Sydney Branch Commemorates the Sinking of the Titanic

On 14 April 1912, RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on its first voyage to New York. While much has been made of the bravery of first-class, male passengers who sacrificed themselves so that women and children might be saved, the survival statistics and the historical records tell a much morecomplex tale.

Sydney branch ASSLH commemorated this centenary with a series of talks and musical contributions under the title Commemoration of the Titanic sinking: an OHS disaster. It was held at Sydney Trades Hall, Sussex Street on Saturday 14 April 2012 from 7-9 pm.

Following drinks and snacks in the beautiful atrium, the crowd moved to the auditorium to hear the speakers:

Dr Sarah Gregson, a labour historian from UNSW, spoke on Women and children first? The aftermath of the Titanic sinking.

Professor Michael Quinlan from the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW gave a talk entitled Precarious work/hazardous work: Hazards facing merchant seamen in Australia and the UK, 1790-1930.

Jim Deakin from the Maritime Union of Australia spoke about the relevance of understanding history and OHS to Seamen’s industrial struggles today.

Performers were: Celia Briar who played several harp pieces from the period, and two members of the Roaring Forties – Margaret Walters and Chris Maltby – who sang a number of songs relating to the Titanic and other shipping disasters. (Included in this Hummer are the words and background of two of the songs sung on the night, contributed by Margaret Walters.)

This event shed light on some of the myths surrounding the Titanic sinking; it did not focus on the lives of the rich and famous passengers, instead commemorating the lost lives of the ship’s crew and the effect of the sinking on their families.

The Sydney branch would like to extend its appreciation to Paul Doughty and Mark Lennon from Unions NSW, who did a great deal to ensure the success of the night.

Singing the Titanic
There are a large number of songs about the Titanic, many written at the time, and many composed more recently with the fever of the centenary commemorations. The first song at the Sydney Branch event was first sung by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) in 1912 – it was one of the earliest pieces he composed for his big 12-string guitar.

The White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, was widely believed not to allow blacks on their ships, either as passengers or crew, not even as stokers – and it’s understandable that songs about the Titanic written by African-Americans were rather upbeat and irreverent. The Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Jack Johnson, makes a gratuitous appearance in this song: an African-American, he was an early example of the celebrity athlete, appearing regularly in the media, endorsing products, and indulging in expensive hobbies. (“Eagle Rock” was a dance popular among black people in the early part of the twentieth century, performed with the arms outstretched and the body rocking from side to side. ‘Doing the eagle rock’ is also a metaphor for sexual intercourse.)

[Editor’s note: without wishing to comment on its fanciful take on history, those who truly experienced the 1960s might enjoy Jaime Brockett’s version “Legend of the USS Titanic”.]

The Titanic

By Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”)
It was a midnight on the sea,
The band was playing, “Nearer my God to Thee”,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Titanic when it got its load,
Captain, he hollered, “All aboard!”
Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well!

Jack Johnson want to get on board,
Captain he says, “I ain’t haulin’ no coal!”
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Titanic was comin’ ‘round the curve,
When it run into that great big iceberg,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!

Titanic was sinkin’ down,
Had them lifeboats all around,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
Had them lifeboats all around
Savin’ the women and children, lettin’ the men go down.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!

Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock
Mighta seen him doin’ the Eagle Rock
Fare thee, Titanic, fare the well
When the women and children got to land,
Crying “Lord have mercy on my man”,
Fare thee, Titanic, fare the well

It was a midnight on the sea,
The band was playing, “Nearer my God to Thee”
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
When the women and children got to land,
Crying “Lord have mercy on my man”
Fare thee, Titanic, fare the well

Another OHS disaster, closer to home:

On 1 August, 1956, the 640 ton collier, SS Birchgrove Park left Newcastle with a slight list to port, carrying coal for Sydney. Built in Scotland in 1930, it was expected she would soon be scrapped; but she was issued a seaworthy certificate in July 1956. The twelve-hour forecast was for fair weather and calm seas. Soon after she set sail a southerly buster hit. Tarpaulins kept working loose and water entered the holds, increasing the list. A corroded steampipe and vents on the fo’c’sle let more water in. At midnight, off Broken Bay, the Captain chose not to seek shelter. By Long Reef the Leading Fireman reported the boiler fires would soon be flooded, disabling the ship. The list prevented the use of lifeboats; distress calls were not received as the aerial had not been erected before departure, so an SOS was sent by lamp. Thirteen hours after leaving Newcastle the Birchgrove Park turned over and sank. Ten of the crew drowned and only four survived.

Although the Birchgrove Park was at the end of her life – unlike the spanking new Titanic – there were many precautionary measures that could have prevented the loss of lives when these vessels sank. Merv Lilley’s words seem to place too much blame on the crew’s actions, when the underlying cause of the disaster was the ship’s poor condition. However the lyrics capture the pathos of the accident.

The Birchgrove Park

A poem ©Merv Lilley 1963, tune by Bill Berry
(words adapted slightly CM/MW)

The night fell black on a quiet sea
The Birchgrove Park rode restlessly
A collier on the short run down
Of fourteen men there were ten of them to drown.

A sudden lurch as she slid below
The way that all the colliers go
If home bound men had battened down
There’d be ten good men who would not have drowned.

Oh Sydney waters are green and cold
Take life from men with a freezing hold
They say that men on colliers drown
When cargo rolls – not battened down.

Oh glittering lights of Sydney Town
Still beckoning men as a ship goes down
It is for the love of your winking lights
That colliers drown on lonely nights.

The night fell black on a quiet sea
The Birchgrove Park rode restlessly
A collier on the short run down
Of fourteen men there were ten of them to drown.