Thursday, 15 September 2016

C.S.Mackay Bennett - cable ship recovering bodies from the Titanic

CS Mackay Bennett 
by Stewart Ash

This article first appeared in SubTel Forum Issue 61, January 2012 
Back Reflection

One hundred years ago, the 5.5. Titanic, , then the largest passenger ship in the world and owned by he White Star line, set out from Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York, on 10th April 1912. On board were 2,223 passengers and crew. As is well known, at 23:40 (local) on 14th April, she hit an iceberg and sank, going down at 02:20 (local) on the morning of is 15th April. 1,517 people lost their lives that day and it remains one of the worst marine disasters in peacetime. The high casualty rate was due in part to the fact that the ship only carried lifeboats for 1,178 people, which  was entirely consistent with the regulations that were in force at the time. A high proportion of the victims were men, due to the 'women and children first' protocol that was enforced by the ship's crew in abandoning ship.

As this year is the centenary of this tragic event, much in the months to come, will be said, written, broadcast and televised describing various aspects of the story. Therefore, we thought we would  take the opportunity, in the first issue of 2012, to cover the role that the submarine cable industry  had to play in the aftermath of the disaster.

Even as the S.S. Carpathia was steaming back to New York with survivors from the Titanic, the White  Star line was in the process of chartering the 1,700 ton, C.S. Mackay Bennett from the Commercial  Cable Company to recover bodies from the Atlantic. The charter rate agreed was US$550  a day.

The Mackay Bennett was built by John Elder and Co. in Govan, Glasgow, in 1884. She was named after the two principle directors of the Commercial Cable Company; John W Mackay (1831-1902) and James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841-1918), who was also proprietor of the New York Herald.

At the time, the Mackay Bennett was on station, alongside in Halifax, Nova Scotla. The cable in her tanks was quickly discharged to shore and replaced with ice. A number of embalmers, undertakers and a large quantity of coffins were embarked. All of the ship's crew volunteered for the harrowing task, and were paid double. The Mackay Bennett set sail, under the command of Captain Frederick Harold Larnder, on Wednesday 1 ih April. Time was of the essence for a number of reasons; firstly, if  the floating bodies reached the Gulf Stream they would be distributed far and wide; secondly the probability that the bodies would be disfigured by wild life, making identification impossible, had to be taken into consideration and finally, the need of loved ones and families for closure was recognised.

The Mackay Bennett reached the disaster site on the evening of Saturday 20th April. It quickly became apparent that there too many floating bodies for the Mackay Bennett to cope with and a second vessel, the Anglo American Telegraph Company's CS Minia, was quickly chartered by the White Star Line.

The crew began recovery operations the next morning and, despite heavy swell, managed to recover 51 bodies, of these 26 were considered so badly disfigured as to make identification impossible. These were wrapped in canvas, weighed down with iron bars and committed to the deep in a burial ceremony that evening. The remainder were embalmed and placed in coffins.

On the 23rd April the Mackay Bennett rendezvoused with the SS Sardinian in order to take on more canvas for wrapping bodies. By Tuesday zs" April, the Mackay Bennett had recovered 306 bodies, of which 116 were buried at sea. Overwhelmed by the task they had undertaken, they headed back to Halifax with 190 bodies on board, roughly twice as many as the coffins they had taken. By this time, the C S Mania had arrived at the disaster site and continued to search, she recovered a further 17 bodies before she abandoned the search and returned to Halifax.

As the bodies had been taken aboard the Mackay Bennett, they were given a label with a number on it and any possessions discovered on the body were placed in a small bag with the same number. Despite the best efforts of the authorities in Halifax and the officials of the White Star Line, only 56 of the 190 bodies returned to Halifax by the Mackay Bennett were positively identified.

Arrangements were made for the bodies that could not be identified or, where relatives could not afford or did not want to repatriate them, to be buried in three of Halifax's cemeteries; the Baron de Hirsch; the Fairview Lawn and the Mount 0livet. About half of the 150 people buried in Halifax were never identified, so the top line of their headstones were left blank, with only the body number
engraved for reference and 'Died April 15, 1912'.

The crew of the Mackay Bennett had recovered the body of a small fair haired boy. There were no unique possessions on the body, so he remained unidentified. When people read about this, he became a symbol of the tragedy and the authorities in Halifax were overwhelmed with offers to
sponsor the toddler's funeral and pay for a headstone. The difficult task of selecting a sponsor was
made easier when Captain Larnder and the crew of the Mackay Bennett offered to sponsor the  funeral. The boy's epitaph reads:'Erected to the Memory of an Unknown Child Whose Remains were Recovered after the Disaster of  the Titanic, April 15, 1912'. 

In November 2002, the American PBS television series 'Secrets of the Dead' initially identified the body as Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month old Finnish baby, the identification being based on dental records. However, Canadian researchers discovered through a test on the child's HVS1, a type of mitochondrial DNA molecule, that this did not match the Panula family. DNA extracted from the exhumed remains and DNA provided by a surviving maternal relative helped positively match the remains and the re-identification was announced on 30 July 2007. The boy was Sidney Leslie Goodwin (1910 -1912) a 19 month old English boy, the youngest son of Frederick Joseph Goodwin and Augusta nee Tyler. The Goodwins were traveling to the USA to join Fredrick's brother Thomas. They had booked third class passage on a small steamer out of Southampton but, due to the coal strike, the voyage was cancelled and they had been transferred to the Titanic. Frederick had five other children, Lillian 16, Charles 14, William 11, Jessie 10 and Harold 9. Apart from Sidney, none of  the family's remains have been identified, and it is probable that they are among the 1,188 bodies  that were never recovered.

Captain Larnder was killed in action during the First World War, but the Mackay Bennett continued in service as a cable ship until 1922. She was then retired to Plymouth Sound where she was used as a cable storage hulk. During WWII she was sunk at her moorings but later re-floated and refitted. In September 1965 she was refitted and broken up.

Copyright Stewart Ash 2016

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