Titanic Teddies

DESMOND’S STORY CHOICE

There are some touching  links  between the Teddy Bear, that quintessential symbol of childhood  comfort and security,  and the  tragic loss of the  passenger ship Titanic on the night of  April 14 1912.

Daisy  Spedden  of Orange County, New York State  survived the sinking of the  great liner with her husband  Frederic and their only child Douglas,  then  six years old. In 1913  Mrs Spedden wrote the  story of their escape  as a Christmas gift for  Douglas, told through the eyes of  the child’s white teddy, named  Polar. The bear had been purchased from the famous New York toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz.  In the 1980’s the manuscript was discovered in an attic by a relative, Mr Leighton  Coleman. It was illustrated with delightful  watercolours and family photographs.  Moved and charmed by the story Coleman sent it to  Little, Brown & Co,, who published it in  1994 under the title Polar the Titanic Bear.

 

The  wealthy Speddens  travelled a great deal and were returning home  aboard the Titanic after holidaying in Algiers and Monte Carlo.  As Polar, explained in the story,  the  ship struck an iceberg at night; ‘It was our fifth night at sea. I had been in bed a few hours when I suddenly opened my eyes. The lights had been turned on. Muddie Boons [the Nanny]  was dressing Master in a great hurry. “Come, we’re taking a trip to see the stars”,  she said.’   The family made their way to the lifeboats and were among those rescued by the Carpathia. Daisy and Frederic were subsequently praised for their acts of kindness towards  other survivors.  Douglas  Spedden was one of  112 children   aboard the Titanic . Of the 56 who died,  just one was from first class and fifty five from steerage.

At the  end of the book Polar  comments wistfully, ‘Master Douglas goes to school now, and I am left alone much of the time. But I always look forward to the warm greeting he gives me on his return.  Though I realize I will see less and less of him as the years go by, I shall always feel, no matter what happens, that I occupy a large corner of his true and tender heart.’  He wished Douglas a long and happy life, but  in a tragic irony  the  boy  died just two years later, aged nine. He was chasing a football across a street in Winter Harbour, Maine, when he was struck by a delivery truck.

 

Another ‘Titanic Teddy’ was a six inch high, gold plush bear  with a tinplate body  made by the German toy company Bing, in 1907. It was  allegedly found in the coat pocket of  the ship’s catering manager, Gaspere Montalgo Gatti, known as Luigi, who  was among the 1503 passengers and crew who perished in the disaster. Gatti was born in Italy in 1875 but  moved to England as a young man. His wife Edith was a British subject and the couple  had set up home at Southhampton, from where the  ‘unsinkable’ Titanic  set sail on April  10 1912. The little bear was said to have been a parting gift  from Luigi’s young  son Vittorio.

 

Some doubt arose over the provenance of the bear as it was not listed among Gatti’s  personal effects. However it is generally accepted that such lists  were not exhaustive.  During the blitz in  World War Two  the Gatti home was bombed and extensively damaged but the family (and the little bear) escaped unscathed. Mrs Gatti  later moved north and after her death in 1962  the bear  was inherited by Vittorio, who in turn died in 1974.  His widow  Margery eventually  presented the bear to the Ribchester  Museum of Childhood, in East Lancashire’s beautiful Ribble Valley.  Its fame grew when, in 1992,  the English soft toy  company Merrythought produced a limited edition reproduction to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the  Titanic’s sinking.  The Ribchester  Museum closed in 1995 and its entire contents were sold  at an on-site auction which by sheer coincidence I happened to attend  My partner and I had visited the museum in its dying days and picked up a catalogue.  In a complete flight of fancy we bid on a solid silver flea circus, complete with miniature flying trapeze and all manner of flea propelled apparatus.  Sadly, the circus  went to a pest control company for a sum well above our budget. Several lots  later we watched the much  anticipated sale of the  Gatti bear.  Amid strong  competition an undisclosed  private buyer made a winning bid of  an astonishing  £9,000,  paid for rather oddly in five pound notes.  Rumour had it that the bear  would be travelling to Japan.  It is possible that the purchaser was Yoshi Sekigushi, founder of the  Izu Teddy Bear Museum in Ito City.  Perhaps the location of the teddy will emerge during  centenary  commemorations  for the Titanic this year.

