BIG IS BETTER: ‘Ovation of the Seas’ comes to Australia.

No help needed. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

No help needed. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

Big is best,
Big wins
Big is like – OMG – gigantic
Big is beautiful!

Look what’s outside my hotel window in Hobart: Ovation of the Seasone of the biggest ocean cruise ships in the world. It’s here, you can’t miss it, it seems longer than the docks, wider than the widest sea, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – anything goes in this department.

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Sometimes, being negative isn’t so bad…

This is something I discovered recently during the process of registering part of the large collection of photographic negatives, taken by photographer Gervaise Purcell, and acquired by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Cruise ship circular quay

View of the passenger ship CANBERRA at Circular Quay. ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

Man and woman on deck of cruise ship

Example of promotional cruise ship images produced by Purcell.
ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

Photo of cruise liner from wharf, people waving from deck

Example of promotional cruise ship images produced by Purcell. ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

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A day in the life of a cruise ship

Like nocturnal animals, they come home as dawn breaks, find their haven to sit out the heat of the day, and then head back out as the day cools into the evening. That’s one day’s pattern in the life of a cruise ship that comes to Sydney.

Cruise ship on Sydney Harbour at dusk, with sun setting and ship lights onDawn breaks. Sneaking in through the heads, lights ablaze, beating the sun still chasing it from under the eastern horizon, the cruise ship picks up its pilot and silently, unnoticed by most of Sydney still sleeping. It glides down the western channel, past Bradleys, Fort Dennison, under the bridge at a crawl, hard to port and a sideways slip routine, sometimes helped by a tug, has it berthed at the Barangaroo terminal before 7am. Continue reading

Sailing into Cobh


Balmoral calling at Cobh, Ireland - Titanic's last port of call

Yesterday’s bleak morning weather continued through much of the day, although there were plenty of shipboard activities to keep passengers’ minds off it with Michael Martin giving a lecture on Cobh, the Balmoral’s next port of call, in addition to the usual range of shipboard activities. After struggling with on board connectivity (thus the lack of photos – I’ll have to upload more later) I lost track of time, noting only that our arrival in Queenstown would be delayed a couple of hours.

As matters turned out, the delay turned to be fortuitous. I looked up suddenly to see land slipping past, and the grey skies and rain that had been falling earlier cleared in time for our arrival. Those few hours meant that we sailed in with blue skies and an exquisite evening. What an astonishing welcome it was – a rainbow in the sky that might have been ordered for the occasion, and the streets of Cobh lined with well wishers come to welcome us in to port.

Arriving Cobh

Wellwishers meet the Balmoral as she sails into Cobh

This time I joined the passengers who dressed for the occasion and, wearing a c.1912 green silk walking suit (with, alas, no hat – it was forgotten in the packing, and I was bareheaded in a 1912 fashion faux pas) and walked into a throng of people all welcoming us ashore.

The Mayor of Cobh, Jim Quinlan, formally welcomed us in a Civic Reception, and then we were free to wander the streets. I’ve always found this an extraordinarily beautiful town, and (as a result of Ireland’s neutrality in World War II) it escaped much of the terrible bombing that irrevocably changed the architecture and character of many other ports such as Liverpool and Southampton. Tiers of houses rise up the slopes facing the harbour, and many of the shopfronts had remarkable displays in honour of the centennial – books, newspaper articles, models, children’s paintings and even mannequins dressed in Titanicera fashion.


Titanic window display in Cobh with works by schoolchildren

Cobh is also rich in memorials not only to the Titanic, but also to the tragic Lusitania, the Cunarder sunk by a u-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale. Many of the survivors, as well as the bodies retrieved from the water, were brought ashore here, to be buried in the Old Cemetery in mass and individual graves.

It’s not only the tragedies with which it has links that are remembered here, though – there’s also the memory of the many migrants who emigrated from here to new lives. I have my own ancestors who sailed from Cobh to Australia in the 19th century, as did many on board the Balmoral. Our stay was limited to a few hours, but they were lively, colourful and warm ones as the bands played music in the streets and the pubs over flowed. I spent a couple of hours in the Mauretania pub (I’ve always had a weakness for it thanks to the name – a memory of the Cunard vessel) drinking pints of Guinness and chatting with a gentleman who had come down from Cork city to see the Balmoral come in. Elsewhere, the band at the Commodore was prevailed upon to play “A Nation Once Again”, the song that Irish immigrant Eugene Daly played in the tender as he and his fellow passengers prepared to join the Titanic.

