On Saturday 14th April, I attended the public Open Day of the British Titanic Society’s 2012 Annual Convention, held at the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel, Southampton. A fascinating event for anyone interested in RMS Titanic. I enjoyed meeting fellow historians and memorabilia collectors, all of whom were eager to share their passion for British maritime history, particularly relating to the Edwardian era. However, there were two collectors that particularly caught my eye and I am delighted to share their stories and collections with you here.
Peter and Claire Mitchell’s Collection of RMS Olympic Artefacts
Peter and Claire Mitchell, from Buckinghamshire, are passionate collectors of furniture, fixtures and fittings from RMS Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship. The artefacts normally adorn the Mitchells’ dining-room but are dismantled and reassembled at period events. Peter became a member of the British Titanic Society in 1992 and brought his first RMS Olympic artefact in 1994. What drives the Mitchells’ love of collecting items from this ship? Peter told me: ‘It is a love of history and a wish to keep the memory of RMS Olympic alive. We feel it most important to share this part of maritime history with others. The items are becoming rarer to find and auction prices have now become very high.’ Is there an artefact that they would particularly like for their collection, I ask?: ‘Yes’, Peter exclaimed, ‘a White Star Line steam engine and a deck chair from RMS Olympic.’ Claire and Peter were joined at the Society’s Annual Convention by Michael Patterson. Michael is an Apprentice Engineer and enjoys undertaking historical restoration of maritime artefacts.
Although the Mitchells’ artifacts are precious and valuable, they encourage visitors to adopt a ‘hands-on’ approach to the objects. This refreshing attitude means that visitors can sit upon chairs that once graced RMS Olympic’s sumptuous À La Carte Restaurant or open the drawers of an Italian Renaissance style dressing table from the famous Cabin B82(C82).
A little note about the history of Cabin B82. I am grateful to the website, http://www.rmsolympic.org/c82.html for clarification on this point. The Mitchells’ wardrobe and dressing table are from this Cabin. The Cabin was one of two Staterooms that had a famous, British Royal connection, which I will discuss a little later in this article. In 1911, Cabin B82 was known as C76. Following the Titanic disaster, Olympic underwent a refit (1912-13) and the Cabin became C82. It was in 1924 that it had its Royal guest, hence you will often still see it referred to now as Cabin C82. In 1933, during another refit, the whole of C Deck was re-lettered B Deck and consequently the Cabin’s final numbering became B82.
Cabin B82 was a First Class Stateroom known as The Renaissance Room due to the style of its interior architecture. In 1936, The Times reported that the entire contents of B82 had been sold at auction for £48 to Colonel Harry Hutton of the Marquis of Granby Hotel in Bamford, Derbyshire. The dressing table was used in one of the bedrooms at the Marquis of Granby Hotel for sixty-two years, from 1936-1998, when it was then purchased by Peter Mitchell. Peter lovingly restored the table, replacing missing drawer handles and repairing scratches. There were two Cabins of this style aboard Olympic.
Dressing table – from Cabin B82 (C82) in the Italian Renaissance Style. Mahogany veneered with fine, silky, satinwood. There are eleven drawers in total. The finial handles and filigree rail are made of brass which has been silver-plated. The mirror is flanked by two pairs of pilasters, inlaid with guilloche decoration and Ionic capitals above the two drawers on either side. There is one frieze drawer. Each drawer has a roller ball fitting. This ensured that when the seas were rough, the drawers did not fly open and expel their contents.
Wardrobe – from Cabin B82(C82). The wardrobe is mahogany veneered with a fine silky satinwood. The handles are brass then silver-plated. The inner doors would have been fitted with mirrors that had a 1″ beveling around them. There was also once door retainers, which have long since been removed. Cabin B82(C82) together with Stateroom B80(C80), The Empire Room, were purportedly occupied by the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) on a homebound voyage in 1924. I found this short, silent, black and white British Pathé film of the Prince on board the Olympic at the end of his ten week tour of America in October 1924 (not 1925 as stated on top of video clip). It shows the Prince shaking hands with Captain Howarth on the main deck. To view film CLICK HERE.
Wardrobe light switches – located on the side of the wardrobe. These operated the light over the washstand, originally positioned next to the wardrobe. The original washstand suite was in satinwood and stood 3 feet 6″ tall, with a marble top and plated fittings. Its frameless mirror was 3 feet tall. The top switch operated the fixed lighting in the cabin, the lower switch operated the electrical socket. The bottom gap, that you see here, would have been where the bedside light was plugged in.
Bedside cabinet – from a First Class Cabin. The brown cloth was added during one of the ship’s several refits. The glass was added after the item had left the ship in 1935.
