Wallace Hartley's Violin Arrives at Titanic Belfast

As Titanic Belfast welcomes the instrument that serenaded the sinking of Titanic, Philip Hammond sheds light on its divisive backstory

'It’s been a bit of a rush but I am just getting a little settled. This is a fine ship and there ought to be plenty of money on her.'

Wallace Hartley, bandleader of the Titanic's company of musicians, wrote those lines in a letter home to England after he boarded the White Star liner on Wednesday, April 10, 1912. He was right about the money aspect of the Titanic – it was loaded with millionaires eager to be seen on the great ship’s maiden voyage.

A century later, Titanic's fate continues to inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind – and make money. That hastily scribbled letter from Hartley, for instance, recently sold for £90,000. And that is but the tip of the iceberg, if you will forgive the tasteless pun.

Speaking of tasteless, a Titanic Lunch Menu from April 14, 1912 sold for a world record of £76,000 in 2012. An authentic RMS Titanic poster sold for £70,000. A rather tattered and battered Titanic lifejacket was a snip at £58,000. The list of auctionable items at jaw-dropping prices goes on and on.

Wallace Hartley violin


Titanic Belfast – the six-floor building that boasts nine interpretive and interactive galleries that explore the sights, sounds, smells and stories of Titanic – also proves that, even beyond the 'Titanorac' coterie, there is a considerable number of ordinary people who will travel vast distances and spend a fair penny to learn more about the tragic ship and her only voyage, listen to the stories and get close up to the memorabilia.

At present, Titanic Belfast is hosting perhaps its most iconic, emotive and potentially expensive exhibit to date: the very instrument on which Wallace Hartley continued to perform with as Titanic sank into the Atlantic ocean.

The rosewood violin – not a particularly upmarket model – will be on display, accompanied by a leather luggage case initialed W. H. H., in the replica second-class accommodation suite in Titanic Belfast’s Fit-Out Gallery until October 13.

When I was writing my 'Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic', which was performed at St Anne's Cathedral and St Peter's Cathedral on the Falls Road in Belfast in April 2012 to mark the centenary of Titanic's sinking, one of my main points of focus was the fate of the eight musicians who bravely went down with the ship. There is no shortage of specific commemorations to their demise.

A year after the disaster, for example, in April 1913, Southampton – so closely connected to all cruise liners of that era – unveiled its memorial to the ship's musicians. As part of its engraving, the Southampton memorial quotes a line of music, the first bars of the hymn tune 'Horbury', to which the words of 'Nearer, my God, to Thee' can be sung.

There is little doubt that violinist Wallace Hartley and his band played on regardless, and Charlotte Collyer, a survivor, later wrote that 'they kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee". I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.'

But which tune did the musicians play? The words of the hymn are associated with at least four well-known tunes, namely the very English 'Horbury', Lowell Mason’s more traditional and simple sounding 'Bethany', Sir Arthur Sullivan’s 'Propior Deo' and Lewis Carey’s well-known song of the period, which had been popularized by the Australian contralto Ada Crossley.

Wallace Hartley and Maria Robinson


There can never be a definitive answer now – unlike the question surrounding the authenticity of Wallace Hartley’s violin, which was rediscovered in an attic in North Yorkshire in 2006 and was earlier this year verified by extensive research, including MRI scans, as the real thing – the very violin that Hartley performed with as he sank to his untimely death.

In this age of technical innovation and scientific research, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt the instrument’s provenance, so finely detailed by Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge and Son auctioneers, and a biography of Hartley. But, of course, part of the enduring legacy of the Titanic is the mystery, the coincidences, the doubts that have surrounded its history. Such doubt continues to surround the violin.

Hartley, having done his final musical duty on board Titanic, managed to get away from the sinking ship but drowned in the attempt. The ship’s company of the MacKay Bennett recovered Hartley’s no doubt badly decomposed body on April 29, 1912.

The popular story is that a violin case was strapped to it and, some time later, a violin was sent to Hartley’s fiancée, Maria Robinson (pictured above with Wallace Hartley), who had given an instrument to him on the event of their engagement.

Hartley was registered by the MacKay Bennett as body no.224, but there is no mention of a violin case or a violin amongst the personal items recorded by the crew in connection with that body.

Despite the practice that only clothing was officially recognised and recorded as 'effects' at the time, and despite the recent verification research, this missing registration has cast a shadow of doubt over what is now considered to be the genuine article. Books have been written on the subject and inevitably the blur between fact and fiction is perpetuated.

But Titanic fans will be eager to see this instrument nonetheless. The violin has recently been touring Titanic-related venues in the United States, and it is now at the Titanic Belfast building on public display until October 13.

Hartley’s violin is surely one of the most iconic, and potentially most expensive, collectables of the 20th century. Whether you go to the exhibition at Titanic Belfast as a believer in its history or a non-believer, you will recognise that there is sufficient publicity around the instrument to ensure that it will fetch a good price when it finally goes to auction on October 19 in England.

Wallace Hartley violin