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Raising bits of the Titanic

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Kurt Barling | 19:11 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010

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Alexander Littlejohn was born in London's East End. He went to sea young and then retired to a life as a publican.

At the age of nearly 40 after his young wife died in 1910, leaving him with three children to raise, he decided to return to his seafaring ways aboard the new luxury liners of the White Star Line.

In 1911, leaving his children with a sibling, he first voyage was on the liner the Olympic. In March 1912 Alexander transferred to RMS Titanic.

He worked as a first class steward waiting on the wealthiest travellers. The style was opulent and this is reflected in the new exhibition at the O2 Centre which opens on the 5th November.

The RMS Titanic was trying to take advantage of the burgeoning immigration traffic to the New World. Second and third class carriage was also accommodated in some comfort. The only substantial complaint in third class that there were only two baths between 700 paying passengers.

On display at Greenwich hundreds of artefacts in breath-taking condition considering they have been retrieved from two and a half miles down on the Atlantic sea-bed.

When the ship struck the iceberg on 15 April 1912 and it became clear that a disaster loomed Alexander was ordered to man his lifeboat station. No 13.

He described in his only known interview on the sinking, how he was one of the fortunate ones whose orders meant his life would be saved. As soon as his lifeboat had taken on a few dozen passengers, mostly women and children but also some men from first class, the boat was lowered and rowed a short distance from the ship.

From their lifeboat the occupants had a full view of the stricken liner and its last moments as it upended, the lights went out and slid beneath the surface.

His grandson Philip Littlejohn has written how his grandfather recalled that "all I could hear was the awful cries from the people. The sounds are ringing in my ears now."

Since 1985 there have been several expeditions to the maritime grave in the north Atlantic. Painstakingly thousands of artefacts have been recovered from what is called the debris field. This is the area of around half a mile between the bow and the stern which split apart as the ship originally sank.

No artefacts are removed from the shipwreck itself, considered by many a gravesite. Whilst the exhibition does not tell us an awful lot that is new, it remains a fascinating insight into life aboard the ship and it is spell-binding to see and even touch bits of the real Titanic.

Philip Littlejohn believes that the legacy is so enduring because it marked the end of an era but, he would like the exhibition to help remind people of the tragic loss of life and that each artefact tells a human story behind it.

Within two years World War One had started and the highly stratified and class ridden societies on both sides of the Atlantic would endure lasting challenges to that kind of divided society.

One example of this was the instant dismissal of all crew the moment the ship sank in the north Atlantic. Alexander Littlejohn's continuous certificate of discharge (like a career log book) records under the description of the voyage "intended New York".

Although he ultimately made it as a survivor he could expect no wages and no compensation.

Lifeboat 13 became significant for another Londoner too. Millvina Dean, her mother and brother left their father behind but were saved. Millvina was just a few weeks old and the last survivor of the sinking. Millvina died last year and the London exhibition is being dedicated particularly to her memory.



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