The Titanic at Tunbridge Wells – a review of a travelling exhibition

As a maritime nation, even non-sailors have a sense of our past and current dependence on transport by ships and boats. Musician pal Kathy Wallwork has sent me her account of an exhibition about the Titanic at land-locked-but-still-fascinated Tunbridge Wells.

‘A fascinating exhibition was held during August 2016 in Royal Victoria Place, Tunbridge Wells, of photographs of Titanic and those associated with the aftermath of the sinking. Various artefacts were on display, from large lumps of the type of coal used to fuel her boilers through chairs used in the second and third class dining rooms and lights from Titanic’s sister ship Olympic, to more personal items such as a pocket watch and a photograph of a group of young student musicians in a small orchestra, including violinist Wallace Hartley, who perished along with the rest of the ship’s orchestra while they played music to help keep those left on board calm as the ship went down.

‘The artefacts include some genuine Titanic items, as well as identical furniture, tableware and lighting from Olympic. The impressive collection is held by White Star Memories, who put the exhibition together.

‘Daniel Klistorner, lead author of a two-volume history Titanic, The Ship Magnificent also co-wrote Titanic in Photographs, The Exhibition the guide for the exhibition with another historian Steve Hall.

‘Klistorner is quite the Titanic fanatic. Here is a quotation from the tour companion: “I used to stare at the photos for hours, imagining I could hold the hand-rail as I descended the grand staircase and look up at the gilt and crystal chandeliers… Later, I would take the elevator down to the dining room and be seated at a table set for dinner with the distinctive White Star Line china, beautiful silverware and sparkling crystal glassware…”

‘The exhibition was arranged in three parts, in different areas of the shopping precinct, with the photographs printed on both sides of large scale banners suspended in metal frames and the artefacts positioned adjacent to the photographs to which they related. Thus one had a sense of scale that made the experience more realistic. There were photographs not only of the outside of the ship as a whole, but also of various parts of the inside: the boilers, the cabins, the grand staircase, first, second and third class dining rooms, the turkish bath room, the swimming pool. Everything so grand; even the third class was good quality, and apparently equated to second class on passenger ships belonging to other lines. Titanic was certainly impressive.

‘Many of the photographs were taken by Robert John Welch from County Tyrone in Ireland, who was granted a contract by the ship’s builders Harland and Wolff in Belfast to make a photographic record of the ships they were building.

‘Some of the photographs were of the lifeboats, first conveying survivors to the Carpathia, and then a sad collection of lifeboats by the dockside – the last remnants of a very grand ship. Two items in the collection were taken from one of the lifeboats, and these are the White Star Line flag and the name SS Titanic, both cast in iron and painted. One photograph was taken by Catholic priest, Father Francis Browne, after disembarking at Queenstown, Ireland. He caught Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith looking out of the starboard bridge; the last photograph of Captain Smith to be taken.

‘One large display listed all of the passengers and crew, with those who survived printed in white, and those who perished in red. Whilst the exhibition as a whole felt a little spooky and a sense of sadness came over one, the crew and passenger list certainly brought a lump to one’s throat. Indeed, none of the restaurant staff survived.

‘However, there were one or two inaccuracies. For example, stewardess Violet Jessop is listed in red, when in fact she survived the sinking not only of Titanic, but of Britannic as well, and the Kent and Sussex Courier July 29 2016 reports that Mrs Marion Sorfleet’s father Sidney Daniels, whose name was also coloured red, was initially posted as “missing at sea” when he actually survived, returning three weeks later from America.

‘But these errors did not detract from the exhibition, which was well worth seeing. The exhibitioin’s next stop is Brazil, but hopefully, it will return to the UK, so if you missed it this time around, you may well have another opportunity.’

Thanks Kathy!

One thought on “The Titanic at Tunbridge Wells – a review of a travelling exhibition”

  1. Thanks for posting my review Gavin. Although I’ve never “sailed”, I have been in/on boats: ferries, small cruisers, sightseeing boats, the Steam Yacht Gondola and rowing boats. I have taken turns to row on Windermere from Fell Foot Park, and (I tell you this for a larf) in a small dinghy belonging to my brother-in-law on Coniston, where I learned that it’s very easy to row in circles (at least it was in that boat) and go into fits of giggles.

    I also like to visit historic boats in dry dock, such as the Cutty Sark, and the Mary Rose exhibition. I love that they are part of our history. The Mary Rose exhibition is especially interesting now that they have so many artefacts cleverly displayed in the museum, and it surprised me that the people on board were little different in height from today. Who, including landlubbers, could fail to be wowed by the sight of a tallship in full sail? Maritime museums are venues that I like to visit.

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