1 : The White Star Line
Joseph Bruce Ismay
Captain Edward John Smith, RNR.
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 took bribes and 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.
In this section, the operational history of the White Star Line is examined, with a summary of the background to the 'Titanic'. A brief study of the safety record and the ships of the Line is given in a sub-page.
The White Star Line was founded by Henry Threlfall Wilson in 1850 during the era of sailing ships, trading mainly to southern Australia after gold was discovered there. The firm and rights to its name were bought from Wilson for just £ 1,000 by Thomas Henry Ismay in 1867, with a view to expanding into the incresingly-profitable transatlantic passenger trade. In 1869, he formed the 'Oceanic Steam Navigation Company' to start a high-quality steamer service from Liverpool to New York. Harland and Wolff of Belfast built his first steamships during the following two years.
Joseph Bruce Ismay became his father's partner in 1891, and in 1894 he first met William J. Pirrie (later, Lord Pirrie) who became the chairman of Harland and Wolff. J. Bruce Ismay became the Chairman of what was still called 'The White Star Line' in 1899, on his father's death. Ismay began almost immediately to expand the company's steamship services, buying in new ships from Pirrie. His new ships needed extra officers, and it is believed that William McMaster Murdoch was one of those recruited at that time.
Ismay may have left himself over-extended by his new investments, because in 1902 the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company were approached by the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC), lead by the American millionaire John Pierpoint Morgan. Morgan wanted to add control of the North Atlantic liner market to his control of American railways, and gave Ismay a Directorship on the IMMC board to do it.
An important point about this is that White Star Line ships still had British registration, flew the Red Ensign and were staffed by British officers, but the control was by and for American interests. Ismay's grand ambitions of seizing the Atlantic routes from government-sponsored Cunard were to be funded with American money. This was probably his biggest mistake, as he gradually lost control over the company his father had built. However, one of his fellow-directors was to be Lord Pirrie, whose Harland and Wolff shipyard was being developed into the exclusive provider of the large and opulent liners of the White Star Line. As Lord Mersey was to highlight during the British Board of Trade Inquiry, 'Titanic' was thus completely American-owned, as IMMC owned the capital assets of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. The ownership was at times manifested in the particularly ruthless strikebreaking practices White Star adopted in New York
Atlantic liners of that time competed fiercely for passengers, and a fast voyage, - ‘the schedule’ - was a company requirement. That meant pushing ships fast and hard through some of the toughest conditions in the world, - the storms, currents, fogs and ice of the North Atlantic. It is a grim truth that some liners ran down the fishing vessels off Newfoundland and carried on regardless. Rudyard Kipling, in his 'Captains Courageous' makes several references to this arrogance; the liners are seen as cutting through the small wooden fishing vessels and the fog of the Grand Banks, with icebergs looming through the mists. Fast sailing captains such as the ‘Storm King’ Edward John Smith of the White Star Line kept their reputations by driving their officers, men and ships to the limit. Not as fast as Cunard, White Star tried to provide the most luxurious liners on the North Atlantic run, trying to satisfy the demands of wealthy Americans for speed and comfort. As speed meant money, one could almost say that the liners were after a 'fast buck'.
The old sailing ships gave the name 'cracking on' to spreading too many sails in too strong a wind, in an attempt to get more speed out of the ship. This practice could rip the sails apart, or a sudden gust could dismast the ship. To old 'crackers-on' such as the 'Storm King' E.J. Smith, steam seemed to give them an unlimited power to outpace the schedules, despite the cost in coal and the risk of collision or shipwreck. Steam also allowed them to ignore most weather-conditions, the ships shouldering through waves which would have forced most ships to heave-to. Fog and ice warnings tended to be ignored, and anything other than really severe damage might not be written up in the ship’s log. The fear on many officers’ minds was of colliding with a ship going as fast, but in the opposite direction.
In justice to Captain Smith, he was not alone in his policy of sailing as fast as possible, whatever the conditions. The general rule amongst captains in dangerous conditions, was to get out of them as fast as possible and to rely upon good lookouts to warn of hazards ahead. Lookouts with good sight were in fact highly prized, but steamers were fast approaching the point at which reaction time to a lookout's message might become insufficient.
