The Titanic: Wallace Hartley’s Violin

Their story is the stuff of legends: while surrounded by chaos, human instinct said they should escape to save their own life, eight musicians serenaded the passengers with “Nearer My God to Thee,” as the ship broke in two and plunged into the abyss of the North Atlantic- a graveyard for  1, 524 passengers.

The RMS Titanic was heralded as the largest ship in the world, and boldly claimed to be unsinkable. There were only twenty lifeboats on board; in the world of 1912, only the rich and powerful need survive. She set sail from England to New York on April 10 1912, and twenty minutes before midnight four days later, on her maiden voyage, she hit an iceberg, and sank in less than four hours.  To add to the tragedy, the SS Californian, who had warned her about the ice, was close enough to the Titanic to see the whole disaster, but ignored or misinterpreted her distress call. The transatlantic ship, the RMS Carpathia, rescued 711 survivors four hours later; six they rescued were already dead or dying and were buried at sea.

Only 705 people survived the disaster, the youngest being a nine month old baby. The lifeboats could have held almost 500 more lives. The first ship sent out to retrieve the bodies, The CS Mackay-Bennett, found so many, that they ran out of embalming fluid.  They decided to retrieve the bodies of the first class passengers with the justification that their bodies might be needed to settle large legal disputes regarding inheritance and estates.  A total of 205 bodies were recovered and gathered in the Mayflower Curling Rink in Halifax.

Thirty-three year old Wallace Hartley, the band leader that fateful night on the Titanic, was playing the violin his fiancé, Maria Robinson, gave him to celebrate their engagement.  It wasn’t the only Atlantic voyage he had been on; he and most of the other musicians had played on ships such as the Lusitania. The only French musician, Roger Marie Bricoux, had played on the ship that would save the survivors of the Titanic.  Many historians claim that the violin- strapped to Hartley’s body, was found by one of the rescue ships sent to retrieve the dead.  Historian and Biographer Steve Turner, in his book The Band Played On, claims to have seen photos of an inscription on the tailpiece from Maria to Hartley. When Hartley‘s body was returned the England, the violin was missing.  Some evidence suggests that Maria might have obtained the violin- to remember her beloved.   Honouring Hartley’s memory she was never to marry. The auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Son, who specialize in Titanic memorabilia, are in the process of authenticating the violin. While there is much secrecy around this instrument, we will undoubtedly know the truth of the violin in the near future.

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