Icebergs and growlers, 1912
A forlorn task, sensitively recounted
Two icebergs now clearly in sight, the nearest is over a hundred feet high at the tallest peak, and an impressive sight, a solid mass of ice, against which the sea dashes furiously…
The story of the RMS Titanic and its fateful voyage across the Atlantic 110 years ago is well documented, but any disaster of that magnitude entails a considerable clean-up operation which is often less well known.
One of the forlorn tasks was to retrieve as many bodies as could be found, and soon after the sinking, four ships were dispatched from Canada, each laden with coffins and embalming supplies,1 and attended by priests and undertakers. A total of 1514 people (out of an estimated 2224 passengers and crew on board) died, but only 333 bodies could be recovered, all but five of them by those Canadian ships.
The first of those ships to reach the site was the CS Mackay-Bennett; she had been launched in 1884 as a cable-laying and repair vessel, built in Glasgow and registered in London, but commissioned by the Commercial Cable Company in North America to work on cables across the Atlantic (and including near Plymouth, England). This ship had already seen action in various rescues because of her being in the Atlantic.
The Mackay-Bennett set sail on Wednesday 17th April 1912 across rough seas, packed with 100 coffins and as many tons of ice to help with storage. The crew were given double pay – and at least three of them kept a log of their experiences. The most detailed to have survived is that of engineer Frederick Hamilton.2 Hamilton’s feelings about the work are entirely understandable:
It has been an ardous task for those who have had to overhaul and attend to the remains, the searching, numbering, and identifying of each body, depositing the property found on each in a bag marked with a number corresponding to that attached to the corpse, the sewing up in canvas and securing of weights, entailed prolonged and patient labour. The Embalmer is the only man to whom the work is pleasant, I might add without undue exaggeration, enjoyable, for to him it is a labour of love, and the pride of doing a job well.
After a lot of digging for details of Hamilton himself, I found records of electrical engineers at Ancestry.com listing a Frederic Adam Hamilton based in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the early 1900s. (He also appears in the crew lists for the Mackay-Bennett at Canada’s Maritime History Archive.) And this unlocked other references – notably an obituary – and these sources combine to reveal he was born in Buckland, Kent. The obituary says this was in 1840, although the 1911 census for Plymouth says he was 56 and the Mackay-Bennett crew list for 1912 says he was 57… The obituary also says he had been held prisoner in Italy during Garibaldi’s revolution (which would need him to have been born around 1840, certainly), and undertook a great deal of important cable-laying work; he died on 19 December 1912 and is buried in Dartmouth, Halifax County. I’ve also found an article by him in an issue of The Canadian from 1895, entitled ‘Laying a submarine cable’ and he even co-owned a US patent from 1883 for a type of submarine telegraph cable. Altogether an impressive career, even if his age is a bit mysterious – was he lying for the census and the crew list so he could still work in his 70s? Or have two men of the same name got conflated in that obituary?
Either way, Frederic was clearly a very experienced cable engineer, and proved a sensitive recorder of events in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. Here is an extract of his diary of the retrieval operation.
The fine weather which has prevailed until now, has turned to rain and fog. We spoke to the Royal Edward by wireless to-day, she lay east of us, and reported icebergs, and growlers (lumps of ice, some of considerable size). At 6.p.m. the fog very dense, lowered cutter and picked up an Allan Line lifebelt.
Strong south-westily [sic] breeze, beam swell and lumpy sea. French liner Rochambeau near us last night, reported icebergs, and the Royal Edward reported one thirty miles east of the Titanic’s position. The Rhine passed us this afternoon, and reported having seen icebergs, wreckage and bodies, at 5.50.p.m. The Bremen passed near us, she reported having seen, one hour and a half before, bodies etc. This means about twenty five miles to the east. 7.p.m. A large iceberg, faintly discernible to our north, we are now very near the area were lie the ruins of so many human hopes and prayers. The Embalmer becomes more and more cheerful as we approach the scene of his future professional activities, to-morrow will be a good day for him. The temperature of the sea at noon today was 57˚, by 4.p.m. it was 32˚.
Two icebergs now clearly in sight, the nearest is over a hundred feet high at the tallest peak, and an impressive sight, a solid mass of ice, against which the sea dashes furiously, throwing up geyser like columns of foam, high over the topmost summit, smothering the great mass at times completely in a cascade of spume as it pours over the snow and breaks into feathery crests on the polished surface of the berg, causing the whole ice-mountain, which glints like a fairy building, to oscillate twenty to thirty feet from the vertical. The ocean is strewn with a litter of woodwork, chairs, and bodies, and there are several growlers about, all more or less dangerous, as they are often hidden in the swell. The cutter lowered, and work commenced and kept up continuously all day, picking up bodies. Hauling the soaked remains in saturated clothing over the side of the cutter is no light task. Fifty-one we have taken on board today, two children, three women, and forty-six men, and still the sea seems strewn. With the exception of ourselves, the bosun bird is the only living creature here.
5.p.m. The two bergs are now in transit, the heavy swell has been rolling all day, must be a gale somewhere.
8.p.m. The tolling of the bell summoned all hands to the forecastle where thirty bodies are ready to be committed to the deep, each carefully weighed and carefully sewn up in canvas. It is a weird scene, this gathering. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us, as the ship lays wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Reverent Canon Hind, for nearly an hour the words '“For as must as it hath pleased —— we therefore commit his body to the deep” are repeated and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles. Splash, splash, splash.3
We steamed close past the iceberg today, and endeavoured to photograph it, but rain is falling and we do not think the results will be satisfactory. We are now standing eastwards amongst great quantities of wreckage. Cutter lowered to examine a lifeboat, but it is too smashed to tell anything, even the name is not visible. All round is splintered woodwork, cabin fittings, mahogany fronts of drawers, carvings, all wrenched away from their fastenings, deck chairs, and then more bodies. Some of these are fifteen miles distant from those picked up yesterday.
8.p.m. Another burial service.
Icebergs and growlers still in sight. Both cutters busy all day recovering bodies, rain and fog all the afternoon, fog at times very dense…
Still dense fog prevailing, rendering further operations with the boats almost impossible. We hear that the Sardinia is waiting some thirty miles away.
Noon. Another burial service held, and seventy seven bodies follow the other. The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join sympathetically in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hind, all combine to make a strange task stranger. Cold, wet, miserable and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy.
Hamilton’s report ends on 30th April, when he noted “with not one life to show, thousands come to see the landing, and the papers burst out into blazing headlines”.
On a different note, if you’re interested in following me on a literary/historical walk across central London next Friday (29th) – in real time and against the clock! – do join me on Twitter. (Histories also has its own Twitter account here, by the way.)
Apparently regulations meant that bodies had to be embalmed before they could be returned.
The retrieval operations prioritised returning the bodies of first-class passengers to port, with more lowly passengers and crew mostly buried at sea.