The tale of a harp
Earlier this year Historic England were contacted by the finders of a diverse assemblage of artefacts from the wreck of a steamer off the coast of Sussex, including a metal plate which was all that was left of a harp, its wooden body and catgut strings having long since disappeared. The identity of the wreck was unknown – and colleagues passed on the enquiry to me to see if I could find a potential match for the site among the records on the Historic England shipwreck database.
On the whole musical instruments are very rarely represented in the documentary record although they turn up occasionally as archaeological finds. Occasionally they are named in the cargo, from the Charles, wrecked in 1675 off the Lizard with unspecified music instruments from Lisbon, to the Preussen (subject of a recent post), which stranded off Dover in 1910 en route from Hamburg to Valparaiso with a cargo which included pianos.
More often we come across references to musical instruments as personal possessions, and not always on board the wrecked vessel either. During the collision of the Belgian steamer Jan Breydel with the Norwegian steamer Salina near the Goodwin Sands in 1921, the Salina came off worse and sank with loss of life, but those on board the Jan Breydel also feared for their lives. One passenger gave a press interview, saying that: “If our boat had been fifty yards further on, there would have been no interview this morning, for the Salina would have struck just about the point where I was sitting.”
That passenger was the violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), who also said that his first thought was for his precious Stradivarius, known as the ‘Emperor’ Stradivarius, around which he placed a lifebuoy. (1) That instrument still exists today – so a near-shipwreck was just one of many incidents in its 300-year history. It also reminds us that many high-status instruments have a traceable history. (By contrast, the Wreck of the Week War Diary for June 1918 shows that a young violinist survived, although his violin did not, but as it was not ‘his best’ it was clearly the least of his worries!)
The history of the harp would prove crucial in helping to unlock the possible identity of the ship, together with the context of the cargo. Other finds from the same wreck included a number of ‘teardrop’ or ‘torpedo’ bottles marked “Bradey and Downey, Newry”, “F W Kennedy, Limerick”, and “Bewley, Evans and Company, Mary Street, Dublin”.
The latter were mineral water bottlers and suppliers with a company history which seems to fizzle out around 1863, (2) suggesting a terminus ante quem for the date of loss, and a voyage beginning in or calling at Ireland. Other finds appeared more likely to be of Continental European origin, such as a large blue and white painted earthenware pot, and are as likely to be interpretable as personal household effects as cargo.
Enter the engraved metal plate from the harp. It was still legible, though much corroded, revealing that it was made by Erard, specialists in prestige harps at their London showroom during the 19th century. The firm had been founded in France, but the French Revolution drove Sébastien Erard out of the country, leaving his brother-in-law to carry on the Paris business. The London and Paris branches then came to specialise respectively in harps and pianos.
Each of Erard’s harps sold from the London showroom was individually numbered with a ‘patent number’, the ledgers for which survive at the Royal College of Music Museum and Archives. The patent number on this example was extremely difficult to read after so long in the sea, and was initially interpreted as 6331 or 6339. Harp 6331 was sold to a clergyman in 1871 and returned for repair in 1874: he retired on the grounds of ill-health in 1875 and died in London in 1906, and harp 6339 was sold in 1864. Both of these post-date the apparent cessation of Bewley and Evans’ operations in Dublin by 1863, and there were no obvious wrecks that fitted the criteria in terms of location, date, or origin post-dating 1864.
Further examination of the patent number in a higher-resolution photograph kindly provided by the finders, and comparison with the lettering of other surviving Erard harps in online collections at the V&A and National Trust suggested that the number could well be 5331, which was the suggestion I put forward to the finders. (Figure 3) The numerals are engraved just to the right of the word ‘Patent’, at the point where the plate begins to curve downwards, (Figure 4) so that each numeral is smaller than its predecessors (compare the two 3s). They are set in an ornamental cartouche of engraved curlicues which have provided a matrix for the further pitting of the metal around the digits. The semi-circular feature between the tops of the second ‘3’ and ‘1’ was especially ambiguous.
The record for 5331 also survives in the ledgers, noted as built in 1839 and sold to a Mr S J Pigott of 112 Grafton Street, Dublin, on September 30, 1840. He was very heavily involved in Dublin musical society, with showrooms for the sale or hire of harps and pianos at those exact premises – including Erard harps. (3)
A key selling point highlighted in his advertisements was that the instruments were sourced from London, so clearly regular buying trips were made. It is unclear what happened next in the case of this particular harp: whether it was for sale in his shop following its import from London, or whether it was intended for his personal use. If the former, the customer is also likely to have lived in Ireland; if the latter, it may have either remained within the family or have been sold after his death. This part of the story so far remains untraced.
