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The Titanic Musicians

From Walter Lord’s Book, “The Night Lives On”

Whatever (music) they played (that night), they achieved immortality.  The bravery of these men, trying to bring hope and comfort to others without a thought to their own safety, captured the public’s imagination allover the world.  Editorials, speeches, sermons, and reams of worshipful poetry celebrated the deed, and letters of condolence poured into the homes of the bereaved. Tucked in with the tributes received by the family of violinist Jock Hume, was a letter to his father that sounded a strangely jarring note.  Dated April 30, 1912 – just two weeks after the tragedy – it contained no words of sympathy, just a short, crisp reminder:

Dear Sir:
We shall be obliged if you will remit to us the sum of 5s. 4d., which is owning to us as per enclosed statement. We shall also be obliged if you will settle the enclosed uniform account.
Yours faithfully,

C.W. & F. N. Blac

The “enclosed uniform account” included such items as a lyre lapel insignia (2 shillings) and sewing White Star buttons on a tunic (I shilling).  Altogether, Hume’s account added up to a grand total of 14s. 7d. – or about $3.50 in American money.

C. W. and F. N. Black, who so diligently pursued their $3.50, were Jock Hume’s agents, and any entertainer or writer today who complains about his agent would do well to ponder the situation in 1912.  He might find things are not so bad after all.

Until 1912 the various steamship lines dealt directly with their musicians, signing them up as members of the crew like stewards, firemen, and ordinary seamen.  The pay was union scale, which worked out at £6 10s. a month, plus a monthly uniform allowance of 10s.

Then the Blacks entered the picture.  An enterprising talent agency based in Liverpool, they promised the steamship companies a simpler and cheaper way to good music.  One after another the companies signed contracts, giving the Blacks the exclusive right to supply bands to their vessels.  The musicians still signed the ship’s articles for a token shilling a month (putting them clearly under the captain’s authority), but they were now really working for the Blacks, and could get no jobs except through the Blacks.

Since the musicians worked for the Blacks or not at all, they had to take what the Blacks were willing to pay them-which turned out to be a sharp cut in salary.  Instead of a basic pay of £6 10s., they now got only £4. Instead of a uniform allowance of 10s. a month, they now got nothing at all.  The terms of employment were also hard: if the steamship company objected to any musician, the Blacks had the right to remove the man without any investigation or explanation.

The Amalgamated Musicians Union protested without success.  Only some of the bandsmen belonged, and in any case, these were not the times for strong union action.

Finally, early in March 1912, a delegation from the union waited upon Bruce Ismay.  As Managing Director of the White Star Line, Ismay was a mover and shaker in the British shipping industry, and maybe he could be persuaded to do something.  The great Olympic was about to sail from Southampton, and the delegation pointed out that her five-man band was being paid at less than union scale, supplemented only by the monthly shilling that White Star paid to make them officially members of the crew.

If the delegation expected to melt Ismay’s heart, they didn’t know their man.  He replied that if the union objected to White Star carrying its bandsmen as members of the crew at a shilling a month, the company would carry them as passengers.

Sure enough, when the Olympic reached New York on March 20, her five musicians were listed as Second Class passengers.  All had regular tickets, and all had to appear before the immigration officials in the usual way.  As a crowning irony in view of the reason for this masquerade, all had to produce $50 in cash to show that they were not destitute.

The masquerade continued when the Titanic sailed.  She, of course, had not only the standard five-man band, but the special trio added for the Cafe Parisien.  Hence there were now eight extra names on the Second Class passenger list.  Otherwise nothing had changed: the musicians still had the same cramped quarters on E Deck (next to the potato washer), and certainly none of the “perks” of passengers.  When they played that last night, they played as disciplined members of the ship’s crew, not as a group of talented passenger-volunteers.

It was natural, then, for the musicians’ families to turn first to the White Star Line for financial benefits under the Workmen’s Compensation Act.  Sorry, said White Star, the bandsmen were Second Class passengers and not covered by the Act.  The Line suggested that the families contact C. W. and F. N. Black, the real employers.

Sorry, said the Blacks. The problem wasn’t their responsibility.  They carried insurance to cover such matters, and any claims should be laid at the insurer’s door. Sorry, said the insurance company, the bandsmen were not workmen as covered by the policy.  They were independent contractors, using the Blacks as a booking agency, and the insurance company was under no liability.

Months passed while White Star, the Blacks, and the insurer tossed this hot potato back and forth.  Finally, in exasperation the families took the Blacks to court.  The judge was sympathetic, but that was all.  The bandsmen, he decided, were not the employees of anybody.  They were passengers in the case of the White Star Line, and independent contractors in the case of the Blacks and the insurers

With the legalities settled, the musicians’ union made a final appeal to White Star’s sense of moral responsibility: “Three families lost their only sons – three young men ranging from 21 to 24 years of age, cut off in the prime of their life while performing an act of heroism that stirred the whole world to its depths.  Surely there is something for the White Star Company to consider over and above the mere terms of an Act of Parliament.”  It did no good.

In the end, the day was saved by the “Titanic Relief Fund,” an umbrella organization that was set up to manage the charitable contributions that poured in from all over the world.  On January 2, 1913 the Fund announced that it would treat the musicians as though they were members of the crew.  This opened the door at last to adequate benefits.  Welcome news, but no thanks to the White Star Line.  To the end it maintained, as far as I can determine, that the musicians were no more than Second Class passengers.

While this shabby little business was unfolding behind the scenes, front-stage the drama of the band’s heroism continued.  On May 18 there occurred one of those great public funerals, dripping with melancholy pageantry, that the Victorians and Edwardians did so well.  Bandmaster Wallace Hartley’s body had been retrieved from the ice-strewn waters off Newfoundland, and now he was coming home to his final rest.

Seven bands played as his rosewood casket, borne shoulder-high, was carried through the winding streets of Colne, Hartley’s birthplace in the hills of Lancashire. Aldermen, councillors, ambulance men, police, boys’ brigades, and musicians from all over England fell in behind – the procession was a half-mile long.  Thousands lined the route; most wore black or white, but occasionally there were mill girls in their drab shawls and miners in their blue overalls. All business had stopped for the day.  At the steep hillside cemetery, as the casket was lowered into the grave, a dozen Boy Scouts raised their bugles and sounded “The Last Post.”  The notes echoed off the neighboring hills, drowning out the squabbling and petty maneuvers for that day at least.

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One Response to “The Titanic Musicians”

  1. Barbara Kaslow says:

    Thank you for this story! There were so many things done wrong by The White Star Line which really sunk The Titanic before it had a chance at achieving a safe trans-Atlantic crossing. The treatment of these brave, talented musicians does not surprise me. The Blacks agency behavior was much worse-because they did nothing in service to their clients-the musicians. The Blacks inappropriately saw only the cruise lines or other such businesses as actual clients.
    “The Last Post” in Lancashire is a magnificent chapter in the history of The Titanic.
    I hope even more will come out about as we study the Titanic.

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