Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14, 1912

The story of the Titanic's band, playing to the end, has an honored place in history.

Even the last song they played still remains debated (it was likely a popular ragtime piece called "Songe d'Automne", not the hymn "Autumn" and almost certainly not "Nearer My God to Thee" as commonly believed).

But, for all their bravery, so much about the band is unknown.

They were all employed by C.W. & F.N. Black, a talent agency with a monopoly on supplying the British Atlantic steamship trade in 1912. If you wanted to work on the ships, you shut up and signed with the Blacks, and took whatever they offered. In 1912 it was roughly $6 (USD) per month. You had to buy your own uniform.

The musicians really worked for the Blacks, NOT the steamship company. So they technically were passengers, not crew. To get around this White Star Line listed them as 2nd class passengers, who just happened to have free tickets. Of course, they didn't actually get to stay in the decent 2nd class cabins- on the Titanic the musicians were stuck in crew quarters next to the potato washer.

Even worse, since they were passengers, when they arrived in New York they had to go through immigration and show that they each had $50 (borrowed from family at home) to prove they weren't destitute- even though they then immediately had to get back on the ship to start preparing for the return voyage.

What often isn't realized, either, is that the Titanic had 2 bands- one for the 1st class dining room (5 members) and a 2nd for the Café Parisien restaurant (3 members), that had entirely different arrangements.

And so that night, with the Titanic slowly sinking beneath them, these 8 "passengers" played together for the first time. Unlike the other passengers, who were trying to get into lifeboats, these 8 men stayed on, trying to calm people with music until the sloping deck made it impossible to do so.

As best as we know, they were not ordered to do this. They each chose to. And so they all died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, 99 years ago tonight.

But the story, tragically, didn't end there.

Jock Hume was a violinist in the band. On April 30th, 1912, his grieving parents received this kind letter from the Blacks talent agency:

"Dear Sir, We shall be obliged if you will remit to us the sum of 14 shillings, which is owing to us as per enclosed statement. We shall also be obliged if you will settle the enclosed uniform account.

Yours faithfully,

C.W. & F.N. Black"

The statement included charges for their son's uniform (by now, along with him, at the bottom of the ocean) and costs for a lyre lapel insignia & sewing White Star Line buttons onto his jacket.

Many of the musicians left families behind, who asked the White Star Line for compensation for their loss. After all, they were covered under the Workmen's Compensation Act, weren't they?

Nope. White Star Line responded that the bandsmen were, after all, just passengers on the Titanic. Since they weren't crew members, they weren't covered at all.

So the families asked the Blacks to help. The talent agency had insured it's employees, and told the families to contact the insurance company.

And what did the insurance company do? Well, they said the bandsmen were independent contractors, using the Blacks as a booking agency only, and were, after all, just 2nd class passengers on the ship, not employees.

So in spite of the brave deaths of their loved ones, the families were not going to be compensated at all. A judge ruled in favor of the insurance company, that the musicians were voluntary passengers, and therefore not employees of anyone.

Fortunately, a large charity set up after the disaster, The Titanic Relief Fund, decided to help support the bandsmens' families like those of other lost crewmen. The memorial flier at the top of this post was sold on street corners in 1912 to raise money for them.

Wallace Hartley was the bandleader, and 1st violinist, for the Titanic, and likely the one who organized the other musicians to stay until the end. He was engaged to be married, and had reluctantly accepted the Titanic job (he wanted to get out of being a ship's musician) to try and make contacts for future work. He was 33 years old.

His body was found floating off Newfoundland a few weeks after the disaster, and (to my knowledge) is the only band member ever recovered. He's buried in his hometown, Colne, in Lancanshire. The opening notes of his favorite hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" are inscribed on the base of his grave marker, above a violin.


Anonymous said...

This is awesome! Thanks Dr. Grumpy for sharing this. As a musician and history lover, this hit all the right notes with me. :-)


Anonymous said...

This really struck home to me. My last name is Hartley, and I know that side of my family is originally from Lancashire. I wonder if I am related.

Thanks for sharing this with us all. I've been reading this blog for only a few weeks, but have found the side-trips into maritime history fascinating. To have one of these affect me, drawing a possible connection to this tragedy has put it in a new perspective for me.

Thanks again.

Lisa said...

Thanks Dr. Grumpy! I love your history posts!

Hildy said...

Sheesh. 100 years later and still nothing has changed in the area of corporate responsibility--but then, the phrase is an oxymoron so why hope for change?

Packer said...

Great historical story.

bobbie said...

Fabulous story ~~~

WV ~ "butgrab" Really?!?!

Eileen said...

Do like your historical posts...

Taryn said...

Your historical posts are every bit as fascinating as your humor posts are funny! I love your blog!
Thanks for entertaining us so well!

Anonymous said...

As I cellist I thank you for posting that :).


The Mother said...

As usual for your historical posts, fascinating.

Wendy said...

It's so good to hear more about the musicians on the Titanic. They, and their families, were treated shabbily and I think you are the first person who has ever written about them (as far as I am aware.)

Such a sad thing to happen.

I love your blog, was once a nurse and so much rings true from my experience.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Also illustrates the two kinds of people - the ones who give (the musicians) and the ones who do not (Black and the White Line). I hope when I go out, it'll be with as much class as the musicians.

Anonymous said...

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Julie said...

Very interesting, thanks

Anonymous said...

Sort of like the hospital treats us ER physicians- we're not employees, we're "independent contractors". We get no benefits from the company that hires us, and if you get injured on the job, it's too bad. You even have to pay the salary of whoever replaces you if you can't work. One guy even died of an MI at work and they tried to bill his wife the cost of the replacement doctor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for enlightening us! I'd never heard or read anything about the Titanic musicians, other than that they played until the end. God bless them for staying and trying to calm the other passengers...and may those who screwed the musicians' families rot in hell.

Anonymous said...

everyone knows the last song they played was "my heart will go on" by celine dion

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