The stores of Blackburn Museum contain many treasures - some have strong local connections, while others have links to history on the wider world stage. The small powder compact pictured here (BLKMG 2003.1932) may well have belonged to a local lady, but the image of a ship delicately painted onto the mother-of-pearl lid tells a story from the wild waters of the Atlantic Ocean which took place almost exactly 100 years ago.
The ship is the R.M.S. Baltic, a steamer of the famous White Star Line. Launched in November 1903, Baltic was the biggest ship in the world until 1905, weighing over 23,000 tons and measuring 729 feet from bow to stern. She was employed on the trans-Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. The ‘R.M.S.’ in her title stands for Royal Mail Ship, meaning that she was registered to carry both the British and U.S. mails.
We are all familiar with the tragic fate of another White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic, which sunk with terrible loss of life in April 1912. Less well-known is the heroic part that the R.M.S. Baltic played in averting a similar tragedy three years earlier in January 1909.
The morning of January 23rd was a foggy one in the busy shipping lanes off the eastern coast of America. White Star liner R.M.S. Republic was 50 miles into her journey from New York to the Mediterranean and was proceeding with caution due to the poor visibility. Suddenly, at 5.30 am, Republic was rocked by an enormous collision – she had been hit by another liner!
In the ensuing confusion, the extent of the damage to Republic was unclear, as was the identity of the other ship. Wireless operator Jack Binns had been thrown from his bunk by the impact, but quickly made his way to the radio room. He found a scene of devastation – the roof had collapsed and part of the cabin had been torn away. Binns could clearly see the mangled bow of the other ship towering over him. Incredibly, he managed to get his radio apparatus working with an auxiliary battery and, exposed to the elements as his cabin disintegrated around him, began tapping out ‘C.Q.D.’ on his morse key.
In the days before the distress call ‘S.O.S.’ was introduced, one of several alternatives for vessels in distress was ‘C.Q.D.’ The ‘C.Q.’ element came from the morse ‘calling all stations’ signal, with the ‘D.’ added to denote ‘distress’. In 1909, not all ships were fitted with radio apparatus, so it was by no means guaranteed that a nearby vessel would hear Republic’s call. However, Binns’ signal was heard by a shore station in Nantucket who replied ‘C.Q.D’ and received the following message from Republic:
“Rammed by unknown steamship…Badly in need of assistance”.
While Jack Binns bravely carried out his duty at the morse key, the rest of the crew tried to ascertain exactly what had happened. The other ship was identified as the S.S. Florida, an Italia Floyd liner which was ironically transporting earthquake survivors from Messina in Italy to the ‘safety’ of America. Three of Florida’s crew had been killed by the impact, as had two of Republic’s passengers.
As the Captains assessed the damage to their respective ships, it became clear that Republic was in greater peril – her engine room and electric generators were flooded, so she was left drifting out of control, unlit and without power. It was decided to disembark her 460 passengers and most of her crew to Florida, leaving a skeleton crew of 40 men on Republic.
Meanwhile, the Nantucket Shore Station had been calling for assistance using its much more powerful transmitter. The mayday call was received and responded to by White Star’s R.M.S. Baltic. By noon of the 23rd, Baltic was within 10 miles of the damaged Republic and had begun zig-zagging to try and find the stricken ship in worsening fog. Still at his morse key, Binns sent out regular messages while the remaining crew set off explosive rockets to help Baltic close in on their position.
As darkness fell, with Republic slowly sinking and only eight crewmembers remaining on board, Baltic finally came within sight. After a 12 hour search covering over 200 miles, R.M.S. Baltic had made history by becoming the first ship to successfully respond to a radio distress call.
The passengers and crew from both damaged ships were all transferred to Baltic (at 1,540 people this remains the largest at-sea transfer) which then continued on its journey to New York. S.S. Florida was also capable of sailing slowly back to port, but R.M.S. Republic wasn’t so lucky. Tugs had attached ropes and were towing her back to New York when she began to take on water more rapidly, eventually sinking stern-first at 8.00 pm on the evening of January 24th.
