Tag Archives: titanic

Royal Mail Ships and the last few pink bits on the map.

I like to think of this site as a kind of ‘cabinet of curiosities’ on the web; of no especial purpose or relevance, but perhaps interesting and worth of the distraction… anyway, I was musing the other day about how to go about visiting some of the more remote islands around the world that are still painted pink on the map. Ben Fogle wrote a highly entertaining book on the subject called ‘The Tea Time Islands‘ some years back, and I can recommend it. (Ben must be a good chap to meet in a pub BTW; he seems genuinely charming, and among his achievements has rowed the Atlantic Ocean in 49 days and crossed Antarctica by foot in a race to the South Pole.)

So, after a little bit of research it seems that the best way to get to the Falkland Islands is, of course, to enlist in the RAF and hope (!) to be posted to RAF Mount Pleasant… This RAF station is currently home to between 1,000 and 2,000 British military personnel, and is located about 30 miles southwest of Port Stanley. To help you while away the time, you can entertain yourself along the world’s longest corridor; half a mile (800 m) long, that links the barracks, messes and recreational and welfare areas of the base. I bet the time flies past… while a trip to Diego Garcia in the service of HM Armed Forces might involve such cultural highlights as, “providing a visible demonstration of United Kingdom sovereignty on the behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a number of civil functions ranging from policing to customs and excise.” Where do I sign?


However it researching was how one might get to St Helena that gave me most pleasure. Do you remember those evocative names of old steam ships? The sort of Blue Riband, Cunard Line / Union-Castle line, ladies of the oceans… Mauretania, Olympic, Persia, Titanic, Lancastria? Well, almost all of them were Royal Mail Ships, and used the RMS prefix. Any vessel designated as “RMS” had, or has the right both to fly the pennant of the Royal Mail when sailing and to include the Royal Mail “crown” logo with any identifying device for the ship. The designation “RMS” has been used since around 1840, and was seen as a mark of quality and a competitive advantage, because the mail was supposed to be on time. How things have changed.

Anyway,  the shift in recent years to air transport for mail has left only an handful of ships with the right to the prefix or its variations. Queen Mary 2 was conferred “RMS” by Royal Mail when she entered service in 2004 on the Southampton to New York route as a gesture to Cunard’s history, while the Royal Mail has allowed British Airways to use their logo and crest on a plane’s fuselage, usually alongside their registration markings. But the ship that interested me was the RMS St Helena which sails between Cape Town and Saint Helena with regular shuttles continuing to Ascension Island. Her website is wonderful, and you can even follow the ship’s progress in real time (slow) on a map! The ship is a far cry from the floating ‘gin places’ one usually associates with cruise ships, indeed the site boasts that, “there are no theatres, no casinos, no golf ranges… Life on board is far from frenetic.” Its not cheap mind you, with cabins costing between £770 and £3,418 for the Ascension to Cape Town leg, but Ascention has to be one of the more bizarre holiday destinations anyway! You can find out more about her, and life abroad here.

RMS St Helena

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Tragic Timing: Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Titanic Quimby

What with all this centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and build up the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee there seems to be very little said about any other historic anniversaries or commemorations of late. So I thought I would amend that for you… especially as I have been neglecting my blog again for a few weeks. This post is all about important events that were overshadowed by other, perhaps more important events.

Anyway, on the 16th of April 1912 the delightfully named Miss Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She took off from Dover en route to Calais and made the flight in 59 minutes, landing about 25 miles from Calais on a beach in Hardelot-Plage.

Harriet (and I am sure she would not have minded me calling her ‘Harriet’… she seems that sort of girl) was quite a remarkable creature. Born in 1875 she was an early American aviator and a movie screenwriter… an obvious combination? In 1911 she was awarded a U.S. pilot’s certificate by the Aero Club of America, at the same time becoming the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. (I have a crush on her already.) Despite all this flying about she also found time to author seven screenplays that were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. Her image, in her distinctive purple flying suit, graced billboards and magazines across the pond.

