As the world rocked at the news that the practically unsinkable RMS Titanic had sunk on her maiden voyage, the chivalrous ‘women and children first’ motto of the crew was revered in Derry as a “tribute to the entire human race”.
According to the ‘Journal’ of Friday, April 19, the city’s mayor Councillor John McFarland, Justice of the Peace, addressed Derry’s Petty Sessions after the magistrates had taken their seats to extend the “great sympathy” of the people of the city to the families of the many hundreds lost in the disaster. At that stage new information was emerging every hour as more and more survivors revealed their stories and the list of lost souls continued to mount.
“It is hardly possible for us to conceive that the Titanic carried over 2,300 souls, of whom only between 700 and 800 are saved. Those who have been rescued are largely women and children. This is tribute to the entire human race. It is noble evidence of the preservation of the best traditions of our mercantile marine. On all occasions of difficulty and danger their motto is ‘women and children first’. That motto has never been more chivalrously carried out than on the occasion of the loss of the Titanic. Our sympathy goes out to all those who have lost so many relatives near and dear to them. (Hear, hear.)
Mr McGahey, Justice of the Peace, added that funds for the relief of the dependants of “these heroic men” were being gathered in various places. He added that Derry was never behind in a good cause and that he hoped it would not be behind on “this occasion either”.
However, despite the tributes from Derry councillors and others for the liner’s “chivalrous” crew, the actions of some officers of Titanic were far from humane, according to the testimony of one third class passenger from Ireland. In the ‘Journal’ of April 24, an article detailed the narrow escape of a 19 year-old Longford man from the icy waters of the Atlantic. From a hospital bed in New York, where he was recovering from “shock and exposure, in addition to bruises on the head”, he said he was attacked by officers of the Titanic while attempting to save his own life. The article stated: “McCormack says that when the ship was sinking he jumped and swam. He got his hands on the gunwale of a lifeboat, when members of the crew of the Titanic struck him on the head and tore his hands loose from the boat. After repeated efforts to enter the boat he swam to another boat and met with the same reception. Finally, however, two sisters in the boat, Mary and Kate Murphy, pulled him on board in spite of the crew’s efforts to keep him out.” The New Jersey barman, who had been visiting his parents in Ireland, had been accompanied by his cousins John and Philip Kieran, who were lost at sea.
On the same page the loss of Neil McNamee, of Ruskey, Convoy, Donegal and his wife was noted. The article stated that he had been in the service of the Derry branch of Lipton (tea merchants) before being transferred to London to take up a position of management of several of the company’s English branches and later to “an important position” with the company in New York. “Both he and his wife sailed in the Titanic and their names do not appear in the list of survivors. The greatest sympathy is felt for his father and mother and other members of his family in the Convoy district,” the ‘Journal’ stated.
From the several columns about the disaster in the ‘Journal’ of April, 19, the international shock at the loss of world’s largest ocean liner was obvious. However, the seeds of decades of conspiracy were also sown with talk of censorship of the survivors in the paper’s column inches. The main headlines stated: ‘Lost Titanic’, ‘The true tale of wreck incidents yet remains untold’, ‘Survivors’ list shortened’, ‘Only 705 saved’.
The article stated: “The true story of what happened aboard the ill-fated Titanic after she struck the icefield is yet to be told. So far all attempts to obtain even brief ‘narratives’ from survivors on board the Carpathia have been fruitless, owing, it is suspected in New York, to censorship.”
The article quoted a cable received by the Derry Journal from New York on the previous evening: “People are of the opinion that censorship appears to exist on board the Carpathia which prevents any response to inquiries about the disaster.” It stated that a wave of requests for information about the disaster was ignored by the rescue ship’s commanders as she made her way towards New York with the survivors. “Even a message from President Taft was relayed by the Chester requesting information, but was not answered.”
Poignantly on the very day the Titanic sank, the Derry Journal featured a page 3 advertisement for the White Star Line company’s transatlantic crossings. The headline on the advertisement stated: ‘Royal mail triple-screw steamers, Olympic (45,324 tons), Titanic (46,328 tons). Largest steamers in the world (Built in Ireland)’. Four days later (April 19) the White Star Line advertisement carried the same headline with one obvious omission. It read ‘Royal mail triple-screw steamers, Olympic (45,324 tons). Largest steamer in the world (Built in Ireland)’. On April 17, the original advertisement had not been updated but the headlines in the paper were clear that the world’s largest liner was no more.
The news was first relayed to Derry Journal readers in the following headline: ‘Largest liner sunk by iceberg on maiden voyage’, ‘An appalling calamity, causing universal grief’, ‘1,490 lives lost.’ The article stated: “There is now unhappily no doubt that the disaster to the Titanic is one of the most appalling catastrophes in maritime history.” The article contains a blow by blow account of the disaster as reported by Lloyds of London and agents in New York, Montreal, and Boston via Reuters news agency.
It also reported that on the previous day “all hopes of any passengers or crew of the Titanic other than those aboard the Carpathia being alive have now been abandoned”.
Interestingly, the lengthy article detailed the survival of another vessel in the ice field - which spelled the end for the Titanic - just a few days prior to the disaster. “She (Niagra) ran into a field of ice and was so badly damaged that the commander sent out an urgent wireless distress call. The crash threw the diners and stewards about the saloon.” However, after examination the distress call was cancelled and the Niagra proceeded on her own steam - in hindsight it was considered a fortunate escape considering what happened to the Titanic days later.
The article also includes an interesting anecdote about a Press representative who inspected the Titanic on the morning of her departure from Southampton. “During the official luncheon on board and just prior to the speech making, one of the tables collapsed. This was much commented upon and the hope was expressed at the time that no mishap would occur to the mammoth liner on her voyage.”
A heart-warming story of a mother receiving confirmation at London’s West End branch of the White Star Line that her children were safe was a notable inclusion in the ‘Journal’ coverage. “As the lists of survivors were posted up they were eagerly scrutinised by crowds of anxious enquirers. One lady stated she had three children going out to join their father and she was following next week. She almost collapsed with joy when she was informed the names of her three children appeared on the official list of survivors.”
For many other mothers, there was no such good news. “Shortly after midnight a long list of survivors belonging to the third class was issued . . . At that time there remained at the offices about a score of men and women awaiting the news of friends of relatives. But to nearly all, the newly issued lists brought only disappointment,” the report stated.
On Sunday April 21, a special memorial service for the victims was held in St Columb’s Cathedral. At meeting of the city council’s Public Health Committee, a Councillor Boyd, expressed his anger at the failure of most of the Corporation members to attend. “If it had have been a hockey match, a golf match or some other social function where they could show themselves off, they would have been there. It was simply ridiculous to see only seven out of the 40 members of the Corporation present,” Colr Boyd fumed.
Such apathy to their duty was not the case with the band on board Titanic, as the ‘Journal’ of April 29 revealed. “Mr Barkworth (an English survivor), who stayed on board the ship to the last, says that towards the end he heard the band playing a waltz. He said: ‘Next time I passed the place where the band had been stationed its members had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen.’ Mr Barkworth states that he will never forget the “fierce jarring notes” of that waltz.
It’s now famously recalled that the band played on until the end, as women and children were first led to the boats, and right up to the point when no further passengers or crew could be saved. For more 1,500 people - including all of the band members assembled for the final session - that waltz (although some newspaper reports and survivors stated it was the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee’) would be the last music they would ever hear.