There were still groups of people waiting to wave us off as midnight approached and we were away. It was an odd feeling to leave behind that beautiful town with its well-lit streets and head into the dark of the open seas, with only a canopy of stars overhead and the occasional fishing craft to illuminate the night outside our own floating haven.


The old White Star Offices, where many embarked on the tender that would take them out to join the Titanic

Woke up this morning to a heavily rolling ship and the news that this will continue for a while yet, at least until tomorrow afternoon. There was still a very big crowd who made it to the second sitting of Senan Molony’s talk on The Irish Aboard Titanic, and afterwards I finally had the chance to catch up with friends-of-friends who are on board.  At some point I will have to rug up warming and go for a turn on the decks. I think everyone on board is mindful that today is the 10 April – exactly 100 years since Titanic sailed from Southampton.

Titanic Valour – The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe

Inger Sheil’s research into the life of Harold Lowe took her to the UK and then to publish a book about this unassuming hero from the Titanic…

Titanic Valour book coverIn 1999, overcome by the frustrations of trying to do research at long distance, I moved to the UK. Being in situ made a remarkable difference, as I was able to travel across Britain on long weekends of fact finding. Family and friends often found themselves dragged along for the ride, and to my surprise they seemed to enjoy it. Some said that they enjoyed the focus my quest gave their travels, as we put together pieces of the puzzle to form the bigger picture. Of course, I spared them the interminable microfilm sessions in archives, the painstaking trawling of years and years’ worth of newsprint or deciphering handwritten notes.

I lost my research collaborator, Kerri, to her family duties, although she remained an enthusiastic project supporter. The Lowe family remained steadfast supporters as well, supplying both material and insight. They did not, as some families try to do, attempt to dictate the direction the narrative took. They were confident that the actions of their forebear, and the words of eyewitnesses who saw him on the night of the disaster, spoke eloquently enough. There was no need for any gloss, and I believe the story I pieced together bears out their belief.

There were curious coincidences and incidents of serendipity. A friend who lived in Kew revealed that her next-door neighbour was distantly related to Harold Lowe; she put me in touch with an elderly relative who remembered visiting the Lowe family in the 1930s. Her recollections of Harold were added to the book.

My earlier assumptions that all Titanic material had been well-picked over by writers and researchers proved to be ill-founded. Many books stuck to well-worn ruts, while there were survivor accounts that had not seen the light of publication since 1912. One of the most remarkable discoveries I made was a series of letters written from the Titanic by one of Lowe’s fellow officers that had never been published. Coming across so much material about the White Star Line and the Titanic, I was able to publish a number of articles on aspects of the disaster for several of the international Titanic interest groups.

There was never any shortage of media interest in new Titanic discoveries, either. Once, after finding an overgrown headstone with an inscription dedicated to the Sixth Officer in a Yorkshire cemetery, I sent a media release to some newspapers, expecting it to rate a paragraph mention at most, then left for the weekend to visit friends. I arrived home to my irate brother waving a phone in my direction and indignantly telling me he was not my media manager. Yorkshire’s largest newspaper was holding the front page for the story while they waited to check a detail with me, BBC radio had been calling, and there was a TV station wanted to speak with me. My brother had called everyone, including our family back in Australia, to see if anyone knew where I’d gone.

Eventually, with the research as complete as I could make it, I returned to Australia and a job at the Australian National Maritime Museum. One of the most difficult things was convincing myself that the manuscript was finished; it seemed there was always a detail to be added or a further avenue to be investigated. The approaching 100th anniversary of the sinking finally convinced me it was time. I sent a letter and précis of the manuscript to The History Press, a large specialist history publisher in the UK with a very respectable catalogue of Titanic-related books, and held my breath.

