Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Story of Titanic bandlander told in new book

Titanic.'Wallace Hartley.
Titanic.'Wallace Hartley.

The name of Wallace Hartley, conductor of the orchestra on the ill-fated Titanic, will be gaining in importance in the next few weeks when the violin he played during the sinking of the famous ship is auctioned.

How much it will raise is anyone’s guess but one man, Christian G Tennyson-Ekbereg, believes it could raise millions.

Christian, a Dewsbury-based author, has just written a major new biography of Wallace and his fellow bandsmen, who famously played on while the mighty ship sank.

They all perished along with the estimated 1,500 passengers and crew on the night the Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Christian’s book, the culmination of 14 years dedicated research, reveals many facts, hitherto unknown, including the remarkable discovery of Wallace’s violin.

The instrument, long believed to have been lost, was a gift to Wallace from his fiance, Maria Robinson, on the occasion of their engagement in 1911.

While researching his book, Christian was invited to work as an associate researcher with the auction house of Henry Aldridge and Son, the leading Titanic auctioneers, who will be responsible for selling the violin.

Other items recovered from Wallace’s body will also go on sale as part of the Hartley/Robinson archive, which the auctioneers are describing as the single most important find in the history of Titanic memorabilia.

They are expecting world-wide interest in the sale, with the main focus being on the violin.

The owner of the instrument remains anonymous but the story of its discovery and authenticity is well detailed in this intriguing book.

The story of the sinking of the Titanic has been immortalised in books and films across the world, but according to Christian the story of the bandsmen has failed to be fully documented and he hopes his book will remedy this.

Although Wallace was a native of Colne in Lancashire, he spent some of his adult years in Dewsbury, where his father, Albion Hartley, was an insurance superintendent with the Refuge Assurance Company.

The family were living in Dewsbury at the time of the tragedy in a house called Surreyside in West Park Street, which today bears a blue plaque commemorating the time Wallace lived there.

When news reached Dewsbury of Wallace’s heroism a memorial fund committee was formed to raise funds for a monument in his memory.

Sadly, only enough was raised - just over £60 - to pay for a marble and brass tablet, which the committee hoped would be erected in the vestibule of Dewsbury Town Hall.

After much discussion, the old Dewsbury council refused to erect it in the town hall on the grounds that to do so would be a dangerous precedent and also the fact that he was not a local man.

Christian has long felt this decision is a slight on Wallace’s memory, and is seeking to redress it.

He hopes to persuade the present council to dedicate their new bandstand, currently being erected in Dewsbury, to the memory of Wallace and his fellow bandsmen.

The story of Wallace’s connection with Dewsbury started in 1908 when his father, Albion Hartley, moved to Dewsbury, taking over the position of superintendent of the local Refuge office in Church Street.

The Hartleys lived in Surreyside, a substantial stone terrace house in West Park Street, then the prosperous quarter of Dewsbury, populated by textile manufacturers and other professional business people.

The family started worshipping at nearby St Mark’s Church, and at the same time Albion, a freemason, would have almost certainly visited the St John’s Masonic Lodge, situated just across the road.

Wallace was by this time an established professional musician, who had played at concerts in Dewsbury before and was no stranger to the town.

He had played with the old Dewsbury Permanent Orchestra and at a number of church concerts including one at Savile Town Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in 1893 and in 1905 at Earlsheaton Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, both now demolished.

His last recorded appearance in Dewsbury was at a private Christmas party in 1911, which Christian believes was likely to have been held in St Mark’s Sunday Schoolroom.

The year after his arrival in Dewsbury, Wallace decided to broaden his experience by going to sea and was successful in finding positions with various ship orchestras.

Christian writes about a series of coincidences which helped him in his research, including one which may be of particular interest to Dewsbury people.

It was the discovery of a postcard sent from America to Dewsbury in January 1911 by a young man from the town who had emigrated.

His name was William Wilby, a draper’s assistant, who travelled on the Mauretania, a ship on which Wallace had played.

At that time, the Wilby family lived in Dewsbury less than half-a-mile down the road from the Hartley’s, and Christian believes Wallace would have been playing on that voyage.

I am sure local people will, as I have done, surmise that William Wilby belonged to the Wilby family, who have run a drapery stall in Dewsbury Market for over a hundred years, and still do, and which everyone knew as “Boiling Bits”.

One name which is rarely mentioned in the Wallace Hartley story is that of Maria Robinson, his fiance, who presented him with the famous violin.

She disappeared from public gaze after his funeral, which was attended by over 30,000 mourners, and little or nothing has been heard of her since.

Christian, however has included a biography of her in his book which throws new light on the woman who was a central figure in Wallace’s life.

She never married and spent her remaining years in Bridlington, running a small deluxe hotel which sadly failed. She later took over a smaller establishment which took in select lady lodgers.

Many personal possessions of Wallace, retrieved from the sea, including the violin, were subsequently gifted to Maria by the Hartley family.

Maria kept all these possessions,including the violin and sheets of Wallace’s music in his music valise.

When she died in 1939, her sister, Margaret Robinson, was sole executor and had the responsibility of winding up her sister’s estate.

Remarkably, she offered the valise and its contents to Bridlington Salvation Army Band in the hope the violin and music might be of use.

The violin was unplayable and therefore of no use to them and so were passed on to a local music teacher who was also a member of the Salvation Army, and knew nothing of their historic significance or value.

Christian hopes that whoever buys the violin will ensure it will be restored and on show to the public, and hopefully played once again.

He does not want it to finish up in a private collection, locked away for ever, and never played.

“This violin was meant to have a voice. It should not be a sterile object in a museum showcase.”

After reading this book, I believe the dedicated research and perseverance of its author has put together an amazingly detailed biography which I’m sure will do what he intended - give those courageous Titanic musicians their rightful place in history.

Christian’s book, entitled “Nearer, our God, to Thee”, is a limited edition of 2,000, and contains 400 pages and 359 photographs and illustrations, many of which have never been published before.

It is priced at £29.50 (delivery within Dewsbury free) or by courier, using heavy duty packaging, £10 - UK only; overseas by quotation.

Copies can be obtained by ringing or faxing Dewsbury 01924-461059, or from Pikaro’s book shop, High Street, Horbury.