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It takes just a couple of minutes to walk from one end of Southampton’s Oxford Street to the other. But that’s plenty of time to experience just what the Titanic tragedy means to the city that crewed the great ship.
At No 2 Oxford Street, second class steward George Hinckley and vegetable cook James Hutchinson both lost their lives. Three doors down the flat-fronted terrace, third-class steward Bernard Taylor didn’t come back to No 5.
Directly across the street, where No 66 stood, saloon steward Arthur Lawrence, bedroom steward Mr F Ford and third class steward Mr H P Hill all died. As did their next-door neighbour at 67, a German third-class interpreter steward called L Muller.
His house-mate, bath steward James Widgery, was the street’s one Titanic survivor.
Many more men, whose last addresses were Oxford Street’s boarding houses, hotels and the towering red-brick Sailors’ Home, now a Salvation Army hostel, lost their lives when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on the night of 14-15 April 1912.
In total, 538 crew from Southampton died. Not much short of the 600 civilians who died during the bombing of the city throughout World War II.
The City of Southampton is approaching the Titanic’s centenary with gusto.
A spanking new SeaCity museum opened on April 10, the anniversary of the ship’s departure. Its interactive exhibits let visitors pilot the Titanic out of Southampton Water; see how they would cope fuelling the boilers with coal; and try their luck at spotting an iceberg using century-old equipment.
Exactly 100 years after the Titanic slipped anchor from Berth 44, which is now the Ocean Dock from which cruise ships still depart, there was an ambitious re-enactment of her leaving on 10 April 1912. The 1929 vintage Tug Tender Calshot stood in for the liner, a recording of the Titanic’s whistle sounded, and a flotilla of ships in Southampton Water hooted in response.
Oxford Street, which is just a few hundred yards from the Titanic’s departure point, played its part. They sell Titanic White Star ale on hand pump in The Grapes, the pub which was the last drinking place for many crew members before they joined the ship. Traders in this now upmarket restaurant district got together recently for a celebration that included “special menus, a Titanic trail… costumed characters and …a special maritime-themed market of local artists and creatives.”
But, despite all the razzmatazz, the loss of the Titanic is still a personal tragedy in Southampton. And because of that, reactions to the 100th anniversary are more profound than all the feverish activity might suggest.
It is estimated that one in four households in the city’s seafaring heart were touched by the tragedy. Because of that, many Southampton families have a story to tell and mine is no exception. Mercifully, ours is not one of personal tragedy, although it is inextricably wrapped up in what happened on the night of 14-15 April 1912 in the North Atlantic.
My grandfather’s brother, George Bull, was chief clerk of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic. One of his duties was to deliver valuable items to the line’s ships just before departure, including uncut diamonds bound for New York, and to collect the final, confirmed, passenger lists. He carried out those duties on the Titanic, and was the last crew member to leave before she set sail.
Shortly before the voyage, his great friend Reginald Barker, who was assistant purser on the Titanic, and who sadly perished, asked him to look after his pet grey parrot, rather predictably named Polly, while he was at sea. Polly perched in her brass cage, suspended by a hook from the ceiling of George and Clarissa Bull’s Southampton sitting room, for 15 years or more after her owner died.
George Bull’s son, my great uncle Douglas, now 91 but still hale and hearty, says of the tragedy: “The loss of the Titanic was like the loss of a child for Southampton.”
And, like any deeply personal loss, it wasn’t one the city spoke of very readily to outsiders. But can it really be so powerful a century later?
The Revd Julian Davies, rector of St Mary’s, where he officiates at the annual remembrance service, says: “It’s incredibly real, three generations on. The service is very moving. It touches a very deep and raw part of the city’s experience.” This year’s commemoration, on Sunday [April 15], will have heightened significance.
Mr Davies speaks of a community still in great pain, and only just coming to terms with the tragedy and the personal hurt caused to their families.
“In my position I see the real human tragedy being expressed. The statistics are extraordinary. A quarter of homes lost someone in the poorer parts of the city – St Mary’s, Chapel and Northam.”
It is only in recent years, says Mr Davies, that the hurt caused by such wide-spread loss of life has been expressed: “It was only after 50 years that it began to be discussed,” he says. “It’s only 100 years on that it can be seen in perspective.”
