Dalbeattie Town History

Murdoch of the 'Titanic'

3 : RMS 'Titanic'

The recent release in the United Kingdom of the film 'Titanic' has yet again brought the actions of her crew under public scrutiny. This has also perpetuated myths about the principal officers such as Captain Edward John Smith and his First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The film incorrectly portrayed Murdoch as a man who committed suicide by shooting himself for being responsible for the collision. In fact, Murdoch lost his life trying to save as many passengers and crew as he could, and was probably dragged down by the ship as she sank.

This page of the Murdoch website examines the Royal Mail Ship 'Titanic' in context with her sister ships and operation up to the day of the collision.

This page is divided into two sections. This first section covers events from the inception of the 'Titanic' in 1907 to the night of the 9th April 1912. The second section covers events aboard up to the night of 13/14th April 1912.

The Royal Mail Ship 'Titanic' :

During the Nineteenth Century, developments in marine engineering and transatlantic passenger traffic lead to the development of the multiple screw fast passenger liner. For the first time in history, a routine service of coal-fired and steam-powered fast ships could run between Europe and America. The 'Titanic' was just the latest and fastest in the competition for rapid and luxurious travel, and it incorporated the new features of compound reciprocating steam engines and water-tight compartments. The experiments of Guglielmo Marconi had transmitted messages across the Atlantic, so the 'Marconi Room', 'wireless room', or 'radio room' was to be a feature of the ship.

Birth of the 'Titanic'

During 1907, J. Bruce Ismay and William J. Pirrie met to discuss the building of the 'Olympic' class of 46,000 - 52,000 tonnes displacement. The first ship was named 'Olympic', in reference to the home of the Greek Gods. The idea was to break the Cunard dominance of the North Atlantic liner traffic, and attract wealthy (mostly American) passengers to a fast and opulent new vessel. The concept was approved on 29th July 1907 by the Directors of the now American-controlled White Star company. The contract was signed two days later for two vessels, with a third, provisionally named 'Galactic' or 'Gigantic', (eventually launched as 'Britannic') to be built later.

Overseeing the new class was to be Thomas Andrews, the nephew of William J. Pirrie, and the work was to be carried out by Pirrie's Belfast yard of Harland & Wolff. The actual designer of the 'Titanic' was Alexander Carlisle, who left Harland & Wolff by the January of 1912.

Design and Construction

Both ships were to be the same size, - 882 feet and 9 inches long, by a maximum 94 feet beam and 100 feet high from keel-plate to bridge-level. The funnels stood 73 feet above the boat deck. Each ship was an incredible technical achievement, at the limits of the available technology. 'Titanic' was built with 29 boilers, 159 furnaces and four funnels, to develop 46,000 horsepower to her three propellors. In theory, she was capable of 24 knots, a speed she never reached, although 'Olympic' did so covertly on her maiden voyage. A high-speed run had been planned for the morning of the 15th April, probably to give an impressive approach to New York.

The 'Olympic' class were so large that new docks had to be built in Southampton and New York to accommodate them. Harland & Wolff also had to construct new building and launching slipways and gantry cranes. This added to the expense, the bill coming to £ 1,500,000 Pounds Sterling, or $ 7,500,000 US Dollars. The bill would apparently have been higher, except for the New York authorities having to pay for the pier to accommodate the new super-liners.

By 16th December 1908, the first slipway was ready for Yard Number 400, the 'Olympic', Yard Number 401 - 'Titanic' - following on 31st March 1908. One might say that 'Titanic' only just missed being laid down on All Fools' Day, which would have been morbidly appropriate.

Reflecting the hard-driven Harland & Wolff way, within twenty-two months the 'Olympic' had been launched, and then spent eight months being fitted out. Her maiden voyage was in June 1911. 'Titanic' spent twenty-five months on the ways, being launched on 31st May 1911. Although she was fitted out in more opulence than the 'Olympic', - and was thus a heavier ship, - one might have expected the second ship to have been built faster using the experience from building 'Olympic'. As it was, she spent not eight months fitting-out, but ten months, partly due to the 'Olympic' having to be repaired after her collision with H.M.S. 'Hawke'.

