MORE than 100 Titanic enthusiasts, some of whom travelled from as far afield as the US, have descended on Southampton this weekend for the annual British Titanic Society convention.

Hundreds more visitors are expected to attend to once again hear the story of how the “unsinkable ship” struck an iceberg and sank in the north Atlantic, taking 1,523 people with her. This enduring fascination with one of the most infamous human tragedies of the past century is a major reason why Southampton’s civic leaders are banking on Titanic to once again put the city on the map.

The £28m Titanic museum, which has a working title of Sea City Museum, has been described as the single most important development in the city for a generation.

It will include a climb-aboard replica of the doomed liner and visitors will experience life from the perspective of the crew, many of whom were from Southampton.

They will relive the day the liner left Southampton’s docks, to life on board and the subsequent inquiry and discovery of the wreckage.

When it opens on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, in April 2012, it is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city. The scale of the tourism project is unlike anything ever seen in Southampton and it is set to be the city’s unique selling point.

But Southampton isn’t the only city that can lay claim to Titanic heritage.

Belfast is where the liner was built and the city has its own plans for the centenary celebrations.

Belfast’s £98m Titanic-themed attraction will be located on the same site on which the famous White Star Line vessel was constructed by Harland and Wolff shipyard workers. The museum, which is expected to attract 400,000 visitors a year, will incorporate a state-of-the-art “flying theatre”

and is central to the redevelopment of the city’s Titanic Quarter.

When Southampton’s project was this week awarded £500,000 in development funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund – with the potential for a further £4.5m towards construction – the announcement was met with anger in Northern Ireland after the Belfast project was turned down for lottery funding.

Former Belfast Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers said he was disappointed Southampton had been awarded the cash. “People seem to forget that Titanic was built in our shipyards,”

he said.

However, Southampton’s leisure boss said there was room for two major Titanic attractions in the UK.

Councillor John Hannides, Cabinet member for leisure, culture and heritage, pictured below, said: “I don’t see our respective projects as being in direct competition with one another. What they are doing is on a different scale and they are also looking at it from a different perspective.

“More than 550 people from Southampton lost their lives and the vast majority were crew, so the theme we have adopted is very close to the hearts of the people of Southampton.”

Stewards, stokers, and officers alike lost their lives as the 46,000-ton liner slipped beneath the freezing waters on her maiden voyage. The sheer scale of the losses explains in part why the disaster remains a sensitive subject in Southampton, nearly a century later. Very few families in the St Mary’s and Northam area of the city were untouched by the disaster.

However, the tourist attraction today received the blessing of the relatives of one Titanic crew member who perished in the icy water.

Lower Canal Walk resident Sam Williams was just 26 when he joined the crew as fireman and died shovelling coal in the boiler room.

His nephew, Ron Williams, from Woolston, said a museum commemorating the disaster was long overdue and called for a memorial to the crew to take pride of place in the development.

“We know all about the multi-millionaire passengers, but very little is known about the crew who went down with the “unsinkable”. From the men in the boiler room who kept the lights going to the musicians in the band who kept playing, their stories must be told,” he said.

David Hill, secretary of the British Titanic Society, said: “The fascination for it continues year after year so there is obviously a need in people to know and learn about the Titanic.

“The human tragedy was appalling, so it is only right that Southampton is remembering this aspect of the Titanic. It is not there to glamourise it, it’s there to tell the story as it is.”

In the most radical redevelopment ever proposed in the 77-year history of the Civic Centre, the museum will be built in the old law courts and soon to be vacated central police station.

It’s likely just one court will remain preserved, while the other two will be demolished to make way for several permanent and temporary exhibitions.

Construction will be done in two phases with the first, the Titanic Exhibition, opening in three years.

The build, which includes glass extensions to the roof of the Civic Centre, can only begin when police officers vacate the premises in December 2010, leaving the council a 15-month construction window – a timescale described by Cllr Hannides as “extremely challenging”.

The Titanic Exhibition has been valued at £15m, which means if the HLF does award the remaining £4.5m it has earmarked for the project next March, the council must still raise a further £10m.

Despite being in recession Cllr Hannides remains confident the cash can be raised. He hopes to tap into other funding streams, such as the Arts Council and the regional development agency Seeda.

It’s hoped at least £5m will be raised through corporate sponsorship, donations and grants, however, millions of pounds will also come from the sale of prized council assets.

Cllr Hannides said the Wool House, currently home to the Southampton Maritime Museum, and the Eagle Warehouse on French Street could also be sold to developers. This has already sparked an outcry from some Daily Echo readers, who have likened it to selling the city’s crown jewels.

However, the Tory councillor said the public must be prepared to sacrifice publicly-owned assets if it wanted a world-class heritage attraction.

“This is the single most significant heritage project Southampton has seen for 50 years, so we need to look at how we can rationalise some of the other assets that we have to make it happen,” he said.