Feature: Southampton and the Titanic

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.