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Titanic - the disaster Southampton can never forget
Over the next three weeks we will be telling the historic story of the ship and the impact on Southampton – as seen through the eyes of Daily Echo photographers and the paper’s journalists.
The story starts today, with an overview of the disaster and how the Daily Echo was reporting the imminent arrival of the biggest liner the world had ever seen.
NOWHERE else felt Titanic’s pain and sorrow so deeply as Southampton, no other individual town or city was indelibly marked by the heartbreaking mourning of hundreds of families all facing an uncertain future without loved ones by their side.
Shipyard workers in Belfast had watched as Titanic grew and took shape on the slipway of Harland and Wolff and its imposing size became a familiar landmark on the Northern Ireland skyline.
There is a strong and convincing argument that Titanic belongs to Belfast, and compared to the many months of her construction, the ship spent just a relatively short, few days in Southampton.
Ulster will always remember the liner it built, while Southampton will never abandon the memory of her men who crewed the vessel and have no known grave other than the depths of the Atlantic.
Among them was the great vessel’s master Captain Edward J Smith who lived in Winn Road, who perished along with 538 fellow Sotonian crew members. The death of so many wage earners plunged local widows and their families into despair as they fought to come to terms with the shock and grief, together with the additional worry of how they would provide for their sons and daughters.
One contemporary account said: “The scenes in some parts of the town were heartrending. Nearly a thousand families are directly concerned in the fate of the crew alone, and in most cases the only breadwinner of the family is lost.
“In some of the poorer streets, where firemen and seafarers live in large numbers very sad sights have been witnessed.
“Nearly every house is represented on board Titanic, and the manner in which bereaved women fasten on to the faintest glimmer of fresh intelligence is painfully pathetic. This is the greatest disaster that Southampton has ever known.”
For areas like Chapel, Northam, St Mary’s, and Shirley where many of the “below deck’’ crewmen lived, the impact was devastating. In one school in Northam, 120 out of the 240 children on the roll lost their father.
Many proud mothers were forced to turn to charity for cash handouts just to keep their families together as well as feeding and clothing the children.
A charitable organisation to help “distressed dependents’’ was established in Southampton and in London the RMS Titanic Relief Fund was inaugurated by the Lord Mayor.
For many years charities would play an essential role in the day-to-day life of widows and orphans, as for many families they were the only source of ready money, as these entries in the Southampton Titanic Committee Minutes book show.
“To Miss Penrose. Cost a pair of eye glasses.
“That all the Saints Parish relief committee be asked to contribute half the cost of Mrs Fielders artificial teeth.
“One Quart of milk per day, six eggs to the value of one halfpenny a week to be continued to Mrs Johnson (widow) for a further three months.’’ Another entry hid a poignant story: “The deceased was a single man aged 20 and the claim is entered on behalf of his brother, a boy aged nine and his sisters both under 12.
“The father of the deceased was a well known musician in Southampton but owing to poverty was not able to maintain his family, prior to the departure of Titanic. “The boy aged nine was placed under the charge of the matron of Shirley Warren workhouse, and the two little girls are at present being looked after by the Society of Musicians and the Charity Organisation Society and other friends.’’ Each of the entries in the record books represents the hardship and realities of life for those left behind due to the loss of Titanic.
During the coming days many ceremonies will be held to commemorate the ill-fated Titanic, as stories are told and retold of the deadly kiss of the iceberg, while the terrors of the deep and the lethal grip of the icy waters are recalled.
In Southampton, where so many descendents of Titanic’s victims still live, it will be a time for reflection, and once again flowers will be laid at the sad, but heroic, memorial to those “who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters’’.
Over the next three weeks we’ll be telling the full story of the disaster’s impact on Southampton using the Daily Echo’s unique library of photographs and papers.