It seems to me we all have a personal connection with the Titanic. The sinking of the trans-Atlantic liner is such a tragic story, it touches all our hearts…and has done so, long before James Cameron filmed it in 1997. My own personal connection is rather peculiar … because I once met and interviewed the youngest survivor. She didn’t remember much about it, because she was in the womb at the time.
Sadly, I can’t recall the lady’s name, but her parents ran away together and were planning a new life in America. On their first night on The Titanic, they consummated their illicit affair. Days later, on April 15th 1912, he perished; but she survived; with a tiny seed inside her.
There are personal stories aplenty about that horrendous night…some of which have been recorded for posterity and can be heard on an old wireless set in the exhibition. It’s an eerie feeling to sit in a comfy armchair overlooking Shrewsbury’s sunny Square and hear the first-hand account of seaman Vaughan, who was sent below decks by Captain Smith to see if there might be any damage.
He struggled to find anything to suggest a catastrophe, until he spotted a small piece of ice and a lady’s handbagfloating down a corridor. Knowing the ship was doomed, Smith ordered him to man a lifeboat and Vaughan’s precise, cool-as-a-cucumber account of the unfolding disaster is riveting to listen to.
Almost all of the Titanic’s memorabilia is still 3 miles deep and no self-respecting museum would display any pirated artefacts. So, this is as much an exhibition of the White Star Line in general; encompassing the company’s history, as well as exhibits from the Titanic’s sister ships, The Britannic (lost off Greece in World War One) and The Olympic (later retired). The fact that luxury fixtures and fittings can be displayed from the Britannic is simply because White Star removed them all as she was requisitioned as a hospital ship in 1914.
From The Olympic, one can peer through a wooden stateroom window frame at a picture of The Titanic, moored across the docks. A staircase window frame, also on display lay, in a farmer’s barn for 70 years.
From the Titanic itself, for example, there are some flawed floor tiles, replaced at Southampton by workmen who kept the originals as souvenirs; and a name plate from one of the lifeboats.
The other objects are more personal. Carl Olof Jansson was a Swede, one of many international immigrants hoping to start afresh in the USA. He survived, and we can see his silver finger ring, still shining brightly. The water-stained pocket watch of 31-year-old Vincenzo Gilardino – a waiter in one of the first class restaurants – peers out of a display case; it’s hands stilled by the passage of time.
Marie Robinson was engaged to the band leader Wallace Hartley, who famously ‘played on’ as the ship sank…slipping under the water to ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. She was rescued, wearing her lover’s gold locket. It is displayed open, so we can see Wallace looking mournfully out at us.
Another escapee had the keys to cupboard number 28 in their pocket. Maybe, one day, if the Titanic is ever raised, the cupboard can be opened once more.
There are two cinema screens showing black and white footage of The Titanic calling at Southampton…and, earlier, whilst still on her stocks at Belfast … though the ship we see sliding down the slipway is one of her sisters. And there are props and costumes from Cameron’s epic movie…including the real costumes worn by Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. Fans can stand at a reconstructed bow of The Titanic, for their own ‘King of the World’ moment.
Rose’s parlour is reconstructed. The film set saloon was based on the real executive Regency-style accommodation booked by a couple called Isidor and Isla. It had a chaise lounge on which to relax, a writing table on which to send letters on Titanic headed note paper, and gilded wall panels to denote their aristocracy. They paid a sum that equates today to £20,000 for their early grave.
Round the corner is a recreated steerage class cabin with two narrow White Star blanketed bunks and a wash basin in a lidded wooden cabin. Lodged further down in the ship, only 20% of the third-class passengers lived to tell the tale.
But the most poignant exhibit is a sad, bedraggled teddy bear which belonged to Senior Sixth Engineer William Young Moyes. He took the bear with him on the maiden voyage as a good luck charm. The bear was luckier than he was. The engineers perished, struggling to keep the ship afloat. The small white bear survived him.
It’s a modest exhibition about an immense story…that still chills the mind, a century on.