R.M.S. Olympic - The Journal, Thursday, 24 October 1991
For decades, lavish fittings from Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, lay in a barn in Northumberland. Tony Henderson reports on a discovery which will set the collecting world abuzz.
Auctioneer Andrew McCoull has seen a few treasures surface in his time. But he was barely prepared for the site which met his eyes as he pushed open the door of a tumbledown barn in Northumberland.
Inside, serving as a roost for the hens, were lavish fittings from what was once the biggest―and one of the greatest―passenger liners in the world.
They had been taken from the White Star Line’s Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, and are a mirror image of the fittings on the great ship which are now on the bottom of the sea off Newfoundland.
Olympic had been stripped of her fittings in 1935 at Jarrow, to help alleviate unemployment, after a distinguished career cruising the world as a queen of the seas. The public sale of the pieces lasted for some days.
Now the fittings, carved and gilded oak pillars, doors, and panels from the promenade deck and a fireplace from one of the ship’s drawing or dining rooms are to be auctioned again at Anderson & Garland’s Newcastle showrooms in mid-December.
After being hidden away for more than 50 years, the fittings are expected to attract intense interest, especially with the continued fascination over the Titanic.
According to Bob Pryor, secretary of the British Titanic Society which has 500 members in 33 countries, up to £500 has been paid for a wall light fitting from Olympic in the past.
“For stuff to turn up after all these years is quite something. I expect bidding to be extremely high, especially from across the Atlantic. The Americans are fanatical―they worship anything from the White Star Line.”
The Northumberland vendor of the fittings, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers accompanying her father to the Olympic “stripping out” sale. For some reason, the pieces he bought were never put to use.
Andrew McCoull, a partner in Anderson & Garland, was on holiday in Northumberland when he was alerted by phone about the “find.”
“I was very excited about it. When I saw the fittings, I was jumping about all over the place. It made my holiday.”
“The fittings still have the original paintwork and gilding, and the quality of the carving is such that it must have taken an army of men. It must have looked absolutely fantastic on the ship and I would have loved to have seen it intact. I had no idea the ship was so lavish.”
Andrew is expecting a lively response to the sale. “It could appeal to anyone refurbishing a building who wants a piece of history which can be restored to its former glory, and with the Titanic fever stronger than ever, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a lot of interest from the United States.”
“Everything we have here is the same as is at the bottom of the sea on the Titanic. A lot of people would like to say that they had a piece of Olympic in their homes.”
However, it wasn’t all pleasure cruising on the Olympic. Some of the doors which led to the deck are fitted with quarter inch plate glass to withstand the elements.
The White Swan Hotel in Alnwick has an Olympic function room, fitted out with pieces from the ship, presumably bought at the same stripping out sale in 1935.
The Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic were the three great sisters of the White Star Line.
Olympic was built first and was launched by Harland & Wolff at Belfast 81 years ago, seven months before Titanic, which was being constructed alongside.
But whereas the 45,000-ton Olympic was to go on sailing until 1935, Titanic met disaster on her maiden voyage. After being stripped at Jarrow, the hull of Olympic was towed for breaking up to Inverkeith in Scotland.
Work had started on Olympic in 1908, and she was to remain the largest passenger ship in the work until the arrival of the German liner Imperator―which was also scrapped in the Tyne.
Contrary to popular belief, it was Olympic which attracted all the publicity at the time, and by contrast Titanic slipped away from Belfast almost unsung.
Olympic, which carried 2,440 passengers and 860 crew, left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York on June 14, 1911. After the Titanic sank on April 13 [sic], 1912, Olympic spent six months back at the shipyard for safety work costing £500,000.
In 1915, the ship was commissioned as a troopship and carried a total of 41,000 American soldiers.
She left Southampton on her first post-war voyage on July 21, 1920, and in the next 15 years built up a reputation for reliability and comfort. By 1935, rationalization of the new Cunard-White Star company led to the elimination of the once great fleet. Olympic was bought by an industrialist for £100,000 and resold to shipbreakers Thomas Ward.
Olympic’s career had included 257 round crossings of the Atlantic involving around 1,500,000 miles of constant steaming.
Britannic was commissioned during the First World War as a hospital ship and sank after hitting a mine in the Aegean Sea.
© 2005 Eric Sauder
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