 

The purchase  price of the Gatti  bear paled into insignificance when yet another ‘Titanic Teddy’  came onto the market  a few years later.  By now, the   movie Titanic (1997)  had created a world wide surge of  interest in the loss of the liner. In 1912,  600 black mohair  ‘Mourning Teddies’  about 50 centimetres high  had been  produced  by the most famous of all bear makers, Steiff, as a gesture of empathy for those who had lost their lives.  In December 2000 the London auction house Christies sold  one of the bears for  £91,000.  It was in mint condition, having been locked away in a wardrobe for  almost ninety years by its elderly  owner.  The woman  had  received it as a child  but took an  immediate dislike to the teddy’s sombre colour and red-rimmed  ‘crying’ eyes.

 

The sombre Mourning Teddy

 

New, limited edition Titanic  bears  are currently  being marketed by Steiff to satisfy what has evolved into a  huge collectors’  market.  All Titanic related relics are  now highly sought after and who knows what  astronomical price any original mourning bear  may command during this important   commemorative year.  However, it would be a great shame if  auction results  overshadowed the   poignant associations between Teddy Bears and  the world’s most famous maritime disaster.

 

Leave a Reply


9 + = eleven

13 Comments
  1. I was very moved by reading this article and I am glad Desmond chose it as his story choice.
    I am very fond of a certain bear and I think of him as real.I
    imagined the bears in this story to be real as well. I can understand why people collect bears as they do remind you one of how safe and content you felt as a child whilst hugging your Teddy.

  2. Thanks Vonnie

    I thought my choice was quite good, though I say so myself.

    May write a story of my own next, if I can get a certain person away from the computer. She could be making cakes or dusting!

  3. Pauline, what a lovely site. I’m jealous now! I was particularly taken by this piece on the Titanic Teds, as you probably remember me saying my 84 year old Mum makes Teds of all shapes and sizes, usually in real mohair or alpaca, and all entirely sewn by hand. I’ve been known to make a few myself, my smallest is about three inches high the larget about two feet high. Your story of the little Gatti bear, really touched me, it was actually one I hadn’t heard before, thank you. Does it have a name do you know? As a little aside, I live about 5 miles from Ribchester and have been to the Museum you mention. Shame it had to be sold it was unique!. Good Luck with the site H.E.

    • Thank you E.R.

      Asked (then told!) Editor Des to do some more digging but he can’t find a name for the Gatti bear. Yes, the toy museum was a real loss but never mind; you live in a beautiful area & still have the interesting Roman ruins.

  4. Hi Pauline,
    I am finding all of your writing exciting,and knowlegeable,I look forward to being entertained for years to come.
    Keep up the good work,and stay well,so that you can continue with your passion.
    With love Ruth.

  5. So pleased you are enjoyng the articles Ruth. I suspect the writing is helping to keep me well!

  6. Great post, Pauline, and a great angle! Poor old Polar. He can come and live with me, if he likes :)

  7. Thanks Diane and sorry for the delay in response; my spam catcher was a little over-enthusiastic! Yes, I think a lot of us would like to adopt little Polar. Associate editor Desmond who chose the story would like him as a brother!

  8. Loved the querky story and more so the poem.

    • oops wrong story never mind love all the stories they do inspire me somehow.

  9. Thank you Donna. I think you mean my gnome poem on the blog about Putney. I made it up out of my head.

  10. I found this very touching – and despite my own research into the ‘Titanic’ for my novel, THE MASTER’S TALE, I didn’t know about the teddies.
    If possible, I would like to make a link from this to my site – or from my site to this, if I can get the terms right!

    • Thanks for the lovely feedback Ann. By all means go ahead with the link! Will be interested to read The Master’s Tale.