There is no doubt that the hero of the day was wireless operator Jack Binns who stayed at his post without food or sleep for an incredible 48 hours. He had proved that the ‘miracle of radio’ could be used as a life-saving device. Unfortunately, it was this reliance on radio which caused later White Star liners to be fitted out with fewer lifeboats than were necessary for the number of passengers on board – the folly of such a policy was highlighted horribly by the Titanic disaster. Ironically, R.M.S. Baltic was one of the ships which sent ice warnings to the doomed Titanic in April 1912.
It is tempting to imagine that our tiny powder compact and its lady owner were involved in that heroic rescue 100 years ago. Whatever the truth, this artefact is a reminder of the days when giant steamships plied the oceans for the most part in great comfort and safety.
R.M.S. Baltic went on to serve as a troopship during the First World War, before returning to commercial passenger use. She was scrapped at Osaka, Japan in 1933.
By Nick Harling, Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.
The collection of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery contains many weird and wonderful artefacts. Some of the most interesting are those which relate to a specific place, person or historical event. One such object is an unusual engraved shell to be found on display in the museum’s ‘Skill & Labour’ gallery.
Over a picture of a large ship are inscribed the words: “Purchased on board by James Cunningham, 14th June 1861”. Below, the name of the ship is recorded – the S.S. Great Eastern.
James Cunningham is our local connection here. Born in Scotland circa 1796, ‘Jemmy’ entered service as butler to William Feilden Esq., of Feniscowles Hall, around 1820. He served Mr. (later Sir William) Feilden for sixteen years and during that time met many important people through his master’s political activities (Feilden was MP for Blackburn between 1832 and 1847).
On leaving service, Jemmy used some of his savings to purchase the Snig Brook Brewery, which he quickly turned into a profitable business. He was soon able to build himself a handsome new house close to the brewery, called Springburn, which still stands adjacent to the west end of Barbara Castle Way. He even commissioned a portrait to be painted of himself – this is also now displayed in the ‘Skill & Labour’ gallery.
With his business success came a desire to succeed in public life. After two years as a Town Councillor and one failed attempt to become Mayor, he was finally elected to that post in November 1859. During his Mayoralty, Jemmy seems to have made friends and enemies in equal measure, possibly due to what Abram describes as his “almost child-like frankness”, going on to explain that Cunningham “did not care to pass off for the educated man he was not”.
Stepping down as Mayor at the end of 1860, Jemmy took little further part in local politics. According to Abram, his continued brewing success allowed him to take on the role of a “gentleman who has plenty of money to surround himself with social pleasures”. One of these was his trip to see the Great Eastern in June 1861.
The S.S. Great Eastern was one of the wonders of the industrial age. Designed by the celebrated engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel this gigantic vessel, launched in January 1858, was the largest ship in the world, weighing 24,000 tons and measuring 690 feet in length – a size unsurpassed until 1901. She was the first ship with a double-skinned iron hull and was powered by steam engines through both screw and paddle propulsion, with sails for auxiliary power.
However, Great Eastern’s career was plagued with difficulty and disappointment. The shipbuilder, John Scott Russell, was bankrupted by the project and serious problems were encountered in actually launching the vessel, such was her enormous size. Her maiden voyage on 6 September 1859 was a disaster. Sailing from the Thames around to Weymouth in preparation for Atlantic sea trials, Great Eastern had only reached Hastings when one of her boilers exploded, killing five stokers. When Brunel received the news, the stress caused him to fall ill and die a few days later. Not an auspicious start for such an advanced vessel!
The ship’s first commercial voyage to America took place in June 1860. The 35 fare-paying passengers were somewhat outnumbered by the 418 crew. In fact, Great Eastern had enough accommodation for 4,000 passengers. This was an early sign that the Great Ship Company would have difficulty in making any money out of their flagship.
Her second voyage of May 1861 was hardly more successful, with 100 passengers booking to America and 194 on the return journey. On her arrival at Holyhead the Great Ship Company decided to try and recoup some of their losses by opening the Great Eastern to paying visitors. Jemmy Cunningham visited the ship at this time – the souvenir shell he purchased was no doubt another of the Company’s money-making wheezes.
A further American trip was made in September 1861, this time with 400 passengers, but disaster struck again when a storm destroyed her rudder and paddle wheels, leaving her to limp back to Ireland in disgrace.