It seems clear that the harp is likely to have been a personal possession on its final voyage, reinforced by the presence of what are likely to be other domestic effects aboard; that its voyage is likely to have originated in Ireland, given the bottles from Dublin, Limerick and Newry as cargo; that the vessel was a steamer from the site as observed; and that the wreck took place before 1863 as the date by which one of the bottling firms seems to have fizzled out; and somewhere on the coast of Sussex.
The candidate that most closely matches the criteria is the steamer Ondine of Waterford, which sank on 19 February 1860 following a collision off Beachy Head with the schooner Heroine of Bideford. The position of loss as reported does not quite tally with the position of the site as located, but this is not at all uncommon, since wreck remains are often identified some distance from the reported place of loss. This would not, therefore, necessarily exclude the Ondine from consideration, particularly as she otherwise matches the criteria so closely. Additionally, while steamers were common at this date, they had not yet ousted the sailing vessel, which significantly restricted the pool of potential candidates for the wreck site.
Ondine was a regular visitor to London and left Dublin as usual on 15 February with passengers and a general cargo, calling at Falmouth, Plymouth and Southampton en route. Her profile fits well with the finds on site as she was carrying both passengers, providing the context for the movement of personal effects, and cargo, which would fit with the bottles as found. At each port some passengers disembarked and others came on board, so the total number of passengers is difficult to ascertain, but a ‘good many faces’ were looking down at the survivors in one boat as they got away. (4)
It seems that three boats got away, one led by the captain, one the mate, Edward West, and one the second mate, Richard Burke, with a fourth boat being smashed. The captain’s boat was swamped, and all presumably drowned; the mate managed to save 20 persons, who were seen straight away by the Heroine, which picked them up. Of those who got into the third boat with the second mate, only two passengers survived, one of whom, one Marsh, had been on holiday to his wife’s family. His wife and two children got away with him in the same boat, but he suffered the agony of seeing them perish one by one from exposure or drowning, one child in his arms. The mate and the other survivors were very near the end of their resources, with their boat badly damaged and only saved from sinking by its cork lining, when discovered by the Thetis steamer, who sent a boat to pick them up.
One strange circumstance was the presence of an unnamed lady passenger. Richard Burke recalled in his testimony that the captain most particularly adjured him to look after this lady as she got into his boat. Unfortunately, along with the chief stewardess, she was one of the first to perish from his boat. Was, she, perhaps, the harp’s owner?
Further research on the wreck site and in documentary sources will help to confirm whether the wreck is indeed the Ondine, but no other candidates in the historical record appear to fit the archaeological discoveries so well. It’s very common for a maker’s plate to confirm the identity of a wreck, but who would have thought that a maker’s plate for a harp could put a candidate for a wreck’s identity in the frame? There is more research to be done on both the wreck site and in documentary records before this possible identification can be confirmed or discarded in favour of another, but it is a fascinating story that demonstrates the depth of detective work involved in putting a name to a wreck.
With many thanks to Mike and Sue Rountree and to Guy Freeman for sharing their story and photographs of the discovery, and to Dr Anna Maria Barry at the Royal College of Music Museum, who says: ‘The RCM Museum and Library team are delighted to have helped with the identification of this wreck. We are lucky enough to look after the Erard ledgers, and have answered many enquiries about serial numbers – but this is by far the strangest request we’ve had! The story of the shipwrecked harp demonstrates the way in which musical instruments can offer a unique insight into our social history.’ The RCM Museum have also blogged about the wreck: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2018-05-21museumblogharp.aspx
(1) Shields Daily News, 24 September 1921, No.19,522, p3
(2) British Newspaper Archive searches: no advertisements for the firm later than 1863, supported by (undated) material from Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
(3) Erard harp ledgers, Royal College of Music Museum. Samuel Pigott announced his move to premises at 112 Grafton Street, advertising Erard and other harps and pianos, in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 4 November 1837, No.1,513, p1. The company continued to sell harps and pianos from the same premises even after Samuel’s death in 1853 (British Newspaper Archive searches). In fact the business continues today as McCullough Pigott in Dublin.
(4) Liverpool Mercury, 23 February 1860, No.3,752, p3