Christopher Ward

My grandfather, the Titanic’s violinist

When he died, the White Star Line sent a bill for his uniform

My grandfather, the Titanic's violinist
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When he died, the White Star Line sent a bill for his uniform

There can be few better places to consider the irony of the phrase ‘the good old days’ than Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I went last week to visit the grave of my grandfather, a 21-year-old violinist in the band of the White Star liner Titanic. More than 120 passengers and crew are buried here, 40 of them still unidentified as we approach the centenary of Titanic’s sinking.

The body of Jock Hume, my grandfather, was one of 190 recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and brought back to Halifax (more than a thousand bodies were never found). The corpses of first-class passengers — including that of the American millionaire Jacob Astor — were unloaded from the ship in coffins and driven to the mortuary in horse-drawn hearses. Those of the crew and of steerage passengers had been thrown on to ice in the hold for the sea journey, and were carried off in handcarts on arrival.

The day the Mackay-Bennett docked, Jock’s father in Dumfries received a 5s 4d bill for his son’s uniform. Jock’s pay was stopped the moment the ship went down at 2.20 a.m., and the wages owed to him were insufficient to cover the cost of the brass buttons on his bandsman’s tunic. When the family asked if his body could be brought home, they were told that ‘normal cargo rates’ would apply.

Early last year, with a growing sense of my own mortality, I began compiling a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ ring binder for my children and grandchildren, sketching out a family tree whose branches were bowed with farm-labourers from Dumfries and builders from St Helens. But the project came to an abrupt halt when I started looking at the circumstances of my mother’s birth, six months after the Titanic had foundered. Jock’s death had been no ordinary one.

The binder was temporarily abandoned for an 80,000-word book about what happened after the Titanic sank. No one, I realised, had written about the aftermath. It is a story more shocking than the sinking itself, the class system operating as ruthlessly in death as it did in life. No letters of regret or sympathy were sent to the families of the dead, no personal visits made to grieving families, no Murdoch-style apologetic advertisements taken by the White Star Line. Almost a century later, in fact, no one has said sorry.

The chairman, Bruce Ismay, who saved his own life by jumping into a lifeboat with women and children, never accepted personal or corporate responsibility, although he had taken the decision to remove 16 lifeboats that would have saved most of those on board. He spent the rest of his life pursuing his passions of fishing and grouse shooting. At the Borders Book Festival earlier in the summer — Ismay, too, is the subject of a new book — a cheer went up when I invited comparisons with the management style of Fred the Shred.

But the Titanic revealed changing social attitudes, as well as atavistic ones. Andrew Hume, for instance, did not pay the bill for his son’s uniform. He forwarded it to the Amalgamated Musicians Union, which published it without comment in its newsletter. Public opinion was beginning to assert itself. More than 30,000 people lined the streets of Colne in Lancashire for the funeral of the liner’s bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, who, with the rest of the band, had heroically played until the end to maintain calm.

If White Star learned nothing from the consequences of its recklessness, its employees did. A week after the sinking, 54 stokers and firemen, most of whom had lost a father, a son or a brother, walked off the White Star liner Olympic when they discovered there were insufficient lifeboats to accommodate the passengers and crew. They were arrested for mutiny, but the magistrates discharged them. They returned to the Olympic, whose departure had been delayed by a fortnight, to find 16 additional lifeboats.

The captain and crew of the Mackay-Bennett also discovered that the old order was changing. Having risked their lives sailing more than a thousand miles into ice fields, they might have expected to return to Halifax as heroes. Instead, they were the subjects of a public storm, for they had come back with only 190 corpses, having buried 116 at sea. What made the difference between a body being tipped overboard and one being brought ashore? The purser’s conscientious descriptions provided the explanation: tattoos or a foreign-sounding name.

Despite the famous order ‘women and children first’, more than a third of the children on the Titanic died. Yet every child travelling first class and second class was saved. It is a disconcerting statistic of which the Halifax Echo, in the immediate aftermath, was unaware. ‘Famous Men Chose Death That Penniless Women Might Be Saved’, it reported. ‘Men of substance and wealth’ had sacrificed their lives ‘for the sabot-shod illiterate peasant women of Europe’. In fact the highest casualty rate (140 out of 154) was among men travelling second class — in percentage terms greater even than that of the crew, many of whom were needed to man the lifeboats. Their middle-class sense of honour and decency exceeded that of their first-class fellow passengers.

The trouble with turning over ancestral stones that have lain undisturbed for nearly a century is that you discover some uncomfortable truths about your own family, too. Jock, I learned, had been playing on passenger liners since he was 15. He left behind a pregnant fiancée, two feuding families, and an adoring younger sister, Kate, who went mad with grief after his death. In the opening weeks of the first world war, to punish her father and stepmother, Kate faked her sister’s murder and mutilation by Germans; she was then arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act, on a charge for which the maximum penalty was death by firing squad.

If you ever visit Halifax, do go to Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Jock’s grave is number 193, marked by a modest granite block. He is in good company. A few yards away is his schoolfriend Tom Mullin, also 21: when Tom lost a job in the tweed mills due to failing eyesight, Jock got him on to the Titanic as a steward. Either side of Jock are a fireman and an engineer, numbered but still unnamed, who died, like him, doing their duty.

As, indeed, did Ernest Freeman, secretary to Bruce Ismay, also a few yards away. Freeman’s headstone, paid for by his employer, is one of the more substantial monuments here. ‘He remained at his post of duty, seeking to save others regardless of his own life,’ says the inscription. One wonders how Ismay felt, back behind his office desk, as he dictated this tribute to Freeman’s replacement.

And the Band Played On, by Christopher Ward, is published by Hodder & Staughton.