diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 15, 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. Yesterday crew, today passengers.

London's Titanic Survivors: Eva Hart (St Chad's, Chadwell Heath)
She was only seven. A new start in Canada was the family's plan, heading off from Ilford to Winnipeg via a second class cabin on the Titanic. But Eva's sleep was interrupted on the night of April 14th 1912 when her father woke her, bundled her into her mother's arms and sent the pair off to sit in the lifeboats. She never saw him again. Sitting in Lifeboat 14, Eva watched the entire ship go down, a sight that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
"I never closed my eyes. I didn't sleep at all. I saw it, I heard it, and nobody could possibly forget it. I can remember the colours, the sounds, everything. The worst thing I can remember are the screams. And then the silence that followed. It seemed as if once everybody had gone, drowned, finished, the whole world was standing still. There was nothing, just this deathly, terrible silence in the dark night with the stars overhead."
The planned emigration never took place. Eva and her mother took a ship back across the Atlantic, which only served to make their boat-related nightmares worse, and settled back in the UK. A life in land-locked Chadwell Heath beckoned, then part of Essex, now swallowed up by London. And Eva's was a very long life. She worked as a welfare officer at the Sterling weapons factory in Dagenham, but was also a part-time music hall singer. In later years she rose to become a Justice of the Peace, president of the local Conservative Association and a director of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (which in 1974 earned her the MBE). By the 1990s she was still living in her old house in Japan Road, and one of only a handful of Titanic survivors still alive to bear witness to what she'd seen. Interviews, attendance at conventions, even an autobiography, all these helped keep her story alive.

Eva died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 91. There was great interest in her memorial service, not least in the fact that every attendee was given one of hundreds of porcelain frogs she'd been painstakingly collecting over the years. I can't find any confirmation of where that service took place, nor where her remains lie, but I guessed at St Chad's Church just off the High Road. It's usually locked, but the Garden of Remembrance up the side was on the latch, so I stepped inside. Alas, there was no sign of Eva on the narrow patch of memorial plaques, only a variety of Joans and Sydneys and Bettys and Rays. Which leaves just one memorial to Eva nearby, which is the Wetherspoons pub named after her on the corner of Station Road. It was converted from the local police station, built back in the days when police stations looked like country mansions rather than concrete fortresses. The inn sign shows Eva in a large broad-brimmed hat, wrapped up tight against the Atlantic chill [photo]. Yesterday the good folk of Chadwell Heath were sitting out at tables on the pub's front patio, fags and lager in hand. They looked more the sort that might have come up against Eva at her magistrate's bench, but I'd like to think they were raising a toast to the area's favourite daughter and her 84 bonus years.

London's Titanic Survivors: Adolphe Saalfeld (Hoop Lane Cemetery, Golders Green)
For Adolphe, the Titanic was a business trip. Born in Germany but living in Manchester, he was heading to New York to market some perfumes his company had created. He travelled first class from Southampton, and found time on the first hop to Ireland to write a long letter to the wife he'd left behind. "Dear Wifey, Thanks for your wire" he began, "the weather is calm and fine, the sky overcast." He described an afternoon promenade on the deck, and went on to describe the food on board in some detail. "I have quite an appetite for luncheon. Soup, fillet of plaice, a loin chop with cauliflower and fried potatoes, Apple Manhattan and Roquefort cheese, washed down with a large Spaten beer iced, so you can see I am not faring badly." When the iceberg struck he was in the smoking room, but found time to dash back to his cabin before escaping in Lifeboat 3. A third of the men travelling first class survived the wreck, a considerably better proportion than in second or third, but well behind the overall 75% survival rate for women.

Adolphe returned to Manchester to continue with his business, later moving to Kew where he died in 1926. He's buried on the other side of London, in the Jewish cemetery at Hoop Lane, Golders Green. It's an unusual site divided into two distinct halves - the Sephardi side all flat tombs, no gravestones, while the Reform half is rammed with headstones all facing north. Adolphe's in the latter half, up the far end of Row 30, past Jacqueline du Pre but not as far as Lord Hore-Belisha. His inscription's faded but remains readable, and reveals the identity of "Wifey" as Gertude Saalfeld who died shortly after Adolphe in 1929. The two of them lie in an unassuming plot, a turfed rectangle edged in stone, cared for by the cemetery's gardening staff alone [photo]. It's not much compared to some of the more ostentatious graves behind, but considerably better than the anonymous slabs to either side. As for those perfume samples, they resurfaced in 2000, and now tour the world as part of whichever Titanic exhibition will have them. It's fame and fortune of a kind for businessman Adolphe, not that you'd ever guess from his bleak north London memorial.

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