On April 8 1912, Francis Browne, a theology student studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood left Dublin carrying a First Class ticket for the Southampton- Cherbourg- Queenstown (now Cobh) segments of the maiden voyage of the ‘unsinkable’ liner, the RMS Titanic.
Frank as he was known, was a seasoned traveller – he had previously wandered across Europe courtesy of his uncle, Robert Browne,who was the Bishop of Cloyne. Uncle Robert had given him a gift of a camera for the European trip, and Frank enjoyed taking photographs of a very high standard. The camera was again put to good use during those hours on board the Titanic. A wealthy family on board offered to pay Frank’s fare for the entire trip to New York, and he dutifully sought permission from his religious order, the Jesuits , to continue the voyage. Permission was denied and he was ordered to ‘get off that ship’. A fortuitous order as it turned out, as not only did it probably save his own life, it meant that the pictures taken on board did not end up at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Early in 1913, Frank contacted the White Star Line looking for approval to use these photographs and other materials for a series of illustrated lectures which he planned. He received the following response
”We shall be glad to obtain photographs of the illustrations to which you allude in the Olympic booklet but shall appreciate it if in any lectures you deliver you will abstain from any reference to the Titanic as you will easily understand we do not wish the memory of this calamity to be perpetuated.”
Unperturbed, Browne set out on his lecture tour armed with the last pictures ever taken of the mighty Titanic, with excellent shots of the interior, the crew, and passengers from First to Steerage class, many of whom had perished.
Ordained in 1915, Fr Browne went on to become chaplain to the Irish Guards and served the dying at many of the bloodiest theatres of World war 1, including Messines Ridge, , Paschendale, Ypres. Wounded several times and gassed, he went on to become the most decorated chaplain of the First World War, being awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (First Class) with palms and on two separate occasions, the Military Cross and bar.
This extraordinary man carried his camera everywhere and documented life everywhere he went – all over Ireland, and including Australia and England and other places across the world. Some years after his death in 1960, a fellow Jesuit priest, Fr Eddie O’Donnell, happened upon an old trunk with ‘Fr Browne’s Photographs’ written in chalk. It contained some 42,000 negatives, with many in poor condition. The Jesuit order arranged for the preservation of the negatives by Davison and Associates and they own copyright for all Fr Browne’s photographs. Fr O’Donnell is the curator of the collection and has published several volumes, listed below.
Photographs of the Titanic are much sought after by those interested in the tragic liner. The photographs of the Harland & Wolff official photographer R J Welch taken during the construction phase are housed at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
In 1985 the wreck of the Titanic was discovered on the seabed by Dr Robert Ballard and some 20,000 new images were taken.
Now, to mark the centenary of the loss of the Titanic, National Geographic has produced some spectacular new colour images of the wreck. These can be viewed here.
Whilst ghostly images of the rusting and mangled Titanic on the sea floor may continue to become available with the development of new photographic techniques, it is the simple black and white ‘snaps’ taken on a relatively primitive box camera of Fr Francis Browne that tell the real story of the first and last voyage of the RMS Titanic, thereby ensuring that the memory of this calamity will indeed be perpetuated.
Some of Fr Browne’s photographs can be seen at the official website www.titanicphotographs.com.
Fr Browne’s Books of Photographs:
- Father Browne’s Titanic Album: A Passenger’s Photographs and Personal Memoir by Browne, Francis M. and E.E. O’Donnell; Wolfhound Press, 1996; ISBN 0-86327-598-2
- Father Browne’s Australia by Browne and O’Donnell; Wolfhound Press, 1996; ISBN 0-86327-443-9
- Father Browne: A Life in Pictures by Browne and O’Donnell; Irish American Book Company, 1997; ISBN 0-86327-436-6
- Father Browne’s Ships & Shipping by E.E.O’Donnell; Wolfhound Press, 2000; ISBN 0863277586
The Irish Times