Titanic's alarms bells that warned of disaster go on show

Glenda Cooper
Saturday 24 September 1994 23:02

A CHILLING reminder of the watertight doors that could not save the supposedly unsinkable Titanic has been brought from the ocean bed to be the centrepiece of the first major exhibition of objects recovered from the wreck, which will open in London in 10 days' time.

Among 150 artefacts - ranging from the ship's telegraph to a button from a sailor's uniform - a labelled fuseplate and pieces of the alarm bells linked to the liner's watertight door compartments will be on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

The alarm first alerted the crew of the Titanic that their lives were in peril when the liner ran into an iceberg just before midnight on 14 April 1912 on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She sank with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

The exhibition, the culmination of prolonged international efforts to locate the wreck and salvage objects from the site, has attracted criticism, both from relatives of the victims and marine archaeologists who say the whole area should be left as a grave. However, two survivors, Edith Haisman, aged 98, and Milvina Dean, 82, have now agreed, along with Don Smith, great-nephew of the Titanic's captain, E J Smith, to open the exhibition, which is costing pounds 300,000 to stage and is expected to attract more than a quarter of a million visitors before it closes next April.

'I agreed to open it because the artefacts had been collected from the sea bed and they couldn't be put back again,' Miss Dean said.

She was nine weeks old, and emigrating with her family from a London pub to a Kansas tobacconist's shop, when she survived the disaster in which her father died. 'Otherwise they would only be washed away and do nobody any good. The artefacts are of historic importance, and I think you will find they have a certain sort of mystique.'

Miss Dean said she would feel quite emotional going to see the relics. 'For years after my mother returned to England she would not speak about it, so I only became interested about seven or eight years ago when the wreck was found.'

The fuse panel with its label 'watertight door bells' is a particularly poignant reminder of the tragedy, according to Stephen Deuchar, the museum's head of exhibitions and displays. 'At first glance this is just a piece of black slate with some labelling,' he said. 'It's only when you stop and look at it that your pulse starts to race.'

The alarm bells would be the first warning the crew had that there had been damage to the ship, as they probably did not feel the collision, he said. The alarms warned the crew to vacate five compartments between the boiler and engine room which the doors sealed off. Up to four of these compartments could fill with water before the ship would sink - and the doors were closed by First Officer Murdoch - but the gash caused by the iceberg is believed to have let in enough water to overwhelm them all. With only enough lifeboats for half those on board, there were just 705 survivors from the 2,228 passengers and crew.

The fuse panel was brought up in the 1987 expedition to salvage artefacts from the wreck site. The actual remains of the ship have not been touched. Only 150 of the 3,600 objects recovered will be on display because many are still undergoing restoration.

Other exhibits include the statue of a cherub which originally stood at the landing of the aft first class staircase, a newspaper from 1912 (restored and readable), the ship's bell and a Gladstone bag which is believed to have been filled with valuables by a looter as the ship went down.

(Photograph omitted)

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