The destination for history

The story of Wallace Hartley, Titanic bandmaster


One of the most lingering images of the sinking of the Titanic is that of the band playing, regardless of their own safety, while all the lifeboats sailed away. All eight band members perished that night. Their leader was Wallace Hartley, who had not been famous, but had lived a life of relative obscurity, a life he had devoted to music. 

Wallace Hartley was born into a family of textile operatives in the hill town of Colne in Lancashire, where he spent the first half of his life. When Wallace was 17, his father, who, by this time, was doing well in the insurance business, moved the family to Yorkshire, first to Huddersfield, then Leeds and later Dewsbury, where they resided at the time of the tragedy.

After their move to Yorkshire, Wallace managed to persuade his father to allow him to pursue a musical career. He played at the Harrogate Kursaal and led the municipal orchestra in Bridlington. For a time he toured with the Moody-Manners and also the Carl Rosa opera companies. In Leeds he played at the fashionable Collinson’s Orient Cafe. It may have been here that he met Maria Robinson; they planned to marry in the summer of 1912.

Wallace’s musical career next took him to sea and he joined the Cunard line, sailing first on the Lusitania and then joining her sister ship the Mauretania as bandmaster. The day before the Titanic was due to sail, Wallace was asked to transfer from the Mauretania and become bandmaster on this fateful voyage. He reluctantly agreed.  When the Titanic struck the iceberg, the band was called upon to play in order to allay panic and to maintain an atmosphere of calm. In the final chaos, as the last lifeboats drifted away, someone fancied they heard the hymn ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. The news quickly spread around the world and the musicians gained fame overnight. What was actually played in that dreadful moment is a matter of debate, but the image of the band playing the hymn has become legend and will live on.

What happened after the great ship sank? Cable ships were sent out from Halifax, Nova Scotia and over two hundred bodies were recovered from the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Among them was Wallace Hartley. He was brought back to distraught parents and a heart-broken fiancée, and was given a civic funeral in the town that had given birth to him. Over 20,000 people crowded the streets to see this modest but heroic man make his final journey. Wallace Hartley’s grave is on a hillside in Colne.

Over a hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic and the recovery of Wallace’s body, the violin he used on that fateful journey was sold at auction for £900,000 – a world record sum for Titanic memorabilia.

Titanic violin goes to auction

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books