diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 14, 2012

In memory of the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, I've been out searching for passengers whose final resting place was London, not the bottom of the Atlantic. Today crew, tomorrow passengers.

London's Titanic Survivors: Bruce Ismay (Putney Vale Cemetery)
The most important man to get off the Titanic alive can now be found in the corner of a Wandsworth cemetery. His name was Joseph Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line, under whose flag the great ship sailed. Born on Merseyside in 1862, Bruce rose swiftly to the top of his family's business and took on a few other shipping lines besides. In 1907 he ordered the construction of three huge luxury liners, of which the Titanic was the largest, and it was at his behest that the number of lifeboats on board was reduced to the bare legal minimum. When the shipping magnate set sail on his greatest creation in April 1912, he little realised how soon the inaugural voyage would take a turn for the worse. An unexpected iceberg wrecked his plans, and a New York Times article the following week wrecked his reputation. How scandalous, argued editor Randolph Hearst, that Ismay had ordered the Titanic full steam ahead in order to cross the Atlantic at speed. And how cowardly that the company boss should escape in one of the last lifeboats when 1500 men, women and children had lost their lives. The truth, it seems, was less clear cut. Ismay claimed to have spent two hours on the freezing deck helping passengers into the starboard boats, only taking his place in the final craft when no further women and children could be found. And so he found himself rowing away from the sinking ship, then rescued, but arriving in America as a convenient scapegoat.

Bruce died at his house in Mayfair in 1934, after a withdrawn retirement spent mostly in County Galway. You'll find his grave where Wimbledon Common meets Richmond Park, in the furthest corner of Putney Vale Cemetery. The A3 roars past the main entrance, and there's an all-too convenient ASDA up the side, but this remains a green and very pleasant spot. I'd describe it as a drive-through cemetery, with a network of narrow roadways allowing relatives to park up conveniently alongside grandma and change the flowers. Bruce is by the mini-roundabout at the top of Richards Way, beyond some shrubbery in the last but one plot before the common. His tomb is an elegant stone slab, about waist height, carved around the sides with sailing ships on stylistic waves [photo]. You'll see no representation of the Titanic - the only old girl here is his wife. Neither is there any mention in the faded inscription carved across the top. "They that go down to the sea in ships...", it begins, the remainder mostly hidden beneath one real and one artificial bouquet. A separate headstone displays an apposite maritime verse from James Chapter 3, plus a lovely geometric design on the back - look carefully to see the fish. Ismay's trio of memorials is completed by a stone bench, now slightly too mossy to be comfortable, at the foot of a brief leafy slope. The trappings of wealth are here, but in a highly understated manner, as befits a man lucky to have escaped from a disaster of his own making. [photo]
Other famous burials in Putney Vale Cemetery: Jacob Epstein, Roy Plomley, Howard Carter [notable graves]

London's Titanic Survivors: Charles Lightoller (Mortlake Crematorium)
Second Officer's not usually the most important role aboard a ship. But that icy night aboard the Titanic, the actions of Second Officer Charles Lightoller helped save the lives of more than a quarter of those who escaped from the sinking ship. Fourteen years with the White Star Line, the duty roster saw him assigned to an early evening watch that fateful night. The threat of ice was all around but none had been sighted, and Charles had retired to his cabin before the collision occurred. He realised before most that the ship was in serious danger, and took charge of the evacuation of passengers from the lifeboats on the port side. It wasn't just women and children first with Charles, it was women and children only, so keen was he to do the right thing. Only when the final collapsible was washed overboard did he dive into the water, somehow climbing aboard just before one of the ship's funnels crashed down into the water alongside. His leadership kept most of those aboard alive until the RMS Carpathia arrived in the morning... and Charles was the last survivor to be picked up. Should you have twenty minutes to spare, do listen to his story in this amazing BBC recording that's survived from 1936.

After a distinguished naval career during WW1, including captaining yet another sinking vessel, Charles was edged out of White Star civilian service and into premature retirement. He used his own private motor yacht to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, he was that kind of a bloke. And he ended his years managing a small boatyard in East Twickenham, the Richmond Slipways. It sounds an ideal life, pottering about by the Thames building motor launches for the London River Police, right up until he died aged 78. His boatyard at 1 Ducks Walk is long gone, and the riverside is now home to a Sea Cadets boating station and some rather exclusive housing. But he's remembered hereabouts, on the western side of Richmond Bridge, by an informative plaque at the foot of Riverdale Gardens. [photo]

Lightoller's final resting place was Mortlake Crematorium, a couple of miles down the Thames, close to where the Boat Race finishes each year. As places of departure go it's surprisingly peaceful, apart from the fountain bubbling in the ornamental pool by the chapel, and the planes roaring into Heathrow (almost) overhead. At this time of year the blossom is magnificent, a riot of pinks and yellows and yet more pink. The rosebeds are less impressive, their thorny stalks yet to burst into full summer bloom, with only a few Tesco Finest bouquets and plastic-coated cards for decoration [photo]. Charles's ashes were scattered here in December 1952, on the riverward side, his presence entirely unmarked by plaque or tribute in the colonnade alongside. There might have been braver souls aboard Titanic, but as the most senior officer to survive he holds a special place in the memory of this great tragedy.
Other famous cremations at Mortlake Crematorium: Tommy Cooper, Leonard Rossiter, Kirsty MacColl, Denis Thatcher


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