The Wreck of the SS London

Simon Wills has written to say that he has just published a book about the SS London disaster of January 1866, a very famous disaster of its time. It’s one that is sometimes said to have added to the pressure to make sbhips safer, and which led to the introduction of the Plimsoll Line.

Here’s a relevant paragraph from Simon’s book:

‘The initial public reaction to the loss of the robust and modern SS London was an understandable grief, but mixed with disbelief. How could this possibly have happened to a luxury liner so close to home? The number of dead was uncertain and quoted figures initially varied widely. In fact, at least 243 people had died – 167 passengers and 76 crew – although the precise figure may never be known. Even the press struggled to break the news… The reaction to the loss of the SS London washed over the country like a huge melancholy wave – incredulity, personal grief, lessons in faith, national sorrow, a charitable fund, memorabilia, poetry, sermons, criticisms, and messages in bottles.’

Simon adds that one of the more poignant things about the disaster was that desperate passengers who knew they were going to die put messages to their loved ones in bottles, which were washed ashore and then found…

It’s interesting to compare how people reacted to a national disaster in Victorian times – nobody sued over the London, for example, and people were keen to buy SS London disaster commemorative mugs! We do things differently these days…

Of course the disaster was now almost exactly 150 years ago… Apart from Sam’s book I wonder whether it will be marked in any way?

Readers may remember that some time ago I learned Sam Larner’s version of a broadside ballad written about the disaster.

PS – Nigel S  has pointed out that astonishing Dundee poet William Topaz McGonagall wrote one of his legendary doggerel ballads about the disaster. It’s well worth checking out – and it comes with some interesting details…

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!

The loss of the Steamship London, 1866

This is a recording of my singing of the ballad The Steamship London, which I learned from a recording of Sam Larner made in the late 1950s.

The British steamship SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay in January 1866 on a passage from Gravesend in England to Australia. It’s said that she was badly overloaded, and that of 239 people aboard, only 19 survivors were able to escape the foundering ship by lifeboat.

At the time, news was frequently conveyed in the form of printed ballads sold on the street, and were often sung by ballad salesmen and women. Many were learned as songs by those who bought them, and were then often passed orally from singer to singer – and so it is that more than nine decades after the SS London foundered in the Bay of Biscay, an elderly fisherman called Sam Larner was able to recall the lyrics and tune and sing the ballad for the folklorists (among other things) Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl.

Even in the age of the Internet, I have not been able to track down the original printed ballad, although I am sure that is what it was.

Read more about the SS London disaster here; and more about Sam Larner here and here.