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Extraordinary Journey of the Violin that Played while Titanic Sank – Now it’s in Tennessee

Ian Harvey
The Hartley violin next to the Titanic wreck.
The Hartley violin next to the Titanic wreck.

Of all of the artifacts collected from RMS Titanic, the violin played by bandleader Wallace Hartley as the ship was sinking has garnered the most emotion. Presently housed in the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, it will be on display until December of 2020.

For years people have been touched and fascinated by the story of the Titanic’s musicians playing to help calm passengers during the disaster, ending their set with Nearer My God To Thee before going down with the ship. Wallace Hartley’s violin was a part of this extraordinary and heartbreaking scene. It started out as an engagement gift from his fiancée Maria Robinson.

A silver plaque was affixed to the tailpiece to commemorate the occasion in 1910. It was originally believed to be in its case strapped to the back of Hartley when his body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett on April 25th but there was no documentation from the recovery ship that specifically noted a musical instrument. This made what seemed like a no brainer task in identifying the authenticity much more challenging.

Hartley violin

Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley’s Violin, who many say played as the ship sank. (Photo by Tim Ireland/PA Images via Getty Images)

According to Encyclopedia Titanica, several newspapers in both England and Halifax Canada, where most of the bodies were taken, reported the bandleader’s music case had been found with him but there was no direct reference to the violin. However, Maria’s diary made note of the heartfelt thanks she felt to the provincial secretary of Halifax who had returned the violin to her in an entry recorded on the 16th of July 1912, over three months after the tragedy. Further proof came from the 1911 British census which recorded a Maria Robinson living at the same address the diary had indicated was hers.

Titanic

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.

When Maria died in 1939, her sister took the violin and its case to the local Salvation Army where it was gifted to the bandmaster who then gave it to an instructor. It made its way through several family members to the present owner who, in 2013, bought it for $1.7 million from Henry Aldridge & Son Ltd., a primary auction house for Titanic memorabilia in Devizes, Wiltshire, England.

With such a substantial price tag, it was imperative to conclusively authenticate the instrument. Because of this, Alan and Andrew Aldridge consulted experts in several fields for their opinions. Michael Jones, of the United Kingdom Forensic Science Service, confirmed that the corrosion found on the metal parts was consistent with immersion in saltwater and was similar to other metal objects recovered.

Titanic wreck

The bow of the wrecked RMS Titanic, photographed in June 2004

The former head of Sotheby’s Auction House musical instruments department, Andrew Hooker, claimed it was a factory-produced German violin dated between 1880 and 1900 and would have been inexpensive enough for Maria to afford yet have sufficient quality that Hartley could have used it to make a living. The Aldridge family also took the instrument to a nearby hospital and had it CT scanned which revealed cracks that would be consistent with trauma.

The glue used in the manufacturing process would have withstood the cold seawater. Some may argue that Hartley would have been more concerned with trying to stay above water than trying to keep his violin safe, but, according to historian Stuart Kelly, Hartley’s mother had been quoted as saying, he “would die clasping his violin. He was passionately attached to his instrument.” It was his living and a keepsake from the woman he loved.

Wallace Henry Hartley joined the crew of the Titanic with his violin as bandmaster having previously worked on the Mauretania as a violinist; he had also led orchestras in small English towns near Dewsbury England, his home at the time the Titanic set sail. He had spent some time in Boston Spa in Yorkshire with Maria before traveling to Liverpool to board the Titanic.

Related Article: First Images of Titanic in 14 Years Raise Alarms that it Could Soon be Lost

When the ship sailed on its maiden voyage and struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, he was thirty-three years old. Wallace’s body was returned to Liverpool aboard the White Star Line’s ship SS Arabic and loaded into a hearse set for Colne, Lancashire where he had grown up. He was buried in Keighley Road Cemetery in Colne.