It’s one of the most famous ‘scoops’ but also perhaps the saddest in the 150-year history of the Belfast Telegraph... the story the newspaper would never have wanted to cover.
For the exclusive that broke the news of the Titanic disaster in April 1912 was too painfully close to home for a city that had proudly built the doomed ocean liner and where virtually everyone knew someone with a link to the construction of the luxury White Star heavyweight.
The cataclysmic scale of the mid-Atlantic tragedy however wasn’t initially clear in Belfast amid the confusion of garbled messages from thousands of miles away and the refusal to believe that the unsinkable Harland and Wolff ship could actually have sunk en route to New York.
At first the Telegraph, and subsequently other newspapers around the world, accepted accounts emerging in wireless communications from across the Atlantic that no-one had died.
On a relatively quiet news day in Ireland, a telegram from the Press Association in London had alerted the Belfast Telegraph to the sinking of the world’s best-known ship.
The communication dated April 15, 1912 quoted the Reuters news agency as saying the Titanic was sinking in mid-Atlantic as a result of a collision with an iceberg only three hours earlier.
The telegram which was the first notification of the accident was received in the Telegraph’s Royal Avenue offices by journalist Bob McComb who was working as a sub-editor.
Struggling to cope with his own shock McComb and the newspaper’s incredulous editorial team set about re-jigging their second edition to bring the first reports in Europe of the catastrophe to their unsuspecting readers.
Long, long before Twitter, the internet and other high-speed hi-tech connections, journalists found it difficult to flesh out the telegram into a story with any more hard facts or with an answer to the overarching question of how many people had died.
Under the headline: “The Titanic Sinking” the paper talked of a collision with an iceberg that was ‘70 miles in length’; ‘liners hastening to the rescue’; ‘passengers transferred to lifeboats’; and ‘no danger of loss of life’.
The final error was later attributed to a simple mistake by a telegraph operator in Canada who had unwittingly led to the world being wrongly re-assured that no-one had perished after he sent out a message: “All Titanic passengers safe. Being towed to Halifax. (Nova Scotia)“
The operator had, it transpired, been monitoring frantic ship to ship messages in a bid to establish the fate of the Titanic but by coincidence around the same time a ship called The Asian had been towing a disabled tanker The Deutschland into Halifax and a message went out that everyone on board the latter vessel were safe.
However, the telegraph operator in Nova Scotia misinterpreted the transmission and contacted the authorities in Halifax to say that the Titanic was being towed into the port and that all the passengers were okay.
After faithfully reporting the upbeat assessment the Belfast Telegraph said: “Great excitement prevailed in Belfast, from which many of the working crew on board hailed and at the various shipping offices there were many anxious inquiries.
“This afternoon New York received a wireless message from Halifax to the effect that most of the passengers on the Titanic had been put in lifeboats.
“A later message added that the White Star officials had been informed that the Virginian (another ship in the Atlantic) was standing by but there was no danger of loss of life”.
The Telegraph report included the names of a number of people from Belfast who were on board the Titanic along with wealthy passengers from around the world.
The vice-president of the U.S based International Mercantile Marine who owned the White Star Line Alex S. Franklin quickly added his grist to the rumour mill by saying: “The vessel is in no danger since she is absolutely unsinkable because of her watertight bulkheads.”
The editor of the Belfast Telegraph Andrew Stewart wasn’t convinced.
And on Tuesday, April 16 the day after his paper had been first with the story of the sinking, Stewart who spoke of a ‘feeling’ that there’d been a disaster was in his office early to share the plans he’d drawn up overnight on how to cover the evolving tragedy.
The first edition painted an appalling picture, reporting that only 700 of the Titanic’s 2,200 passengers and crew had survived the unimaginable horror.
Such was the panic and hunger for news about the Titanic throughout Northern Ireland that it was almost impossible to buy a copy of the Belfast Telegraph that Tuesday.
It has to be remembered of course that at the time people around the world relied almost exclusively on newspapers for their information before global TV news networks were able to over-fly scenes of tragedies and report back via sophisticated satellites and to use mobile phone footage shot by members of the public of incidents seconds after they happened.
Instead in the days after the Titanic tragedy thousands of people gathered outside the Belfast Telegraph’s offices desperate for updates about the sinking and about the identities of the casualties.
In his exhaustive history of the Belfast Telegraph in 1995 the late Sports Editor, Malcolm Brodie wrote: “The Telegraph, directed by Stewart, mirrored the universal feeling and gripped the solemn mood of the public in the reports that had been built up from the limited information available.
“It was a feat of outstanding journalism which again underlined the professionalism of the staff.”
Yet it all been so different a year earlier when the Telegraph reflected the joy in Belfast as the Titanic was launched by Harland and Wolff.
Thousands of people cheered and clapped as they watched ‘their’ 46,000-ton ship slipping into the water.
A dozen Telegraph staff were among the 85 national and international reporters capturing the euphoria at the launch and the paper’s editorial, written by Stewart himself, declared: “We can take great pride in local industry doing so well world-wide.
“During a period of fierce competition in travel the movement is towards large luxury liners rather than speed. We see large ships, too, as a help in trade and commerce and therefore peace.”
Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.
But less than a fortnight after the by now fitted-out Titanic finally sailed away from Belfast Lough on April 2, 1912 for her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, McComb’s telegram shattered the illusions about the indestructibility of the colossus of the seas and plunged Belfast into mourning.
McComb was allowed to keep the telegram, on Post Office paper, after his retirement and 80 years after his death in May 1932 it was put up for auction in Dublin.
It was estimated that it could fetch up to £30,000 but the auctioneers’ records show it wasn’t sold.
Other artefacts from the Titanic itself have of course fetched millions of pounds in sales. And bound volumes of American newspapers from the time of the sinking have been going under the hammer for the equivalent of up to £2,000.
Putting a price on an original copy of the Belfast Telegraph from that fateful Monday in April 1912 would be nigh impossible, according to auctioneers.Visit our anniversary hub where we celebrate 150 years of the Belfast Telegraph