Halifax Courier scoop on Titanic was all down to a twist of fate

'Unsinkable' ship: The Titanic in port before setting off on its tragic maiden voyage and (below) the front page of The Courier breaks the news
'Unsinkable' ship: The Titanic in port before setting off on its tragic maiden voyage and (below) the front page of The Courier breaks the news

As the centenary of the sinking of Titanic is marked we recall how the Courier played its part in breaking the news of the disaster as well as revealing new Calderdale links

SHE had been dubbed the “unsinkable” ship. But in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the unthinkable happened to the Titanic.

The front page of the special edition of the Courier, April 15, 1912, telling the world Titanic had struck an iceberg

The front page of the special edition of the Courier, April 15, 1912, telling the world Titanic had struck an iceberg

Just four days after setting sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York, the luxury White Star liner hit an iceberg off Cape Race in the North Atlantic.

It was just before midnight on Sunday, April 14, when the glancing collision with the submerged iceberg tore into the ship’s starboard side, causing the hull plates to buckle. Within minutes five of the 16 water-tight compartments were flooded with icy water and it took just a little over two and a half hours before she broke, lights still blazing and sank bow first to a sea bed grave.

By some strange twist of fate, it was thanks to the Courier that White Star Steamship Line - Titanic’s owners - became aware of the tragedy.

The Courier was one of the first newspapers to report the disaster - rushing out a special morning edition sheet with the shocking news: Titanic Strikes Iceberg.

And remarkably it was this report, relayed by a Halifax businessman, which first alerted White Star.

“Quite how the Courier made this extraordinary scoop is unclear,” says Halifax historian David Glover.

“But one suggestion was that there had been confusion by a member of Reuter’s News Agency, who had telegraphed the information to Halifax, Yorkshire, in error. The message was meant for Halifax, Canada where the Titanic survivors were taken.

“At first, messages suggested the vessel, though badly damaged by its collision, was still afloat, and steaming for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later cables were far more worrying. Soon, the world knew the whole tragic tale.”

David reveals that the man who alerted White Star has been relatively forgotten and so curious to learn more about him, he set about his research. So who was he?

“His name was John Sharman, of Somersby, Trimmingham Road, whose textile business was run from Carlton Street,” explains David.

“Hearing the Courier’s first special edition was on sale, he bought a copy and on reading the alarming news about the Titanic, he immediately phoned White Star’s Liverpool headquarters. Mr Sharman then read the Courier account over the phone. A few minutes later, a White Star employee phoned him back, to tell him the company still had no news of a disaster. But the Liverpool evening papers were to confirm the worst.” David has discovered that John Sharman was born in Bedfordshire, in 1843. The son of a prosperous draper, he became a traveller in textiles, eventually coming to work at John Holdsworth & Co. Ltd, of Shaw Lodge Mills, Halifax, becoming their foreign representative, specialising in merchant furnishings.

“On Holdsworth’s behalf he made regular trips across the Atlantic and as a result, John became particularly interested in shipping matters,” says David.

“By the end of his life he had crossed the Atlantic nearly 100 times. In fact he was so enthusiastic about liners, he was known to take a boat from Liverpool and as soon as he had arrived in New York, he would rush across the pier to the outgoing steamer to begin the homeward trip.

“John was a regular user of White Star liners, and was well-known and respected by the officers and officials on many of its vessels. This helps explain his urgent phone call from Halifax to Liverpool on April 15, 1912,” adds David.

In October 1906, when Holdsworth’s discontinued their merchant furnishings business, John bought this section of business from them, setting up in his own right with offices in Carlton Street, where he prospered. For many years, he and his wife, Marion lived at Somersby in Trimmingham Road. They had one son, Stanley. He died in 1920.

David has also researched into Calderdale’s other connections with Titanic. Among them is James Walpole, chief pantryman on the liner, whose name was not among those listed as survivors, and whose body was never recovered.

“His death naturally caused great anguish to his sister, Eleanor Wood of Ladywood Terrace, Pellon Lane,” explains David.

James had served for 30 years with the White Star Line - from a humble post in the steward’s department, he rose to a highly responsible position. He was on board the Titanic for her delivery trip from Belfast to Southampton.

“For him, the Titanic striking an iceberg was ‘third time unlucky’ for he had survived two previous collisions involving White Star liners - when SS Britannic collided with SS Celtic off New Jersey in 1887 and then when The Olympic was rammed by HMS Hawke in The Solent in September 1911.”

The family was originally from Southport but Eleanor came to Halifax to work as a housemaid for Thomas James Walker, one time owner of the Halifax Guardian, which became the Courier. Eleanor died in 1941, aged 81, 29 years after her brother lost his life.

The disaster also touched the lives of the Davison brothers - one of whom went down with the Titanic. In April 1912, PC Ralph Davison was serving with the West Riding Constabulary, stationed at the old Sowerby Bridge Police Station.

Two days after the Titanic disaster, PC Davison told the Courier that he had not received any news regarding his elder brother Thomas and Thomas’s wife Mary, who were third class passengers. They were emigrating to Bedford, Ohio where Mary’s parents had recently settled.

David’s research reveals that Thomas, a blacksmith, went down with the Titanic, and his body was never recovered. Mary survived but press reports at the time indicated she was quite badly injured because after refusing to leave her husband on board the stricken ship, she was dropped into a half-lowered lifeboat.

“Ironically the couple had been booked on another ship, but Mary insisted on travelling on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. She never forgave herself for that decision,” says David.

He has also uncovered a two further links to the tragedy - both involving families whose lives could have been changed forever had it not been for the intervention of fate.

“News of the tragedy initially caused extreme trauma for the relatives of John Henry Turner of Brighouse,” says David.

He explains that in 1896 John went into partnership with George Wainwright at Brighouse, to produce Turnwright’s toffee.

“He had booked to sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and he, his wife, and son George, were at first reported missing but it was soon discovered that they had not actually embarked,” says David.

“Fortunately he had been delayed due to a court case concerning a secret toffee recipe. His relatives breathed a deep sigh of relief as you can imagine.”

Another close shave came for 17-year-old Edward George Holt, who would have been on board had he not had a change of heart over a job. George of King Cross Road, was a steward with the White Star Line, on board the Laurentic, which sailed out of Liverpool. Originally he had sought a position on Titanic but then decided the journeys from his Halifax home to Southampton would have been too expensive.

“It would truly have been costly because it would have cost him his life,” says David.

The story of Titanic’s band master Wallace Hartley is well documented. The 33 year-old, a talented violinist had recently played with Halifax Choral Society just before sailing. Legend has it that Wallace ordered his musicians to play on as the ship went down.

When his body was recovered, in his pocket was a silver matchbox, inscribed: “To WHH from Collinson’s staff, Leeds.”

The firm of T. Collinson originated in Halifax - its tea-blending and coffee merchants warehouse was at St John’s Place, along with Collinson’s café in Crown Street. Wallace played regularly in the Collinson’s orchestra.