Titanic crew member David Blair was a selfless man who plunged into the sea to save a life and received an OBE – but he may have unwittingly caused the catastrophic sinking of the famous ship in 1912.
That’s because Second Officer Blair was bumped off the Titanic at the last minute, and accidentally held on to the key to a locker containing the crow’s nest binoculars.
Had they been accessible, those binoculars could, perhaps, have been used to detect the iceberg that took the ship to its watery grave. Could Blair’s memory lapse have led to the loss of 1,522 lives?
Without access to those binoculars, crew only saw the iceberg when it was too late to take action. Titanic survivor Fred Fleet told the official inquiry into the tragedy that if they had had binoculars they would have seen the obstacle sooner.
Of course, this is all conjecture but retired Derby headteacher Murray Shaw, 78, was so fascinated by the story he acquired an important set of nine medals awarded to Blair from a dealer seven years ago. Those medals, including an OBE for war service and Sea Gallantry medal, are now coming up for sale at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers on March 19 with an estimate of £15,000-£18,000.
Mr Shaw said: “David Blair was standing by for three months in Belfast when the Titanic was being built and was signed on for the whole of the New York voyage. He would have been responsible for all the navigation equipment but was taken off the ship in Southampton, surplus to requirements. As a former Navy man myself, I can understand why he would have been upset.”
Adrian Stevenson, militaria expert at Hansons, said: “It’s a fascinating story. It’s astonishing to think that Mr Blair may have unwittingly caused the Titanic to sink by simply forgetting to hand in a key.
“His medals show he was a man of honour who put others before himself, but the haste of the last-minute change of plan meant the key was forgotten and the binoculars could not be accessed. These were in pre-sonar days when ships were reliant on binoculars to see hazards ahead.”
Mr Blair, from Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, sailed on the Titanic from Belfast to Southampton on April 3, 1912, when he was 37. He was involved in sea trials to measure the vessel’s performance and seaworthiness.
He had been due to be the second officer for the Titanic’s maiden voyage to New York on April 10. But the White Star Line, the ship’s owners, drafted in Henry Wilde instead, a senior officer from sister ship the Olympic because of his experience of large liners.
Blair wrote of his disappointment in a postcard he sent to his sister-in-law days before the Titanic left Southampton. In the card he wrote: ‘Am afraid I shall have to step out to make room for chief officer of the Olympic. This is a magnificent ship, I feel very disappointed I am not to make her first voyage’.
The 46,000-ton Titanic struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic at 11.45pm on April 14 and sank at 2.20am on April 15. Mr Wilde perished.
Mr Blair, who was later awarded the King’s Gallantry medal for jumping into the Atlantic to rescue a crewman, eventually passed the key to his daughter, Nancy. She gave it to the British and International Seamans Society in the 1980s.
Blair died at the age of 80 in 1955. In 2007, the Titanic key was bought at auction by a Chinese jeweller for £90,000.
Mr Shaw, who turned his medals hobby into a business, said: “If the key was worth £90,000, I feel this rare set of medals belonging to Titanic crew member David Blair, the man who forgot the key, should be worth just as much.”
Mr Stevenson said: “The loss of the Titanic is a story that has fascinated the world for more than a century. The opportunity to own David Blair’s medals will, I’m sure, spark worldwide interest.”
The medals up for auction include: Order of the British Empire 1st type civil award; Sea Gallantry medal 1914-15 Star; British War medal; Victory medal; Royal Naval Reserve Decoration; French Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour; Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society medal in silver and the Royal Humane Society medal in bronze. The set comes with David Blair’s British Mercantile Marine Identity and Service Certificate, a folder of original documentation and book, Titanic Destination Disaster: The Legend and the Reality. They will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, on March 19. To find out more, email [email protected] or call 01283 733988.