"Nearer, My God, To Thee": Bandmaster Wallace Hartley

Wallace Hartley is one of Titanic's famed heroes: the bandleader who played until he was swallowed by the sea, along with his seven-man orchestra. It was and still is considered "one of the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea."

Bandmaster Wallace Hartley.


Wallace Hartley was from Lancashire, England, and was engaged to be married to Maria Robinson when he was asked to transfer from Cunard's Mauretania to be Titanic's bandmaster for her maiden voyage.

Wallace was described by his friend, Thomas Hyde, as "a very nice lad" who was "incapable of anything mean," despite being "a bit what you might call 'roughish.'"

We also know that Wallace hated the 9-to-5 life, because he took an job as a bank clerk under pressure from his father, who didn't want him to pursue a musician's lifestyle for fear of financial insecurity. Wallace found work in a mundane office "irksome".

Wallace was an outstanding musician, though his fellow classmate didn't recall him being a prodigy when they started violin together at school around age 12. But the headmaster's son wrote in 1958 of Wallace having had notable talent from the start... and some really cool toys.

He was one of my heroes, for I knew from the talk of my elders that he was already a musician of repute, but more definitely because he possessed a bicycle.

As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

So in 1912, Wallace signed on to Titanic.

Having only just proposed Maria, rumor is that Hartley was reticent to leave his fiancee, but ultimately accepted the position because a) repairs to the Mauretania had recently left him without work for about two months and b) he could make more connections for future gigs.

Wallace wrote what was fated to be his last letter home on April 11, 1912, and sent it off to be taken ashore at Queenstown before Titanic sped for open sea.

This is a fine ship and there ought to be plenty of money around. We have a fine band and the boys seem very nice. I miss coming home very much and it would have been nice to have seen you all, if only for an hour or two, but I could not manage it. Shall probably arrive home on the Sunday morning.

All love,


As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

A lesser-known fact is that Titanic's band was actually split into two independently functioning units: Wallace's, which played at dinners and Sunday services, and a second three-man, violin-cello-piano unit that stationed themselves in the room outside the entrance to the The Restaurant and Cafe Parisien.

It's most often reported that it was Wallace who roused his fellow musicians to go to the First Class Lounge and play after Titanic struck the iceberg, although there's speculation that he did so under the instruction of Chief Purser Hugh McElroy or even Captain Smith.

Multiple witnesses attested to them playing light, happy tunes, as well as ragtime. But at the end, Wallace tapped at his violin and began to lead the band in what would become one of the most contested piece of trivia in Titanic lore: The Last Song.

Harold Bride, the Junior Marconi Operator, really threw the wrench in this, because he testified that he heard "Autumn".

From what is known about Bride, though, he had no aptitude for music. He had also been working at the wireless all night, and may have had difficulty with his memory following his survival in the water.

However wrong he was about the song, though, his testimony is no less moving.

...I guess all the band went down. They were playing 'Autumn' then…The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing 'Autumn.' How they ever did I cannot imagine.

Harold Bride's statement to the New York Times, as reported in the April 19, 1912, issue. As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

Most witnesses, however, report that the band played the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee".

This makes sense. It was the official hymn played graveside for every member of the Musicians Union.

It was also one of Wallace's favorites--he even introduced it to his congregation as a musician back home. Moreover, a band-mate of Wallace's from Mauretania reported to the Daily Sketch that years before, he asked Wallace how he would conduct himself if he were on the deck of a sinking ship. Wallace told him that he'd get his orchestra together and play either "O God, Our Help In Ages Past" or "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

The eight men of the Titanic orchestra played for over an hour, some wearing lifebelts. Eyewitness reports attest to the water climbing from their ankles to their knees.

Still, they played on.

As things became more grave, Wallace reassembled the orchestra on the boat deck, near the entrance to the Grand Staircase. Only minutes before the ship split, at around 2:10 a.m., the entire band was washed away.

Wallace Hartley was 33 years old.

His body was recovered by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, and was list as follows.


"CLOTHING - Uniform (green facing); brown overcoat; black boots; green socks.

EFFECTS - Gold fountain pen, "W.H.H."; diamond solitaire ring; silver cigarette case; letters; silver match box, marked "W.H.H., from Collingson's staff. Leeds"; telegram to Hotley, Bandmaster "Titanic"; nickel watch; gold chain; gold cigar holder; stud; scissors; 16s; 16 cents; coins.


Wallace's body was returned to his hometown in May 1912, and his funeral was held in the same church where he had once been a choirboy.

Wallace's eulogy was delivered by Thomas Worthington, a preacher who was a family friend of the Hartleys.

The unexpected happened; the unthinkable occurred. The ship that everyone thought could not sink is now two miles at the bottom of the Atlantic.

But our friend kept his word. The inevitable command to get the boats ready in the middle of that dark but clear Sunday night, with the subsequent order "Women and children first" found those hands, now stiff in death, gliding along the strings of that beloved violin and guiding the companion stick, producing the tune that at once became articulate and interpreted the desires of many hearts as they were lifted to heaven.. This was done until the waves claimed both him and his violin.

As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

The final hymn, of course, was "Nearer, My God, To Thee."

As the mourners slowly filed out, Maria came forward toward the altar. She laid down the tribute she'd brought onto the brass plaque that adorned the lid of her fiance's coffin: a floral cross made of deep red roses, tied up with a message.

"O teach me from my heart to say 'Thy will be done.'"

Upward of 1,000 people were in attendance to pay respects to Wallace, and an estimated 30,000-40,000 more people lined his funeral route.

It took over an hour for the cortege, accompanied by nine carriages, eight brass bands, and myriad representives, dignitaries, and police officers, to make its way through the streets, crowded as they were with mourners.

When they at last reached the cemetery, twelve pallbearers carried Wallace's coffin from the gates to the Hartley family sepulcher.

Still, some have blamed the band for giving passengers the wrongful impression that the situation was not as dire as it truly was. But by a number of contemporary accounts, this was essentially the point: to keep the passengers calm by playing frivolous tunes, so as not to cause alarm.

And it appeared to have worked to calm nerves that were fraught and raw. Second Officer Charles Lightoller was glad of the band's presence and their selection in the face of death. "I could hear the band playing a cheery sort of music," he said. "I don't like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all."

Others, such as First-Class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie, insisted the band never played at all. Moreover, he insisted that if they had, and played "Nearer, My God, To Thee," that he would have been outraged.

I assuredly should have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us and one likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding.

As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

There were also dissenters to the posthumous lauds for the band, specifically because their deaths should not have occurred to begin with. Joseph Conrad, for instance, wrote with weary disdain--not for the bandmembers themselves, but for the saccharine spectacle of it all.

I, who am not a sentimentalist, think it would have been finer if the band of the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing--whatever tune they were playing, poor devils. I would rather that they had been saved to support their families... I am not consoled by the false, written-up, Drury Lane aspects of that event, which is neither drama, nor melodrama, nor tragedy, but the exposure of arrogant folly... And that's the truth. The unsentimental truth stripped of the romantic garment the press has wrapped around this most unnecessary disaster.

As cited in © "The Band That Played On" by Steve Turner.

Wallace Hartley's violin was returned to his bereaved fiancee.

After decades in an attic, it was painstakingly authenticated and auctioned in 2013 for $1.6 million, the most that has ever been paid for a Titanic artifact.


Turner, Steve. "The Band That Played On." Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2011.

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