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“Always Marked by Refinement & Musicianship”: John Wesley Woodward

"Always Marked by Refinement and Musicianship": John Wesley Woodward

John Wesley Woodward was 32 years old when he boarded Titanic with his "best cello."

Wes, as he was called, had been a maritime musician for some time. His most recent trip had been a longer-term stint on the Caronia, and he had even been on board Titanic's sister Olympic when she collided with the HMS Hawke on September 20, 1911. In fact, Wes and two of his bandmates had been playing checkers at the moment of impact.

Damage sustained by the RMS Olympic in a collision with the HMS Hawke, 1911. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Wes was born in England in 1879.

He was the youngest child in a brood of nine, although by the time Wes reached adolescence, he already suffered the loss of two brothers and his father, Joseph. Joseph worked as a manager at a holloware foundry, otherwise known as a factory that specialized in producing bowls, teapots, pitchers, and the like.

In 1900, Wes was granted a licentiate as a cellist, meaning that he was officially qualified to teach music. By the next year, at all of 21 years old, Wes is noted on the census as a musician, which meant he successfully earned his living as such.

Wes was by all accounts a dapper and convivial fellow, his countenance always focused and calm from behind his wire-rimmed spectacles.

He was highly sought after for his musical prowess, and was continually recruited into both solo and orchestral work. In 1910, he traveled to Jamaica to work at Constant Spring Hotel, where "his sunny disposition render[ed] him a favourite wherever he went." He later told friends that this stint in the Caribbean had done wonders to improve his health.

Once back in Southampton in 1911, Wes signed onto the RMS Olympic's maiden voyage alongside John Law Hume, a Scottish violinist who would later become his bandmate on Titanic.

When the RMS Olympic arrived in New York City on June 21, 1911, Wes seized the opportunity to expand his horizons. Since Olympic would not depart for England until June 28th, Wes spent the week educating himself on American music stylings. The periodical Brighton Advertiser later reported that Wes "had a very high opinion of the Americans as lovers of music."

Courtesy of the RMS Olympic, Wes Woodward visited New York thrice more that year.


Titanic's elder sister Olympic, arriving at port circa 1911. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


But after the Olympic was laid up due to the aforementioned incident with the HMS Hawke, Wes was forced to take work on the Caronia, a smaller Cunard vessel.

Between November of 1911 and February of 1912, Wes bounced between Liverpool, New York City, and Mediterranean locations like Gibraltar, Egypt, Monaco, and Italy.

So much travel presented Wes with an opportunity to indulge in one of his other, lesser known hobbies: photography, an art he also exceled in. Wes was also fascinated by engineering, and reportedly spent hours in his workshop studying and building the mechanisms of internal combustion engines.

Although Wes insisted to his friends that he enjoyed the spontaneity of a life lived at sea, he was ready to transition to a happy life on land. He hoped to join an orchestra in Eastbourne, and was reportedly intending to be engaging to an unnamed young woman from London.

He just needed to get through the summer of 1912.

Titanic docked in Southampton.


Wes boarded Titanic on April 10th in Southampton along with seven other musicians.

He was already friendly with John Law Hume, whom he had not seen since the Olympic's accident in September of the previous year, and may have been acquainted with one of the pianists, Theo Brailey. Wes most likely had at least heard mention of the others--and they of him. The musical world was a small one, and he and several of his bandmates had a mutual friend in common: a musician named Edgar Heap who had played with at least five of them in the recent past.

Technically employed as they were via C.W. & F.N. Black out of Liverpool, all eight musicians boarded as Second-Class passengers with a shared ticket number of 250654. The group divided themselves between two cabins.

The musicians probably boarded and became acquainted with one another by the mid-morning; they had their first show all together at 11:30 a.m., when they were scheduled to play as First-Class passengers boarded and were greeted with champagne flutes.

They would then have to hustle to their next planned locations, to be in place for First-Class luncheon. A letter written by First-Class passenger Adolphe Saalfeld also confirms that some bandmembers later played that evening for First-Class teatime as well.

Their schedules and assignments throughout the voyage were distributed by bandmaster Wallace Hartley. Three of the musicians would remain rather stationary, playing primarily on B Deck near dining First-Class passengers. The remaining five men were to float to various locations for concerts in both First- and Second-Class.

On April 11th, Second-Class passenger Juliette LaRoche mentioned the musicians in a letter posted to her father.

"I am writing to you from the reading room ['salon de lecture'] and there is a concert next to me: a violin, two cellos [and] a piano."

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

And since the band members were also boarded as Second-Class passengers, their fellow passengers would have also witnessed and interacted with the men when they were at leisure. Wes Woodward in particular appears to have been an object of admiration for his talent and gentility.

Contemporary promotional illustration of the Second-Class Library on both Olympic and Titanic, by Harland & Wolff.


A Second-Class passenger named Kate Buss, who was traveling from England to California to meet her fiance, kept a journal while on board, in which she called other individuals by little nicknames.

And thus, throughout her entries on Titanic, the ever-genial Wes Woodward was called "Cello Man."

"The Cello Man is a favourite of mine. Every time he finishes a piece he looks at me and we smile...

Saw Doctor just after dinner and reminded him of his promise to ask our Cello Man to play a solo. Says he would if I'd go to Kentucky... too late to arrange, so going to ask for it tomorrow. Cello Man quite nice. Very superior bandsman, and he always smiles his parting to us...

I couldn't get near to ask our Cello Man for a solo... he is quite gentlemanly. He agreed [to a solo] and we chatted.

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

Shortly after the iceberg strike, Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley witnessed an intent Wes Woodward rushing to the upper decks.

I saw a bandsman—the 'cellist—come round the vestibule corner from the staircase entrance and run down the now deserted starboard deck, his 'cello trailing behind him, the spike dragging along the floor. This must have been about 12.40 A.M. I suppose the band must have begun to play soon after this and gone on until after 2 A.M. Many brave things were done that night, but none more brave than by those few men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea and the sea rose higher and higher to where they stood...

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley.

Not everyone saw it this way.

An unnamed Third-Class steward reported to the publication 'Western Daily Mercury' that "as the musicians ran after their instruments they were laughed at by several members of the crew who did not realize how serious matters were."

A tribute to the musicians of the RMS Titanic. Originally published by the Amalgamated Musicians Union.


Wes Woodward and his seven bandmates played, brave and tireless, throughout the sinking.

None survived.

Titanic's musicians were immediate lauded as heroes for their dutiful stoicism in the face of death. Among written memorials to Wes Woodward, the periodical Eastbourne Gazette mused, "To his relations and friends, and to all who knew him, grief at this young musician's death must ever be tinged with a glow of pride at the manner of it."

...A young man of an extremely agreeable and modest bearing, amiable, good-natured, of a sunny disposition, and an easy, equable temper that secured him many friends... his cello playing was always marked by refinement and musicianship; on several occasion he exhibited brilliant qualities as a solo excentant; but he excelled rather as an orchestral player than as a soloist. His orchestral playing was uniformly sound, steady and reliable; while these same invaluable qualities, conjoined with much natural taste and a cultured style, enable him to appear to utmost advantage in chamber music.

The body of John Wesley Woodward was never recovered.


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

Beesley, Lawrence. "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic." Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. Rpt. by Mariner Books, 2000.

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“Nearer, My God, to Thee”: Bandmaster Wallace Hartley

"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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