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

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market -

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

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