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Titanic sinking left shroud of grief over Southampton
Updated 4/9/2012 5:57 PM ET
SOUTHAMPTON, England — Southampton seaman Alfred Ernest Geer had been hard up for work for months because of a coal strike that had docked most of the city's ships. Then an unexpected opportunity to earn a small wage presented itself on the morning of April 10, 1912.

Titanic was due to set sail that day on its maiden voyage from this thriving port city on England's south coast. But a few of its 900 crewmembers had stayed out too late in a local pub and failed to show up in time for departure. The ship's officers picked six men hanging around on the quay looking for work to replace them, including Geer, 26.

"He would have been elated to get the job," says local amateur historian Gillie Dunkason in Southampton's overgrown and almost forgotten Old Cemetery. "So many families were already on the bread line because of the national coal strike, which had laid up lots of ships because they were dependent on coal for fuel."

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Geer, who shoveled coal into a ship's steam engines, was not forgotten on this day at the cemetery. His great-nieces, Kath MacKenzie, April Gregory and Linda Bentley, were there looking at the memorial to the ancestor they never met.

MacKenzie says she and her relatives started to research their family history last year.

By Naomi Westland

Kath MacKenzie lays flowers at a memorial marker for Alfred Ernest Geer, her great-uncle. Geer was a stoker who shoveled coal into the ship’s steam engines. He was given the job aboard Titanic on the day it set out to sea.

"We knew there was a relative who had been on the Titanic and died," she says, laying a bunch of yellow roses next to the headstone. "Our dad used to tell us his uncle and cousin had gone down with the ship, but we can only find his uncle.

"We know he had worked on another ship, the Olympic, which was docked because of the coal strike. He was one of the last few chosen to work on the Titanic. He was a stoker; that was one of the hardest jobs."

MacKenzie says her father, who had also been a stoker, had never told them much about their great-uncle. This was not uncommon among families who lost a loved one on Titanic, Dunkason says.

"People didn't talk about it. It was like the war — it was such a disaster for this city and for so many families who lost their livelihood," she says.

About 600 of Titanic's 900-strong crew were from Southampton. More than 500 people from the city lost their lives — a third of the total casualties. Most of them were waiters, sailors, stewards, engineers and, like Geer, stokers. Very few bodies were brought back to England.

"When Titanic went down, the shipping company the White Star Line stopped the crew's pay but charged families the freight costs of shipping the bodies back," says Valerie Ferguson, who volunteers at the cemetery along with Dunkason. "Most couldn't afford it, which is why we have so many memorials rather than graves."

Only one of the 538 Southampton residents to perish was a passenger: Henry Price Hodges, a wealthy businessman who dealt in pianos and gramophones, an early version of the record player. Like the majority of Titanic's Southampton victims, his body was never brought back.

Titanic: 100 Years later

USA TODAY and National Geographic Channel are producing a series of reports on the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking. See more at natgeotv.com/titanic. Watch Titanic specials on The National Geographic Channel starting April 8 at 8 p.m. ET.

Hodges is buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, along with more than 100 other Titanic victims, but he is remembered on the Art Nouveau headstone of his wife's grave in the Southampton cemetery. Local politician John Hannides, who is responsible for arts and culture in the city, says the enormous social impact of Titanic's demise was unique.

"Southampton was affected more than any other city in the world by the sinking of the Titanic," he says. "There were roads where every household lost a family member. You can only really imagine the sense of despair and loss."

When news of the disaster reached Southampton on the afternoon of April 15, most people didn't believe the ship everyone thought was unsinkable could have met with such disaster. In the following days, crowds of expectant relatives gathered outside the White Star Line's offices by the docks, waiting for names of survivors to be released.

Flags flew at half-staff, condolence notices filled the local newspapers, and a memorial service was held at the city's main church. Surviving crew returning to Southampton were met by crowds at the station. Two weeks after the disaster, 50,000 people — nearly half of the city's population at the time — turned out to an open-air service to remember the dead.

Southampton's mayor at the time, Henry Bowyer, set up a relief fund to help the widows, orphans and dependent relatives of those who died. Local people arranged concerts, sports days and other charity events to contribute to the fund, which helped families pay school fees, medical bills, apprenticeship fees and for necessities such as milk, eggs and even artificial teeth.

One hundred years after Titanic set sail from Southampton, it still plays a huge part in the city's identity.

Its legacy lives on in the 370 cruise ships that dock at the port every year and in the thousands of jobs provided by the docks and cruise industry. To mark the centenary, the city is opening a huge $23.5 million interactive museum called Sea City on April 10, the very day Titanic set out 100 years ago. The museum will display some of the 4,000 artifacts the city has gathered and offer recordings of the recollections of many of the survivors.

"Sea City will become symbolic on a scale that really does underline the respect and commemoration the city wants to show for the Southampton people who perished," Hannides says.

"We want to make sure their stories and experiences are accessible to people throughout the country and throughout the world. We want to make sure their stories live on for generations to come."

Posted 4/9/2012 5:47 PM ET
Updated 4/9/2012 5:57 PM ET
About 600 of the Titanic's approximately 900 workers hailed from Southampton, a port city in England. More than 500 from the city died.
By Bob Thomas, Popperfoto/Getty Images
About 600 of the Titanic's approximately 900 workers hailed from Southampton, a port city in England. More than 500 from the city died.