We live in an age when communication is instant. News from across the globe pops up on our screens, TV or handheld, almost in real time. We can choose, if we wish, to watch events unfold, to immerse ourselves in every detail of the action from our sofas or workplaces. A century ago, things would have been very different. News arrived slowly, transmitted via broadsheets and notice boards. Errors were commonplace.
The Titanic connection
When the news about the Titanic first broke on Tuesday 16th April 1912, this is how the Wall Street Journal headline looked:
“Liner Titanic Struck By Berg But Passengers Are Saved”
Wireless reports from the scene had been confusing, to say the least. After a flurry of messages, the Titanic’s radio fell silent. While some publications, such as the New York Times, feared the worst, many others, the Wall Street Journal among them, believed that the lack of radio transmissions signalled that a rescue effort was well underway.
Yet, the new fangled technology had been the Titanic’s best hope of saving her passengers, as the ship had too few lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board. In those days, “SOS” was rarely used, though it had been created six years earlier at the International Radio Telegraphic Convention in Berlin. Instead, Marconi operators still routinely used the “CQD” distress signal, “CQ” being the sign to stop transmission and take notice, with a “D” added to indicate distress. Messages were fired off thick and fast, relayed by ships that knew they were too far away from the Titanic to be of assistance themselves.
Cunard’s Carpathia to the rescue
Amidst such confusion, one of the messages sent that fateful night, shortly after midnight on 15th April, was to the Carpathia:
“Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W.”
Carpathia lacked the glamour and class of the Titanic. The White Star Line’s competitors were Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania, the latter holding the Trans-Atlantic speed record until 1929. The Carpathia was never going to be in that league. It plodded back and forth across the Atlantic for Cunard, ferrying emigrants from Eastern Europe to begin their new lives in New York City and beyond. On the night of 11th April, it slipped almost unnoticed out of New York harbour bound for Trieste. It would be a voyage that the Carpathia wouldn’t complete. In stark contrast, the White Star Line’s brand new liner, Titanic, carrying the rich and famous of the day, had departed Southampton waved off by cheering crowds.
When the Carpathia’s captain received word from his wireless operator of the Titanic’s message, he could scarcely believe it. The Carpathia changed course and began the 58 mile journey to come to her aid. It raced through the North Atlantic’s frigid waters at full pelt, its lookouts scouring the horizon lest they too fell victim to an iceberg. The Titanic broke in half and sank at 2.20am. The Carpathia reached the scene less than two hours later, but by then the freezing water had claimed many victims. It took on board as many survivors as it could find, but despite its valiant efforts, more than 1500 people lost their lives.
Unable to risk a passage to Halifax, the nearest port, on account of more ice and with so many extra passengers, without sufficient supplies to continue on to the Azores, its next scheduled stop, the Carpathia turned back to New York. Fed tidbits, the waiting press were eager for proper news, both of the unsinkable ship that had gone down on its maiden voyage and of its wealthy passengers that no amount of money could save.
News reaches London
As they set off for New York, the wireless operators on the Carpathia had, necessarily, informed their bosses at Cunard of the tragic reason for their change of course. Those messages were received in the boardroom of Cunard’s offices in London, by Trafalgar Square. Across the street, at the offices of the White Star Line, a crowd besieged staff, imploring them to divulge news of the survivors. In today’s Twitter and text message infested society, it’s hard to imagine how awful that lack of knowledge must have been.
Today, Cunard’s boardroom is the Landseer Suite of the Trafalgar St James. In a nod to its former incarnation, the oak paneling has been retained, though painted in a sophisticated shade of grey that more aptly befits a contemporary hotel. The hotel is the first of Hilton’s Curio Collection to be located in London, a brand that’s intended to appear independent and unique. The devil is in the detail, they say, and you won’t even notice how clever some of the touches are.
Brintons created bespoke carpets, which feature a motif inspired by the star design of one of Lord Nelson’s medals. Many of the rooms look out onto Trafalgar Square, home of course to Nelson’s Column. It’s a hive of activity day and night, though the triple-glazed windows do a sterling job of keeping the traffic noise to the faintest of hums.
