Sunday, April 15, 2012

Recovering Titanic bodies

It is a century today since the great, and supposedly unsinkable, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, drowning more than 1500 people. The tragedy has become an iconic event in the history of the 20th century, and, according to a new online exhibition, ‘sails on forever in our collective imagination’. Although there is no evidence of any diary written on the Titanic, there are two written by those on a cable ship dispatched to recover bodies, one of which provides extraordinary and detailed descriptions of the icebergs, floating wreckage and recovery task.

On its maiden voyage in 1912 the White Star Liner RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic, the largest ship afloat in the world at the time, hit an iceberg at 23:40 ship’s time on 14 April 1912, and within three hours had sunk (at 2:20 or 5:20 GMT). RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene in response to earlier distress calls, at around 4:00, and carried 710 people to New York, Titanic’s original destination. 1,517 passengers and crew lost their lives. Two cable ships (MacKay-Bennett and Minia), based at Halifax, Canada, were dispatched quickly to the site, and recovered many of the bodies.

The loss of the Titanic has become one of the most iconic events of the 20th century. There have been numerous books and films about the ship, not least a German propaganda film in 1943, the 1953 movie with Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner, and the hugely successful 1997 movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The ship’s wreck was discovered in 1985, and has since been revisited by explorers, scientists, film-makers, tourists and salvagers. There is no shortage of information about all things Titanic online - try Wikipedia,, encyclopedia titanica, or National Museums Northern Ireland.

Despite the exploitative and no-stone-unturned nature of the Titanic remembrance industry, there is no evidence - at least that I can find on the internet - of any diary having survived the tragedy. There is the heart-rending story of the seven year old Douglas Spedden who survived the ship’s sinking only to die two years later after being hit by a car. Douglas’s mother, Daisy, was accustomed to keeping a diary on her travels, but the surviving ‘diary’, which is widely referred to on Titanic websites, was written by her later as a children’s story.

There are other fictional diary accounts - see Amazon for more on The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, or CanLit for The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton. More significantly, there are published memoirs - like "Titanic" Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop Stewardess, published by The History Press - and many testimonies, such as can be found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. These latter are well synthesised in a new book from Bloomsbury by Nic Compton - Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank, Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew - some of which can be read on the Amazon website.

Like Douglas Spedden, Father Thomas Byles is a well-known name from the Titanic passenger list. He was travelling to New York City to officiate at the wedding of his younger brother William. The Father Byles website includes the following diary extracts written by a friend of his, Father Patrick McKenna, safely on dry land in Southend-on-Sea.

10 April 1912
Titanic White Star S. S. largest & most luxurious ocean palace yet built, left Southampton with 1300 passengers & 900 crew.’

15 April 1912
‘News that she collided with Iceberg. Foundered 400 miles from Sable Island off Newfoundland. 860 persons mostly wom + childr. = saved in lifeboats, & about 1500 drowned (in two miles deep) including several millionaires: Awful news confirmed Apl. 16th. Disaster on night of April 14th.

Heroic behavior of Fr. Byles. He said Mass on Sunday 14th for 3' cl. passengers & preached “as in danger of being lost in shipwreck men require & grasp lifebelt to save themselves, so in danger of being lost in spiritual shipwreck in time of temptation we require & should use spiritual lifebelt in shape of prayer & sacraments to save soul.” Fr. Byles twiced warned of danger & offered place in boat by sailor. He refused saying his duty was to stay and to minister to others. He heard confessions & gave absolution & said Rosary & sank. Victim to duty & conscience!’

Perhaps the most interesting bona fide diaries linked to the tragedy are those written by Clifford Crease, mechanic, and Frederick A Hamilton, cable engineer, on board the cable ship MacKay-Bennett dispatched from Halifax to recover the bodies.

Crease’s diary has only recently been made available - in its original form and with transcripts - on the internet thanks to Nova Scotia Archives as part of an online exhibition to commemorate the 100 years anniversary. ‘The loss of the RMS Titanic is one of the landmark events of the early 20th century,’ the exhibition notes say, and ‘although the great liner lies at the bottom of the North Atlantic, she sails on forever in our collective imagination. We are proud to make this small contribution towards perpetuating the memory of those who died in Titanic’s catastrophic end.’

