Unlocking the secrets of RMS
The greatest maritime disaster in history, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the First World War recalled in a clutch of fascinating lots
THE hold of Titanic on the public imagination does not diminish, even though 104 years have passed since her encounter with the iceberg and we are currently refighting the First World War centenary by centenary. Of course, the sinking of the unsinkable does have everything —hubris, tragedy, heroism— and, in some half-conscious way, the great loss of life and completeness of the disaster have come to seem a forerunner of the much greater slaughter that followed two years later.
Hollywood and the discovery of the wreck have helped to keep the memory alive and fascination extends from Titanic herself to her sister ships and the White Star Line as a whole. Henry Aldridge & Son of Devizes holds twice-yearly sales of Titanic memorabilia together with items connected to such similarly ‘iconic’ events as the Scott polar expeditions. So far, the most exp- ensive relic is the violin owned by Wallace Hartley, the ship’s band leader, which sold for £1.1 million in 2013.
Last month, the latest of these sales included a humdrum item given extraordinary resonance by its associations. This was a corroded iron key with a brass tag marked ‘Locker 14 F Deck’ (Fig 1), which had belonged to the second 3rd Class steward Sidney Sedunary, whose dedication to duty during the sinking was recorded in evidence given at the subsequent official enquiry. He and the chief steward went right through the aft sections of F and E decks ensuring that everyone had lifebelts.
His own body is not reported to have been wearing a belt when it was recovered with 305 others by the cable-repair ship Mackay-bennett. Class distinctions persisted in death: 116 3rdclass corpses, including crew members, were buried at sea because the vessel only had coffins, embalming materials and ice enough for the 1st class.
The 23 year old’s body and possessions were logged as: ‘Male.— estimated age, 25. Brown hair, light moustache. Clothing— Blue serge suit; black boots and socks; uniform coat and waistcoat, with buttons. Tattoo on right arm—anchor and rose. Effects— gold ring; knife; nickel watch; pawn ticket; pipe; ship’s keys; 20s.; $1.40; 8 francs 50.’
These effects were returned to his pregnant wife of less than a year. The watch, now in the Seacity Museum, Southampton, had stopped at 2.20am. In 1981, the locker key, together with coins, were given by his posthumous son to an Australian relative, whose descendants recently passed it to Aldridge’s for sale. Together with related letters, it was estimated to £50,000 and such is Titanic enthusiasm that it sold for £102,850.
Another ‘iconic’ event that also has its devotees, although this time without any tragedy attached to it, is the Great Exhibition of 1851. As someone with an interest in it (but emphatically not a collector), I would be grateful to readers who can point me to any items that were provably purchased or shown in the Crystal Palace on that occasion. This is for a possible publishing venture. We will not be interested in things connected to the later history of the palace, or the later exhibitions held there, but we would like to hear of even family traditions that link to 1851.
Thus, a lot in a mid-october sale at Lawrences of Crewkerne caught my eye. It was a 5½in-high Victorian glass vase of flowers under a glass dome (Fig 3), which was ‘by family repute believed to have been bought from the Great Exhibition’. It certainly looks very likely, although I have
Fig 1: Iron locker key from RMS Titanic. £102,850 together with coins and letters Fig 2: Chinese Ming-style bowl in Xuande style. £10,112. Fig 3: Victorian glass vase of flowers. £430