Within hours of the sinking of the White Star Line's brand new Titanic, the ship had assumed that mantle of immortality which, having already lasted almost a century, shows no sign of abating. Every facet of the disaster still exerts an endless fascination over the public at large whilst the sequence of events culminating in her loss is better known than those surrounding any other tragedy in maritime history. Many ships responded to the Titanic's distress calls but only one, the Cunard steamer Carpathia, was near enough to race to the scene and rescue the 705 survivors. Well over double that number - accounts vary but most agree a minimum figure of 1,500 souls - had perished in the freezing sea or had been taken down by the great liner in her death throes. The recovery of as many bodies as possible was regarded as essential by those concerned with the aftermath of the wreck and thus another vessel, whose name is still largely unfamiliar even to many Titanic enthusiasts, became involved. Far from being one of the 'ocean greyhounds' of the North Atlantic run, she was a humble cable-layer and her name was the Mackay-Bennett.
Ordered in 1884 for the American-owned Commercial Cable Company, Mackay-Bennett took her name from those of the company's two principal directors, John W. Mackay and Gordon Bennett, the latter being the flamboyant proprietor of the New York Herald newspaper. The company had only been incorporated the previous year to lay two additional transatlantic cables and whilst those were laid by the Siemens' cable-layer Faraday, their maintenance was entrusted to the recently completed Mackay-Bennett. Built by John Elder at Govan, on the Clyde, she was registered at 1,700 tons gross and measured 270 feet in length with a 40 foot beam. Driven by twin screws powered by 2,190ihp. compound engines, her design had certain conventional features such as a bow rudder and a swivelling bow sheave, and she carried three cable tanks with a total capacity of 25,000 cubic feet. A combined pay-out and picking-up gear was sited on the forward well-deck with another paying-out gear in the stern, and she was ready for service by the time the cables themselves opened for traffic on Christmas Eve 1884. Continuously employed with both cable-laying as well as maintenance until 1922, she was then withdrawn to become a cable storage hulk lying in Plymouth Sound. Despite being sunk at her moorings during a Second World War air-raid, she was subsequently refloated and refitted, and survived until sold for scrapping in September 1965.
During this highly useful though rather mundane career, Mackay-Bennett did achieve one brief interlude of fame when, in April 1912, she was chartered by the White Star Line's Halifax agents, A.G. Jones & Co., to make a thorough search of the area where Titanic had sunk and, whenever possible, recover any bodies found in the sea. The same White Star agents also contracted John Snow & Co. Ltd, Halifax's largest undertakers, to oversee all the burial arrangements and Snow's in turn requested assistance from every embalmer in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. At the Halifax waterfront, tons of ice were emptied into Mackay-Bennetts cable tanks, the embalmers' tools and supplies plus over one hundred plain coffins were loaded aboard and, after being joined by Canon Hind from the town's cathedral, the ship steamed out on her gruesome assignment just after noon on Wednesday 17th April. All ship's in the vicinity of the disaster were asked, by wireless, to inform Mackay-Bennett of any sightings of bodies and the first group of 51 were recovered during Sunday 21st. Colonel John Jacob Astor's was amongst the 27 corpses retrieved the next day but by Wednesday, burial supplies were running low and Captain Lardner radioed the nearby Allan liner Sardinian: "Can you let us have all the canvas and burlap you can spare?" In the meantime, a second recovery vessel had been chartered and when she arrived at the scene on Friday 26th April, Mackay-Bennett set course for Halifax where she docked at 9.30am. on Tuesday the 30th. She had found 306 bodies in all, of which 116 had been buried at sea due to their decomposed state and the remaining 190 brought into port. The unloading began immediately and, once completed, the task of formal identification began in earnest. Mackay-Bennett's officers and crew stayed for those burials which took place locally and then resumed their normal schedule of duties after after 4th May.