Indeed, Alan Ackerman only learned his grandfather was lost on the Titanic a generation after the event. He says: “I knew he had died young but it wasn’t until we were on holiday one year – I was married and in my thirties by that time – and I asked my dad how grandfather had died, and he said, ‘Oh, he was on the Titanic’. ‘WHAT!?’ And then the story came out.
“He was Joseph Ackerman, a pantryman, married with four children and with another on the way. My dad was 11 months old when his father died. Grandfather’s brother Albert was also on the ship, and also died. But dad didn’t know much more than that, so we started researching.
“Joseph was in the coal trade, but there was a bitter coal strike at the time. He’d signed-up for a recent voyage on the Oceana [another White Star ship] and again on the Titanic just to earn a bit of money. His body was recovered from the sea and he was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia. All he had on him were his Oceana papers and a toothbrush.
“Sadly we don’t have a single picture of him.”
It wasn’t only the loss of parents, sons, breadwinners that makes the Titanic’s story such a painful one for Southampton. It was the suffering and deprivation that went on for decades afterwards.
Andrew Huckett of the Mission to Seafarers says: “The memories are bitter not just because of the tragedy itself but because of the way the families of those who died were treated. Of course, there was no social security or national health in those days, and many of the widows and orphans became destitute. There was a relief fund set up but the amounts given were enough just to stop people starving.”
When Douglas Piper’s maternal grandfather John Barnes, a fireman stoker, died on the Titanic he left a wife and six children. Mr Piper says: “My grandmother never remarried, she had six children to bring up and all she got was half a crown to spend at Liptons.”
One of those children suffered from Sydenhams Corea, a disease characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements affecting the face, feet and hands and known then as St Vitus Dance. Documents from the Titanic Relief Fund itemise regular payments of 3s/6d to keep him in an orphanage, and sums of 2s/6d for the family’s groceries stretching into the Twenties.
Mr Piper, now 78, comes from a family of Southampton merchant seamen. But that’s a tradition that is virtually extinct. He says: “All the males in my family were at sea, including me, now we haven’t got one. There’s just a few from here working on foreign ships.”
Mr Piper is uneasy at the level of interest the anniversary is provoking. The one event he will attend is the St Mary’s commemoration service. As secretary of the Merchant Navy Association he goes every year.
He was offered a ticket to the re-enactment of the Titanic’s departure from Southampton, but for him it was not appropriate: “I’m not so happy about that side of things. All this fuss.” And of the other, more commercial events, he adds: “There are too many people making a shilling out of it. People have got rich off the Titanic and I think that’s disgusting.”
One of Doug Piper’s complaints is that, until now, there has been no one memorial with the names of all those lost from the city. The SeaCity museum corrects that with a listing of the names of all who died, and photographs of many.
But perhaps no memorial can ever be enough. Maybe the plain truth is that no tribute, no exhibition, and certainly no entertainment, can do full justice to the pain the Titanic disaster has bequeathed on the city and its people.
Certainly the most profound engagement I felt with the tragedy of the Titanic was to simply walk some of the many streets – Oxford Street, Back of the Walls, Canal Walk, Orchard Lane, Orchard Place – the now-quiet backways where death came to so many doors, and from where it casts such a long shadow on so many Southampton lives.
Little is left hidden in the red light district of Amsterdam.
Here, generally, display is rather more to the point
But, pick your way past the brightly-lit shop windows with their array of human goods and you find something truly hidden – a secret Catholic church created in the loft of a 17th century, canal-side merchant’s house on Oudezijds Voorburgwal.
Our Lord in the Attic, Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, has been a church since 1661 – it celebrated its 350th anniversary in May – and a museum since 1888.
It was the main place of worship forAmsterdam’s Catholics during two centuries of repression – following the so-called Alteration, which transferred power in the city to Protestants in 1578, and under which Catholics could worship, but not in places that were recognisably churches from the outside.
Visitor numbers increased dramatically in the early years of this century until, in the year 2005, 90,000 climbed the winding wooden staircases through the remarkably-intact former-home of merchant Jan Hartman to reach the galleried church above: so many that they became a serious problem.
The church was being profoundly damaged by the tramp of feet, the wet raincoats and hot breath of all those pilgrims.
Something had to be done. But what?
Could the damage and decline be reversed?
Would visitor numbers have to be cut?
And, if restoration were to be conducted –exactly what form should it take?
