Fr Browne's 'Titanic' legacy

Sat, Apr 7, 2012, 01:00

The only photographs taken of ‘Titanic’ on its single voyage were by the Irish Jesuit trainee Frank Browne. What happened to them and to their taker? ROSITA BOLAND  reports

CARRYING A PLAUBEL camera, he was one of only eight people who disembarked from Titanic at Cobh on April 11th, 1912, and his name was Frank Browne. When the ship sank, four days later, Browne, who had embarked at Southampton, found he was the only person with photographs of the ship at sea. He took them between Southampton and Cobh, via Cherbourg, where Titanic had also briefly docked. No other photographs have ever emerged of Titanic at sea on its maiden voyage, and, a century on, it seems certain no others exist.

Browne was then in training to be a Jesuit priest. Many of those he met on the ship died. A gymnasium teacher named TW McCawley, for instance, whom Browne had photographed and whose card he had taken, was lost, along with other passengers and crew he would have met in his first-class accommodation.

Afterwards, there was considerable interest in Browne’s photographs, and he negotiated with various newspapers and journals for their publication. Virtually every book published about Titanic ever since has reproduced his photographs. He also took the last photograph of Capt Edward Smith, as Smith leaned out to starboard over the emergency cutter known as Lifeboat No 1 – capacity 40, but later lowered with only 12 people.

Frank Browne went on to become Fr Browne, a decorated chaplain at the front with the Irish Guards during the first World War, a war that fellow his Jesuit and chaplain Fr Willie Doyle did not survive. In 1920 he put together his own private album of photographs of the liner, with handwritten captions, known simply as the Titanic Album.

He later became the superior of St Xavier’s church on Gardiner Street in Dublin, and then part of the Jesuits’ Missions team based at Emo Court, in Co Laois. During all these years he took thousands of photographs, but his most famous images by far continued to be those of Titanic. Browne died in 1960 and is buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

In the mid 1980s Fr Eddie O’Donnell, who had never met Browne, was regularly tasked with retrieving archival material from the L-shaped basement of Loyola House on Eglinton Road in Dublin. One day he pulled out a large black canvas steamer trunk from the bottom of a cupboard.“Once we pulled it out I could see ‘Fr Browne’s photographs’ chalked on the lid. It still meant nothing to me,” O’Donnell says.

The trunk contained 42,000 captioned negatives of Browne’s photographs. Ever since, O’Donnell has curated the archive, publishing several books of the pictures in the process.

At Emo Court, which the Jesuits used as a novitiate, Browne made a lab in his bedroom and developed film in a bath in one of the communal bathrooms. “I heard that whenever one of the lads wanted to have a plunge, they’d find the bath full of film, with a permanent purple ring mark around it,” O’Donnell says.

Emo Court is now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works. A permanent Browne-themed exhibition, focusing on his life and work, is currently in development there.

Many surviving Jesuits who entered Emo as teenagers remember Browne. One thing their memories have in common is of a man who seemed impossibly old. “Irascible and crotchety,” as Fr Brian Grogan says. “He struck me as a very old man. He shuffled,” says Fr Noel Barber. “He seemed to us to be quite an elderly man,” says Fr Thomas Morrissey. “He had a very short fuse,” says Fr Paul Andrews, who met him in 1944. Despite this, Browne showed Andrews a kindness he still recalls.

“In 1944, parents were only allowed to visit once a year. My sister got married in 1945, and I couldn’t go to the wedding; journeys away during novitiate were felt to be too disruptive. In 1946 Frank Browne was going to Omagh, and he knew one of the noviaties – me – was from there. He got my address and went to visit my family.” Browne photographed Andrews’s mother, younger brother and family dog, then gave him the pictures. In an era when communication was limited, photographs from home brought the family to him.

Browne was 73 when Fr Barber, of Gonzaga, met him first. It was generally known that Browne had been on Titanic, although very little was made of it at the time. He never gave any formal talks to the noviates about the experience. “All I can say is, God bless the person who gave him the money to go, and God bless the person who told him to get off the ship, so the photographs didn’t go to the bottom of the sea.”

Barber recalls a fierce temper. “If you were serving his Mass and you made a mistake, he would definitely let you know. We had a saying: you know you should be very careful to control your temper when you’re young, otherwise you’ll be like Fr Browne when you’re old.”

Fr John Looby of Leeson Street points out that the camera gave Browne access to “all sorts of places”. These included the Marconi room on Titanic, a working space that was closed to other passengers. “He seemed to be able to mix with people of all classes . . . He learned how to relate to people by being a photographer.”

It was 1920 before Browne put together his album. The original photographs are in the small format of the period, and under them he inscribed captions in his ornate copperplate. “Waterloo station, 9.45am Wednesday April 10th 1912, The first and last Titanic Special,” reads the caption. Another reads, “In the Marconi Room. Mr Harold Bride, afterwards saved, sitting at the table. Two exposures on the one plate! This is the only photo ever taken of the Marconi room of the Titanic.”

The album was kept safe by the Jesuit community after Fr Browne’s death, latterly in a bank in Dublin, until floods in its premises late last year destroyed some of the items held for safekeeping. The Titanic album – last valued, over a decade ago, at £2 million, according to the Jesuit archivist Damien Burke – was not one of the damaged items.

Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge Son, a Wiltshire-based auction house specialising in Titanic memorabilia, says it is “definitely a very valuable piece” but cannot put a value on it. The Irish Times has seen the album, still in near- perfect condition after 92 years. It will fascinate anyone with an interest in the ship.

The Dublin Jesuits gave Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ to the National Gallery of Ireland when it was discovered in one of their houses. Have they considered putting Browne’s collection on show? Fr O’Donnell says he has “advanced plans for the public display of the album”, which he will reveal this year. It seems we will all soon have an opportunity to see this important piece of the Titanic story.