41N 50W – the Titanic on stage in London

I’m looking forward to seeing a new play about the Titanic disaster, which is being showcased in London later this week.

Written by Robert Neal Marshall, the American actor and director, 41N 50W tells the story of the tragedy through the eyes of witnesses and survivors.

Their words are taken from the US Senate inquiry into the disaster, which opened in New York on Friday April 19, 1912, just four days after the sinking itself.

41N 50W is in the Studio at St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, London SW1, with performances on Thursday October 4 at 3pm and 8pm, and Friday October 5 at 6pm and 8.30pm.

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The mystery of the Money Boat, part 2: what became of the Duff Gordons?

My post of April 10, The mystery of the Money Boat, told how Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife, Lady Lucy, escaped the sinking Titanic in lifeboat 1.

Since then, you may have seen Julian Fellowes’ version of what happened on Boat 1 as the ship actually went down, in the final part of his increasingly muddled and disappointing Titanic TV series.

I’ll now take up the story once more. The day after the tragedy, when all the survivors were safely aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Sir Cosmo wrote each of the sailors and firemen who had been aboard Boat 1 a cheque for £5, and they all posed together for a photograph.

When that photo was subsequently published in the world’s press, its incongruous smiling faces seemed to suggest the Duff Gordons’ callous indifference to the tragedy. Lady Duff Gordon nonetheless insisted that Sir Cosmo had simply made a generous gesture to men who were in financial difficulties, and that the real mystery was why other survivors had not done the same.

The World, New York, May 9 1912

At the British inquiry, none of those aboard Boat 1 pretended that they had made the slightest effort to help their fellow passengers. Their evasive testimony left the impression that as the Titanic was going down, they had simply rowed away. Lady Duff Gordon said she was too seasick to know what was going on; Sir Cosmo, that he was too concerned about his wife to notice. Fireman Charles Hendrickson, on the other hand, said he had wanted to go back, but the Duff Gordons had begged the crew not to do so.

Lookout George Symons insisted “I never heard anybody of any description, passengers or crew, say anything as regards going back” – in fact he claimed that he had heard nobody say anything at all, for the entire five hours they were in the boat. Referring repeatedly to himself as the “master of the situation”, he argued that “I used my own discretion”, fearing that desperate swimmers might swamp the boat and drown them all.

Under cross-examination, however, Symons admitted that a “gentleman” acting on behalf of the Duff Gordons had come to his home the previous weekend. Talking him through his impending evidence, the “gentleman” had invited him to agree with a number of statements that included the phrases “master of the situation” and “used my discretion”.

The Attorney General summed up Symons’ testimony in damning terms: “Your story is; the vessel had gone down; there were the people in the water shrieking for help; you were in the boat with plenty of room; nobody ever mentioned going back; nobody ever said a word about it; you just simply lay on your oars. Is that the story you want my Lord to believe?” Symons replied: “Yes, that is the story”.

New York Tribune, May 18 1912

Sir Cosmo himself, confronted on his failure to help the mass of drowning victims, blustered and flailed: “It is difficult to say what occurred to me… I was minding my wife, and we were rather in an abnormal condition, you know. There were many things to think about, but of course it quite well occurred to one that people in the water could be saved by a boat, yes.” At one point, he expostulated: “We had had rather a serious evening, you know.”

Asked, “Was not this rather an exceptional time, 20 minutes after the Titanic sank, to make suggestions about giving away £5 notes?”, Sir Cosmo replied, “No, I think not. I think it was a most natural time.” Another lawyer pursued the issue: “Why do you suggest that it was more natural to think of offering men £5 to replace their kit than to think of those screaming people who were drowning?” “I do not suggest anything of the sort”, responded Sir Cosmo.

The inquiry concluded that: “The very gross charge against Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon that, having got into No.1 boat he bribed the men in it to row away from the drowning people is unfounded … The members of the crew… might have made some attempt to save the people in the water, and such an attempt would probably have been successful; but I do not believe that the men were deterred… by any act of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon’s. At the same time I think that if he had encouraged to the men to return to the position where the Titanic had foundered they would probably have made an effort to do so and could have saved some lives.”

While Sir Cosmo was cleared of the worst allegations, the inquiry’s verdict upon his character was hardly complimentary. An extraordinary array of society figures and minor royalty, including the wife of prime minister Herbert Asquith, had queued to watch his public humiliation. Although Sir Cosmo was to live another twenty years, according to his wife “he never lived down the shame”.

The Washington Herald, May 19 1912

All text © Greg Ward, and adapted from the Rough Guide to the Titanic.  Some of this post also appeared in an article I wrote for msnbc.com.

