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.
Captain Edward John Smith finally arrived at 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the sailing, to meet his new officers and to receive the sailing report from Chief Officer Wilde. He will have remembered Murdoch and Lightoller from the 'Oceanic' and 'Adriatic', but the writer is not sure whether the other senior deck officers, - Pitman, Boxhall, Lowe and Moody, - were as well known to him. The old hands in the crew had become used to seeing and to referring to Murdoch as 'the Chief', and this would have been passed on to the new hands. In the same way as the shipbuilder Thomas Andrews, Murdoch was a general favourite and would have been seen around the ship in the previous week. Smith would have been respected, - possibly even feared for his authority, - so Wilde was in real danger of being seen as no more than an appendage of Smith's. This is probably unfair on Wilde, who would have been content to remain aboard 'Olympic' as Chief Officer under Captain Haddock.
At 8:00 a.m. the entire crew were mustered aboard 'Titanic', and there was a brief demonstration of lifeboat drill with starboard boats 11 and 15. This made various levels of impression; some old hands checked carefully where they would have to go in a crisis, but most regarded it with the same apathy as any other piece of administration. For stewards and stokers, their daily duties were of immediate importance, and each group tended to stay within its own area of the ship.
The same was true of the second and third class passengers, most of whom arrived between 9;30 and 11:00 a.m. by train at the station beside the quay. The polite but firm neatly-dressed figures of stewards would have guided the passengers towards their quarters, discouraging crossing of barriers between one class of accommodation and another. That was simply the manner of the time, without any deliberate class-consciousness, and the ship's size in any case provided its own separation. A full lifeboat-drill would have been the only time when all would mingle, and only then would there be free movement towards the boat-deck. Unfamiliarity aboard any ship is a potential killer in a crisis.
Recent information has shown that, in fact, third class passengers were physically separated from Second and First Class passenger areas by folding and locked metal gates. This was not a class distinction, but a requirement of the United States Custom and Immigration Service. Their fear was that the largely one-way immigrants would enter areas where they could simply leave the ship down the gangways at the pier. All immigrants were supposed to be landed at Ellis Island to have their papers and health checked. Anybody with a congenital illness would be forced to return to the port from which they had sailed. This fact is often conveniently forgotten; one survivor has recorded that 'Carpathia' unloaded the rescued survivors without Ellis Island clearance, - one of the few occasions when this immigration requirement was waived.
Although the vast mass of second and third passengers provided the bulk of the financial cake, the marzipan and icing was definitely the first-class passengers. Impressing the Astors, Guggenheim, the Duff-Gordons, and others like them, would provide an income out of proportion to the cost of catering to their whims. There was also the knock-on effect that 'sailing with the nobs' would give to those aboard as second and third class passengers, in encouraging them to put their fares down for White Star rather than its rivals.
Although a lot of attention has been paid to passengers, both rich and poor, the key passenger aboard was definitely Joseph Bruce Ismay. He arrived in his chauffeur-driven Daimler with his wife and children, who were soon to go on a Welsh holiday. Ismay naturally wanted to attend the triumph of his latest acquisition for the Line, as he had done with her sister-ship. In the Board of Trade Inquiry he later claimed that he was 'just an ordinary passenger', a crass remark in view of his free travel in one of the most expensive suites aboard. The British and American Inquiries were not impressed by this, or by much of his subsequent conduct aboard 'Titanic'
Whilst many thousands were there to see 'Titanic' off, they did not expect to witness a near-disaster within minutes of her sailing at mid-day. A dozen tugs were needed to nurse the liner out into the channel of the River Test, the operation being overseen by the harbour pilot under the no-doubt quietly-anxious eyes of Captain Smith. Once the tugs had cast off, the 'Titanic' increased power to her propellors and surged forwards. Unfortunately, the pilot, - no doubt used to rather smaller ships than the new super-liner, - took her too close to the quays where two other White Star Line liners were moored side-by-side. 'New York' had been moored alongside 'Oceanic' until the end of the coal strike, immobilised by a lack of fuel. She was held in place by six six-inch mooring ropes.