Further voyages in 1862 were more profitable, especially as a great deal of transatlantic freight was being carried. Unfortunately an accident leaving New York in August left her with an 83 foot long tear in her outer hull. While her double-skinned construction had saved her from sinking, the repairs took three months to effect, by which time the Great Ship Company was in serious debt. They decided to sell the vessel in 1864, for a meagre £25,000, less than a quarter of its true value.
Ironically, S.S. Great Eastern finally found success in a non-passenger carrying role. Her new owners, the Great Eastern Steamship Company, fitted her out as a cable-laying ship. She laid 2,600 miles of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865 and by 1878 had laid over 25,000 miles of cable around the world. Her work done, she was finally scrapped at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey in 1890 – it took 18 months to break her up.
Ultimately, Brunel’s Great Eastern was simply too large for the job it was first given. Originally envisaged as a ‘round the world’ ship, the traffic on the North Atlantic run just couldn’t support it. A simple case of operating costs exceeding income. And what of Jemmy Cunningham? I’m sure he thoroughly enjoyed his trip to see Great Eastern – she was big, bold and brash, qualities that a self-made man such as Cunningham would have admired.
By Nick Harling, Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery
by Thomas Barker
This "Tale from the Museum" about an interesting work of art, has been written by Helen McFeely, a volunteer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
Walk into any museum and you are confronted with thousands of different objects and paintings. There are artefacts which will draw you in, for their decorative qualities, maybe their quirkiness, or value, and then there are those you can pass by without any hesitation, those with seemingly little interest or importance. It is only when you begin to build a history; a story behind these pieces that they become relevant and exciting.
There is a painting which sits atop a shelving stack, covered in a white sheet, in the Blackburn Museum store room. It is frameless, has rips across the canvas and the painting itself, entitled ‘The Surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan’ is a formal military scene.
A few years ago one of the Museum’s curators took an interest in the painting and after much time spent contacting art experts and historians, and researching the subject, a surprising story emerged.
‘The Surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan’ was painted by Thomas Jones Barker, in 1871. Thomas Barker was born in 1813 to the famous Barker family of Bath and was taught to paint by his father of the same name, a painter and lithographer himself. In 1834 Thomas moved to Paris and was taken on as a student by the famous military and royal painter Horace Vernet, where he painted a number of pictures for King Louis Philippe and his family. On his return to Britain in 1845 his credibility had already been established and he went on to paint for the British Royal family; one of his most famous paintings being that of Queen Victoria presenting a bible to an African Chief. His work was frequently exhibited at the Royal Academy (although, unfortunately, he was never made a member) and Barker became successful as a painter of military scenes and portraits due to his traditional, detailed style of painting, often drawing sketches first hand for the London Chronicle from battle scenes he travelled to such as the Franco Prussian and Crimean wars.
In 1870 he returned to France to paint scenes of the Franco Prussian war and it was during this time period that the ‘Surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan’ was painted.
The Franco Prussian war was a short war, lasting just under a year from July 1870 to May 1871 but was significant as it led to the unification of Germany. It involved the Second French Empire on one side, led by Napoleon III and the Kingdom of Prussia on the other, a German Kingdom comprising of nearly two thirds of Germany, led by King William I (future Emperor of Germany after the unification). The war ignited after years of tension between the two countries. The final straw for Napoleon, when he mobilised his army on the 19th July 1870 and declared war was when the Hohenzollern family of Prussia (a family of electors and creators of the Kingdom of Prussia) put forward a candidate for the Spanish Throne.
The war was not a success for Napoleon as the title of Barker’s painting suggests. The Prussian army were far more superior in weapons and in transport. The Prussian Empire had the fourth densest rail network in the world during this time and could resupply their troops much quicker and with much more ease than the French, which is evident in the death toll of the French army. They lost over 17,000 men compared to Prussia who only lost 2,500 . After a series of Prussian victories in Eastern France the culmination of the war was the Battle of Sedan and the surrender of Napoleon III on the 2nd of September 1870, the scene of the painting. The war did not officially end here though and the Third Republic (France as it was known after Napoleon's surrender) continued resistance until 10th May 1871.