Hamilton’s diary is held by Royal Museums Greenwich (with the text available thanks to encyclopedia titanica).

Diary of Clifford Crease
17 April 1912
‘Left Halifax at twelve thirty eight PM for to recover bodies from wreck of White Star Line Steam ship Titanic, which was lost at sea by striking an Iceberg in 41.16n 50.14W and sank in four hours.’

18 April 1912
‘Steaming towards wreck.’

19 April 1912
‘Steaming towards wreck.’

20 April 1912
‘Steaming towards wreck passed by several Icebergs. Arrived at spot where ship went down at seven fifteen and lay too all night till day - light. A large Iceberg about four miles from ship suppose to be the one Titanic struck lots of wreckage floating about, four bodies passed by through the night, and picked up later on.’

21 April 1912
‘Fine weather started to pick up bodies at six AM and continued all day till five thirty PM. Recovered fifty one bodies, forty six men four women and one baby. Burried twenty four men at sea at eight fifteen PM. Rev Canon Hinds in attendance also Ships Company. Bodies in good state but badly bruised by being knocked about in the water.’

22 April 1912
‘Weather fine picked up twenty six bodies eighteeen men, seven women and one boy. Burried at sea; six women and nine men at eight fifteen PM.’

23 April 1912
‘Weather fine picked up one hundred and twenty eight bodies one hundred and twenty seven men and one woman. Stopped Allan Liner Sardinian for canvas etc to wrap up bodies. Did not bury any to day.’

24 April 1912
‘Weather foggy did not pick up any bodies but burried seventy seven bodies at twelve forty five PM three at a time.’

25 April 1912
‘Weather fine picked up eighty seven bodies eighty four men and three women did not burry any to day.’

26 April 1912
‘Weather fine picked up fourteen bodies up till noon when the Cable Ship Minia arrived at one AM to relieve us and we started for Halifax.’

27 April 1912
‘Steaming towards Halifax.’

28 April 1912
‘Weather rough going at half speed towards Halifax.’

29 April 1912
‘Weather still rough going at slow speed towards Halifax.’

30 April 1912
‘Arrived at Halifax at nine twenty and hauled up along side of the Dock Yard Wharf and landed one hundred and ninety bodies which were taken up to the Mayflower Curling Rink for identification.’

Diary of Frederick Hamilton
17 April 1912
‘Having taken in a supply of ice and a large number of coffins, cast off from the Wharf en route for the position of the “Titanic” disaster. The Reverend Canon Hind of “All Saints” Cathedral, Halifax is accompanying the expedition, we also have an expert Embalmer on board. Cold and clear weather.’

19 April 1912
‘The fine weather which has prevailed until now, has turned to rain and fog. We spoke to the “Royal Edward” by wireless to-day, she lay east of us, and reported icebergs, and growlers (lumps of ice, some of considerable size). At 6.p.m. the fog very dense, lowered cutter and picked up an Allan Line lifebelt.’

20 April 1912
‘Strong south-westily breeze, beam swell and lumpy sea. French liner “Rochambeau” near us last night, reported icebergs, and the “Royal Edward” reported one thirty miles east of the “Titanic”s” position. The “Rhine” passed us this afternoon, and reported having seen icebergs, wreckage and bodies, at 5.50.p.m. The “Bremen” passed near us, she reported having seen, one hour and a half before, bodies etc. This means about twenty five miles to the east. 7.p.m. A large iceberg, faintly discernible to our north, we are now very near the area were lie the ruins of so many human hopes and prayers. The Embalmer becomes more and more cheerful as we approach the scene of his future professional activities, to-morrow will be a good day for him. The temperature of the sea at noon today was 57N, by 4.p.m. it was 32N.’