Did the band really play on?

One of the few facts that everyone “knows” about the Titanic is that the band went down with the ship, playing Nearer My God To Thee as she slipped beneath the dark waters. The story holds a substantial kernel of truth, mixed in with a great deal of myth.

Although the Titanic didn’t have a “band” as such, an ad hoc group of musicians did indeed play as the lifeboats were loading. None survived, and it’s not known what they played, or at what point they finally stopped.

The great problem is that so few survivors witnessed the Titanic’s final moments. For those who escaped before the end, the musicians may well have provided their last memory of the ship. However, they were in no position to know what happened later on.

Washington Herald, April 19 1912

The eight musicians aboard the Titanic played in two separate combinations. The man later eulogized as the bandleader, violinist Wallace Hartley, in fact led a quintet, made up of two violins, one cello, one double bass and a piano. There was also a trio of violin, cello and piano.

It seems likely that not all eight were in the group that assembled half an hour after the collision. After playing atop the grand staircase on the Boat Deck – where they would have had use of a piano – they moved out on deck as the first lifeboats were lowered.

As for what they played, Colonel Archibald Gracie remembered, “I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and were not hymns.” Other witnesses described a mixture of popular styles – ragtime, jazz and waltzes – that included the biggest hit of 1911, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Second Officer Charles Lightoller later wrote “I could hear the band playing cheery sort of music. I don’t like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all.”

The legend that the band played Nearer My God To Thee is based on very flimsy evidence – a newspaper interview with a Canadian first-class passenger, Mrs Vera Dick. Although she left on lifeboat 3 at 1am, she claimed to have heard the tune at the crucial moment – a time when the Titanic was breaking apart, and the air was filled with screams.

Gracie was adamant the hymn was never played “If Nearer My God To Thee was one of the selections, I would assuredly have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all … all whom I have questioned or corresponded with … testified emphatically to the contrary”.

Adapted from the Rough Guide to the Titanic; all text © Greg Ward

Bisbee Daily Review, April 19 1912

What Sank The Titanic?

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

On the night of April 11, 1912, a mighty ocean liner steamed straight into an iceberg in the icy north Atlantic. Passengers were thrown from their chairs and rushed in terror to the decks. Although her bow was badly buckled, however, no one was hurt, and the ship limped onwards, to reach New York in safety.

The clue there is in the date, for the ship in question was a French liner, the Niagara. It was three nights later that the Titanic met her fate near the same spot.

So why did the Titanic, despite warnings of ice ahead, hit an iceberg herself, and why did she fail to survive the collision? The basic answer is clear: she was going too fast. The conclusion of the official British inquiry remains self-evident. However far away the iceberg was when the lookouts saw it – their testimony was evasive to say the least – there was too little time to avoid it.

It’s often suggested that Captain Smith was trying to set some sort of speed record. He could never have captured the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing; the Titanic simply wasn’t built to outpace sleek rivals like Cunard’s Mauretania. Smith knew however that for the Titanic to arrive ahead of schedule would attract favourable publicity, and the presence on board of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay may well have spurred him on. In fact, though, it was standard practice for liners to race at top speed through the night, and only take evasive action if confronted by an obstacle.

Image courtesy SeaCity Museum, Southampton.

Not that it was freakish bad luck for an iceberg to be in the Titanic’s path. While icebergs were not usually expected that far south, the sea that night was full of them. When the sun rose the next morning, “dozens and dozens” were in sight. Even more to the point, barely three miles ahead the ocean was covered by a colossal unbroken ice field, seventy miles long by twelve miles wide. And the Titanic had been warned, by wireless messages from nearby ships.

When First Officer Murdoch, on duty on the bridge of the Titanic, did take evasive action, he did entirely the wrong thing. His attempt to steer around the iceberg, while throwing her engines into reverse, producing the nautical equivalent of a skid. As the leading manual on seamanship, Austin M. Knight’s Modern Seamanship, advised, “this course is much more likely to cause collisions than to prevent them”. On top of that, there’s plausible evidence that the helmsman initially turned the ship’s wheel the wrong way, losing crucial seconds.

Had the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, she would probably, like the Niagara, have survived. Instead, she scraped along the side of the berg, which had the twin effects of slicing her open, and weakening the rivets that joined the plates of her hull, which effectively “unzipped”. Her much-vaunted watertight compartments had been designed to protect her against sharp impacts; no one had considered the effects of a prolonged scrape.

