Wallace Hartley was born and raised in Colne, Lancashire, England. Harley's father, Albion Hartley, was the choirmaster and Sunday school superintendent at Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel, where the family attended worship services. Hartley himself introduced the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to the congregation. Wallace studied at Colne’s Methodist day school, sang in Bethel’s choir and learned violin from a fellow congregation member.
Hartley later moved to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire and in 1909, he began working on Cunard Line ocean liners, primarily on the RMS Mauretania. In 1912, Hartley worked for the music agency C.W. & F.N. Black, which supplied musicians for Cunard and the White Star Line.
In April of that year, Hartley was assigned to be the bandmaster for the orchestra of the White Star Line ship RMS Titanic. He was at first hesitant to again leave his fiancée, Maria Robinson, to whom he had recently proposed, but Hartley decided that working on the maiden voyage of the Titanic would give him possible contacts for future work. Joining in Southampton, he used Ticket 250654.
He also had the cabin number: E. He was in the Second Class and as the Head Bandmaster of the Titanic he did not have to pay for his ticket.
Sinking of the Titanic
When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, Hartley and his fellow band members started playing music to help keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. Many of the survivors said that he and the band continued to play until the very end. None of the band members survived the sinking and the story of them playing to the end became a popular legend. One survivor who clambered aboard Collapsible A claimed to have seen Hartley and his band standing just behind the first funnel, by the Grand Staircase. He went on to say that he saw three of them washed off while the other five held on to the railing on top the Grand Staircase's deckhouse, only to be dragged down with the bow, just before Hartley exclaimed, "Gentlemen, I bid you farewell!" A newspaper at the time reported "the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea." A memorial to the Titanic's musicians in Southampton, featuring Wallace Hartley's name RMS Titanic Musicians' Memorial, Southampton.Though the final song played by the band is unknown, "Nearer, My God, to Thee" has gained popular acceptance. Former bandmates claimed that he would either play Nearer, My God, to Thee or O God, Our Help in Ages Past if he was ever on a sinking ship, but Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember popularized wireless officer Harold Bride's account of hearing the song Autumn.
Hartley's body was recovered by the CS Mackay-Bennett (number 224) almost two weeks after the sinking. He was transferred to the Arabic and sent to England. One thousand people attended his funeral, while 40,000 lined the route of his funeral procession. He is buried in Colne where a 10-foot monument, containing a carved violin at its base, was erected in his honour. Hartley's large Victorian terraced house in West Park Street, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, bears a blue plaque to remind passers-by that this was the bandleader's home. As of 2001, Hartley's name was still being used when naming new streets and housing in the town of Colne.
Among the effects recovered with Hartley's body was a suitcase containing the violin he played on the slanting decks. It was sold in 2013 on the London auction with the price $ 1,6 million.
In Titanic (1953) Wallace's role as bandmaster for the orchestra is replaced by an fictional bandmaster named Mr. McDermott. During the sinking, Captain Smith ordered him and his band to play any song to calm the passenger, they're playing "Londonderry Air" and "Nearer My God to Thee".
Wallace Hartley was portrayed by Victor Langley in S.O.S. Titanic (1979 television movie).
Ted Sperling played Wallace Hartley in the 1997 production of Broawday.
Wallace Hartley was portrayed by Jonathan Evans-Jones in Titanic (1997 film).
Wallace Hartley was portrayed by Csongor Veer in the 2012 Miniseries Titanic.