21 April 1912
‘Two icebergs now clearly in sight, the nearest is over a hundred feet high at the tallest peak, and an impressive sight, a solid mass of ice, against which the sea dashes furiously, throwing up geyser like columns of foam, high over the topmost summit, smothering the great mass at times completely in a cascade of spume as it pours over the snow and breaks into feathery crests on the polished surface of the berg, causing the whole ice-mountain, which glints like a fairy building, to oscillate twenty to thirty feet from the vertical. The ocean is strewn with a litter of woodwork, chairs, and bodies, and there are several growlers about, all more or less dangerous, as they are often hidden in the swell. The cutter lowered, and work commenced and kept up continuously all day, picking up bodies. Hauling the soaked remains in saturated clothing over the side of the cutter is no light task. Fifty one we have taken on board today, two children, three women, and forty-six men, and still the sea seems strewn. With the exception of ourselves, the bosum bird is the only living creature here. 5.p.m. The two bergs are now in transit, the heavy swell has been rolling all day, must be a gale somewhere. 8.p.m. The tolling of the bell summoned all hands to the forecastle where thirty bodies are ready to be committed to the deep, each carefully weighed and carefully sewn up in canvas. It is a weird scene, this gathering. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us, as the ship lays wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Reverent Canon Hind, for nearly an hour the words For as must as it hath pleased - ‘we therefore commit his body to the deep’ are repeated and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles. Splash, splash, splash.’

22 April 1912
‘We steamed close past the iceberg today, and endeavoured to photograph it, but rain is falling and we do not think the results will be satisfactory. We are now standing eastwards amongst great quantities of wreckage. Cutter lowered to examine a lifeboat, but it is too smashed to tell anything, even the name is not visible. All round is splintered woodwork, cabin fittings, mahogany fronts of drawers, carvings, all wrenched away from their fastenings, deck chairs, and then more bodies. Some of these are fifteen miles distant from those picked up yesterday. 8.p.m. Another burial service. April 23rd Icebergs and growlers still in sight. Both cutters busy all day recovering bodies, rain and fog all the afternoon, fog at times very dense. 7.p.m. The “Allen Line” boat “Sardinia” stopped near us and took despatches from our cutter. The fog had lifted slightly, but shut down denser than ever, soon after she had signalled ‘good-night’ on her flash light.’

24 April 1912
‘Still dense fog prevailing, rendering further operations with the boats almost impossible. We hear that the “Sardinia” is waiting some thirty miles away. Noon. Another burial service held, and seventy seven bodies follow the other. The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join sympathetically in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hind, all combine to make a strange task stranger. Cold, wet, miserable and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy.’

26 April 1912
‘The “Minea” joined us today in the work of recovery, and lays two miles westwards of us. Her first find, was we hear, the body of Mr. Hayes, the President of the Grand Trunk. At noon we steamed up to her, and sent the cutter over for material, and soon after set our course for Halifax. The total number of bodies picked up by us is three hundred and five, one hundred and sixteen have been buried at sea. A large amount of money and jewels has been recovered, the identification of most of the bodies has been established, and details set out for publication. It has been an ardous task for those who have had to overhaul and attend to the remains, the searching, numbering, and identifying of each body, depositing the property found on each in a bag marked with a number corresponding to that attached to the corpse, the sewing up in canvas and securing of weights, entailed prolonged and patient labour. The Embalmer is the only man to whom the work is pleasant, I might add without undue exaggeration, enjoyable, for to him it is a labour of love, and the pride of doing a job well.’

30 April 1912
‘Took Pilot on board off Devils Island, and are now proceeding up Halifax Harbour. Crowds of people throng the wharves, tops of houses, and the streets. Flags on ships and buildings all half mast. Quarantine and other officials came on board near Georges Island, after which ship stood in to the Navy Yard, and hauled in alongside. Elaborate arrangement have been made for the reception of the bodies now ready for landing. 10.a.m. Transferring of remains to shore has begun. A continuous procession of hearses conveys the bodies to the Mayflower Rink. It is a curious reflection, that when on February 12th, we picked up the waterlogged schooner “Caledonia” and returned to Halifax to land her crew of six, these men walked ashore unnoticed, and two lines in the Daily Paper was sufficient to note the fact that they had been saved. While today with not one life to show, thousands come to see the landing, and the papers burst out into blazing headlines.’

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