Our Lord in the Attic had been the surreptitious Catholic parish church forAmsterdam’s city centre for over two centuries, until St Nicolas’s church opposite Central Station was dedicated in 1887.
If the years were to be peeled painstaking back, which date should the restoration focus on?
A key member of the team that has had to find the answers is Thijs Boers, one of three curators at the museum, and responsible for the conservation effort.
Thijs says: “We had our gut feeling about the damage the visitors were causing, to the fabric, and to the climate in the building, but that was not enough. We needed to know for sure, we needed to get in the expertise to test this, so we could be certain what the threats to the building were – and how to deal with them.”
The museum turned to experts and organisations including the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, and the Getty Conservation Institute. A commission of experts was established.
Over two years these august bodies assessed the indoor climate, the condition of the collection of art and artefacts, of the building, of the impact of visitors, and also looked at the visitors’ experience.
There was good news early on: the house and church could cope with the numbers that wanted to visit it, if things were managed effectively. Key to that was to purchase the house next door, across the Heintje Hoekssteeg alley, which will become a visitors’ reception area, from which they could be delivered to the house through an underground passage, leaving the worst of the outdoors behind them.
But some of the other fundamentals were not nearly so straightforward. They involved what you might call a holistic approach to the restoration or, as Thijs puts it: “We needed to listen to the history of the house.”
If this were to be a conservation effort that successfully uncovered and sustained the house and the precious church with its commanding18th century altarpiece showing the Baptism of Christ, it had to be done with empathy, and a great deal of research.
Thijs and his colleagues came up with guiding principles that have shaped the Euro10.5m restoration.
One was a radical departure from previous practice.
The house had been treated as a museum; a receptacle for artefacts but,
Thijs says: “We wanted to treat it as an historic house, and a home, with a church inside it.
“For instance, a painting in a particular room might be hung as it would in a museum, for maximum visibility but, from an historic perspective, a painting of that kind might never be placed there. Indeed, it might never have been in that room in a 17th century house inAmsterdam.”
And then there were the stories of the dwellers in the house – or rather houses. Merchant Hartman also owned the two tucked behind it. The church, which holds a congregation of 150, runs the full length of their linked attics.
Thijs says: “We discovered we had three stories we wanted to tell: of the owner Jan Hartman; of the original priest, an Augustinian called Petrus Parmentie; and of the church itself.”
Hartman was an interesting example of social mobility. “He came toAmsterdam, as an apprentice to a baker, from his home of Coesfeld inGermany.
“Later he went into business selling hosiery. He was obviously a pretty good businessman – it was hard to move up – and he later became a trader in linen. You needed connections – family in the widest sense – in order to make your way in the city in those days, and he clearly had those.”
Hartman made a lot of his money from the practice of the city authorities of leasing tax collection rights to private collectors.
His faith was no doubt his main inspiration for building his church but, Thijs points out, it also made business sense.
Because Harman made most of his money from tax collection, his attics – which most merchants crammed with stock – were relatively unused. And he charged the priest rent on the church, and for his accommodation.
The other key consideration that shaped the restoration effort was this: How do you choose where to go back to?
Thijs answers: “You go back to an ethical point but no further. By that I mean you go to the last period when the building was used for its original purpose – in our case as a church, before it became a museum in 1868.
“To go back much further, we’d have had to demolish the Baroque altar which was installed in the last big changes in the 18th century, and remove the organ, installed in 1749. That wouldn’t be ethical.
“With all of these considerations combined, we narrowed the period of the restoration to between 1800 and 1868.”
Infact they were able to be much more precise; rooting their restoration in a specific year: “We had an inventory for 1862, and accounts from 1850 to 1870s, so the year 1862 as the focus for our restoration looked good.
“And one past priest had interviewed two old ladies who lived in one of the houses behind the church, and could tell him how things were done in the 19th century.”
The work of restoring Our Lord In the Attic to the church it was in 1862 is 90 per cent complete. When it’s done, the monthly Mass will be reinstated. The two houses behind the main dwelling will be finished next year.
Then it just remains for the subterranean passageway to be dug from the new visitors’ centre to the house – which will be completed in 2013, assuming they don’t strike anything historically significant that halts their tunnelling. Thijs doesn’t joke about such things: “InAmsterdam, that can happen.”