5. The Board of Inquiry
Lt. William McMaster Murdoch
Royal Naval Reserve
|Board of Trade Judgement|
Few public inquiries have raised as much debate as the two held in 1912 on the collision of the RMS 'Titanic' with an iceberg. The situation was confused by the efforts of journalists to obtain as lurid a 'scoop' as they could. Hearsay reported in the Press has since been cited as fact by those interested in money rather than evidence. As the legal profession often have to point out, hearsay is not evidence admissable in Court. To reach the facts of the case it is necessary to examine the testimony made by witnesses of actions and statements at which they were actually present.
The American Inquiry was conducted by its Bureau of Commerce under Senator Smith, and is often considered, - particularly by American authors, - to be the more valid of the two. In fact, it only interviewed 82 witnesses as against 96 for the British Board of Trade Inquiry, and 94 of the British witnesses were crew members or people with professional knowledge of the engineering and conditions. The difference in approach is also that Senator Smith was looking to apportion blame, whilst Lord Mersey was looking for an identifiable cause or causes of the incident. That difference is frequently misunderstood, even though each Inquiry produced technical recommendations which essentially underline one another.
The writer has been fortunate to have a complete transcript of the British Board of Trade Inquiry, which lasted for 36 days and was printed in the 'Journal of Commerce'. This page will analyse the statements of witnesses, particularly where these bear on the conduct of Lieutenant William McMaster Murdoch, RNR, First Officer of RMS 'Titanic'. Features bearing upon the actions of Murdoch, and salient details of the equipment and features of the 'Titanic', will also be taken into account.
First Officer William McMaster Murdoch has at various times been unfairly accused of :-
(1) Shooting passengers attempting to enter lifeboats;
(2) Accepting a bribe from Cosmo Duff-Gordon or James Bruce Ismay to let them enter lifeboats reserved for women and children;
(3) Committing suicide by shooting himself with a revolver when the ship was about to sink.
The recent film by Cameron is said to accuse one of the two Masters at Arms of the 'Titanic', Thomas King, of preventing Third-Class Passengers from reaching the Boat Deck by use of force or by locking the barriers. This is a confusion with attempts to limit the access to the boat-deck by the men, whilst admitting the women and children. Stewards did in fact try to escort the women and children up through the labyrinth of passages and stairways onto the boat-deck, as will be clear from witnesses' statements.
President : Sir John Charles Bigham, Lord Mersey : Formerly President of the Admiralty, Probate and Divorce Division of the High Court of Justice. Lord Mersey had a sometimes rather maverick way of keeping the other officials and witnesses to the point of the inquiry. It has been overlooked that the Inquiry or Commission was not a Court of Law so individual blame could not be assigned. This explains why he cut short some questioning of individuals (e.g. James Bruce Ismay, Cosmo Duff-Gordon) whose behaviour on the 'Titanic' had been discussed in the Press.
Lord Mersey was assisted by the following advisers:-
Other officials present from the start of the Inquiry were as follows (K.C.= King's Counsel, or barrister) :-
Attorney-General : Sir Rufus Isaacs : From whom the introduction and the summing-up were to come.
With : Mr. Butler Aspinall, K.C., Mr. S.A.T. Rowlatt, and Mr. Raymond Asquith.
Sir R. Finlay, K.C.
With : Mr.F.Laing, K.C., Mr. Maurice Hill, K.C. and Mr. Norman Raeburn.
Mr. W.N. Norman and Mr. Hamar Greenwood.
Other counsel and solicitors appeared on behalf of passengers, trades unions and other interests.
Opened at the London Scottish Hall in Westminster. Sir Rufus Isaacs expressed sorrow at the losses. Some witnesses arrived already on the 'Lapland', more were to come. Inquiry [Senator Smith's] already under way in America. First day to decide procedure. To examine evidence of the crew and then the evidence of construction and equipment, Board of Trade regulations, provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts. A series of 26 questions had to be answered [Too long a text to enter here]. Lord Mersey approved requests for admission by Mr. T. Scanlon, M.P., representing the Seamen and Firemen's Union, and by Mr. Botterell of the Chamber of Shipping. Lord Mersey refused immediate participation by by Mr. W.M.R. Pringle M.P. of the Ship Constructors and Shipwrights' Association, Mr. T. Lewis of the British Seafarers' Union, Mr. Clem Edwards M.P. of the Dockers' Union, Mr. L.S. Holmes of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild and Mr. W.W. Champness representing 'a widow of a first-class passenger'.
Mr. T. Lewis and Mr. L.S. Holmes admitted.
Evidence of Archie Jewell, Lookout Man and Joseph Scarrott, A.B.
Attorney General mistakenly referred to Murdoch as 'Chief Officer', accepts correction to 'First Officer'. Percentages of different classes of passenger saved listed. Questions to see if Third-Class access to boatdeck difficult, - asked of even the less-knowledgeable crew. Questions at end by Scanlon of Seamens' & Firemens' Union.
Jewell (Boat No.7-starboard, with Miller. Hogg in charge). Under Murdoch's supervision, starboard side. Ordered by Murdoch to stand by the (starboard, aft) gangway. Half an hour to prepare lifeboat. Launched one and a half hours before 'final dip'. Symons (mate on 8 -10 watch) asked for the glasses (binoculars), but not to hand. Only 3 men in lifeboat, needed 6 'at least'.
Scarrott (Boat No. 14-port ). Watch 8-12, heard engines reversing after three bells. Uncovered another four boats, under the direction of the Boatswain, told by Chief Officer (Wilde ?) to go to his assigned boat. Refers to the Chief Officer as 'Mr. Maguire', - women and children to be put in. Used some 'persuasion with the boat tiller' on some 'foreign men' trying to take places. 54 women and 4 children. Ordered into boat 14 by Fifth Officer Lowe, who 'fired two shots...between the boat and the ship's side' to discourage attempts to jump into the boat. Lowe at the helm (tiller). Scarrott saw after section break off. Linked up with four other boats, transferred passengers, recovered one man from water, more from raft of airboxes (Engelhardt collapsible boats). No food, but water to drink. Third Class would have little chance to reach the boats.
On the Monday, the court visited the 'Olympic' (sister-ship to the 'Titanic') at Southampton.
Evidence of George Beauchamp, Fireman; Robert Hitchens, Quartermaster; William Lucas, A.B.; and Frederick Barrett, Leading Stoker.
Beauchamp (Boat No.13-starboard).
There were further attempts by solicitors of individuals to enter the Court, but Lord Mersey only agreed to representation by spokesmen for complete classes of passenger to avoid confusion.
Evidence of Frederick Barrett, Leading Stoker (continued), Reginald R. Lee, A.B., Lookout Man, John Poigndestre, A.B., and James Johnson, Steward.
This page was prepared with editorial assistance from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic', and from Ernest Robinson, maritime historian.
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Monument to William McMaster Murdoch on Dalbeattie Town Hall
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