It was during this war that Germany acquired the piece of land, Alsace Lorraine, which was not returned to France until the end of the First World War when the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up, and which resulted in France's continued feud with Germany for decades to come.
After researching this information and building a story up behind the painting’s history it is easy to understand why it is an important artwork. It captures the end of one nation and the beginning of another by an artist, equally if not more so, as famous as the war itself. When we analyse the painting we can find that Barker himself thought the scene something of importance and captured the key figures from both sides in great detail and conveys an atmosphere of how it felt to be at the surrender. For example, Napoleon has been painted with his head bowed, holding a white cloth in one hand to show his surrender, with his military officials painted inside the glass house of the chateau, portraying a sombre mood amongst the French. Whereas, the Prussian officials (gathered outside) are stood with a sense of pride, as we can see from King William I (whom Napoleon is shaking hands with) who is stood upright, almost with his chest pushed forward. Barker has captured the Prussians dominance over the French well, and their success in the war.
In Barker’s portrayal of the surrender it takes place outside the Chateau Bellevue, in Sedan. The actual surrender however did not take place here but in a nearby field. Barker has painted the picturesque scene here to perhaps add a sense of officiality or grandeur to the matter. He has painted both the French and Prussian officials with such detail that individuals can be easily identified. This again suggests that Barker understood the importance of the surrender and wanted to document it for future generations.
How such an important painting came to be in Blackburn Museum is a mystery and after many hours spent investigating we are no closer to an answer. There is no evidence of the painting ever being exhibited, which could suggest it was a private commission but who commissioned it cannot be answered. Other than the year the scene was painted and the date it came to be at the Museum in the 1970’s, the hundred year gap remains unanswered and so the story ends here. For now at least!
Another in our occasional series highlighting paintings and artefacts held in Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
A-Level student Jack Snape took some time out from his studies to take a closer look at some of the treasures at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. He's what he thought of them
Diana or Christ?
Whilst strolling through the gallery my eyes were caught by one particular painting, ‘Diana or Christ?’ by Edwin Long. The look of tragedy upon the young woman’s face drew me to look deeper into the meaning of the painting and its characters.
The painting depicts a story of sacrifice in Ephesus, a Turkish city in the Roman Empire around the 2nd Century AD. As a Christian, the young woman faces the difficult decision to either denounce Christianity by offering incense to the pagan statue of Diana or refuse and be taken away by the roman soldiers surrounding her to be killed.
Her struggle is obvious as she looks to the heavens for guidance, whilst she gingerly stretches out her arm towards the idol. The crowd around her look on in suspense, anxiously awaiting her decision. Even desperate words from the girl’s lover are wasted as she faces the internal struggle.
A small group of girls surround the idol along with a priest and a high ranking Roman official. I couldn’t help but notice one of the girls is looking away from the scene, out of the painting, and that no matter where I stood she always looked away from me. This subtly represents how many looked away from god, in favour of paganism and showed a blind eye to the persecution towards the Christians. She has to look away, in fear of yet another slaughter. Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire at this time, because Rome wanted to unite its empire under one religion, fearing that a large number of faiths in one empire could cause divisions and tension. People had to show their devotion to the emperor, just like they had to worship the Roman gods.
Next to the girls, a priest watches on with a very firm yet sure look upon his face. He watches the scene unravel in front of him, but he is calm and sure of himself. He has his hands together in his lap in a very contemplative manner. He is sat next to a very young girl, showing that the Romans have forced paganism onto the people for many years, and people of all ages were pagans.
The young Christian girl in the centre of the painting brightens up the image, and her white garments are a stark contrast to the dark clothes and dim faces of the Roman soldiers behind her. This perhaps hints at her innocence and wisdom, and that amongst the darkness of paganism, the Holy Spirit is still present in the girl.
The work was painted in the Victorian period, at time when once again, Christians were put under the test of faith. Science was taking leaps forward, Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ was published in 1859 and widely accepted, in 1868 Dmitri Mendeleev had published his periodic table, and later, in 1911 Ernest Rutherford was to conduct his electron scattering experiment to show the structure of the atom. Leaps were being made closer to defying god, and just as is depicted in this painting, Christians were tested to stay faithful, rather than to convert to current belief.