The History Press proved enthusiastic about publishing the title in time for the anniversary, with a short deadline for editing the manuscript and assembling the images. Harold Lowe’s grandson, John, helpfully couriered key images from his photographic collection for high quality scanning for publication. After a brief but very intense period of after-hours work with proofs and jacket designs, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the work had gone to the printers.

It has been a long, curious journey that’s given me great pleasure from making it in Harold Lowe’s company. He has proved a fascinating travelling companion – highly individualistic, sometimes stubborn, often courageous, and frequently surprising. I hope that Titanic Valour does his remarkable story justice, in all its tragedy and its triumph.

– Inger Sheil

Inger’s new book Titanic Valour – The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, published by The History Press, UK is available through The Store. Call +61 2 9298 3698 or email if you’d like to order a copy.

Who is Harold Lowe? Titanic research leads to one man…

In her last post, Inger Sheil reminisced about the events that led to her fascination of shipwrecks and ultimately Titanic. Over time, her interest swayed towards the crew and their stories of life at sea…

… Gradually I became aware of one name in particular during my research into Titanic. It belonged to a man who seemed to appear when anything interesting was being said or done during the Titanic sinking and aftermath. He was a junior deck officer who told the chairman of the White Star Line to ‘go to hell’ when he thought he was interfering with the lowering of the lifeboats; who, in response to a question at the American inquiry about what icebergs were composed of, answered ‘Ice, I suppose, Sir’; and who had commanded the only lifeboat to return to pick up Titanic survivors. He was the man whom Walter Lord called a ‘tempestuous young Welshman’ who was ‘hard to supress’, and who emerged vividly as an engaging character. His name was Harold Lowe.

Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, pictured on the White Star vessel, Doric

Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, pictured on the White Star vessel, Doric

Intrigued, I looked for more information. Surely, given the millions of words that had been expended on just about every aspect of the Titanic disaster, someone must have researched and written more extensively about this particular individual. I found, however, that not only had no full-scale biography been written, but very little at all was to be found in print about his pre- and post-Titanic life. He emerged briefly from obscurity before fading back into it. He never commanded his own vessel, he had retired at some point after World War I, and he died in Wales in 1944. Any details beyond the outline of his career given at the American inquiry were scarce indeed.

At this stage I was fortunate enough to encounter on the far side of the world someone who shared my interests – Kerri Sundberg, a mid-western American girl with a love of the sea even though she’d only seen it once in her life, on a visit to the West Coast. We began corresponding, and she shared with me 1912 newspaper articles that she’d found in archives and other scraps of information she’d been able to put together. We discussed creating a website on Harold Lowe and his colleagues to correct some of the misinformation about them that circulated online, and to facilitate further research. We made contacts and connections with the Lowe family, thanks to fellow researchers like author Dave Bryceson, who kindly put us in contact with Harold Lowe’s son, Harold William George Lowe. Harold W G Lowe, in turn, introduced us to more friends and family members, such as his own son and daughter and his nephew.

To add to the material the family shared with us, I engaged proxy researchers to look for information in UK archives. It was slow going, however, as many archives had not yet put their collections online. While email was becoming more commonly used, much of our correspondence was still done by snail mail. Scanners were almost unheard of, and there were long and anxious waits for packages of documents from overseas.

But at every turn we were finding new information. With the exception of some who resented young upstart researchers like us, the Titanic community was overwhelmingly supportive. Finally we decided that the scope of information we were accumulating far exceeded that of a website, and we began tentatively to look towards a print publication.

– Inger Sheil

Installation of Remembering Titanic – 100 years

Tomorrow our new exhibition Remembering Titanic – 100 years opens to the public and runs until 11 November this year. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of Titanic on 15 April 1912.

Over the past couple of weeks our exhibition team have been busy installing the show which features a memorial to the passengers who were on board the fateful voyage, models, memorabilia, and costumes from James Cameron’s movie Titanic (1997). There are many events planned throughout the exhibition, including a movie marathon on the anniversary day, so be sure to check out the event listing on our website.

Entry to Remembering Titanic - 100 years

Exhibition panel in Remembering Titanic - 100 years

Installing objects in Remembering Titanic - 100 years

Making final touches to Titanic movie costumes

View more exhibition installation photographs on our Flickr page.