The tragic events of April 1912 when White Star Line’s ill-fated liner sank are legendary and so too is Hartley’s response to them, but staff at the Jigsaw store in Leeds city centre have discovered a special link to the bandmaster.
The store is in the premises once occupied by Collinson’s cafe, where Hartley played as part of a string quartet.
Store manager Jenny O’Hara-McRandal said: “People kept asking me what the building was so I decided to research the history of the building.
“A lady came forward who was writing a book about the Titanic and she told me about this connection with Wallace Hartley and I went on to the internet and found out that he had a silver matchbox in his pocket with his initials on and from the staff of Collinson’s which was what the building was at the time, it was a Collinson’s cafe.
“It was quite amazing to find out really,” she added.
The store on King Edward Street in Leeds’s Victoria Quarter is planning its own commemoration of Hartley.
He had worked on other ocean liners, including Mauretania, then the fastest ship in the world.
Having vowed not to return to sea in order to marry his fiancée Maria Robinson, he was persuaded to return one last time when offered the prestigious post of bandmaster on Titanic. Although reluctant to leave his fiancée, he felt it might lead to more work in the future.
As the tragic events of April 15, 1912, unfolded, Hartley’s response to them became legendary.
He gathered all the ship’s eight musicians in the First Class lounge and began to play to help keep the passengers calm. As the scale of the disaster became apparent they moved on deck where survivors recalled hearing music as they struggled for their place in the lifeboats.
Legend has it that the band played Nearer, My God, to Thee as the ship went down, though the tune which was actually played is difficult to verify.
The musicians are reported to have played it continuously until their instruments were silenced forever by the swirling waters closing about their heads, and their heroism, in particular that of Hartley, has been recorded in the nation’s history books.
Two weeks after the disaster Hartley’s body was recovered, still wearing his band uniform. In his pockets, among other items, was a gold fountain pen engraved with his initials and a silver matchbox engraved with the message ‘From Collinson’s Staff, Leeds’.
Hartley was born in Colne, in Lancashire, but he moved with his family to Huddersfield. He later moved to Dewsbury.
On May 18, 1912, Hartley’s body was brought back to Colne to be buried. By this time, survivors’ stories of his heroism had spread and he was famous nationwide.
Along with his family and friends who mourned that day, over 40,000 people lined the route of the cortege taking him to be buried at the church where he had been a choirboy.
His fiancée, Maria Robinson, never married.
Hartley called Dewsbury his home at the time of his death. A blue plaque marks the house on West Park Street in which he lived.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Hartley’s death, staff at Jigsaw are holding a tea party on Sunday, from 11am to 5pm, where Collinson’s-style tea and cakes will be served.
The Jigsaw store still has original features from Hartley’s time, and visitors will also be able to read about the history of the building as it was when Collinson’s was there, along with details about Hartley’s life.
Mrs O’Hara-McRandal says her research suggests Hartley was quite a regular musician at Collinson’s chain of cafes and at the branch, which is now Jigsaw, the musicians would play from a balcony area in the cafe.
She says it was a great feeling to discover that somebody so well known had once worked in the building where she now works.