IDLE talk, whispers and rumour swept through the town. Eventually they would become the news of the biggest tragedy to ever befall Southampton.
By the time the mutterings of Titanic’s sinking were first heard in Southampton, the great vessel was already lying in two at the bottom of the Atlantic, having taken over 1,500 souls with her.
The streets of Chapel and dockland teemed with nervous chatter about the fate of loved ones, and residents from across the city began to descend on Canute Road and the White Star Line offices.
According to the Southern Daily Echo on April 16, 1912, a “kind of hush” fell over Southampton as the scale of the disaster began to be realised.
Outside the White Star offices, the crowd were presented with a ‘brief but pregnant' message which was posted outside. It read: “Titanic foundered about 2.30am. April 15th.
About 675 crew and passengers picked up by ships’ boats of Carpathia and California. Remaining and searching position of disaster. Names of those saved will be posted as soon as received.”
An imposing black board was put up in front of Canute Chambers, ready for names of survivors to be posted on.
One reporter described the tapping of the workmen’s hammer to that of the sound of a gallows being erected, waiting for fate to deliver her verdict upon it.
This newspaper reported that the crowd, grim and silent, “pushed forward to read the pitiful bulletin, for the ambiguity of the message and the absence of any direct mention of loss of life still held out hopes which the more optimistic eagerly clutched at.”
For many, those slim hopes would soon be extinguished.
Flags across Southampton flew at half-mast in the bright spring sunshine that bathed the town.
The Bargate, South Western Hotel, Union Castle House – all paid their respects to the as yet unnamed souls who had lost their lives.
Rumours once again swept through the crowd. This time of news that a steamer had reached Halifax with survivors on board, but this was never truly believed and did little to “dispel the gloomy forbodings that gripped every heart.”
As the day wore on, the crowd grew, particularly during the lunch hour at the nearby docks.
At one point, Canute Road was almost completely blocked by the prams of women waiting for news of their husbands and sweethearts.
Occasionally, the crowd would part to allow a relative to venture slowly towards the doors of Canute Chambers to ask if any more news had been received. The reply was always the same, and the bereft returned to the anxious throng of people clinging on to hope of better news.
The Hampshire Advertiser reported “there were few who were not affected by these touching little scenes. Women sobbed aloud, while tears glistened in the eye of rough and hardy seafaring men.”
The crowd was initially mainly full of men, but grew as women joined, many with “babes in their arms and toddlers hanging round their skirts... vaguely aware that something untoward had occurred to ‘daddy’.”
The Advertiser’s reporter described the scene: “One heard many a sad story of loved ones aboard the ill-fated vessel, who in many cases were the breadwinners of the family, and in several instances the speakers broke down and sobbed bitterly.
Similar stories would be repeated in more than 540 homes across Southampton. The true impact of the iceberg was only now beginning to be felt.