Wallace Henry Hartley was born on June 2, 1879 in Colne, Lancashire. The son of a Methodist choirmaster, he had early exposure to music with a role as a choir boy at his church. By the age of 15, he was already doing solo violin performances, and went on to lead orchestras in Harrogate and Bridlington.
Hartley eventually took a position with the Cunard line, entertaining passengers on liners such as the Mauretania and Lusitania, his first position with Cunard being on the former. He was then hand-picked by the White Star Line to serve as bandmaster on their brand new luxury ship they called "Titanic". Before being appointed bandmaster and violinist on the Titanic by White Star, Hartley had been engaged to be married. The week before boarding the Titanic, he spent time with his fiancé in Boston Spa, near Wetherby in Yorkshire.
Upon boarding the Titanic, Hartley led his band in a variety of locations on the ship. You could find them performing around the first class entrance on the boat deck, in the first class lounge on A deck, and other areas as well. The White Star Line songbook contaned about 350 songs, selections from which the band was more than happy to play. They also took requests, and played a number of popular ragtime tunes.
The night of the sinking, Captain Smith was a busy, if a bit of a disjointed man. At his request, the band led by Hartley was seated out on the boat deck, and played upbeat tunes to try and help calm the passengers. The band was heroic, in that they continued to play into the night as more and more chaos continued to unfold around them. It is believed that the final song played that night was a hymn entitled Nearer My God to Thee. Shortly thereafter, a large wave swept the boat deck as the Titanic neared its end. Wallace Hartly died on April 15, 1912 at the age of 33.
All members of the band were lost that night, and Hartley's body was recovered from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett, a cable ship chartered by White Star to assist in the recovery of bodies from the site. Hartley was pulled from the waters of the Atlantic on May 4, 1912, and was identified by a gold fountain pen engraved with his initials. Also on him was a nickel watch, and about 16 shillings and 16 pence in coins. His violin case was still strapped to his chest.
His body was returned to Colne, and funeral services were held for a congregation of more than one thousand people. After the services, the funeral procession (led by 7 bands) was lined by approximately 40,000 people on the way to Colne cemetery. He was laid to rest on May 18, 1912.
While there seems to be some contradiction as to which song was the final song played on the night of the Titanic disaster (some insist it was actually a hymn entitled 'Autumn', also known as 'Songe d'Automne'), there is a bit of information that is probably important to consider.
Years before the disaster, a colleague of Hartley's had asked the violinist what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship. Hartley responded that he would assemble his band and play either "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" or "Nearer My God to Thee."