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.
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.