WHO would imagine there's anything new left to write about the dramatic sinking of the cruise liner Titanic in April 1912?
The most recent memory most of us would have of this extraordinary story would be director James Cameron's epic 1997 movie Titanic.
His lavish disaster movie focused on both tragedy and romance - the fate of the doomed screen lovers Jack and Rose, otherwise known as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Their romance lit up the screen as the White Star liner Titanic hit an iceberg leaving a long gash in the ship's side.
The giant vessel inevitably sank in the freezing North Atlantic. More than 1600 lives were lost on the supposedly "unsinkable" ship. One reason for the high death toll was there weren't enough lifeboats for passengers and crew before the mighty luxury liner plunged almost 4000 metres into the icy waters.
The legendary Titanic was, back in 1912, the largest and most luxurious liner of her day. Cameron's 1997 film was similarly monumental. Although the story had been filmed six times before, his was by far the most spectacular. Costing $US 200 million to make, the movie reaped a box-office bonanza of $2 billion, was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11.
Filming was done at Rosarito in Mexico, but there's an odd, almost Newcastle connection to the blockbuster's creation. At one stage, location scouts briefly looked at filming one side of the ship - a facade - perched on the edge of Merewether Baths with the huge Pacific Ocean as its backdrop. It didn't happen, of course.
But truth is stranger than fiction. Just around the corner from the baths was once a real link to the tragedy.
Virtually forgotten now since 1937, an English-born Titanic survivor had lived quietly at 55 Berner Street, Merewether, for years. Somehow today, she has slipped between the cracks of history.
She became Mrs Annie Howland, but as a single woman in 1912 she joined the liner as Miss Annie Caton. She was a masseuse working in the ship's Turkish bath and listed officially as a stewardess.
When the Titanic struck the iceberg that night, the young Annie Caton was in the cabin she shared with another female employee.
"I felt a vibration and did not attach much importance to it," Mrs Howland recalled in 1937, on the 25th anniversary of the ship's sinking.
It was a nightmare, expecting every minute to meet death. The last we saw and heard of our brave men [onboard] was them standing with set faces waiting for the last.
She said she was in bed reading at 11.35pm, feeling safe although the luxury liner was steaming quickly through an ice field.
"After the bump, the ship seemed to jerk and shiver like a horse bus being driven over a stony road," Howland said.
It echoed comments she'd written earlier in a letter sent home in May 1912, less than three weeks after the tragedy. Despite an "awful grating sound", she wrote she didn't realise there was any danger until a little later when they were sitting on the side of their beds. A ship's officer came downstairs three at a time and cried out, "For God's sake, you two girls, get up and put some warm things on and lifebelts and go on deck unless you want to be sucked under."
Much to their alarm, water was already coming in on their floor, so they went up on deck. Here, the-then Miss Caton was advised they were only putting the women in lifeboats as a precaution. As they waited, the ship started to shiver under their feet.
"The bravery of the officers and men is a thing which I shall never be able to forget. They did not think about their own lives but devoted their energy to assisting the women and children.
"I was in the last boat [lifeboat No.11] to leave the Titanic. There were 70 or 80 others and we drifted all night among the ice waiting for death. We had practically no clothes on," she said.
Howland's wooden lifeboat was lowered into the water with great difficulty and almost turned turtle. Lumps of ice knocked against the craft's sides.
"It was a nightmare, expecting every minute to meet death. The last we saw and heard of our brave men [onboard] was them standing with set faces waiting for the last. One officer called out, 'Now boys, remember you are English'."
Bandsmen on deck were kneeling and playing the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee and then the ship turned and hurled everyone to their deaths.
"The shrieks I heard will forever ring in my ears," an emotional Howland said.
Suddenly there was a great explosion. It signalled of the end of the ocean leviathan. The ship broke in two and her mighty stern rose clean out of the water. Howland and others saw at least 150ft (33m) of the Titanic towering above the sea before "with a quiet, slanting dive, she disappeared beneath the waters".
When the day dawned, the sea all around her boat was covered with bodies. The survivors were finally rescued by the Cunard liner Carpathia, which had been alerted by SOS messages sent from the sinking ship.
Mrs Howland said it was only after the rescue that the survivors reacted.
"Women screamed for missing husbands, friends call for friends and children became hysterical. The terrible scenes of the previous night became a nightmare for the survivors," she said.
They were taken to New York. Only 703 people survived.
Surprisingly, Annie Caton (later Howland) soon worked on the ship Adriaticand later, in 1922, on the maiden voyage of a new flagship, SS Majestic. She'd continued the only career she knew. Reports indicate her shipping company stopped paying her meagre wages once the Titanic sank.
Annie Caton then came to Australia, marrying shopkeeper Richard Howland in 1930 at Clarence Town. They then lived at Berner Street and had a daughter.
Annie (Caton) Howland's remarkable story was all but forgotten until Elizabeth Hughes, a local history researcher at Newcastle Library, recently came across her tale.
I admit to initially being skeptical, but Annie Howland's story is too well documented in old news clippings and especially on the website Encyclopedia Titanica. Her certificate of discharge from service on theTitanic even sold at auction in London in late 2002 for more than $10,000.
But there's one puzzle to the life of Titanicsurvivor Annie Caton Howland. Did she put her age back considerably while working on the ship? Many believed she was aged 68 when she died in May 1947 at Merewether. However, the plain, faded plaque above her ashes at Beresfield crematorium seems to indicate she was 84.
But that's not the biggest mystery. There was apparently another Titanic survivor, a male, who once lived in Lambton, then Hamilton. He died in 1965. He didn't talk much about the famous disaster, but family members said he also didn't like going near water and became upset on hearing the hymn Nearer My God to Thee.