5:50pm Friday 13th April 2012
By Peter Magill
THE heroics of the bandmaster who played on as the Titanic sank has touched the hearts of millions - but had an even greater impact on the fiancee he left behind.
Colne-born Wallace Hartley was engaged to Maria Robinson when he boarded the ill-fated White Star liner in April 1912, and the couple were only months away from marriage.
Hartley’s name lived on as his band played on, as the giant vessel plunged into the Atlanic, 100 years ago tomorrow.
But little has been known about his wife-to-be, who lived in relative obscurity until her death from stomach cancer in Bridlington, in June 1939.
Now librarian-turned-author Darran Ward, in his new book Playing To The End, has unearthed some rare early photos of Wallace and Maria, which casts new light on the musician’s early life and their courtship.
He is convinced that Maria, the daughter of a renowned Yorkshire industrialist, remained ‘heartbroken’ for the rest of her days.
“She never married and lived with her mother and sister until 1930, while her brother took over the family firm,” he said.
“Everyone I talk to is interested in this romantic story, of Maria and Wallace, there is a picture of her holding a handkerchief at the funeral, in a newspaper supplement from the time, and people want to know what happens next.
“What makes this book different is it’s not only about the journey but follows in his footsteps, from his choir to performing in smaller muscial venues to becoming a musician on board cruise ships.”
The 43-year-old Colne librarian first became enthralled by the White Star liner’s tortured saga as a youngster.
But it was not until 1985, when he was asked to sort out a box of old books, that his interest mushroomed.
Among them was a bound copy of the Daily Graphic from 1912, featuring a spread on the first-class passengers who perished.
He said: “I asked myself - ‘why did it sink’ and that was my inspiration for collecting things associated with the Titanic.”
In time he became an authority on the disaster and he penned articles for the likes of Time Life and Hello magazines.
With the centenary approaching he began to consider an in-depth biography of Wallace Hartley, including his early life in Colne.
When he discovered rare photos of Hartley’s fiancee Maria Robinson, and a younger Wallace, he knew he was on to something.
An astonishing 40,000 people lined the streets of Colne for his funeral on May 18, to pay tribute to the violinist as his cortege wound its way to the town's cemetery, clearly showing the pride people felt for the man and his band’s unwavering sense of duty.
That duty was later to be immortalised in print and on the silver screen, but his parents Albion and Elizabeth were adamant he would make his final journey along the streets where he grew up and served as a choirboy at the Bethel Chapel.
Born in Greenfield Hill, Colne on June 2, 1878, the musician grew up at addresses in Albert Road and Burnley Road, in Colne, and Carr Road, Nelson.
He was educated at the former Wesleyan Day School in George Street, where he first picked up a violin aged 12. His first job was as a clerk at the Union Bank (now Barclay’s) in Colne.
Hartley went on to become a leading light of Colne Orchestral Society, in the early 1890s, before forging a career as a professional musician via several notable Yorkshire and north-west appointments.
Before his Titanic engagement he was a seasoned traveller, having performed on board regularly on the likes of the Luistania and Mauretania.
The tragic maestro's example has never been forgotten in the Pendle town.
Nigel Hampson, who opened the Titanic in Lancashire Museum, at the Old Grammar School in Colne last August, has seen for himself the legacy which Hartley has left, having recently welcomed his 2,000th visitor.
He is part way through a project to document the tales of each passenger or crew member, from within Lancashire’s old boundaries, and he has been encouraged by the response of schoolchildren to the exploits of Hartley and the lessons of the Titanic.
He said: “I receive letters all the time about how they enjoy it - each generation seems to stumble upon the story on its own merits.
“But it is not just the story of a horrible disaster, there are so many different things they can learn about history, society and sea travel.”
Yesterday a new memorial to Hartley was dedicated at the musem by the Rev Tony Rindl, rector of St Bartholomew’s Church in Colne.
Rev Rindl was one of the driving forces of the memorial committee, which drew up plans for the current festival, and he spoke at the launch of the example which Hartley set to youngsters, even today.
For Mr Hampson, the appeal is clear: “Hartley is held in very high esteem - this is the man who, while the ship was sinking, assembled his orchestra and they played for a lot of the popular music of the day, ragtime numbers, while the lifeboats were being launched.
“Eventually it got worse and worse, it’s clear there are not enough lifeboats for everyone, and a great many will be left to drown.
“It is not until the ship is almost vertical that Wallace Hartley releases the orchestra, telling them they had done what they could.
“Then he starts playing ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ and the rest of the orchestra turns around and they stay with him, playing on. And of course of the eight musicians, only three bodies were ever recovered.”
Hundreds of tourists have descended on Colne to discover Hartley’s roots for themselves and take part in the Pendle Council festival programme, commemorating his East Lancashire heritage.
Even the slight controversy over the naming of the town’s Wetherspoon's pub - a little clumsy when considering that Hartley and his family were afirmedly teetotal Independent Methodists - has failed to dampen Colne’s fascination with one of its most famous sons.
His bust still stands proud off Albert Road, where people have begun to lay floral tributes, and his white-marble family vault in the Keighley Road cemetery gleams on the hillside.
And generations of Colners can be rightly satisified that, when the chips were down, one of their own knew his place, while around him succumbed to the sea, and he played on.
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