by Tom Bell
Almost certainly, everybody has heard of the Titanic disaster, with perhaps a handful unaware of what happened on April 14th, 1912. A few will have direct familial connections to passengers or crew. Some, like myself, and I am by no means unique, have experienced more obscure and tenuous links with the vessel some sixty/seventy years on.
I want to start my journey inside the Albion Inn (now a Sobar for the young), situated at 98 Bevois Valley Road, Portswood, Southampton, which has existed as a licensed premises since the 1870s. For six years, from 1972, I worked at the warship builders, Vosper Thornycroft, Woolston, Southampton, where the day usually finished at 5pm. Whenever I chose to walk home to University Road, Highfield, the Albion Inn was on my route, and from time to time, I dropped in for a drink. At that early evening time, it was generally very quiet, except for myself and a quite elderly man, David. Invariably, I would find him, feet up on a stool, gazing intently thrugh the window into the distance, as if looking out to sea.
We got chatting, as pub customers do, on various topics and people, and one evening he put a direct question to me, “I am surprised that you have not yet asked me about the Titanic.”
“Well, what about it then?” I said, now all ears, and I leaned forward in anticipation.
He now had a quite animated expression as he related his excitement at seeing the huge ship depart on her maiden voyage, and his enjoyment at having a day off school for that purpose. Several times I asked him if he was sure it was the Titanic, and he was in no doubt, with the date and time of sailing indelibly indented in his memory as April 10, 1912, around midday.
He endured that conversation with me many times, as on each occasion, I searched for something new on the subject or an item that he may have missed or half forgotten. It was like having a piece of history brought to life – particularly when he applied his thoughts and images as an adult on the great expectations, the suffering and loss of life that night of April 14th, 1912.
Next stop on my journey of memories was at Cheltenham Court, a block of flats at the end of Winn Road, Southampton, where it joins The Avenue. Certainly not a poor part of town, with a walk down through The Avenue into the city centre most pleasant on a warm Sunday afternoon. This block differs from similar ones in the city as it bears a plaque to the memory of Captain E. J. Smith, who commanded the Titanic on its maiden voyage and perished with his ship.
At the time of sailing from Southampton on April 10th, 1912, he owned and lived in Woodhead, a brick built, double fronted detached house on clearly a sizeable plot of land where the apartments now stand. I quietly reflected that possibly my footsteps followed in his all those years earlier as he awoke in that house and road and departed for the last time.
Very early in my time at Vosper-Thornycroft, Woolston, an order arrived from the Brazilian Navy for Mark 10 frigates, a juicy contract made the more interesting as four would be built at Southampton, with the other two being shipped plate small/piecemeal for build and assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For quite some time there, I was responsible for the packing, delivery to dockside and ultimate loading onto the Brazilian naval freighters, which appeared for this purpose about every three months. A lot of equipment and material was loaded at Southampton docks, and I always ensured that I had some free time at the docks to familiarise myself with all the docks, walkways and mooring posts – indeed everywhere that a passenger or crew member on the Titanic would have walked.
Another spot at which I lingered on my route to and from work was the entrance to the South Western House. This imposing building started life as the Imperial Hotel, being later renamed the South Western Hotel. Situated adjacent to Terminus railway station, well-heeled Titanic passengers could leave the train and enter the hotel whilst staying under cover. Among those staying the night there prior to the departure of the Titanic were Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland & Wolf (the ship’s builders) and the White Star Line’s head, J. Bruce Ismay. Over the years, other notable guests included Spencer Tracey and Deborah Kerr. It fell into some neglect between 1945 and 1961, when the media company, BBC South, took possession of it.
The best time to pop in undisturbed was around 8am, when one could mingle with the large number of people making their way to work. After some debating, I made it to the first floor one evening to be promptly asked by a lady, “Are you lost?”. Thinking quickly, I replied, “Yes, but only in my thoughts.” How true as I reflected on those who had trodden that landing for the last time.
About 25 years ago, I had the opportunity of an air trip around Canada, which would not have been complete without a visit to the Titanic graves situated in various cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first we saw was the largest by far, containing around 120 victims of the 1912 disaster at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, who were either non conformist or whose religion was not known. Identical stones on ground immaculately kept indicates that they now have the care and attention denied to them when the ship sank. The curved shape of the grave lines could resemble the gentle bowline of a ship.
We also went to the adjoining Jewish Baron de Hirsch cemetery were 10 bodies are interred. The Catholic cemetery at Mount Olivet contains the graves of a further 19 persons of whom 4 still remain unidentified. For many years, a grave at the Fairview cemetery was marked ‘The Unknown Child’ until he was identified in 2002 as 13-month-old Eino Viljami Panula of Finnish origin, whose mother and 4 brothers drowned with him. After still further forensic investigation, he has now been positively named as Sidney Leslie Godwin of England, who perished with his entire family. Although one may remark that all those occupying those graves certainly reached North America, it was not the location they wanted, with so many dreams and aspirations going unfulfilled.
My last port of call, as it was that of the Titanic, was of course Cobh, Co. Cork, which was better known as Queenstown at the time of the ship’s departure. Here, one can really imagine the hustle and bustle of passengers in anticipation of what for most was the journey of a lifetime. The station and the White Star ticket office have possibly changed little over the years, where 123 passengers were tendered out to the ship anchored some 21 miles from Cobh.
In the course of researching my wife’s grandmother, one Alice McHale, I discovered that she had been a stewardess with the White Star Line in the 1920s. Further investigation revealed that on at least one occasion, in September 1927, she was one of a crew of 395 on the ship Megantic travelling between Liverpool and Quebec/Montreal via Cobh. We never met with that lady, but what a coincidence that she came so close to where we stood.
Whenever I am at Cobh, I gaze out at that stretch of water, remembering all the people who anchored there, those who never came back, and above all, those who never reached their intended destination.