With an eerie foresight, an American author named Morgan Robertson had written a book on the consequences of operating such fast ships with such a disregard for safety. His novel 'Futility' had a British liner with too few lifeboats, colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. He came close to reality with descriptions of the speed and the size of the fictional liner, and the proportion of losses amongst rich and poor. The time of year and the name are the strangest of all, - April, and 'Titan'.
A rigid system of rank and discipline had emerged in the old sailing ships, mainly to deal with handling vessels in harsh conditions when a moment of weakness could lose a sail in a storm. There was also a fear of mutiny, piracy, of a breakdown of order in the face of a crisis, and that showed itself in a number of ways. The captain of a ship could marry people, but he was also entitled to use weapons to defend his ship from piracy or armed mutiny. Even now, most deep-sea ships carry an arms locker with sufficient sidearms to be issued to the ship's senior officers. Those on the 'Titanic' were brought aboard almost as an afterthought, as shall be seen.
Aboard the 'Titanic', the bridge officers were as follows :-
Supreme authority, naval or civil. Responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, for the proper efficiency of his junior officers and of his entire crew, and for the comfort and happiness of his passengers. The term 'Master' or 'Master Mariner' refers to a seaman who has his Master's 'Ticket' (Certificate) and has held command of a ship. Captain Bartlett was in charge of 'Titanic' during sea trials and as far as the journey down to Southampton. Captain Edward J. Smith, who took over then, had a reputation for being popular with his passengers. He set the course and decided upon the speed. Drowned (or possibly died from hypothermia) when the 'Titanic' went down.
The chief executive officer of the ship, often in charge of navigation but not replacing the supreme responsibility of the 'Master'. He is responsible for the smooth working of the ship and (in some ships) rarely stood watches. (i.e. had a period of duty on the bridge). Wilde did stand watches, Smith maybe taking him from the 'Olympic' for this reason. Probably drowned when the ship went down, but he may have been the officer who shot himself. Rather an enigma.
The senior watch-keeper or actual navigator of the ship, generally on watch at times when harbour duty or sea conditions may present a problem. William McMaster Murdoch, initially Chief Officer under Captain Bartlett, became First Officer when Captain Smith arrived with Chief Officer Wilde. As this history of his life will point out, drowned trying to launch Collapsible A. Unfortunately, portrayed in a few books and films as having shot himself, although eyewitness evidence is directly against this.
Originally Second Mate to Sixth Mate. Much the same responsibilities as the First Officer. One senior watch officer and one junior watch officer are usually on duty in each watch. May have special duties in a crisis, - for example, responsibility for one or more sets of lifeboats and davits. All watch officers are responsible to the Captain for their actions at sea, failure to follow orders can result in being 'beached' or dismissed.
The Watch Officers aboard 'Titanic' at Second Officer level or below were as follows :-
On watch before Murdoch. Remarkably successful at saving various lives, including his own (on Collapsible B) Later extensively questioned about 'Titanic'. Sailed own yacht 'Sundancer' to Dunkirk in 1940 to assist in evacuating troops. A most remarkable man, but hypersensitive and inclined to hyperbole. Frequently accused of covering-up White Star's faults. Very much a friend of Murdoch and had a dislike for Wilde.
Not on watch with Murdoch at the time of the collision. In charge of Boat No.5, on Murdoch's orders.
On watch with Murdoch. In charge of Boat No.2.
Asleep at time of collision. Later famous for discharging his pistol twice to prevent men jumping into Boat No. 7. In charge of Boat No.14, after debate with Moody. A remarkably courageous young man.
On watch with Murdoch at time of collision. Drowned as ship sank.
During the 'Titanic' collision Sixth Officer Moody was in the wheelhouse whilst his senior, - Murdoch, - was on the starboard-side open bridge.