In photographs and accounts, it is evident that 'Titanic' was in the normal channel, so 'New York' was in an unusual position. The surge caused by the bow-wave of 'Titanic' made the two other liners 'range', that is, rise and fall, so that the 'New York' broke adrift and was dragged towards 'Titanic'. It is reported that Captain Smith ordered more revolutions on the port engine, the wash pushing 'New York' clear by a meagre four feet, then reversed his ship to swing clear. The tug 'Vulcan' reached the 'New York' and managed to take a line from her, moving the helpless ship away to an empty berth. Delayed for an hour, the 'Titanic' resumed her passage to sea.
As First Officer, it is probable that Murdoch was seeing to his harbour duties at the after steering-position (docking bridge) of the 'Titanic', and would have been the nearest officer to see the 'New York' as she broke her moorings. The docking bridge had its own wheel and engine-room telegraphs, so Murdoch could in theory have ordered more revolutions on the portside engines. Being on the bridge on this occasion, Captain Smith would have probably taken responsibility for this manifestly successful manoeuver. As on the 'Arabic', Murdoch might have kept his own part quiet for the good of White Star, although simple pride may have lead to his alluding to the incident in his last letter to his parents (given below). However, the writer has no hard evidence to support this hypothesis.
Arrangements in Cherbourg were a miniature version of those at Southampton, the boat-train from Paris arriving at 4:00 p.m., to board the tenders 'Nomadic' and 'Gallic' late at 5:30 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., 'Titanic' had arrived in Cherbourg harbour and anchored there, whilst cargo and 22 passengers were unloaded. Those 274 passengers waiting to embark from the tenders were finally able to board by 8:00 p.m., then 'Titanic' raised anchor, and by 8:10 p.m. was on her way northwestwards around Land's End towards Queenstown.
In a sinister twist, at about this time the Fench liner 'Niagara' struck ice and buckled plates below the waterline, transmitting a distress call (CQD) until it became clear that the damage was not lethal. She was to reach port unassisted. She was the first of a string of collisions during the next few days.
The speed of the new liners shows itself in the fact that 'Titanic' was to arrive at Queenstown in southern Ireland (now Eire) by 11:30 a.m. next day. Possibly troubled by the ship's handling in Southampton, Captain Smith took the opportunity to test the ship's manoeuvering with some practice turns. The coal bunker fire had been discovered by now, and was being wetted-down and removed. Whether James Bruce Ismay had been discussing the events of the previous day with Smith is not certain, but he was certainly reported as discussing her speed later on.
Unable to berth at Queenstown,'Titanic' had to anchor off Roche Point, two miles offshore, as she had anchored off Cherbourg. She took on 113 third-class and 7 second-class passengers and 1,385 bags of mail from the paddle-steamers 'Ireland' and 'America'. This highlights the function of the pairs of shell doors or gangways set in the sides of the hull at 'D' Deck level below the bridge and just forwards of the after well-deck on each side of the ship. These would have had their own watertight doors, and were a way in which the passengers could embark or disembark to shore piers, the tenders, or, - in a light swell, - into lifeboats.
A Catholic student priest, Matthew Browne, was with the six members of the O'Dell family when they disembarked at Queenstown for an Irish holiday. The O'Dell's photograph album preserved the last photographs taken aboard 'Titanic', and may also have held the last pictures taken of her steaming west towards disaster.
William Murdoch had taken time from his duties to write a second letter to his family, this time to his parents. Its importance lies in his brief reference to the 'New York' incident, as indicated, probably witnessed at first hand from the aft docking bridge. What is also interesting is the reference to holding the speed down to 19 or 20 knots. As the coal strike had reduced the fuel stocks,'Titanic' had taken on less fuel than intended. :-
SS : 'Titanic'
At : Near Queenstown
Thurs. April 11th 1912
My dear Father & Mother,
Only a short note to let you know that we are this length [of the voyage] alright. We have had clear & squally weather ever since we left and it looks very well now.