What you won’t see now, however, are the pigeons. As a kid I was photographed in my grandmother’s arms, bird seed clenched tightly in my tiny fist, the National Gallery behind us. But fearful of the effect the pigeon’s poop was having on the column and surrounding lions, feeding the birds was banned some fifteen years ago and most of them don’t bother showing up anymore.
The celebrity connection
One of the details that strikes you as soon as you step foot inside the Trafalgar St James is the array of black and white photographs that grace its muted walls. Daniel Craig hangs in the restaurant where I sat down for afternoon tea; Mick Jagger’s signature head tilt and pouting face looked down on the pillows in my suite. They’re the work of celebrity photographer Dave Hogan, who made the headlines in 1985 when he sprained an ankle sliding off the roof of Madonna’s limousine in a media scrum at Heathrow. The hotel hosted an exhibition of the award-winning snapper’s iconic images in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, but liked the images so much they bought in bulk. They fit well with the “Cool Britannia” look that characterises the hotel. No wonder that CN Traveller readers voted it into their top ten London hotels in 2018, a list topped by the prestigious Savoy and Claridge’s.
The 2017 style reincarnation updated a hotel that had been making its mark in the celebrity world since it opened in 2000. Victoria and David Beckham cemented what was then the Trafalgar Hotel’s place on the map when they showed up that first Christmas. Following them came The Rolling Stones, Jenson Button, Nicole Scherzinger, Ellie Goulding and Cuba Gooding Jr. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt got to know its impressive rooftop views when they filmed the 2014 movie, Edge of Tomorrow. It’s not the first film that chose the building as its location. In 1962, the boardroom featured in the Bond film Dr No, standing in as M’s office. The same space showed up in The Ipcress File with Michael Caine three years later.
Today, the hotel’s address is listed as 2 Spring Gardens, but the building spills around the corner into Cockspur Street. Part of the building that now houses the Trafalgar St James was originally leased as a “messuage”, a dwelling house with outbuildings. Permission to develop on what had once been land belonging to King Henry VIII was granted in 1709 by the then landowner Thomas Pearce. It wasn’t long before the place became a coffee house. By the mid-18th century, the British Coffee House, as it was called, had become rather popular with Scottish peers, most likely because the establishment was run first by a Mrs Douglas and later by a Mrs Anderson, both of whom were born north of the border and liked to chat. Their hospitality was well known. When the Duke of Bedford needed support for a motion due to be passed in the House of Lords, he wrote to sixteen Scottish peers, but had the various letters delivered in one envelope to the British Coffee House. Scottish gentlemen’s club The Beeswing met there once a month to dine and drink port – the beverages on offer weren’t confined to coffee.
The first hotel to be constructed on the site
The coffee house was rebuilt in 1770, based on the designs of Robert Adam, a renowned Scottish architect with a bent for neoclassical design. Around the corner in Spring Gardens, the most significant property was the Red Lion Inn, which was later connected to the Cockspur Street buildings. The street took its name from the trick fountains that graced the site in Elizabethan times. In a nod to what was to come, the building was extended in 1817 and later, together with the adjacent 26 Cockspur Street, became the British Hotel. That structure was demolished in 1886-1887. In 1906, Arthur Joseph Davis, whose company portfolio included the interiors of the Ritz, designed the new premises for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which would be known as America House. Cunard, like many other steamship companies, were drawn to the street. They liked Davis’ work so much they hired him to design their new liner, the Aquitania, which ran the Trans-Atlantic route alongside older siblings, the Lusitania and Mauretania. Extended in 1914 and 1925, it’s the ornate façade of America House, almost unchanged in the intervening years, that you’ll see today as you enter the sanctuary that is the Trafalgar St James. It says something about London that despite its majesty, the building isn’t among the capital’s many thousands of listed premises. But it’s impressive nonetheless and well worth a look if you’re in the area.