There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle

The violin played by the band leader on board the RMS Titanic has been discovered in Yorkshire, England. An engraved silver plate on the tailpiece carries his name and experts say that evidence of corrosion is compatible with it having been immersed in seawater.

Wallace Hartley (1878-1912) was born in Colne, Lancashire. His father was the choirmaster at Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel and it was he who introduced the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to the congregation. Wallace sang in Bethel’s choir and learned to play the violin from a fellow congregation member.

In April 1912, Hartley was named bandmaster for the White Star Line ship RMS Titanic. At first he hesitated, not wishing to leave his fiancée, Maria Robinson, but Hartley decided that working on the maiden voyage of the Titanic would increase his chances of getting future work.

After RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, Hartley and his fellow band members played music to help keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. Many of the survivors said that he and the band continued to play until the very end. None of the band members survived the sinking.

Apparently, Hartley is on record as having said that if he were on a sinking ship, he would want his last song to be either “Nearer My God to Thee”, the hymn composed by English Christian poet Sarah Adams, or “O God our Help in Ages Past” by the famous hymn composer Isaac Watts. Survivors testified that the Titanic band played “Nearer My God to Thee”, which is what the newspapers reported.

Wireless operator Harold Bride claimed, however, that the band’s swan song was “Autumn”. There is an Episcopalian hymn whose melody is known as “Autumn”, but he might have meant the waltz “Songe d’Automne” written by Archibald Joyce in 1908 and popular at the time. Whatever they played, one newspaper reported, “The part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.”

Hartley-graveHartley-memorialHartley was recovered almost two weeks after the sinking and was supposedly found “fully dressed with his violin strapped to his body”. The funeral took place on 18 May 1912, when 1,000 people attended and 40,000 lined the route of the procession.

A violin was returned to Wallace Hartley’s fiancée Maria Robinson, in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, and a transcript of a telegram dated 19 July 1912 to Canada’s Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia was later found in her diary. It said, “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiancé’s violin.”

Recently a letter written by Wallace Hartley sold at auction for £93,000 ($138,000). It is dated 10 April 1912 and written on sheets of Titanic stationary bearing the company’s watermark: “Just a line to say we have got away all right. It’s been a bit of a rush but I am just getting a little settled… We have a fine band & the boys seem very nice. I have had to buy some linen & I sent my washing home today by post. I shall probably arrive home on the Sunday morning.”

Hartley never made it, but it seems that his violin did.


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