J. Bruce Ismay.

So what was to blame? Rather than the very existence of the iceberg, or the unusual conditions that made it hard to spot – hazards the world’s greatest liner should have been able to cope with – it seems fair to blame the design of the ship, and the inadequate response of her crew. And to add a special word of condemnation for J. Bruce Ismay, the man who decided not to equip the Titanic with enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

All text © Greg Ward.

This post also appears as an article on the Rough Guides website, www.roughguides.com.

Julian Fellowes’ Titanic – the Blogtanic preview

I went last night to a BAFTA preview, at the BFI, of the first two episodes of Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic TV series. Attended by many of the cast and crew, it was followed by a panel discussion featuring Fellowes himself.

In their quest to find a fresh way to re-tell the familiar tale, Fellowes and his producers have squared up to the crucial issue that audiences feel they already know the story – and they certainly know the Titanic is going to sink. As Fellowes put it in the Q&A, rather than have three episodes of characters worrying about their marriages and their mortgages, followed by one devoted to the actual disaster, they’ve decided to show the climax in every episode. That means we get to see the ship sink not once, but four times.

It’s a daring move, particularly in terms of episode 1, when the Titanic crashes into the iceberg before we’ve had time to get to know, or care about, the characters. Our first sight of the collision, and the loading of the lifeboats, seems strangely flat, and there has to be a chance some viewers will give up after the first episode. As the series unfolds, however,  each subsequent episode throws new light on the scenes we’ve seen before, repeatedly showing the same incidents from different perspectives.

The idea of the Titanic as a microcosm of the Edwardian world is hardly new, and yes, some of the emblematic figures whom Fellowes has placed aboard the great ship may seem familiar from his previous work. The flawed-but-decent Lord Manton, for example, is strongly reminiscent of the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, while the various servants might have stepped straight out of Gosford Park. Fellowes’ deft touch at revealing their thoughts and motivations, however, from the millionaires in first class down to the impoverished emigrants in steerage and the grimy stokers in the boiler rooms, makes for compelling viewing.

Fellowes’ fictional characters share deck space with many of the Titanic’s real-life passengers and crew. His fellow “Titanoraks” will be fascinated to see his take on certain enduring controversies. Here, for example, it’s Captain Smith, rather than the usual villain J. Bruce Ismay, who dices with death by racing the Titanic ever faster towards the ice field.

While the fates of the genuine historical figures have long since been cast, the lives of the invented characters remain poised in the balance until the fourth and final episode. According to Fellowes, he didn’t decide who would live and who would die until he’d already written the first three instalments. I’m looking forward to finding out who makes it  – if I had to guess, though, it’s not looking good for some of those plucky steerage passengers.

The series is being broadcast in Canada from today onwards, and starts in the UK on Sunday March 25.

All text on Blogtanic © Greg Ward

The French Connection – Cherbourg remembers the Titanic

I was lucky enough to get an advance preview this afternoon of the new Titanic exhibition in Cherbourg, France, which is due to open next month.

The Titanic called at Cherbourg for two hours on the evening of the day she sailed from Southampton – Wednesday April 10, 1912. Just under 300 passengers joined the ship here, including such famous names as John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.

One hundred years later, to the day, the Titanic exhibit will open in Cherbourg’s former Transatlantic terminal. It’s a new addition to the Cité de la Mer, an already huge facility that incorporates a decommissioned nuclear submarine, the Redoutable; an extensive history of underwater exploration; and several large aquariums.

Only a small proportion of the Titanic displays are currently in place, but it’s clearly going to be a must-see atraction. Without trying to rebuild the ship herself, the designers have set out to evoke several of her most important features. Each visit is intended to offer an “immersive experience” – albeit not in the same sense as the original voyage!

Visitors reach the new exhibit via parts of the Transatlantic terminal that have until recently only been accessible to cruise passengers. Strictly speaking, this glorious Art Deco structure post-dates the Titanic, but you only have to glance outside to see the spot where the great liner anchored, beyond the harbour walls.

You enter the exhibition proper to find yourself standing at a re-created segment of the ship’s rails, watching a huge screen that displays first a panorama of Cherbourg as seen from the Titanic, and then her next and final port of call, Queenstown in Ireland (now Cobh). From there, you can choose whether to move into the first-, second-, or third-class areas of the ship.

Sections that I was able to see today included a meticulous re-creation of the Titanic’s mailroom, and a mock-up of a first-class cabin. Those that have yet to be installed, but will be ready in time for the opening, include a “wireless room” where children can learn Morse code, and Captain Smith’s own quarters. The exhibition also broadens its scope to explore twentieth-century European emigration to the United States.

With many thanks to Laure Anne Forti de Marthe for her hospitality.