Titanic Shoes: Curatorial Remarks
I would like to tell you the story of these shoes, the lives they touched and how they came to us.
Earle and Sandra Northover came to us three years ago with these shoes from Titanic with the wish to donate them. We hear from people all the time who think they have objects from Titanic. Usually nice people who have something in the family or bought something from an antique shop which they think or hope is from Titanic: key tags, steward’s badges, door plates, bells, belt buckles and more deck chairs than I can remember. They inevitably turn out to be wishful thinking.
However the Northover’s shoes seemed very different from the start. The family’s story had the ring of plausibility connected to a significant person and institution in Halifax of 1912. Earle’s grandfather had retired as Halifax’s deputy police chief. He told his sons, who told their children how grandfather Clarence had guarded the Halifax morgue where Titanic’s victims were brought after the sinking. When the discarded clothes were swept up, he did not have the heart to burn the tiny pair of baby’s shoes but kept them in a box at his desk in the police station and they went to Ontario with him when he retired.
Museums have high standards of authenticity. Starting with the Northover’s oral history, we searched newspapers, city directories, police personnel records, coroner’s reports, period footwear catalogues, shoe historians on two continents and the latest in scientific testing. Taken together, the documentary evidence confirmed the Northover’s story.
We tracked Clarence Northover’s career. He retired as Deputy Police Chief in 1919 but back in 1914 he was a police sergeant living on Maynard Street. We were able to reconstruct the role of the police department specifically assigned to guarding the morgue and clothing of Titanic victims. Footwear experts told us the shoes were the right period and size. The shoes matched department store catalogue pictures and baby photos of other families from 1912. The scientific testing proved somewhat less helpful as both sea salt and test for saltwater diatom were inconclusive. The shoes have plenty of salt but the lab suggested that washing, handling and tanning salts have likley distorted an exact match to the trace elements found in seawater. None of this testing presented any indications that would challenge the Titanic origins of the shoes. All this evidence judged together, we felt strongly supported the Northover’s story and allowed us to say with confidence that we believe the shoes were from one of Titanic’s victims.
But which victim? Reviewing the records it is clear that the only clothing recovered by the Halifax ships was the clothing worn on the bodies they found. Only one infant body was found, Body No.4, a boy approximately two years old. The next youngest recovered victim was a nine year old boy. And in fact the record for Body No. 4 show the little boy was found wearing a pair of brown shoes. Body No. 4 quickly became known as the unknown child in 1912. The sight of this small fair haired boy floating alone so moved the crew of the Mackay Bennett who found him that they paid for his tombstone and were the pall bears for his tiny coffin in 1912. The body remains marked today as the unknown child in Fairview Cemetery today and has taken iconic status as a representative of all the young lives lost in the sinking,
In piecing together this sad story I like to extend my thanks most of all to Earle and Sandra for their donation and help with our research as well as to Alan Ruffman who provided valuable advice the lab engineers who did the scientific testing Frank Thomas at the GSC and Ross Kean at the Research and Productivity Council, historians at the Bata Shoes Museum, the Bethel Green Museum of Childhood at the Victoria and Albert Museum and shoe historian June Swann as the staff at the public archives and local researcher Jim Simpson.
Along the way we learned interesting things, reconstructing the role of the police in Titanic’s aftermath. Worried by reports of the mob scenes in New York of reporters, families, conmen and spectators overwhelming the White Star Lien and Cunard Line offices, Halifax officials went all out to secure the arrival of the bodies. They knew a journalists Halifax would be flooded with journalists along with families, including some very rich and powerful American families. The Halifax Police and two detectives boarded the body recovery Mackay Bennett at the harbour entrance to secure it. They docked at the Naval Dockyard protected by the just created Canadian navy and by a large continent of the Dominion Police, forerunners of the RCMP brought in from Ottawa. The bodies, clothes and personal effects were guarded by the small Halifax Police department, bolstered by army soldiers. The police guard was 24 hours a day and Earle has an interesting story about the police experience guarding the morgue at night. In the end it seems the police did a very strict but effective job. There were no mob scenes. No one complained of missing effects. Families had very high praise for the orderly and compassionate handling of the remains of their loved ones.
It was this policing work which brought Clarence Northover in contact with these shoes. And what caught his attention in 1912 is the same powerful appeal that makes these shoes significant to the Museum in 2005.
There are few more powerful childhood reminders than baby shoes. You cannot help but be reminded of the small person who once stood in them. It makes these shoes a powerful reminder of one small soul taken by this iconic disaster off of our shores.
We plan later to install them in our Titanic exhibit near the gloves of Railway tycoon Charles Hays where the shoes of a third class infant will sit beside the gloves of a millionaire, both victims of the Titanic, a reminder of the cross section of humanity which perished in this shipwreck.
Dan Conlin, former Curator, Marine History (April, 2014)