As we were leaving Southampton & passing the Oceanic & New York which were moored alongside each other, they ranged so much that the New York broke adrift & it was only very narrowly that we escaped doing both she and ourselves serious damage, however we did not touch her & I don't think either New York or Oceanic has any damage at all.
I left Ada quite well yesterday morning. We had Margaret's letter on Tuesday [9th April 1912] & were glad to hear how you all were.
We are getting things fairly straight now, but owing to this Coal Strike we are only going at 19 or 20 knots per hour.
I sincerely hope that you are both keeping very well & you Mother having a much easier time with your trouble. I also hope that Agnes and Margaret are in particularly good form. With fondest love to all & looking forward to hearing from some one of you at Q'town [Queenstown].
your ever affect. [affectionate] son
The writer has been unable to copy this and the previous letters (which are in a bank), but was able to transcribe the letters from accurate photocopies. If permission is granted, scanned images of the photocopies will be placed on this site later in the year.
It is interesting that William Murdoch alludes to the lack of coal being responsible for a reduction in speed. Presumably speed was to be increased later, once the bulk of the voyage was over.
By 1:30 p.m., the tenders had left, and 'Titanic' raised her starboard bow anchor for the last time. It was only to touch the mud when her bow plunged into the sea-floor at about 3 a.m. on the 15th April 1912. The ship headed westwards, under clearing weather, the passengers at ease on the newest liner afloat. In all, between 2,207 and 2,227 people were aboard her, there being some discrepancies in the passenger manifests. From then up till noon on the 12th, the 'Titanic' was to cover 386 sea-miles.
Progress remained steady, at 519 sea-miles to noon on the 13th, in continuing fine weather, the only outstanding problem being the bunker-fire that was still burning. There had already been significant reports and even some mild collisions in the ice fields, which were further south than usual due to a hard winter.
Elizabeth Gibbons, in her 'To the Bitter End', comments that several ships had already suffered ice-damage, the 'Niagara' already referred to on the 10th April. On the 12th, the Allen company liner 'Corsican' struck an iceberg and was forced to divert to St. John's, Newfoundland, reaching there on the 14th. There is no evidence that the 'Titanic' was aware of either of these two collisions.
By 10:30 p.m. on Saturday 13th, the ice reports were becoming more serious, with the Furness Withay company's liner SS 'Rappahannock' sending a message of an extensive ice field that caused extensive damage to her rudder and bottom. Her Chief Officer Albert E. Smith reported that the ship had been 'dead slow', but the impacts had still been serious. The ice had taken its first victims, and 'Titanic' was only a day's steaming from the danger area.
For Murdoch and the other officers, maybe the most serious consideration in the approach of the 'Rappahannock' was that this other, large, fast ship, had come so close that it could send warning messages in Morse by way of its Aldis lamp. 'Rappahannock' had been hidden by a rain-squall, before emerging abeam of the 'Titanic' and in easy signalling-distance. Collision with another ship was the greatest hazard to be feared so far from land. Being damaged, the eastbound 'Rappahannock' had taken the risk of entering the more northerly sea-lane used mainly by westbound liners on their way to America.
The engineering of 'Titanic' was a remarkable success, as has been shown, and her performance was impressive. However, the sacrifice of safe navigation to a high speed was something that endangered the ship. Captain Smith had already gained an unpleasant record over the H.M.S. 'Hawke', had very nearly caused a collision leaving Southampton, and was proceeding with a burning coal bunker. His bridge officers were under considerable pressure from their Captain and from the company, and were all too aware that the Director James Bruce Ismay was watching their performance. In the crows' nest, the lookouts were having to strain their eyes to keep up a good watch, deprived of the vital binoculars. A fast-moving ship with an ageing Captain, was sailing with an inadequate watch and a newly-recruited crew still only partially familiar with her structural layout and handling characteristics. Captain Smith had received reports of ice, but thus far had seen no reason to reduce the speed of his ship.
Events on the 14th April are so significant that they are covered in the next section in greater detail.
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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