by Brooke Kennedy
Perhaps no other shipwreck has captivated maritime historians as the Titanic. The ship that was deemed “practically unsinkable” would inspire countless books, movies, and stage adaptations. Commemorating this historic shipwreck, preservation of artifacts relating to the vessel has been an ongoing endeavor.
Most Titanic artifacts come from descendants of passengers, and over the last one hundred years they have been handed down through generations or loaned out to dedicated exhibitions. With the enduring interest in the ship’s history, many family members have chosen to send these pieces to the auction block.
The R.M.S. Titanic was commissioned by the White Star Line as part of their new Olympic liner ships. Construction began in Belfast, Ireland in 1909 and finished in 1911, and was the second of the three ocean liners along with the Olympic and the Britannic. At the time of its launch, the Titanic was considered state-of-the-art, with Shipbuilder magazine quoted as saying these Olympic liner ships were “practically unsinkable.”1
On April 10, 1912, the R.M.S Titanic departed from Southampton, England on its maiden voyage to New York City.2 Though the benefits for each class varied, the vessel rivaled other ocean liners by providing all travelers luxurious gratuities like no other. Surrounded by the elegant decorations and furnishings, first class passengers could visit veranda cafes, take a smoke in the smoking room, and enjoy the ocean breeze while competing in deck games. Those in second class could view the vast ocean from the outdoor promenade and sip their tea and coffee in the library. Going below deck to third class, you’d find guests chatting in their common area, making music on the piano, or enjoying a smoke in the smoking room, all of them anticipating their arrival in America.3
Four days after launch at about 11:40 pm, the ship sideswiped an iceberg in an attempt to avoid collision, causing a 300-foot gash in the ship’s hull. The ship slowly sank as passengers began their haphazard evacuation. Abiding by the law of the sea, women and children were loaded onto the lifeboats first. At about 2:20 am on April 15, the R.M.S. Titanic, nearly perpendicular, descended to the ocean floor, taking the lives of over 1,500 people and leaving the lifeboats with 706 survivors.4
Recovering the Lost Passengers
With a ship now lost at sea, the White Star Line dispatched several ships to search for the bodies of missing passengers, including the cable ship (CS) Mackay-Bennett. Departing from Halifax, Nova Scotia on April 17, 1912, the Mackay-Bennett would take nearly four days to reach the site of the sinking to search the dark waters.5
In total, 306 bodies were documented as having been recovered, with many of them remaining unidentified.6 Based on their ship status, each of the bodies were taken care of differently; first class was embalmed and placed in coffins; second class was wrapped in canvas bags and and stored in ice in the ship’s hold; and those in third class were buried at sea. Of all the bodies recovered, 116 of them were buried at sea, with the rest of them being returned to shore.
The CS Mackay-Bennett recovered most of the bodies from the Titanic disaster, including those of business magnate J. J. Astor and legendary bandleader Wallace Hartley. Personal possessions found upon the bodies were stored away safely by the crew, making their way back to the victims’ families – including one key used aboard the ship.7
Working Aboard the Ship
Among the population of the 2,240 passengers was a first class saloon steward named Alfred Arnold Deeble. In his life before stepping foot on the vessel, Deeble joined the Royal Navy on July 10, 1900, later becoming a singer at the Adriatic Athletic and Social Club at Scullard’s Hotel in Southampton in 1911. Fellow performer John Herbert Strugnell, who was engaged to Deeble’s older sister Lily Florence Deeble, would also serve as a steward on the R.M.S Titanic.
Stewards assisted with different functions in the public rooms, cabins, recreational facilities, and dining areas in order to serve passengers. As saloon stewards, Deeble and Strugnell assisted first class clientele as they dined on opulent meals and enjoyed the sounds of classical music in the dining saloon.8
Tragically, Deeble and Strugnell would not survive the sinking and perish at sea – Deeble was 29 and Strugnell was 34. Deeble’s body was eventually recovered from an iceberg by the CS Mackay-Bennett as “Body No. 270.” Paperwork from the Nova Scotia Archives described his physical characteristics, labeling him as a “male” with “brown hair” estimated to be around 23 years of age. His shirt was also noted to have been marked with his last name, likely aiding in his identification.
He was laid to rest at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on May 3, 1912. Strugnell’s body – if discovered – was never identified.
Before his burial, the belongings on Deeble’s body had been recovered. In taking inventory of the items on his person, the secretary of Nova Scotia documented “one bunch keys” as part of his effects along with a “gold watch” and a “gold ring marked A. D.” Several months after his burial in October 1912, Lily wrote to the White Star Line requesting the return of the items found on her brother’s body.
Since their return to Lily, the lineage of this ‘pantryman’ key has been well documented, with the key being passed down through four generations.
“Lily Deeble met William (Bill) Thomas Norbury, they were married and lived in Germania, Wyoming…they had two children – Beatrice (Mickey) Lilly Norbury and Ted Norbury,” said RR Auction in their description of the key. “The ‘pantry man’ key was passed down to her daughter, Beatrice Norbury who married Joseph Thomas McNulty… Beatrice Norbury McNulty passed away in May 1966 and her daughter, Linda Jo McNulty, chose the ‘pantry man’ key as her choice item to remember her mother because she had always been fascinated by all the stories her mom had told her about the key and her Uncle Alfred.”
This key has never left the family’s possession, but this heirloom and the story it tells will soon go to auction in September 2023 at RR Auction of Boston.
On September 23, 2023, this ‘pantryman’ key went up for auction in RR’s live Remarkable Rarities event, selling for $131,250.
- “RMS Titanic Facts,” Royal Museums Greenwich, Accessed Sept. 14, 2023, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/rms-titanic-facts. ↩︎
- “R.M.S. Titanic – History and Significance,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Last updated Oct. 4, 2022, https://www.noaa.gov/gc-international-section/rms-titanic-history-and-significance#:~:text=Titanic%2C%20launched%20on%20May%2031,than%201%2C500%20passengers%20and%20crew. ↩︎
- “What was life like on board the Titanic?” BBC, Accessed Sept. 22, 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/z8mpfg8/articles/zkg9dxs#:~:text=First%20class%20on%20board%20Titanic,passengers%20really%20dined%20in%20style. ↩︎
- “Titanic,” History, A&E Television Networks, Last updated June 29, 2023, https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/titanic. ↩︎
- “Halifax and Its People / 1749 – 199,” Nova Scotia Archives, Province of Nova Scotia, Last updated Sept. 2023, https://archives.novascotia.ca/halifax/archives/?ID=16. ↩︎
- “CS Mackay-Bennett,” Nova Scotia Archives, Province of Nova Scotia, Last updated, Sept. 2023, https://archives.novascotia.ca/titanic/ships/?Ship=Mackay-Bennett. ↩︎
- Bill Glover, “CS Mackay Bennett,” History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications, Last updated Dec. 20, 2020, https://atlantic-cable.com/Cableships/MacBen/index.htm. ↩︎
- Diana Matthews, “The Officers and Crew of the Titanic,” ALookThruTime, Published April 14, 2012, https://alookthrutime.wordpress.com/tag/stewards-on-the-titanic/. ↩︎
- “RMS Titanic Resource Guide,” Nova Scotia Archive, Last updated Sept. 2023, https://archives.novascotia.ca/titanic/fatalities/archives/?ID=270. ↩︎