as her nearest rivals, the record breaking rival Cunard twins, Lusitania and Mauretania. She was also graceful, sleek and- in first class at least- fabulously opulent. Her arrival created a media sensation across the world at the time, one only overshadowed by the tragic events of the following year.

On the night of April 14-15th, 1912, the eastbound Olympic made a desperate, always doomed attempt to reach her sinking sister, some five hundred miles away to the north.  The two ships kept in close touch throughout the disaster- there was a genuinely strong bond between Olympic and Titanic- and it was her powerful radio transmitter that helped to marshall the rescue operation. In an appalling irony, it was also the wireless on the Olympic that first told the world officially about the loss of her sister, the Titanic.

Following an almost complete rebuild over the winter of 1912-13, the Olympic was well on her way to regaining her former star role on the Atlantic when the Great War erupted. In October 1914, she took the crippled battleship HMS Audacious in tow. The battleship eventually sank, but even the Admiralty was forced to admit the heroic role played by the Olympic. It was merely the start of her long and eventful war career.

Her enormous size and carrying capacity made her a natural troopship. It would also lead to a pair of encounters with the Kaiser’s navy.

On the first of these, German torpedoes literally bounced off her hull. And on another occasion in 1918, it was Olympic that caught and rammed a German U-boat on the surface. The horror on the faces of the surprised German sailors can only be imagined as they saw that huge bow bearing unstoppably down on them. One of the liner’s propellers also slashed clean through the sub; it sank like a stone.

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

The war record of the Olympic was exemplary; the thousands of troops that she carried to the battlefields of Western Europe shortened the war by several months. And, in honour of her heroics, she was nicknamed ‘Old Reliable’ by the scores of Canadian soldiers that she carried there and, eventually, back as well.

Following the war, the Olympic went back to her builders for a complete reconstruction over the winter of 1919-20, when she was also converted to oil burning. She emerged as virtually a new ship in the summer of 1920. Following this, the Olympic settled into several years of long, profitable service on the Atlantic crossing.

It was an incredible time; an age of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition, and jazz. The Olympic was one of the great ‘stars’ of the ocean, carrying such famous passengers as Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie, Dame Nellie Melba and Edward, Prince of Wales. With the ghost of the Titanic at last fading away, the ship was very popular and successful.

An intimation of her mortality came in 1924, when she suffered minor damage in a collision in New York harbour with the liner Fort St. George. But, even before the Titanic disaster, the Olympic had been rammed by a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke, An eighty foot gash had been torn in her hull. Ironically, her survival of this damage went a long way towards affirming the so called ‘unsinkability’ of the Titanic- with disastrous results the following year.

Advancing age combined with the Great Depression of 1929 to put the pre war generation of Atlantic liners on borrowed time, and the Olympic was no exception to this. In the summer of 1934, she proceeded to sign her own death warrant when she rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship in thick fog off the coast of America. Seven men were lost on the lightship. The Olympic was only slightly damaged, but the negative publicity from the incident doubtless accelerated her inevitable demise.

Only months before, White Star had merged with its great rival, Cunard. The new company was a fragile operation, one hoping profoundly that the imminent debut of the new Queen Mary would restore its fortunes and prestige. Instead, as a result of the Nantucket lightship sinking, it found itself slapped with a half a million dollar lawsuit.  For the proud old Olympic, it was the final straw.

She was sold for scrap in October of 1935, and arrived in Jarrow, on the River Tyne, for demolition. Two years later, what remained of the hull was towed up to Inverkeithing, Scotland, for final scrapping. It was a singularly sad end for such a fabled and illustrious ship.

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Olympic's 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Olympic’s 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Despite those three collisions over the course of her career, the Olympic was seen as a uniquely lucky and successful ship. She was the template for the modern, state of the art ocean liner and, but for the tragedy that befell the Titanic, she would have been much more remembered than was the case. Her war record was nothing less than incredible and, over many years of peace, she carried literally tens of thousands of happy passengers between Europe and New York in style, safety and comfort.

The Olympic did everything ever asked of her and, indeed, far more. She was the absolute epitome of style, beauty and grace, and became the benchmark for all rival lines to aspire to, both before and after the Great War. With her four great black and buff smoke stacks, graceful prow and gently curved counter stern, the Olympic was the very apogee of the classic western ocean steamship.

A TALE OF TWO MEN; J. BRUCE ISMAY AND WALLACE HARTLEY (updated)

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.