VIENNA,Va. March 18, 2013 — One of the most valuable and unique artifacts associated with the ship Titanic has arisen from the past through a succession of owners who loved it but kept its secret. It has now burst upon the scene to adoring musicians and Titanic aficionados: Wallace Hartley’s violin, one of the instruments that were played as the ship sank.
Hartley, who was no stranger to transatlantic sailings, had once said he had made more than eighty such crossings during the three years he had worked for the Cunard line.
Most of the violin’s early story was told several years ago in a book written by Christopher Ward, grandson of Jock Hume, a violinist in the Titanic musical group, which perished when the famous ocean liner went down, “And the Band Played On….”
Along with Hume and others was Wallace Hartley, the band leader of the group and a violinist. His was Body No. 224, brought in by the recovery cutter Mackay-Bennett. Curiously, his body, one of three of the eight-man musical group, was recovered while less than 20% of the passengers and crew’s remains were ever recovered.
The most obvious conclusion is that just as these eight musicians played together, they also had attempted to stay together when they went into the freezing water.
The first corpses to be removed were those bodies lying in ice, crew and third class passengers, as well as Wallace Hartley and two other musicians, Jock Hume and Nobby Clarke. According to the press of the time, most were found naked or in their underwear, arms and legs frozen grotesquely.
Hartley’s body was returned to his home, Colne in Lancashire, England, where he was buried with a large marker with a bust of the musician at its top.
Accounts of the time indicated that Hartley’s body was found clothed, and that his precious violin was in a brown valise with an engraved plate reading “W.H.H.’” on it, strapped around his body. Apparently he had felt that the instrument would fare better in the heavier valise than in its lightweight case. However the bow was too long for the valise and was never found.
There are conflicting stories, since almost all the bodies were said to have been found unclothed, and if a body had worn clothing, it was searched for identifying marks or personal items. Another theory is that the violin separated from his body in the days after Hartley drowned, floating away in the Atlantic. Some say it could have been stolen by one of the dozens of men involved in handling the bodies. The story then goes silent for 80 some years.
In 2006, the son of an amateur musician, who had come into possession of the violin from her own music instructor, came across it in her attic. This discovery caused great excitement, requiring it to be examined by forensics experts and various scientific groups in Britain.
That was a difficult, painstaking task, and after seven years of examination at a cost of many thousands of British pounds, the old violin has proven to be the actual one played by Hartley on the April night in 1912 when the Titanic hit the iceberg and ultimately sank.
Made of rosewood, it was in remarkable condition, even though it had remained in sea for at least 10 days after the ship sank. The only obvious damage is two long vertical cracks in the body, probably opened by the moisture.
The violin had been placed on Hartley’s life jacket with his clothes inside the valise. A letter from his mother was found in a coat pocket, barely damp. Experts also found a corroded silver plate screwed to the bottom of the violin, assuring scientists it was the authentic article.
Specialist Titanic auctioneers (yes, there are such entities) Henry Aldridge and Son, “The Wiltshire Auctioneers with the Worldwide Reputation,” along with one of Hartley’s biographers, researched the stories behind the instrument, seeking the truth. It was this little group that decided the violin had probably been inside the valise, strapped to Hartley’s body, where it was found, and that this old time container with its precious cargo helped provide a float of sorts to aid Hartley as he drifted in the water.
Further, a transcript of a telegram dated a week after the sinking was found in a diary belonging to Maria Robinson, his fiancé, which had been sent to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia, thanking that group for their aid in obtaining the lost violin.
It was she who had given Hartley the violin two years before as an engagement gift, and the silver “fish plate” carried that wording. Robinson never married and kept the violin in her home as a shrine to her lost love until her death in 1939 from stomach cancer.
It was her sister, Margaret, who found the case with its “W.H.W.” initials and the violin inside. Having no idea of the significance of the items, she gave them to the Bridlington Salvation Army, telling Major Renwick the violin’s provenance. It was Renwick who in turn gave the valise and violin to one of his members, the violin teacher.
When the unnamed music teacher died, the valise and violin were passed on, along with a letter saying that while Major Renwick had thought she could use the violin, it was “virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.”
It was that last recipient who contacted Henry Aldridge and Son of Devizes, Wiltshire. Further investigation of the instrument indicated without a doubt that the “fish plate” on the base plate of the violin was made in 1910 and the engraving style and its hallmark proved it. That engraving reads: “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.”
And so one of the most valuable and romantic of items associated with the Titanic has now come to light almost 103 years later, as the legends of the Titanic continue to enthrall and intrigue people the world over.
A few pieces of Hartley’s jewelry, including his cigarette case, will be sold at auction in Devizes, and at the end of this month the violin will be on public display at the City Hall in Belfast, where the Titanic was built.
Negotiations are also under way to exhibit it in museums around the world, including the United States. In the future, it is likely to be auctioned off. However, there are no plans presently to sell the invaluable and irreplaceable violin. For now, it belongs to history.
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