A recent article in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, recalled the bravery of the musicians aboard the Titanic who played after the ship struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, just over a century ago. Only about one third of those aboard were rescued in the pitifully few lifeboats, but the action of the bandsmen in playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ during the last minutes before the giant ship sank helped to avoid panic and perhaps even greater loss of life.
The article (reprinted from the Guardian) refers to the fact that the band leader, Wallace Hartley, is only remembered by a memorial plaque in a church he had attended, and by a bronze bust in front of a public library in his home town in Lancashire.
But this is not the case. As most Broken Hill people know, this city erected a monument to the musicians of the Titanic. It stands in Sturt Park, which was earlier known as the Central Reserve. It seems remarkable that, in this isolated inland community, the city’s first monument abound commemorates an incident that occurred in icy seas on the other side of the globe.
The memorial suggestion came originally from the bandsmen of Broken Hill, with whom the heroic incident struck a chord of sympathy. The idea was to build a rotunda in the grounds of the hospital. However, these plans were changed when it was found that a rotunda would have cost about six hundred pounds and the memorial committee had only been able to collect less than a quarter of that amount.
The memorial was designed by an architect (without charge) and consists of a broken marble column, standing a total of 5.8 metres above the ground. The main inscription tells the story of the bandsman and carries the words and music of the main line of the hymn. The opposite face of the monument bears the names of the bandsmen, and elsewhere we can see the names of the builder, the architect, and the four members of the committee who were most closely associated with the monument.
There was much debate about the monument before it was officially opened on Sunday, December 21 1913 (20 months after the sinking). A correspondent to the Barrier Miner was critical of the committeemens' names being placed on the monument. He commented that “How, Mr Editor, succeeding generations might conceivably get confused as to who really went down on that lamentable night.”
Then there was the row about the direction in which the monument was facing. When it was first erected, it was facing a different direction from its present one. The committee was critical because the front faced ‘a portion of the reserve which is least frequently traversed by the public,’ while the side bearing the names of the committee was facing a much-travelled pathway.
The architect, Mr E Barton Hack, strongly opposed any change in the orientation of the structure.
“The whole system of monuments,” he explained, “is based on ancient heraldry, which is architecturally followed in respect to all monuments. The system is that the rising sun should shine on the portion of the inscription which includes the names of the persons to whom honour the monument erected; the setting sun should shine on that portion of the inscription which states the object for which the memorial was erected.”
The citizens’ committee was unimpressed, and decided that this was one case where tradition would have to go overboard. The monument was changed around, so for all these long years the names of those brave men have faced the setting rather than the rising sun.