Safety, the Lifeboats, and the Bulkheads

It is often forgotten that the Board of Trade Regulations were such that a ship of the size of 'Olympic' or 'Titanic' was not intended to need as many lifeboats as she carried. At 20 lifeboats (16 rigid, 4 collapsible), she was 10% above the requirements. Her designer, Alexander Carlisle, had originally called for nests of three lifeboats at each of the 16 sets of davits, providing for 48 lifeboats, - enough to have held all of her crew and passengers. The Welin davits were a modern type, later to be praised by William Murdoch in his letters.

Unfortunately, the White Star board (maybe driven by J. Bruce Ismay) thought that the extra lifeboats would 'clutter' the Boat Deck, and refused to fit them to improve the promenade for passengers. The extra (and heavy) First Class suites and general opulence that attracted wealthy passengers were possibly paid for by shorting other considerations. As against that, the ship was provided with a new design of cork-filled canvas lifejacket for all aboard.

Much was made in the press (although not, admittedly, by senior officers), of the system of fifteen watertight bulkheads that divided the ship into seventeen compartments. Doors controlled from the bridge were designed to drop shut in a matter of seconds, although these features were only fitted to the lowest decks, and the ship had no watertight decks and hatchcovers. These new features, with the double hull, added to the ship's resistance to sinking. No compartment could be made airtight, as the bulkheads did not extend to the full height of the hull, a matter that was not widely known and which may have lead to overconfidence.

The ship could handle flooding in any two watertight compartments, but the filling of from three to five of the seventeen main compartments would infallibly sink the ship. With more than two compartments flooded, the ship would be so low in the water that the flooded compartments would fill as high as 'E' deck, then allow water to break through the decks and up companionways (stairways), to spill into adjacent compartments. The kind of damage ultimately suffered by 'Titanic' was to fill five compartments within half an hour, so it is a tribute to Carlisle, Andrews, Harland & Wolff and the ship's engineering staff, that she was kept afloat for two and a half hours. Carlisle and Andrews must have been previously satisfied with the performance of 'Olympic'; she steamed to port with two of her stern watertight compartments breached by HMS 'Hawke'.

As well as being a good officer in other ways, Murdoch seems to have been interested in the new lifeboats and their Welin davits, which replaced a more cumbersome design. Whether he was aware that the boat-deck should have had 64 lifeboats, rather than the modest 20, is not clear to the writer. The new collapsible lifeboats had never been used operationally, but they were to prove their worth (and their weight, unfortunately) during the sinking of the 'Titanic'. Murdoch appears to have been interested by the operation of the new watertight bulkhead automatic doors, as his actions later showed. Collision was a risk that he must have kept in his mind after the 'Arabic' incident and the HMS 'Hawke'.

Working Up and Sea Trials

The engineering staff were aboard the 'Titanic' whilst she was still fitting out, from early March to her departure on 2nd April 1912. They did test the lifeboats and davits on 25th March as was required by law, and appear to have run their side of the ship's operation with efficiency, keeping the pumps and generators going even on the verge of sinking.

Sea trials took no more than one day, - the 2nd April 1912, - delayed (again, from 1st April) due to 'high winds'. 'Titanic' was moved out into Belfast Lough by tugs, then went through tests of her equipment, including wireless. That she was able to test the wireless shows that Phillips and Bride, the two Marconi Company wireless operators, were already aboard. The ship had three power systems for its wireless, - batteries in the radio-room or 'Marconi room',- an emergency generator and the ship's lighting power system. This was quite an advanced concept for the time, as was the radio's then remarkable range of five hundred miles. In 1998, used as we are to radio systems of global range, it can be hard to understand that even the best systems in 1912 left a ship out of contact for most of her voyage.

