Friday, July 18, 2008

2008 Friday Fun - The Titanic connection

My thanks again to my good friends at The Black Country Bugle for this piece.
The sinking of the Titanic will go down in history as one of the most unlikely disasters of all time. On the night of 14th April 1912, the unthinkable happened when the magnificent, reputedly unsinkable White Star liner struck an iceberg and within four hours lay 12,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Since the wireless cry for help (an SOS signal picked up by the Cunard liner Caronia) was transmitted for the first time across the length and breadth of the North Atlantic at 10.25 on that fateful night, the Titanic has become as big a leviathan in history and legend as it was on its one and only voyage to America. Here in the Black Country, a region as far away from the ocean as almost anywhere else in the country, the only claim to fame we have regarding the Titanic story has been the legacy left by the makers of the ship's great anchor and chains. It was in the great forges of the Black Country that the Titanic was eqipped with its giant anchor, beaten to precision by gangs of men, toiling blood, sweat and tears to earn a modest crust. But their efforts produced an anchor fit for the finest ship ever built at the time, something that is now legendary in these parts.

Recently we were invited to watch a silent, ten minute film, courtesy of Jack Beard, Chairman of the Sandwell Society of Film Makers. It was shot in 1920, eight years after the fateful sinking of the Titanic, and shows the men at Noah Hingley's in Netherton making an anchor in exactly the same way as they would have produced the one for the great ship. The reel of film was found by pure chance a few years ago by members of the Netherton History Society. It was enclosed in a tin with a brief description of the contents, but was in no state to be viewed. Jack got involved, once again through a chance meeting at the canal festival at Bumble Hole, and from that moment on fate played a winning hand. Over a period of time Jack enlisted the help of Carl Chinn and the might of the BBC technical staff, and they managed to process the ancient 35mm reel of film and adapt it to be shown on modern equipment. The result is a staggering record of the life in a foundry in the early twentieth century of the chain and anchor workers. The accompanying picture, which Jack kindly gave us, shows the final hammering of the mighty anchor by a team of men, not dissimilar in age, forming a circle and bashing the hot metal, one after the other in a synchronised wave of industrial ballet. The picture is the dramatic conclusion to the film that Jack hopes to show to a wider audience in the near future.
As we watched the film in its entirety, Jack suggested that the men doing all the hammering were probably the same chaps who made the anchor for the Titanic eight years before. These gangs of workers had to work as a well oiled machine when in the process of crafting such giant ship accessories, and it was quite possible they had worked by the side of each other for years. The man in the middle of the foreground with his back to the camera was late starting in the final hammering sequence, but almost like a machine himself, he joined the hammering to perfection after two or three rounds, confirming the astonishing ability of these men under the most arduous of circumstances, to work in absolute harmony.
All the national newspapers, and many more besides, were quick to report on the demise of the Titanic. It was a national disaster that drew a huge wave of sympathy from the bottom of society to the very top. The Weekly Dispatch newspaper, printed in London, issued a special edition which was published on Sunday April 21st 1912. For many years a copy was kept in the safe keeping of the late Monica Bennett, a old friend of the Bugle's, and for many years our gardening columnist. Although she was only two years old when the Titanic sank, Monica was always one for keeping important memorabilia, personal or otherwise, and her son Bruce has now inherited this amazing collection. To celebrate the Titanic's 93rd anniversary, he has kindly lent us the copy of The Weekly Dispatch from which we have extracted just a few moving details from the events that eclipsed a nation all those years ago:
"The cable ship Mackay Bennett, chartered by the White Star Co. to go to the scene of the Titanic disaster, has sailed from Halifax. In the hope that some bodies may be picked up, coffins are being taken, and several undertakers and embalmers will be on board the ship. The Mackay Bennett is also taking over 100 tons of ice, and long lines of carts filed down with the ice to the pier, where the coffins were piled 10 foot high."
"A strange feature of the disaster is how the Titanic came to run into an iceberg at all, for she was warned against the ice, not only once, but twice, once by the Hamburg-Amerika liner Amerika and once by the liner Touraine. The Amerika's warning came only a few minutes before the disaster."
"Passing through the stricken streets of Southampton a journalist chanced upon a neat little woman standing at her tiny front garden gate in York-street, and she told him of many neighbours and friends whose men-folk had gone down in the Titanic. York-street is the centre of Northam, which provided nearly all the trimmers and firemen of the lost liner, and as the little woman talked she nodded sympathetically to wives who had suddenly found themselves widows. There was a woman in Bevois-street who had given birth to twins a fortnight before, and she died of shock when she heard of her husband's death. Mrs May lost her husband and eldest son, one of fifteen families in York-street alone who are grieving at the loss of at least one loved one."
"Crossing the road the journalist caught sight of the elder Mrs May. "Yes it is true", she said "husband and son have gone and left eleven of us. It was the first time that Arthur and his father had been at sea together, and it would not have happened if Arthur had not been out of work owing to the coal strike. Hr tried to get a job ashore but failed, and as he had his baby and wife to keep, he signed up on the Titanic as a fireman." There are many babies in Northam who will never remember their fathers, and there will be many who will never have been known by their fathers."
"Another day and another night passed, and another hopeless dawn broke over Southampton to find hundreds of hearts heavier and sadder."
Trawling through the columns of stories, comments, quotes and statistics relating to the great lost ship that appeared in the copy of the Weekly Dispatch on April 21st 1912, there was only one clear reference to anyone from our part of the world.
In amongst lists of passengers, some of whom had perished, and others who were listed as survivors, was the name of a man from West Bromwich.
"Among the survivors are ... Mr Alfred Davis of West Bromwich, married two days before the boat left. He was accompanied by his two brothers and his brother-in-law."

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