By Telegraph reporters 14 Mar 2013
The wooden instrument used by Wallace Hartley as the band famously played on while the liner sank was thought to have been lost in the Atlantic in the 1912 disaster. It wasn’t until 2006 when the son of an amateur musician who had been casually given the instrument by her violin teacher unearthed it in the attic of her home. The discovery was almost too good to be true, prompting experts to have the relic forensically examined by some of the most revered scientific bodies in Britain.
Now, after seven years of testing at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds, the water-stained violin has been proven to be the one played by Hartley on the night of the tragedy. These pictures show how incredibly well preserved the rose wood violin is despite its age and it being exposed to the sea for 10 days after the sinking. There are two long cracks on its body that are said to have been opened up by moisture damage.
The photos also show the corroded engraved silver plate screwed onto the base of the fiddle that provided scientists with they key proof of its authenticity. The historic violin, said to be worth a six-figure sum, will go on public display at the Belfast City Hall, where Titanic was built, at the end of this month. Negotiations are also under way to exhibit it in museums around the world including America. It is likely to be auctioned off in the future.
Titanic experts have described it as the most important artifact associated with the infamous liner to have come to light. Within minutes of Titanic striking an iceberg on April 14, 1912, Hartley was instructed to assemble the band and play music in order to maintain calm. The eight musicians gallantly performed on the chilly boat deck of the Titanic while the passengers lined up for the lifeboats. The band carried on until the bitter end, famously playing a final hymn of ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee.’
Hartley, and the other seven band members, perished along with 1,500 passengers and crew when the luxurious vessel sank at 2.20am on April 15. After his body was recovered by the ship the Mackay Bennett 10 days later, the violin wasn’t listed by officials among the inventory of items found in his possession. A newspaper report later stated that Hartley was found fully dressed and with the instrument strapped to his body. The conflicting accounts gave way to the theory that either the violin simply floated off in the Atlantic or was stolen by somebody involved with handling the bodies.
While scientists spent seven years studying the violin, specialist Titanic auctioneers, Henry Aldridge and Son, and a biographer on Wallace Hartley, meticulously researched the story behind it to discover the truth. Their research appears to show that Hartley actually strapped around him his large leather valise – luggage case – in which he placed his violin moments before the sinking.
One theory is that the bag and wooden item would have aided his buoyancy in the water. They also found the transcript of a telegram dated July 19, 1912 in the diary of Hartley’s grieving fiancé, Maria Robinson, to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia. It reads: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.” Miss Robinson had given it to Hartley in 1910 to mark their engagement and had it engraved accordingly.
She had requested its return because of the emotional connection with him. Hartley’s personal effects including his silver cigarette case and a gold signet ring were returned to his his father, Albion Hartley. Mr Hartley Snr later gave these items to Miss Robinson, who never married. She kept the jewellery and violin in the leather case as a shrine to her late fiancé. She died from stomach cancer in 1939 aged 59 at her home in Bridlington, East Yorks.
In dealing with her estate, her sister, Margaret, found Hartley’s leather valise that had his initials of ‘WHH’ on and the violin inside. She gave the bag to the Bridlington Salvation Army and told its leader, a Major Renwick, about the instrument’s association with Titanic. The research shows Maj Renwick in turn gave the valise to one of his members, a local music and violin teacher.
In the early 1940s, the current owner’s mother was a member of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force stationed at Bridlington. She met the music teacher who later dispatched the valise and violin to her. A covering letter that has been found states: “Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.” The unnamed owner inherited the valise and its contents, including the violin and jewellery, years later and contacted Henry Aldridge and Son of Devizes, Wilts.
They took the violin to the Government’s Forensic Science Service in Chepstow which concluded the ‘corrosion deposits’ on it were ‘considered compatible with immersion in sea water.’ An eminent silver expert on the council for the Gemological Association of Great Britain studied the plate on the base of the violin. He confirmed the plate was an original fixture on the violin and the engraving was contemporary with the hallmarks on the panel that were made in 1910.
Andrew Aldridge, of Henry Aldridge and Son, said: “When we first saw the violin we had to keep a lid on our excitement because it was almost as if it was too good to be true. “The silver fish plate on the violin along with the other items it was with, such as the leather case with Hartley’s initials on, his jewellery and covering letter to the owner’s late mother, suggested it was either authentic or an extremely elaborate hoax up there with the Hitler Diaries. “We knew we would have to look into it and it couldn’t be rushed. Everything needed to be researched properly and the correct experts had to be commissioned.
“We have spent the last seven years gathering the evidence together and have now reached the stage where we can say that beyond reasonable doubt this was Wallace Hartley’s violin on the Titanic. “One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the engraved plate which states ‘For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.’
“This not only gives us immediate provenance but it has also been shown that the engraving on it was contemporaneous with the 1910 hallmarking. “It also goes some way to explain why Maria Robinson wanted the violin back and why Hartley took it with him into the water. “It is the most important artifact relating to the Titanic to ever emerge and probably the most valuable. “In all the books and films made about the Titanic, Wallace Hartley is always featured as playing this violin until the end.
“We now know that minutes before the end he placed his beloved violin in this hard-wearing travelling case. “The bag rested on top of his lifejacket and would have largely been kept out of the water. A letter from his mother was found in his breast pocket and that suffered hardly any water damage.”
Craig Sopin, 55, a lawyer from Philidelphia, owns one of the world’s largest collections of Titanic memorabilia. He said: “The research has shown that this is something that I would like to have in my collection, which means I believe it to be 100 per cent genuine. “I am satisfied that is the violin that was on the deck of the Titanic. “Popular belief is that the violin was lost or ferreted away but sometimes miracles happen and it has here. “As far as Titanic memorabilia is concerned it is the most important piece that has ever come up and that includes artifacts’ recovered from the seabed such as the crow’s nest bell.”
Hartley, who died aged 34, was from Colne, Lancs, but later lived in Huddersfield and Dewsbury. He was a musician on board the RMS Mauretania and the RMS Lusitania before joining the Titanic at Southampton in 1912. Author and Wallace Hartley expert, Christian Tennyson-Ekeburg has worked alongside Henry Aldridge and Son on the research and has written a new biography on the bandmaster called ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee.’ He said that Hartley carried his violin and bow in a regular case but chose to place the instrument in his valise before the sinking. The bow was too long for the case, which is why it was not found in it when his body was recovered.
Some items of Hartley’s jewellery, including the cigarette case, will be sold at auction in Devizes next month while the violin will be exhibited.