The speed and handling trials included various turning and stop-start manoeuvers. The main stopping test involved running 'Full Ahead' at 20 knots then (presumably, after stopping and then reversing engine revolutions) 'Full Astern'. There was also a two-hour running test, in which 'Titanic' travelled for two hours at 20 knots (44 miles) out to sea, then returned in the same time. At this point it is worth mentioning that the ship had not yet been 'run in', so to go at a higher speed would have caused damage. There were suggestions at a later date that 'Titanic' had too short a rudder, so could not alter her course as rapidly as other ships, but this needs more research. 'Olympic' was to ram and sink a submarine after a torpedo-attack in 1918, which shows some manoeuverability.

The engines of 'Titanic' and her sister ships were a mixture of piston (reciprocating) and turbine engines. The port and starboard piston engines could exhaust their steam to the air or through a centrally-placed low-pressure turbine. In port and at low speeds, the turbine was disengaged, so that the ship operated on piston engines alone; run either together or separately, the piston engines could manoeuver the ship. Running the port engine full astern, and the starboard engine full ahead, was probably what was done to port the ship rapidly. At sea, the situation was different; both piston engines exhausted into the low-pressure turbine, giving additional speed. Whilst the piston engine on one side could be shut down and reversed, (as may have occurred during the iceberg collision), the turbine could not be swiftly reversed. This would reduce the ship's ability to steer at speed, a possible contribution to the disaster.

By about 6 p.m. she was back in Belfast Lough, sea trials complete, and left for Southampton by 8 p.m.

During the trials and the trip to Southampton, the White Star Line's Marine Superintendent, Captain Bartlett, commanded the ship, with Murdoch as Chief Officer, Lightoller as First Officer, and David Blair as Second Officer. Blair is important, - the lookouts' binoculars, normally stowed in a cabinet in the foremast crows' nest, either became faulty and needed repair, or were at risk of theft and stowed by Blair in his cabin. The replacement of Murdoch by Wilde meant that an officer was going to be 'beached', that is, left at Southampton. Blair may not have known that it was he who would be set ashore, as there were more junior officers aboard. Thus it may have been a complete accident that the only person who knew where the binoculars were, had been unable to tell another officer.

At the British Board of Trade Inquiry it was reported that binoculars were considered only to be of use after sighting another ship, and that the unaided eye was better for detection. Ernie Robinson and Samuel Scott Murdoch are of the opinion that the binoculars available to the lookouts were not the wide lensed 'night glasses', but were of a narrower lens, more suitable for use in daylight after a ship or other hazard had been spotted by eye. The only binoculars to hand would be two for officers of the watch on the bridge, and a third retained for use by harbour pilots. Smith does not appear to have even considered sending the pilot's set up to the crows' nest on the foremast.

3rd - 10th April : Preparation and Departure from Southampton

On arriving at Southampton, the 'Titanic' berthed at White Star's berth 44. The ship had to be coaled to near capacity for her transatlantic run, as she would burn up to 850 tons of steam-coal per day, and that was more difficult than usual. Due to a coal strike, White Star was forced to buy up coal in other ships' bunkers and transfer it to 'Titanic' by the sackload. This allowed the coal to dry out, resulting in a bunker fire in one of the forward boiler rooms; that fire was only dealt with by removing the coal and wetting it, a slow and dangerous job that was only finished early on the 14th April. However, the bunker fire was known to be out by the time of the collision, and is not thought to have made any contribution to the sinking.

Thomas Andrews, the Harland & Wolff representative, had remained aboard from Belfast to Southampton, together with eight of his men and assisted with preparations, right up to the time on the 10th April when the ship was due to leave Southampton. He was to sail aboard 'Titanic' with the eight Harland and Wolff engineers, appraising the ship's performance and making notes for future modifications. By all accounts, Andrews was a popular man, well liked by his men and by all ranks of crews that he worked with.