Sadly however she (as Freddie Mercury would have said) flew “too close to the sun. ” Soon after her crossing of the English Channel  Harriet flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. She flew out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor at about 3000 feet, and then returned and circled the airfield. William Willard, the organizer of the event, was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1,500 feet the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both William and Harriet were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths, while the plane “glided down and lodged itself in the mud.”

But I am getting ahead of myself; the reason why you have never even heard of Harriet Quimby is that her epic crossing of the Channel occurred on the day that news that the RMS Titanic was lost reached London. The news papers were filled with lists of passengers and details of the crossing… the news frenzy lasted a month as news of survivors and their graphic descriptions of the band playing hymns on deck while the graceful iron queen slipped into the icy waters filed the pages. You might even say it has lasted a century.

The second tragic confluence that springs to mind occurred on the 22nd of November 1963. In the space of little over an hour we lost three great men… While the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and ran ‘specials’ and the world mourned the untimely loss of President John F. Kennedy we also lost two of our foremost men of letters.  JFK was assassinated at 12:30 and pronounced dead at 13:00 CST. (That makes his time of death probably about 18:32 GMT.) On the very same day Aldous Huxley died at 17:21 and CS Lewis died at 17:32. 

All three men profoundly changed their corners of the world, and were truly outstanding in the field. All three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life, and this has resulted in often bizarre novels and plays speculating what would have happened when they all met at the Pearly Gates.

One thing I do know, is that I bet they were surprised to meet each other there. I bet they also had great fun with each others silly name combinations… Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Quimby? 

But this is all a bit morbid… I promise more light-hearted distraction soon.

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A Titanic Dinner

A good friend of mine, Paddy Belton, decided to host a quiet dinner party last weekend. Having been ripped off by some bandits over renting a small Edwardian pile in Hamstead (complete with imaginary sauna and swimming pool) it was kindly hosted by friends in Blackheath of the good ship RMS Carpathia.

RMS Titanic slips Belfast

The menu followed exactly the ten course offerings of the First Class Dining Room on the White Star Line’s flagship for the fateful night of the 14th of April 1912. The menu is reproduced below. Highlights included Roast Squab (think baby widgeon) the much anticipated Asparagus course, and enough booze… well to sink a ship. The tragic events of the night (1513 people died if you need reminding) have become the stuff of legend, and accounts and myth surrounds the ship. Little wonder however that so many of the first class passengers did not survive… I could hardly move!

The RMS Carpathia, the ship that picked up survivors of the Titanic disaster, also suffered a disastrous fate. When the ship docked in New York thousands came to welcome her, and the Captain was given the Congressional Gold Medal. I think Roger and Chloe who offered their flat at the last minute deserve no lesser recognition after Paddy’s misfortune with the pirates… anyhow Carpathia was used to transfer American troops to Europe during the war, but was torpedoed in the Celtic Sea by U-Boat 55.  As Carpathia began to sink by the bow, Captain William Prothero gave the orders to abandon ship. All 57 passengers and 218 surviving crew members boarded the lifeboats… The Submarine surfaced and fired a third torpedo into the ship and was approaching the lifeboats when the terror of the seas, HMS Snowdrop (where do they get these names?), arrived on the scene and drove away the submarine with gunfire then picked up the survivors from the Carpathia.

Dining Room of the RMS Olympic

One interesting (if you find these things interesting) snippet of information, the original First Class Dining Room of the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic, can still be found. (The photo of the room here is actually of the Olympic as I can’t find one of the Titanic.) After a long and eventful life on the seas as the largest passenger liner in the world, Olympic was requisitioned during World War I and served as a troop ship under the delightfully named Captain Herbert James Haddock. When Cunard merged with White Star Line she was decommissioned in 1935 and sold as scrap. Her fixtures and fittings were auctioned off before she was scrapped at T.W. Ward’s Yard in Inverkeihing, and I am reliably informed that most of the First Class Lounge, along with cutlery and crockery and part of the Grand Staircase, can be found in the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick. Confirmation of this, or volunteers for a loon trip ‘tup north are welcome!


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