Redland Green School

RGS Bristol

Evening Post Article: Why Titanic Tribute Concert will have Special Meaning for RGS Student

Evening Post Article, Thursday, 22 March 2012

I T is the most memorable scene from every Titanic movie ever made – the string ensemble who took their instruments on to the deck, and heroically played on as the waves lapped around their ankles.

It's not just artistic licence from Hollywood directors – there are plenty of eyewitness accounts to vouch for the fact that it actually happened when the ship went down in 1912.

But for one Bristol teenager, the scene is particularly poignant. For 13-year-old Charlotte Woodward discovered just last year that her own great great uncle was the cellist with the doomed ensemble.

John Wesley Woodward – Charlotte's great great grandfather's brother – was just 32 years old when he went down with the doomed White Star liner.

Now Charlotte has a unique opportunity to pay tribute to her forefather. She has inherited the musical gene, and plays violin with the Bristol Schools Concert Orchestra – one of the local school bands that has been chosen to take part in a special centenary remembrance concert.

The event, on April 14 at Colston Hall, will see school musicians and singers from across the city come together to perform The Wreck of the Titanic – an orchestral work by the late Bristol composer David Bedford, who died last year.

The work, which was specially written to mark the forthcoming centenary, will feature hundreds of young musicians who are all taught by the city council-run Bristol Arts and Music Service.

Music teachers will play the role of the eight Titanic bandsmen – including Charlotte's unfortunate relative.

"It's very strange to be involved with this, knowing my own great great uncle was the man who was left there playing the cello on the deck as the ship sank," the Redland Green schoolgirl says.

"Unfortunately I can't make the big rehearsal on the day before the concert because I am committed to taking part in a netball contest – that's particularly disappointing, as that is when all the different orchestras will perform for the first time as one.

"But I will nevertheless be there for the big night – I could hardly miss it under the circumstances."

Charlotte's parents, Mark and Sarah Woodward only discovered that Mark's great uncle had been a Titanic victim last year.

"We had a call out of the blue from an author, Steve Turner, who was writing a book called The Band That Played On – all about the band's tragic story.

"He said did you know that you had a relative who was on the Titanic? But we didn't have a clue, so we weren't able to be much help with his research," Sarah says.

"Amazingly it isn't a story that had got passed down through the family – there had been a rift somewhere along the line, so the information simply hadn't been passed on.

"But when we did our family tree, sure enough there was John Wesley Woodward, who died at sea on April 15, 1912.

"We also discovered that there are three memorials in honour of John and the other band members – one in Southampton, the port Titanic sailed out of, one in Liverpool – home of the White Star Line, and one in Oxfordshire, where the Birmingham-born musician had lived prior to his departure.

"It really has been quite moving to read about the horrendous experience that he went through."

A professional cellist, John joined the White Star Line as an onboard musician in 1909, and had served on a number of other liners before being honoured with a coveted place on the world's largest ship.

"He had his whole life ahead of him, he was engaged to a girl in London, and he was clearly a very talented and well-thought of musician," Sarah says. "It's just terribly sad that he found himself caught up in the tragedy."

Concert organiser Andy Gleadhill, manager of the Bristol Arts and Music Service, said the heroism displayed by the young musicians was "absolutely extraordinary".

"These guys continued performing below decks for as long as possible after the ship hit the iceberg. When it became clear that water was getting into the ship, they transferred up to the deck, got their instruments out, and simply carried on playing.

"They knew the ship was going down – she would have been on quite a dramatic keel by that point – and they must have seen the panic that was ensuing on deck as people fought to get into the few lifeboats that there were.

"They made no attempt to push their way on to the lifeboats themselves, they made the decision to continue playing to try to calm down the crowd. You can imagine that if people heard the band playing on, they might have thought perhaps things aren't as drastic as they seem.

"But these guys were all professional musicians. I can't help but think that they probably took some solace in the music themselves – they must have known their fate wasn't looking good at that point. The last thing any professional musician wants to do, is put down their instruments and abandon them."

In the popular 1997 Titanic movie, the band play one more piece on deck, before heading for the lifeboats. But in reality, Andy says the band's story was more dramatic.

"There are eyewitness accounts that suggest they were still playing at the point when the waves were lapping around their ankles – it seems they basically played on until they were swept away," he says.

"It's no wonder that there were three memorials built in their honour, inscribed with the words 'nobly performed their duty to the last'.

"The final injustice for the musicians was that their families never received any compensation, as other crew members families did – because they were technically employed by a musicians' agency, not directly by White Star Line.

"One of the bandsmen's families even received a bill from the White Star Line for the uniform that was never returned to the shipping line – not surprising when you consider that none of their bodies were ever recovered from the sea."

Andy adds: "We just hope the concert at the Colston Hall will prove to be a fitting tribute to all the victims of the tragedy.

"We're encouraging audience members to come along in Edwardian costume, and we are hoping to deck out some of the corridors at the venue to look like a White Star liner.

"To be there on the very night, 100 years on, from when the ship went down, really will be quite a moving experience – especially when we finish the evening with a rousing rendition of For Those in Peril On The Sea."

â— The Wreck of the Titanic takes place at the Colston Hall on Saturday, April 14, 7.30pm. Tickets, priced £10 adults, £5 concessions, are available from the box office on 0117 9223686.