Testimony at the British Inquiry revealed that the full crew was only taken aboard at Southampton, many men being unused to White Star procedures and receiving little training in their lifeboat duties. This lead to an unfamiliarity with the ship that hindered good intentions in a crisis. Captain Smith and Chief Officer Wilde only came aboard the ship within twenty-four hours of her departure, which may have left far too little time for them to become aware of the lesser points of the ship. Bartlett and Murdoch would probably have been a better team for the maiden voyage.

Murdoch was able to take a few minutes off from the preparations to write a letter to his sister Margaret Elizabeth ('Peg') on the 8th April 1912. It shows a busy but generally happy man, dealing with manning, coaling and other problems. He was plainly confident of resuming his rank of Chief Officer once Smith had gone, on the basis of satisfaction with his own performance by the influential Marine Superintendent, Captain Bartlett.:-


At : Southampton.

April 8th 1912.

My Dear Peg,
We had Agnes's letter this morning & I was glad to hear that all was as usual in Dalbeattie & to know that you had arrived safely. What a journey you must have had, you surely would have to take lots of refreshments on the way. The weather is keeping very fine down here but today it is very windy.
I am still Chief Offr [Officer] until sailing day & then it looks as though I will have to step back, [to First Officer] so I am hoping that it will not be for long. The head Marine Supt. [Superintendent] from L'pool [Liverpool] seemed to be very favourably impressed & satisfied that everything went on A.1 [OK] & as much as promised that when Wilde goes I am to go up again.
The holidays are on down here & it takes me all my time to get men to work even at overtime rates but we are nearly ready for the road. I hope that you are having nice weather up north & that you will enjoy your holiday & have a quick journey to L'pool when you start again. It looks as if the strike will soon be over now. It must have caused lots of distress throughout the country.
Aid is on board just now, having a look through; one of the officers is taking her around. Glad to hear that there has been good news from the folks abroad. I think I must owe them all letters just at present.
Give my kind love to Mother, Father & Agnes & receipt some yourself. I will write from Queenstown to let you know how we are getting along, if only a post card. I hope Mother is not feeling her pains, irritation, etc. so much & that the milder weather is having a good effect on her, also that Father, Agnes & yourself are in real good form.
From :
yr. ever affect. brother,

Aid has just come into the room & sends fondest love to to all
Love again,

This revealing little letter shows that William could show concern for his family, even in the middle of the harassing tasks of finding men to move coal to the 'Titanic' and recruiting crew to run the ship. Ordinary seamen, stokers and stewards, were signed on by the trip, so 'Titanic' held a substantial number of men without knowledge of her layout. That, in a crisis, was to be fatal. Captain Bartlett could not give William any greater an assurance than the one he had given, a matter that must have been very pleasing to the now-retired Captain Samuel Murdoch.

The expression 'A.1' is short for 'A.1 at Lloyd's'. In other words, a first-class good-quality vessel in Lloyd's Register of Shipping. One of the lesser types would be 'AE' - third class at Lloyd's. The letter itself was written by Murdoch as a block of text, but has been paragraphed here for easier reading.

The new Chief Officer, Henry Tingle Wilde, arrived aboard ship sometime on the 9th April, after coaling, crew recruitment, cargo loading and loading of food supplies had already taken place. Wilde had apparently been posted as the next Captain for 'Oceanic', but she was tied up at Southampton due to the coal strike. David Blair must have found himself 'beached' at that point, the officers already on board having to move cabins to clear the first two for Wilde and Smith. The hypersensitive Lightoller at this time took receipt of the ship's officers' revolvers, which were to be stored in his cabin. Lightoller had already an intense dislike of Wilde, and the unfortunate Chief Officer's arrival after the work had been done, must have reinforced Lightoller's attitude. Murdoch, assured of Barrett's support, just carried on with his duties.

Forward to departure on 10th and events to 13/14th April 1912.

This page was prepared with editorial assistance from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic', and Mr. Ernest Robinson, maritime historian.

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