‘Christ or Diana?’ was so popular in its time that the artist painted two identical paintings. The painting in Blackburn Art Gallery was donated in 1919 at the end of World War One as a tribute to the local men who fought and died in the Great War. This image is particularly relevant as a post war donation as the painting is centred around sacrifice and standing up for what you believe in and the First World War soldiers, just like the young Christian girl, were willing to die for their beliefs.
By Jack Snape
On 30 April 1662 at St. James's Palace a child named Mary was born. She was the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York and Lady Anne Hyde. In 1688 when King James was exiled from England, Mary and her husband William III became joint Sovereigns of England, Scotland and Ireland.
This portrait of Mary as Queen was painted in1690 by Gottfried Kniller. The German artist changed his name to Godfrey Kneller after moving to England in 1674 to avoid being labelled a foreigner.
Kneller held the highly respectful position of Principal Painters to the Crown.
In this portrait, Queen Mary wears jewel-encrusted royal 17th century clothing with her hand on an Orb besides a crown, serving as symbols of power. Unlike many queens, Mary had full power as she held joint sovereignty. She ran the country with a nine man cabinet when her husband, King William III, was out of the country.
Although she was reluctant to involve herself in politics, when she did, she did so with conviction and became famous for being a great administrative Queen.
This portrait is set in a grand building as we can see a balcony behind her, a symbol of looking over and ruling the country. In the foreground Mary’s train continues out of the picture, showing her overflowing riches and authority. In the back and foreground are expensive drapes and table covers of satin and silk in red and gold, signifying royalty, status and wealth. Mary’s clothing is covered in expensive pearl chains and her drapery is lined in expensive furs. The gathering dark clouds and red fiery skyline beyond the balcony imply that a storm is fast approaching. This most probably refers to the Jacobite rebellion in Ireland, or William’s overseas military campaigns.
Mary is depicted as very pale, as was fashionable at the time. Being pale proved that you didn’t have to do any work in the fields, in the sun. It should also be noticed that Mary dominates the portrait, she is not within the setting; the setting is her border. She is the centre of the image and her pale white skin contrasts to the dark background, forcing the viewer to look only at her. This is ironic however as Mary was actually very tall (5 foot 11 inches!!).
On the 28 December 1694, Mary died of smallpox at Kensington Palace. There, her embalmed body remained over winter until March when she was buried in Westminster Abbey. Her funeral service was the first of any royal to be attended by all the members of Parliament and the Lords, demonstrating popularity amongst politicians.
The painting was donated to Blackburn Art Gallery by William Duckworth in 1928.
By Jack Snape
The scene is set in 3rd century Libya. A dragon prepares to devour its prey, the King’s daughter, who screams in fear. She is moments away from death when suddenly a mounted knight impales and kills the dragon, saving the city, princess and its inhabitants. The tale of the heroic Saint George and the dragon is well known but the religious meaning is often muddled.
Set in modern-day Libya during its conversion from Paganism to Christianity, Saint George banishes the dragon which represents Paganism and the enemies of God. This is similar to the Biblical story of Lucifer who was cast from heaven. When Lucifer returned to heaven in the form of a dragon to kill the baby Jesus, Archangel Michael protected heaven and the angels by spearing the dragon.
This similarity made me wonder if perhaps there is a link between Saint George and Archangel Michael. In terms of iconography both share striking similarities including riding a horse whilst holding a spear in their left hand to stab a dragon that appears to emerge from the bowels of earth. Demons burst through the bottom of the icon, showing their disruption to Christianity and the havoc they can cause. The enemies they strike are small in size, showing that the power of God is more immense than any evil and that he will triumph over any threat to Christians.
Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki was a soldier who lived in the early 4th century. He was the son of a high ranking soldier in the Greek army. As a young man he refused to convert to Paganism and he is known for the miracles he performed on the battlefield, saving Greece from the Bulgarian King Kalojan. On icons, he too, is shown upon a steed, spear in hand, lancing a Pagan king.
Demetrius is the second most important warrior saint after Saint George and is the patron saint of Crusaders. Saint George is the Archistrategos, or chief warrior, of saints much like Archangel Michael and perhaps from this I can draw the conclusion that Saint Demetrius could mirror Archangel Gabriel as a second-in-command.
By Jack Snape
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