31 March 2015
It was a relief to turn off of Queens Park and walk up Latimer Street towards Oxford Street, at least I would have some shelter from the wind which had been trying to blow me off my feet since I set out. The next part of the Titanic trail is also part of my family history, without which I would not be writing about my wonderful Commando.
Today Oxford Street is the place to go for a pleasant meal. It is packed with some of the best restaurants and pubs in the city, many of which I’ve been fortunate to eat in at one time or another. It is also an area that hasn’t changed a great deal since 1912 and many of the buildings have a strong link with Titanic. Right at the end of the street is the Southampton Terminus Station Building and I imagine, for those not lucky enough to be staying at the South Western Hotel, this street would have been their first view of Southampton as they left the station. Perhaps a few stopped for a drink and a bite to eat.
The crew certainly spent some time in Oxford Street, in particular in the Grapes pub. Back then it was a typical spit and sawdust pub very popular with crew members from the ships who came in and out of port here. For more than one sailor their last drink in the Grapes would mean the difference between life and death, although they would not have known this at the time. One of these was Commando’s great grandfather. The family legend is that, having been paid before the ship sailed, he decided to spend the evening before departure, and some of his wages, in the pub.
He didn’t stop at one or two drinks and left the pub a little worse for wear. Unfortunately, this meant he overslept on the morning of 10 April. He finally woke, probably seriously hung over, to find the ship had sailed. At any other time on any other ship this would have been a disaster. For him, and for Commando who would not have been born had it not been for his great grandfather’s love of the hard stuff, it turned out to be a lucky escape. I have a lot to thank the Grapes for.
Today the pub is slightly more upmarket than it once was but, from the outside, little has changed. It still has the ornate wrought iron sign and gas lamp, converted to electricity these days of course, the dark wood frontage and multi paned sash windows. Inside too, it is still very much a traditional English pub, but these days there is no sawdust on the floor and probably no spitting. Had the pub been open I could have gone inside and seen a wealth of Titanic memorabilia including a framed blueprint of the ship.
Right across the road is the White Star Tavern. This was the favourite haunt of my Silver Helm colleagues for after work drinks, often sitting at tables under the black awnings to catch the dying Rays of sun. In fact, we ended our final day there with glasses of champagne. In 1912, this was the Alliance Hotel, where a number of second and third class passengers spent their final night before embarkation. Sadly, for most of them it would be the final night on dry land. It is still possible to rent rooms above the bar although these days the accommodation is more upmarket. Above a small side door, the original hotel sign can still be seen.
In the whole of Southampton, Oxford Street lost more people than any other when Titanic sank. Thirty eight crew members have it as their address, just nine of them survived. The reason for this high number is a red brick building just around the bend in the road. The large red brick building which is now home to the Salvation Army was once the Sailors Home. Opened in 1909 to provide accommodation for sailors of the merchant navy and orphans who would eventually be sent to sea. Twenty four of Titanic’s crew members spent their last night there. Notably lookouts Reginald Lee and Frederick Fleet, who saw the iceberg on that fatal night, gave this as their address. By some miracle both survived. Lee continued to reside in the sailors home until his death a year later from pneumonia, sadly, Fleet took his own life in 1965.
Leaving Oxford Street behind, I took a walk across Queens Park back to Mayflower Park, the closest I could get to the dock and the water. The gusty wind buffeted me as I looked out at the sea and tired to imagine the events of that April day one hundred and three years ago. As day broke on 10 April 1912 and Titanic’s passengers rubbed the sleep from their eyes, the area around Oxford Street was a hive of activity. Crew members, due to embark at six, were already walking through the dawn fog to the dockside where dock workers were moving crates of supplies onto the gigantic ship while the ever present cranes loaded cargo. Soon bars were being polished, rooms inspected and the final preparations made for the passengers who would shortly be boarding.
At seven thirty, Captain E J Smith, boarded. White Star’s Commodore of the Line, or captain of all captains, he was due to retire but, when Ismay asked, agreed to one more Atlantic crossing. He was a popular choice with both passengers and crew. Half an hour later the crew were mustered and a swift lifeboat drill was held before each went off to their posts to make the ship ready for the first passengers. Between nine thirty and ten boarding began with the third class passengers who, after a medical inspection for lice and other such things, entered the ship along gangplanks directly into the lower decks. Next came the second class passengers who had the benefit of raised gangways and finally the first class passengers who were assigned stewards to escort them to their cabins.
At noon the gangways were pulled up, moorings slipped and tugs slowly moved Titanic away from the berth. Southampton folk tend to be a touch blasé about the comings and goings of cruise ships but a maiden voyage, like the recent launch of Brittannia by The Queen, usually causes a bit of a stir. Of course, a ship like Titanic, the largest, most luxurious ship ever seen, drew the crowds. Passengers massed on the decks to wave to the throng lining the dock. These days there are usually elaborate fireworks displays and brightly coloured ticker tape confetti. Titanic’s departure was more sedate but the excitement and awe was almost palpable.
On the surface everything ran like clockwork but, below decks, it was a different story. Amid all the normal cruise ship activity, food preparation, luggage movement and last minute checks, a small drama was playing out. Unbeknown to the passengers the crew were desperately trying to extinguish a fire, smouldering in coal bunker number six since the coal was loaded in Belfast. Had the port authorities known this, the ship would not have been allowed to sail.
Soon the engines were started and crowds watched and waved as Titanic slowly moved towards Southampton Water. As she came allongside the liners New York and Oceanic her massive bulk and the movement of her propellers began to pull the New York away from the dock. The smaller ship’s mooring ropes snapped under the strain and her stern came perilously close to hitting Titanic. While the watching crowds gasped, a sharp eyed tug boat captain managed to get a line onto New York and saved the day. The two ships came within feet of a collision that would have cut Titanic’s maiden voyage short and, ultimately, saved her from a much larger disaster.
Finally Titanic was on her way, albeit a little late. Her next port of call was Cherbourg, across the channel on the Norman coast. She arrived in the late evening and twenty two passengers with cross channel tickets disembarked, on tenders, as Cherbourg harbour was too shallow for the massive ship. The same tenders brought one hundred and forty two new passengers aboard. The final passengers boarded the next day in Queenstown, Southern Ireland, again by tender, mainly emigrants making their way to a new life in America.
Now it was out into the open Atlantic…