The Garret Tree
Thursday, September 22, 2005
  CBC 99: On contract, on RMS Titanic

Among the heroes on board the sinking RMS Titanic were the muscians who played on the deck of stricken liner until they could no longer hold their instruments.

There's a little known fact about those musicians. While the officers and crew of Titanic, from Capt. Edward Smith to the lowliest teenage cabin boy were "on staff," the musicians were on contract. And that, unfortunately, made a big difference to their families.

(I was browsing my book shelf Wednesday afternoon and for some reason pulled out Walter Lord's The Night Lives On, his 1986 follow-up to A Night to Remember, his 1955 bestseller about the sinking of the Titanic. What you read here is based on that account)

According to Lord, there were actually two bands on board the Titanic, the Wallace Hartley quintet, which played the teatime and after dinner concerts, and a trio at the first class Cafe Parisien. It is likely, according to Lord, that they played together for the first time on the fatal night when Titanic struck the iceberg.

In early 1912, months before the Titanic sank, the British shipping lines, over the objections of the Amalgamated Musicians Union, decided to begin what today would be called "contracting out" with shipboard musicians.

Prior to 1912, muscians were signed as crew, as staff. They received union scale: £6 10s a month plus a uniform allowance of 10s.

Beginning in 1912, the shipping lines contracted out the musicians to a Liverpool agency called C.W. and F. N. Black, which got the exclusive right to hire musicians for British shipping. Wages were cut to £4 a month with no uniform allowance. They still had to sign ship's articles, putting them under the command of a captain for which they received one shilling a month.

When the musicians union objected to Bruce Ismay, CEO of the White Star line, he said, well then if they didn't want to sign ship's articles, they would have to ship as paying second class passengers.

But on both the Olympic and the Titanic they didn't get second class cabins, they had to bunk in the cramped crew quarters.

All the musicians perished when the Titanic sank.

Both surviving crew and the families of the crew dead were entitled, under British law, to "Workmans Compensation" benefits from the White Star Line.

White Star refused to compensate the musicians' families. The line argued that the musicians were second class passengers and the employees of the Black agency. Black said it had no responsiblity and sent the families to their insurance company. The insurance company said the musicians were independent contractors, not employees of the Black agency and therefore not covered by the insurance policy. The result, no compensation at all for the families of the "heroes" of the Titanic.

Blacks even billed the stricken families for expenses, including the uniforms, formerly covered by the shipping lines when the musicians were staff employees.

Eventually the families took White Star to court. The judge reluctantly ruled that the musicians were, as far as White Star was concerned, passengers and as far as the Black agency and its insurance company were concerned, independent contractors.

The musicians union then appealed to the charitable instincts of White Star. The company had no charity in its heart and refused to help.

The trustees of the public relief fund had a different attitude, they ruled that the musicians were members of the crew and entitled to full compensation from that fund.

As for Wallace Hartley, his body was recovered off Newfoundland and returned to his home town of Colne, Lancashire. As a hearse carried the coffin from Liverpool to Colne, hundreds turned out to pay their respects. All business in Colne stopped for the funeral, attended by an estimated 30,000 people. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, a bugler played "The Last Post" an honour normally reserved for those who had served in the military.

Two of the musicians were buried in Halifax.
John Frederick Preston Clarke, a bass violinist (#202) was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Halifax.
John Law Hume, the first violion, (#193) was buried at Fairview Cemetery, Halifax.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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