Published May 05, 2013
During the writing of every book there is usually a ‘Eureka!’ moment when some magical bit of previously unknown information comes to light.
When I was researching my book "The Band That Played On" (Thomas Nelson 2011), which tells the story of the musicians on the Titanic, that moment came when someone alerted me to the (possible) existence of bandmaster Wallace Hartley’s violin.
I couldn’t believe what I was being told and at first assumed that what was being spoken of was a replica violin made in Hartley’s honor in 1912 by his contemporary and neighbor Arthur Lancaster.
That violin I knew had a story of its own. It had gone missing decades ago and was then in 1974 was handed in anonymously to the Youth Orchestra in Hartley’s old hometown of Colne.
But that wasn’t the violin being discussed. It was the actual one Hartley had played on the deck of the sinking liner and which he had reportedly been found with, strapped to his chest, when his body was discovered floating in the icy Atlantic. This was the violin that had played the tune of "Nearer, My God, To Thee" as passengers fled to safety, or death.
My contact slipped a disc into a desktop computer and clicked on a series of images; a violin, a brown leather case with the initials WHH, pages from a 1912 diary, sheet music and, most tellingly, a close up of the silver tailpiece inscribed “To Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.”
These CDs had been sent to a select group of people by the auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Son who were looking for confirmation that the instrument they’d been given in 2006 was the genuine article. Unfortunately there were no known photos of Wallace Hartley in the Titanic orchestra to allow comparison of design.
I shot some photos of the images on the computer screen and went home to examine the evidence.
The "Maria" in question was Maria Robinson, Hartley’s fiancé at the time of his death. I knew from contemporary newspaper reports that Hartley had been found with his music case strapped to his chest but also knew that by the time the authorities in Nova Scotia put together the list of his effects it wasn’t mentioned. Some Titanic experts assumed it had been stolen.
What the material I was looking at suggested was that Maria Robinson had made direct contact with them to ensure that the gift she had given to her fiancé was returned to her.
In the 1912 diary was the draft of a letter she had either sent or intended to send to the Principal Secretary’s office in Nova Scotia. It said, in part, “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiancé’s violin.”
My conclusion, published in "The Band That Played On" when it was released in March 2011, was that this was either an incredibly elaborate hoax or the real deal.
The names of people mentioned in the pages of the diary could all be traced to actual people living at the time. I predicted that; “If the violin turns out to be Hartley’s Titanic instrument, it will be a huge media event and, one hundred years after their deaths, will bring the band back into the limelight.”
At the time of the book's publication it was hoped that forensic tests on the violin would be completed by the time of the centenary of the sinking in April 2012.
If the tests proved positive the plan was to send the instrument out on a world tour. However, whenever I called the offices of Henry Aldridge & Sons there was always one more test to go. Then there were stories that the seller was having second thoughts about putting in on the market.
It was only last month that final confirmation was given in a news flash that went around the world. The account, as I had written it, stood up. The only fresh information was the way in which it had come into the possession of the anonymous owner.
The details of its discovery were every bit as thrilling as the rest of the story. Apparently when Maria Robinson died in 1939 (she never married or had children) the violin passed to a Major in the Salvation Army who eventually gave it to a music teacher.
The music teacher gave it to a female pupil who in old age left it in her attic where, after her death, it was discovered by her son. It was the son who went to get it authenticated.
Over Easter it went on display at Belfast City Hall, Belfast being where the Titanic was built and launched. Later in this year it will go up for auction. The adventures of this violin aren't over yet.