Titanic at 100: A Personal Journey

As Malcolm Niedner looked through a set of family negatives he discovered a new image of a four-funneled ocean liner... Titanic!


On a business trip to Boston nearly a year ago, I was keenly aware that I was observing a centennial, the first of two—the second would be coming eleven months later, in April of 2012. The two events were tied to each other, and in the decades since I had first become aware of them and their extraordinary linking thread, they had become a deep part of who I am.

I stood in front of 55 Congress Street in Boston in late-May of 2011, thinking of my great-grandparents, Frederick and Lillian Bowen. He had worked at that address for a textile firm, the Ludlow Manufacturing Associates, but in May of 1911 the Bowens were abroad on a vacation trip. Their six children, including my grandmother Marjorie, then eleven, were being looked after by an aunt in their Wellesley Hills home at 20 Hawthorne Road.

Frederick and Lillian were on a four-week tour of the British Isles, a trip that, in my great-grandfather’s inscription written in a photographic negative album, had been described as “Lillian’s Trip.” Certainly she would earn the trip of those words, given that Frederick was traveling annually to Calcutta on behalf of Ludlow, setting up a branch office there to promote the company’s business in the jute market. These halfway-around-the-world trips would take him away for five to nine months at a time, and if I am certain of anything, it is that it must have been very difficult for him and the family to bear the separations.

The Bowens’ vacation in the Spring of 1911—the first of the two centennial events—had become important to me for one simple reason: its highly improbable connection to the circumstances surrounding Marjorie’s twelfth birthday. “Granny” told me her story many times, but truthfully it had become the stuff of legend at its very first telling, when I was a boy. I can imagine young Marjorie on her birthday: it is late afternoon, and she is surrounded by her mother, five siblings, and a number of school friends. They would have been capped in party hats and ready to celebrate. All that remained was for father Frederick to come home from 55 Congress Street, and the party could begin.

Come home he did, but as Granny described it the mood was anything but festive.
Uncharacteristically, especially on such a family occasion, he slumped down in his favorite chair, deeply saddened and despondent. There was a reason. On his daughter’s birthday, April 16, 1912, Frederick S. Bowen had learned with certainty that of which the entire world was also now well aware: that the previous day’s hopeful headlines and sketchy reports about a ship being “Towed to Halifax” with “All Saved” were absolutely not true—the White Star Line’s Titanic had gone down on her maiden voyage after striking an iceberg, and the loss of life and circumstance of death were horrific beyond comprehension.

On that first day of awful finality—the second centennial event—it was known that among the dead was Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith. He had gone down with his ship. Frederick Bowen took the news of Titanic and Captain Smith hard, and there is no mystery here. Having sailed on White Star ships a number of times, the two men had met and gotten to know and like each other. Although I do not know it for a fact, I can well imagine that my great-grandfather was probably invited in 1908 and 1909 to dine at the “Captain’s Table” onboard the Adriatic, then under E. J. Smith’s command and the largest White Star ship at the time.

Many retellings of her birthday story later, in 1977 when I was twenty-eight, Granny told me for the first time at my parents’ house in New Jersey that her father had taken a photograph of Captain Smith. Why this important story element—which stunned me when I heard it—had been left out of previous conversations was beyond me, but it was fortuitous that it was mentioned at least this once. Frederick Bowen’s photograph collection was still in existence at the house of Granny’s sister, my great aunt Evelyn, and I now had the incredible opportunity to hunt for an all-but-forgotten image of Captain Smith nearly seventy years after it had been taken.

Search I did, and my life changed.

On my first examination of the glass “lantern slides,” which numbered some two thousand, I found the first of two eventual images of Captain Smith. I was thrilled and electrified—it was almost as if, in that image projected in Aunt Ev’s living room and probably not viewed in the thirty-seven years since Frederick Bowen’s passing in 1940, Edward J. Smith had briefly come back to life. She said that the negatives from which her father had made the lantern slides were stored in a box in the back of her hall closet. They were much lighter than the 2,000 glass slides and far easier to transport—would I, as the next step in my research, like to take the negatives back to Maryland with me?

Captain Smith

Captain Edward J. Smith (white beard, standing beneath mast) on board White Star Line’s Adriatic. The year is 1908 or 1909.
F. S. Bowen collection, April, 2012

Indeed I would, and as I looked at the annotated albums in which the negatives were stored, I began to learn the details of Frederick Bowen’s world travels. One album was titled: “1911 Lillian’s Trip to England-Scotland-Ireland & Wales, left N.Y. by Caronia May 6—left Liverpool by Mauretania June 3.”

As I looked through the negative sleeves of the “Lillian’s Trip” albums, I discovered one dramatic image of a four-funneled ocean liner situated behind a large crane. A print was made, and after a little homework I realized that the image was taken at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Ireland. The photograph showed one of White Star’s “Olympic class” ships at the “fitting-out” wharf at Harland and Wolff. Because this was May, 1911, the ship could only have been Olympic—the first of the class—and the date of Frederick Bowen’s photograph would have been just days before her May 31 departure from Belfast on her sea trials and the short journey to Southampton, England, where her maiden voyage would begin.