Light fitting – this style of fitting could be found in the main cabin and public areas. It is brass with an ormolu finish and cut glass bowl. The leaf pattern found on the base could also be found on many wooden mouldings throughout the First Class areas of the ship.
Chair – from the À La Carte Restaurant in First Class. It has at some point been re-upholstered since its life aboard Olympic. At the base of the chair is a gap were large bolts were fitted which secured the legs to the floor during a rough crossing.
The picture panel – from the Intermediate Decks of the Grand Staircase. Originally, the wood would have been plain and not painted as you see it here. The carved oak may originally have been gilded. The oil painting is by an unknown artist and the dark green paint was applied during the 1933 re-fit, where this colour scheme was implemented throughout many of the public areas of the ship.
The ‘Angel’ paneling – located in the First Class Parlour Suite, Sitting Room 3 of the Shelter deck, aft end of the stair side. Designed in Louis XIV style, the oak diamond in the centre marks the location where once was fitted an ornate double armed light fitting.
- Peter and Claire will be displaying some of their RMS Olympic collection at the Edwardian Weekend taking place at Crich Tramway Village, nr. Matlock, Derbyshire on the weekend of 14th and 15th July. For further information on this event, please CLICK HERE.
- For further information on The British Titanic Society, CLICK HERE.
The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic
The Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (later renamed HMHS Britannic following her launch) were a trio of Olympic-class ships commissioned by The White Star Line in 1907. Only one of these ships enjoyed a relatively long sea career, the RMS Olympic. We all know the fate of Titanic and Britannic also had its life cut short after only a few years. The Britannic was the largest of the three ships, launched on the 26th February 1914. While serving as a hospital ship in World War One, Britannic struck a mine off the Greek Island of Kea, in the Kea Channel, with a loss of thirty lives. However, the Olympic, was a luckier lady, her sea career lasted twenty-four years. She was built at Harland & Wolff’s shipyard in Belfast and launched on 20th October 1910. Her maiden voyage took place on 14th June 1911. In 1934 The White Star Line merged with Cunard Line and the ship was finally withdrawn from service in 1935. The liner was subsequently sold, a short while after, to Sir John Jarvis for £100,000. The ship was partially demolished and the contents divided into lots, to be sold-off at a dispersal auction in Jarrow.
Olympic’s interior decorations were undertaken by Aldam Heaton & Co, the same firm that created interiors for the home of White Star Line’s J. Bruce Ismay. The firm’s founder, John Aldam Heaton (1828-97) was as a Victorian interior designer. He was a member of the William Morris Circle and very knowledgeable on the history of furniture and decoration. In 1889, J. Bumpus published Heaton’s multi-volume, Furniture and Decoration in England During The Eighteenth Century. Heaton worked very closely with the respected architect Richard Norman Shaw.
The Urrbrae House, Adelaide, Australia (now part of the University of Adelaide’s Campus) was one of Heaton’s only domestic commissions in Australia. This two-storey bluestone mansion was completed in 1891 as the home of Peter and Matilda Waite. The mansion contains a rare surviving example of Heaton’s later decorative designs, ceiling papers for the Main Hall. Heaton’s superb knowledge of furniture styles is a legacy that can be seen in work undertaken by his firm following his death. In particular, this can be seen in Aldam Heaton & Co’s commissions for the interiors of Olympic and Titanic.
The Olympic interiors feature a staggering range of decorative styles including: Louis Seize, Empire, Adams, Italian Renaissance, Louis Quinze, Louis Quatorze, Georgian, Regency, Queen Anne, Modern Dutch and Old Dutch. All social classes of passengers and all tastes, surroundings and furniture were catered for aboard Olympic. A. Heaton & Co had offices and workshops at Harland & Wolff’s Belfast site in addition to premises in London and Liverpool. A. Heaton & Co were renamed Heaton Tabb & Company Ltd in the 1930’s. The Dutch firm Mutters & Co were brought in to decorate twelve of Olympic and Titanic‘s cabins. Considerable pressure was placed upon contractors to complete their fit-outs in record time. Some press photographs of Titanic‘s interiors, circulating at the time, actually show Olympic‘s interiors. The publicity demands to promote Titanic’s maiden voyage far enough in advance, meant that it made good PR sense to photograph Olympic and try to pass it off as Titanic. Titanic had not yet had its fit-out completed and interiors on both ships were supposed to be almost identical anyway, so one can see why the photographic faux-pas occurred.
The Olympic’s principal architect was Arthur Henry Durand F.R.I.B.A. (1875-1958). Durand studied architecture in Brussels between 1891 and 1893. He came to London in 1897 and in 1903 he set-up his architectural practice. His Louis XV interiors were inspired by The Palace of Versailles. Durand designed most of Olympic’s woodwork details and there were approximately one hundred and eighty six wood-carvers working on his designs. The White Swan Hotel, Alnwick, Northumberland is a good place to see some of the splendid woodwork from Olympic.
