Great Yarmouth’s links with Titanic tragedy
THREE important dates have vied for my attention this year. The diamond jubilee of the Queen’s reign, and Great Yarmouth’s competitors in previous Olympic Games, have already been mentioned here, so permit me to turn to the third: the centenary of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic which struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to the United States, with the loss of 1513 of her 2224 passengers and crew.
The loss of the allegedly unsinkable White Star Line vessel has been marked around the world, with a wide-ranging programme embracing everything from memorial services and other ceremonies to the issue of a special coin from the Royal Mint and the conversion of James Cameron’s 1997 classic film Titanic into 3-D.
I have made occasional references to possible Great Yarmouth area links with that epic disaster but was surprised recently when a positive - albeit slender - one came to my notice. That was when I read about Captain Charles Bartlett, senior master in the White Star Line who was dubbed “Iceberg Charlie” because of his supposed uncanny ability to sniff out icebergs.
Apparently he was in line to command the Titanic but was a victim of boardroom politics and - according to his grandson, Alasdair Fairbairn, the family archivist - lost out to Captain Edward Smith. Great-nephew Richard Ellis adds: “Charles had acquired a reputation as an excellent seaman and a safe captain. It was said that he had an uncanny knack of being able to smell icebergs and, therefore, avoid them.”
Could the highly-regarded Captain Bartlett have averted any tragedy? We can but muse.
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But it is a fact that in 1898 Charles Bartlett married Edie, nee Ellis, a member of the celebrated Yarmouth family whose nephew was the late Ted Ellis - naturalist, writer broadcaster and founder of Norfolk’s Wheatfen Broad nature reserve. In retirement, Charles Bartlett maintained his love of sailing, for he and his wife enjoyed many visits to Norfolk to explore the tranquil Broads in the variety of small boats they kept at Horning Ferry
He died in 1945, aged 76.
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Of my previous jottings about possible Titanic connections, the most exciting was in 1988 when there was speculation that a long-serving local fishing boat might have been a Titanic lifeboat.
The Girl Madge II, used by owner Colin Angel, of Upton, for sea angling from Yarmouth in winter, was kept off-season in Upton Dyke. One day two men from Norwich arrived at the Eastwood Whelpton boatyard in Upton where the white-painted craft was undergoing a refit.
Colin’s pal Richard Horsley, a worker at the yard, told me one man was well-acquainted with the Titanic history: “He must have done his homework on the White Star Line for he knew seating and buoyancy capacities (of the lifeboats) and, because of its 30-31ft length, knew it was too big to have come from any other White Star ship except the Titanic and her sister-ship.”
Colin, then 50, did not know the Girl Madge II’s origins and was unaware of any Titanic link, however unlikely. But he acknowledged that the original company emblem – a white star on a navy background – was on her bow, with the information that her capacity was 58 persons worked into the woodwork elsewhere.
The Titanic’s lifeboats bore a striking similarity to the Girl Madge II. Thirteen were salvaged by rescue vessels and, when landed in New York from the liner Carpathia, souvenir hunters were so eager that guards were posted and the name Titanic was sanded out. Reports claimed that her lifeboats were never put back into service but rotted away in a Brooklyn boatyard.
But Norwich-based historian Colin Goreham, one of those two visitors to the boatyard, doubted that any commercial organisation would let expensive lifeboats deteriorate to nothing, but would probably have sold them. And he accepted that the Girl Madge II might have once been on the Titanic’s sister-ships, Olympic and Gigantic.
Not unexpectedly, Porthole readers well-versed in local maritime matters soon demolished the exciting possibility of a Titanic – or even White Star – antecedent. The Girl Madge II was built in Yarmouth in 1924 (12 years after the Titanic disaster) and worked as a pleasure tripper off the beach, they stated; the 58 cut into her woodwork was the number of passengers she was licensed to carry. Previous owners were F J Symonds, H W Beales and J G Williment.
A definite connection was that in the Titanic’s vast cargo holds was an item made in Yarmouth...and which presumably has long-since rotted away. That information came from the late Gordon Berry, of Westerley Way, Caister, a long-serving employee of silk manufacturer Grouts and its official archivist.
He told me in the Nineties: “In April 1912 the directors held a regular board meeting during which company secretary Mr T Hall reported that two cases of their fabric had been lost in the Titanic disaster. Their value was �108 but this was fully covered by insurance.
“He did not specify what type of fabric was in the cases and I was uncertain if the contents were black silk mourning crape but knew that in 1912 the company was selling that fabric to America and Canada. The value of �108 seems small but would have bought 700-800 yards.”
Then, by chance, in 1993 Gordon Berry read a biography of the master of the Titanic, and contacted its author who sent him a copy of the liner’s cargo manifest for its maiden voyage. This revealed that the cargo included three cases of black silk mourning crape consigned to a New York store, Spelman’s.
“Two of those were undoubtedly made in Yarmouth by Grouts, and is an ironic thought that as the Titanic sank, the passengers were accompanied by a quantity of mourning crape intended to be used at American funerals,” said Gordon.
The other items on the cargo manifest were mundane and totalled only �84,000 in value: no fewer than 34 cases of athletic goods, orchids, pens, cottons, tissues, straw, tulle netting for scarves or veils, gloves, bulbs, melons, china, hats, furniture, brushware, biscuits, soap, hardware, wine, skins, blankets, toothpaste, parchment, gramophones, leather, hosiery, canvas, oak beams, speedometers, cameras and stands, machinery, alarm apparatus, lace collars, candles, gutta percha (latex)...