Theatre group tells tales of heartbreak blotted from local folklore for years
Like Belfast, Southampton, which lost almost 600 people when the ‘Titanic’ sank, is rediscovering its connections with the liner, writes MARK HENNESSYin Southampton
TEDDIE SIMMONS was given a bundle of letters on his 21st birthday by his mother that held the story of her relationship with his father, Freddie, a Titanic saloon steward lost in the sinking.
Yesterday, at the rear of St Joseph’s Church in the port city, Teddie’s daughter Mary South said: “My father gave me that bundle in 1982 and asked me, ‘Will you find my father?’
Like others in the city, she had been told little of the sinking in her childhood, bar her father’s one-time declaration that “your grandfather died when a big ship went down”.
This week, Mary South and a cast of several dozen have brought the stories of Titanic’s last days and its little-known aftermath onto the streets of the Hampshire city.
More than 500 locals died when Titanic sunk; all bar a dozen were crew hired for the duration of the journey by the White Star Line from the narrow streets around the docks.
Six alone from Hanley Street were lost. For years, the city blotted the horror from local folklore. White Star, an influential local employer, never wanted it mentioned. Widows bore their grief quietly.
However, the tragedy of the 1,500 dead was overwhelmed by the tragedies to follow in the years after Titanic’s loss, argues South, a local historian of note: “When my father went to school, he was never mocked for not having a dad. So many of them were like that after the first World War
and the flu epidemic that followed. It was no big deal. People lost their parents all the time. That was the way that many felt,” she said.
South’s street theatre group, the Sarah Siddon Fan Club, began their enactment in Holyrood Church, emphasising the suffering that followed in the years afterwards for the bereaved.
The church, which was later bombed by the Nazis in 1940 and today remains unroofed, holds the memorial fountain erected with their subscriptions.
It was one of few memorials. White Star refused to return the bodies found to Southampton for burial, unless a £20 sum was paid, burying them instead in graves in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Later, the theatre group relived the fateful chances that saw a hotel bell-boy get a job onboard just days before Titanic departed; and crewman Tom Slade staying alive because he got drunk and missed the sailing.
In the months that followed, almost £500,000 was raised by an appeal, but many families lived later in “direst poverty”, according to records from welfare inspectors, which were recounted on the street.
“One woman with seven children was absolutely penniless. Another with six, and one on the way, had nothing. Money received had gone on rent and discharging debts,” they went on.
However, Mary South urges caution: “You can’t judge people back then by the standards of today. It was normal that ship pay was stopped the moment a ship went down.”
For some, the night to remember became a lifetime’s curse. Fred Fleet hanged himself in 1965 after his wife died, with many believing that he had never overcome survivor’s guilt.
Charles Lightholler, the most senior officer to survive, was declared a hero by the American inquiry into the disaster. However, believing that he was
an unwelcome reminder of events best forgotten, Lightholler was never given his own ship by the White Star Line.
In 1940 he took his own pleasure boat, Sundowner, as one of “the little ships” to Dunkirk to rescue stranded British expeditionary forces. He brought home 130.
Annie Robinson was one who survived the Titanic’s sinking only to die two years later. Onboard the Devonian she became frantic when it entered heavy fog and leapt overboard to her death.