The Dining-Saloon aboard Olympic measured 114 feet long by 92 feet wide and could accommodate five hundred and thirty two diners on C Deck. Naval Architect Leonard Peskett sailed on Olympic, from New York to Liverpool, in August 1911, producing a 6,000 word, detailed report on his experience. He complained that the Dining-Saloon was prone to overheating due to the myriad of electric ceiling lights. He also noted that the Jacobean style interior decoration of the Dining-Saloon had been inspired by a close study of Hatfield and Haddon Hall. Incidentally, Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire was recently used as a location for Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) – CLICK HERE for an on location video of this splendid historic property. The Saloon was painted white, which was not authentic early seventeenth century style, but the colour did give it an air of spaciousness, a favourite trick of interior designers both then and now. The First-Class Smoking Room was Georgian style with mahogany carved panelling which was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and interspersed with large mirrors. There was a white fireplace above which hung Sir Norman Wilkinson’s (1878-1971) oil painting, The Approach of the New World. This painting can now be seen at Southampton’s SeaCity Museum.
The world’s press were enchanted by Olympic. The Penny Illustrated Paper described a selection of interiors as follows:
‘The reception room [Dining Saloon] is luxurious in the extreme but dignity and simplicity are its characteristics and vulgar display is entirely absent. Some magnificent tapestry faces the staircase, specially woven on the looms at Aubusson, and will appeal to the aesthetic taste of our friends across the Herring Pond. Capacious Chesterfield conches, luxuries armchairs, and cosy corners give the room a homely and comfortable air conducive to friendliness and ease. The reading and writing room are the finest which have hitherto contrived on any ship. Perfect quiet is ensured by thick velvet carpets and noiseless doors. A charming room, panelled with mahogany and carved in Georgian style, is reserved for smokers. The restaurant is designed in the Louis XVI style, and panelled from floor to ceiling in French walnut. The room is spacious and well lighted, every appearance of crowding being carefully avoided. The ship also contains a magnificent gymnasium, fitted with the latest appliances for physical culture, Turkish and electric baths, a large swimming bath, and a squash racket court. The kitchens rival those of the best modern hotels. They are in charge of an eminent chef who has a large staff under him. The menus are varied and carefully chosen, and the cooking faultless. In fact there is every excuse for dining not wisely but too well. In fact, nothing that the human ingenuity can conceive is left undone to ensure the passengers’ comfort.’ (Saturday 24th June 1911)
I found a video which shows the superb amenities aboard Olympic. It is newsreel footage, approximately fourteen minutes in length, set to music evocative of the era when the film was made, the 1920’s. CLICK HERE and enjoy!
John Siggins – Cunard Historian, Researcher and Collector
Derbyshire based John Siggins is a delightful gentleman and collector of Cunard memorabilia. He is an Engineer by trade. John began collecting twenty years ago. His collection includes a wide range of items from Cunard, White Star Line and the New Zealand Shipping Company, particularly china and silverware. John does not offer any of the items in his collection for sale.
At the Convention John displayed a fascinating array of Marconi wireless memorabilia, including the original, last commercial Marconigram sent from Titanic to passengers aboard Carpathia. The message was sent from two young ladies who were on Titanic to their aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Marshall, travelling on Carpathia. Fortunately, the two girls were reunited with their aunt and uncle, much to the couple’s shock and surprise, later on the next day (15th April 1912).
John said of Marconi: ‘Marconi wireless was a major contributor to the saving of lives on the night of the Titanic disaster.’
John also has a private museum of Cunard memorabilia including a large collection of mahogany panelling that hung in the First Class areas of Olympic, in particular the Foyer. Wooden panelling was used in the First Class Gangways to cover the unsightly steel structure of the ship. On the Companionways aboard Olympic, rows of panelling would have had concealed Cabin doors. There was no panelling in the Steerage areas of the ship.
- John’s Museum is open to visitors but strictly by appointment only. If you would like to make an appointment then please get in touch with myself, via the ‘Comments’ button at the very top of this article and I will forward your request on to John for follow-up.
- For more information on Marconi then visit the Marconigraph website. CLICK HERE.
- There is a good website about the wireless aspects of Titanic - The RMS Titanic Radio Page. The site has a lot of fascinating images, including interior views of both Titanic and Olympic‘s Marconi Room. CLICK HERE for website.
- An exhibition at Godalming Museum, Surrey, on Titanic’s Senior Wireless Operator, Jack Phillips (1887-1912) runs until 12th May 2012. The exhibition is called: ‘Jack Phillips and the Titanic’. For further information, CLICK HERE.