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Britannic’s Lost Organ

The ocean liner Britannic was the later built sister ship to the Olympic and the Titanic. Being unfinished at the start of the Great War, the ship entered service as a hospital ship and sunk in 1916 in the Mediterranean Sea. An Organ was obviously not needed on a hospital ship and it disappeared from history to surface in 2006 in Switzerland.

The HMHS Britannic (meaning His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) was the sister ship to the Olympic and the Titanic, but had been redesigned upon the sinking of the Titanic to alter the short-comings of that ship uncovered by the disaster of 1912. It was designed to be even more unsinkable, and managed to go down even faster than the Titanic when hit by a German mine. But that was due to human fallacy, not technical misconceptions.

The Britannic was commissioned as a hospital ship after the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli. It made five successful runs between England and the Dardanelles before being hit by a German mine placed by submarine UB73. Because the mine hit during watch changeover, what would have been a sustainable leak became a major disaster. Naval rules and regulations stated that the flooding doors between the ships sections have to be closed at all times, but the sailors out of laziness used them during the change of watch. When the ship was hit, the frames were warped and the doors could not be closed against the waters rushing in.

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The ship began to list, and water started to pour in through the portholes which were kept open in a further breach of naval rules and regulations. Against express orders from the captain, two safety boats were launched and subsequently caught in the running propeller and 30 lives were lost.

But with the requisitioning of the Britannic as a hospital ship, one of the amenities of the ocean liner had become quite superfluous: the organ. Built in Germany and delivered to Belfast, it had been only just fitted (a single photograph exists of the organ on the ship) when the ship was requisitioned by the Admiralty. The organ was subsequently taken out again. The organ disappeared without mention after that.

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But in fact, White Star Lines as the owners of the ship had returned the organ to Welte, the building company in Germany, and it was sold in 1920 to Dr. August Nagel in Stuttgart, Germany. Nagel was a successful producer of cameras and had the organ installed in his private home. When selling the house, he returned the organ to Welte. They in turn sold the instrument again in 1937, this time to Dr. Eugen Kersting, owner of the electronics company Radium Lampenwerke, who had it installed in the assembly rooms for his workers.

Welte employed Werner Bosch as organ builder at that time and made him responsible for the ongoing concerns of the organ. In 1969, the Swiss Museum for Music Automatons, a private collection and now museum near Basel, bought the organ from Radium and had it installed in its exhibition by Bosch. The Welte Philharmonic Organs were unique in their use of rolls to play them automatically as well as being usable for life concerts. Bosch was so happy about the installation in the museum that he made it a gift of over 1,200 playing rolls usable on the organ. The organ was officially inaugurated in 1970.

When the museum underwent a complete overhaul with buildings added to the existing ones in 1998, the organ had to be dismantled. The curator decided that this was the ideal time for a complete restoration of the organ and all its parts, and the works started in 2006. In the process, the inscriptions of Britanik where found on all major parts of the organ, which revealed it to be the lost organ of the Britannic.

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A similar organ to the one in the Swiss Museum of Music Automatons may be found in the Solomon Centre in Tunbridge Wells.

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User Comments
  1. Gone.

    On September 8, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Hmm, there was quite a bit of info I didn’t know. Well written and researched as always. Nice one Lucas!

  2. Chris Marlowe II

    On September 8, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Organs are vanishing everywhere, these days! Better watch out your Organs are not being robbed!

    Yours Truly,
    the One & Only
    Troll of Triond

  3. cutedrishti8

    On September 8, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Nice one to share..Nice work…

  4. CaSundara

    On September 8, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Interesting story, and well-written, too. Thanks for sharing.

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