By Joey Butler
Since 1955, April 15 has signified Tax Day in the United States—a pretty tragic date in our minds. But prior to that, April 15 always marked an even larger tragedy: the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
This year marked the 99th anniversary of the famous shipwreck that claimed almost 1,500 lives, and as the centennial draws nearer, interest in the event is ramping up.
Of note to United Methodists is the fact that two of the members of the famed Titanic band were Methodists themselves.
A recently released book by music journalist Steve Turner detailing the lives of the musicians cites the Methodist heritage of bandleader and violinist Wallace Hartley and cellist John Wesley Woodward, and speculates how their faith influenced their decision to play until the last.
In The Band That Played On, Turner wrote: “[Hartley’s] moral character and his personal assurance that death was not the end must have stirred his bandsmen. Together as a band under Hartley’s leadership, they transcended their personal limitations.”
Wallace Hartley was raised in Colne, England. His father, Albion Hartley, was choirmaster and Sunday school superintendent at Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel. Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come, it was choirmaster Hartley who introduced the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to the congregation.
Colne had deep ties to Methodism, although its introduction to the movement wasn’t the best first impression. Several times John Wesley visited the mill town, which had a tough reputation, and was always met with opposition and, in some cases, violence. During one visit, he was met by an angry mob, and one of his helpers was thrown to his death off a bridge.
However, Methodism was eventually embraced in Colne, and Methodist chapels sprang up there.
Born in 1878, young Wallace studied at Colne’s Methodist day school, sang in Bethel’s choir, and learned violin from a congregation member.
Less is known about the band member with the most “Methodist” name—John Wesley Woodward—but the cellist was raised in the Methodist tradition, and his father was an officer at Hill Top Methodist Chapel in West Bromwich, England.
That fateful night. The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, but its band was hired in Liverpool, making them, behind The Beatles, maybe the second-most famous band to emerge from that port city.
Hartley was among three of eight Titanic musicians who were engaged to marry in the summer of 1912. Sadly, like many of his bandmates, Hartley’s intent was to make this his last sea voyage and return home to concert work instead.
Owing to the contract they’d signed with their Liverpool management, the musicians were considered second-class passengers, rather than part of the crew. Therefore, they were not under the order of the captain.
A crowd of 40,000 lined the streets of Colne, England, to witness the May 18, 1912, funeral procession of Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley.
When the ship struck the iceberg around 11:40 p.m. on April 14, the band would have already finished playing for the night. Yet, something led them to gather up their instruments and head to the first-class lounge. One survivor later claimed that, as she passed the men, one of them told her they were “just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit.”
“No one knows for sure why the band played,” Turner said. “We do know that Wallace Hartley once told a friend about the power of music to prevent panic. My feeling is that he was a person of great moral authority as well as a born leader, and therefore his wish at that time was passed on to all the men.”
Hartley’s was one of only three musicians’ bodies to be recovered and identified, and the only one returned to his home. He was given a hero’s welcome as his funeral procession drew a crowd of 40,000—almost twice Colne’s population at the time—and several memorials were crafted in his and the band’s honor.
Urban legend? The two most popular beliefs surrounding the Titanic band are that they played until the ship went down, and their last song was “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Because no definitive eyewitness accounts exist to prove either, even those who have studied Titanic history disagree. And survivors had, in some cases, completely contradictory details about whether the band was playing, where they were playing and what song they were playing.
Once the band was playing on the deck (they began their last performance in the first-class lounge), it’s not known how the two pianists would’ve participated, as there weren’t pianos on deck.
But Phillip Gowan, a United Methodist and Titanic historian, thinks the band did, indeed, play on.
“From all the accounts I’ve either read, or people who were there that I’ve interviewed, I do think the band played till the end,” Gowan said. “Most of the survivors that were in an area where they could’ve heard did claim that they heard the band playing.”
Turner said, “I think they played for as long as they could. There were some reports of them playing while the water began to engulf them and others of them eventually packing their instruments into cases.”
As for the last song the group performed, no one can agree, all survivors are now deceased and no living person will ever know for certain. Since their goal was to keep spirits up and keep passengers calm, a hymn typically reserved for funerals may not have been the best choice. But once their outcome was certain, who knows?
“It’s more likely that they played a French waltz called ‘Songe d’Automne.’ The most reliable accounts I’ve heard mention that song,” Gowan said.
“Wallace Hartley once told a friend that if he was on a ship going down, the best thing he could do would be to play a hymn like ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’” Turner said.
“One of the most convincing accounts I read, by one of the sailors, was that at the end, there was a lone violinist playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I suspect that was Wallace Hartley.”
Joey Butler is editor of young adult content, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.