Frederick and Lillian Bowen

Frederick, left, and Lillian Bowen, onboard Cunard’s Caronia. Lillian’s Trip is underway.
F. S. Bowen collection, April, 2012

May 31, 1911—an incredible day at Harland and Wolff! Olympic’s first day as a completed ship, a technological marvel and the world’s largest ocean liner by a wide margin, coincided with the launch of the second of the class—her sister—a mere mile away from where Frederick Bowen had taken his photograph. Titanic.

The extraordinary near-coincidence of the Bowens’ shipyard visit with May 31, and in particular their physical proximity to Titanic at the time of her birth, were the fuel for an obsession that words cannot begin to describe. The story of Granny’s memorably sad birthday on April 16, 1912 had brought me to a magical place and time: Belfast, Harland and Wolff, late-May, 1911. I could not have been more amazed and astonished. As a Titanic enthusiast, I knew that images of her were so small in number that it was almost as if she were never more than a ghost. Titanic’s existence on the water was so shortlived that every photograph of her was later inevitably viewed in the context of the tragically short time remaining to her.

Far-fetched though it sounded, here was the stuff of dreams: a fair number of the album sleeves of Lillian’s Trip were empty of negatives for some reason, and I had not explored fully half of the lantern slides. What would I find when I did? Might there be? Could there be? Dare I hope?

RMS Olympic

Olympic, the first of a new class of ships for the White Star Line, at Harland and Wolff shipyards, late-May, 1911.
F. S. Bowen collection, April, 2012

I completed viewing the slides on my next NJ trip. No more than fifty from the end—a disappointing conclusion to my search obviously at hand—I held up a slide and saw two Olympic-class ships side by side. It was stunningly beautiful. The Harland and Wolff crane was there. Both ships had their four funnels in place, but the hull of one of them was only one-quarter painted. Of the two ships, clearly that one was the newer. I was mesmerized. I stared again to be sure, and in that moment the Legend appeared to me after lying on the ocean bottom for sixty-five years. Titanic.

And in those last fifty images, she appeared twice more, once again with her sister, and once alone—her glorious name appearing faintly on the port bow. Finding Captain Smith had been one thing, but the appearance of the Legend herself before my startled eyes—eight years before Robert Ballard found her watery grave—was a moment so beyond my capacity to describe that I will not attempt it.

In the years since 1977, I began to realize that timing made it impossible for Frederick Bowen to have actually taken the images of Titanic. For one thing, the photographs were of a nearly completed ship, not one about to launch (which would be hull and decks only, no funnels), so there was a chronology issue with respect to Lillian’s Trip. Although the lantern slides were clearly part of his collection, the images, I’ve since learned, were taken in March, 1912, when Olympic had returned to the shipyard to replace a dropped propeller blade. It was a mere month before the most famous maiden voyage in history.

Olympic and Titanic at Belfast

Harland and Wolff’s peerless shipbuilding achievement: Titanic and Olympic.
F. S. Bowen collection, April, 2012

Alas, as a result of checking Ellis Island passenger lists, I am virtually certain that my great-grandfather was home in Wellesley Hills at that time.

Although the Titanic slides contain no commercial markings, it now seems all but certain that my ancestor obtained the images from a photographer in Belfast who was recording the construction of these two leviathans. It is known that there were a number of such photographers, and the first Titanic-Olympic image I found has independently turned up in one other location, decades after I discovered Mr. Bowen’s slide. But how was it that he obtained Titanic images at least ten months after Lillian’s Trip?

That question has a very plausible and likely answer. Granny made the important point that her father made multiple trips to Belfast, because Ireland’s prominence in the linen business had a connection to his position as head of the Fibre Department at the Ludlow Manufacturing Associates. The pieces all fit—Frederick Bowen would have been in Belfast in 1912 and later years, and given his love of ships he would in all likelihood have visited Harland and Wolff again. The Titanic lantern slides were probably obtained on such a visit.

Sad though it had been to realize that the Titanic images were not taken with Frederick Bowen’s camera, I had come to accept the astonishing gift that he and Lillian were there, at Titanic’s birthplace at the time of the birth. I had found and researched photographs of Titanic that had long been forgotten, images contained in no books and about which nobody had apparently been aware, at least not for a very long time. And Frederick Bowen had known and taken photographs of Captain Smith. Precious gifts, all of them.

One day in the late-1990s, my dear father called me with the news that a package was on its way to me from Maine. The sender was Aunt Ev’s son, who knew of my passion for Frederick S. Bowen’s photograph collection and the Titanic. The package arrived. It contained a slim book whose title was “Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder.” The book was about the life of Titanic’s brilliant designer, who selflessly and heroically went down with the ship and was movingly portrayed in several film treatments of the disaster. The inside flyleaf of the memorial volume had the owner’s name inscribed. With a growing smile, I recognized my great-grandfather’s hand as I read:

F. S. Bowen
Belfast - 1912

Thomas Andrews Shipbuilder Inscription