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Key to life

May 2017 | by Paul Mackrell

Last October, a little rusty key, along with the metal fob attached to it, was sold by auction. Somebody picked it up for £85,000.

It is exactly 105 years since the Titanic sailed from Southampton bound for New York. As everyone knows, it was her maiden voyage. And, as everyone also knows, she never got there.

Although many ships before 1912, and since then, have foundered with the loss of life, none have claimed the attention and gripped public imagination quite like the Titanic. Over the years there have been many stories of godly faith and self-sacrifice in the teeth of an unprecedented catastrophe.

Inspiring commitment

The story behind this particular key provides another example of human bravery and an inspiring commitment to duty. Whether or not it was motivated by a personal faith in Jesus Christ may never be known for certain, but a clear spiritual analogy emerges from the story, nonetheless.

The tag to which the key was attached was inscribed with the words ‘Locker 14 “F” Dk’. That meant that it opened locker number 14, situated on F deck — a locker which housed life jackets. When the iceberg scythed through the Titanic’s hull, F deck flooded. All the more important, therefore, that anyone in the vicinity of F deck at the time had access to a life jacket.

The key was in the charge of Sidney Sedunary, a 25-year-old, 3rd class steward from Southampton. Brought up in Newbury, in Berkshire, he had enlisted with the Royal Navy at the age of 17 years, before joining the White Star Line a few years later. He had sailed on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, and then signed on for the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

In late 1911 he and Madge Tizzard, a Hampshire girl, had married. As the Titanic steamed proudly down the Solent on 10 April 1912, Madge was in the very early stages of pregnancy. Their son would be born in November.

When Sidney’s body was recovered from the icy Atlantic, items found on him were removed. His body was committed to the ocean and his personal effects returned to Madge, who now found herself as one of a number of young women facing the daunting experience of unexpected widowhood.

Amongst the possessions she received was her late husband’s pocket watch, no longer ticking but with the hands permanently frozen at 2.20am. She was also sent the key.

Last life jacket

What happened in the early hours of that fateful night must remain conjecture, but it is highly probable that Sidney used the key to open the locker and then stayed at his post handing out life jackets. From evidence at the official enquiry, he was last seen on F deck, handing out lifejackets. That was his job and he fulfilled it to the end.

Crucially, it seems he gave out every single life jacket in the locker. We can be reasonably confident about that because, had he kept one for himself, it is more than probable that he would have been picked up by one of the boats. If that is right, then the story behind the key is both tragic and very moving.

For some people that key was literally a key to life. They took the life jacket, as Sidney handed them out one by one, perhaps explaining how to put them on and secure them as he did so.

For some, that very act would be their salvation. Apart from those who managed to get to a life-boat, the jacket effectively saved them from drowning. Far more than the £85,000 paid for the key, anyone facing the freezing water and a certain death would surely have given everything they had for one.

Who, we may wonder, was given the very last life jacket in the locker? Did they know that it was the last one, or appreciate that the steward handing them out did not have one himself? And what went through Sidney’s mind as he handed it out?

All we can say is that, whoever was the recipient of that final life jacket, they owed their life to Sidney Sedunary. Christians can reflect on this and say, ‘That is exactly what Jesus Christ did for me’.

Paul Mackrell grew up in Hampshire, but now lives in West Sussex with his wife, Sue, who comes from Liverpool. They have three daughters, two sons and ten grandchildren.