Engineer Officers come under their own system, but this is broadly similar to that on the bridge. The Chief Engineer Joseph Bell went down with all his officers and most of his men. The writer feels that it is worth remembering that Thomas Andrews, the ship's builder, told Smith that he thought the ship would go down in an hour. It is a testimony to Bell and his men that she was kept afloat for over two hours and forty minutes, her generators lighting the ship until the end. He and his men deserve their Southampton memorial.
White Star Line was not unusual in having a record for many collisions and runnings-aground. In the pre-radar days, with celestial navigation to set a course, a cloudy sky could prevent accurate navigation. This was not too serious for relatively slow-moving sailing ships, able to sail at about 12 to 18 knots ('Lightning', 1854), for as long as the wind was strong enough. The change to steam meant that a high speed of 20 to 26 knots ('Mauretania', 1907), could be maintained throughout the voyage, but that increased the risk of navigational errors. The problems occurred with Captains who 'cracked on' in unsuitable waters or amongst other shipping.
Details of White Star's mishaps are given in Steamships of the White Star Line, 1863-1912
Captain Smith had joined the White Star Line in 1882, after a career in sailing ships, and his reputation and luck in fast sailing was to remain largely unblemished until 1911. The maiden voyage of the 'Olympic' began on 31st May 1911, and was successfully completed in under the scheduled time. From a remark of Smith that he knew she was able to do 24 knots, he must have driven her at that speed for at least part of the voyage. Company policy was for moderate speed and maximum comfort, but Smith seems to have been a bit like a young man with a new sports car, with no police in sight. Naturally, his passengers liked an early arrival, which may account for part of some preferring to sail aboard liners he commanded. However, his luck and judgement were starting to desert that ageing seaman, and his last year and a half were marked with a series of embarrassing collisions.
The first collision involved the 'Olympic' and the light cruiser 'HMS Hawke'. That accident put 'Olympic' into the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast for repairs, delaying the fitting out of the 'Titanic'. The second accident occurred when Smith took the repaired 'Olympic' over a submerged wreck off the American coast, and broke a propellor-blade. Back to Belfast yet again, with Smith maybe well aware that his retirement would be that year. He was under pressure to redeem his reputation in the face of losses to White Star, a factor which may explain his subsequent actions.
The 'Titanic' and her loss are examined in the 'Titanic' and 'Collision and Aftermath' sections of this website.
Although not directly blamed for the unsafe speed of the 'Titanic', Ismay was considered to have committed the social solecism of bad 'form' in not staying on the ship until she sank. By the end of 1913 he had been forced to retire from the board of the IMMC and of Oceanic Steam Navigation, living the rest of his life out of the public eye.
The findings of the enquiry and its recommendations about lifeboat provision were rather overtaken by events. The start of the 1914-1918 First World War (Great War) saw White Star still dragging its feet about implementing all the safety requirements, for example those about lifeboat drill. 'Olympic' had spent from 1912 into 1913 at the Harland and Woolff yard in Belfast, having her double bottom extended up her sides and the bulkheads raised to well-deck level. Although not unsinkable, she was probably the best compartmented hull afloat until she was scrapped, and remained the largest liner in deadweight tonnage until the launch of the Cunarder 'Queen Mary'. Belatedly, she was also well-provided with lifeboats.
Ironically, 'Olympic' was to gain the reputation of 'Old Reliable', and was in service up to 1925. During the 1914-1918 Great War she was employed by the Admiralty as a fast troopship and auxiliary cruiser, armed with four 6-inch guns. Dazzling yellow, red and white camouflage patterns were painted upon her, to confuse the German U-boats and spoil their aim when using torpedoes. 'Olympic' is shown as having a full complement of lifeboats - and packed with soldiers, - when acting as a transatlantic troopship. As such, she was an attractive target for German submarines, and evaded torpedo-attacks four times. Under Captain Bertram Hayes, the last White Star Commodore, 'Olympic' performed one of the most incredible actions of the Great War. The German submarine UB-103 was on the surface in the English Channel when she tried to torpedo 'Olympic'. Hayes avoided the torpedo by a rapid turn, then rammed the submarine and sank it. The German crew were recovered by two of the lifeboats on 'Olympic' and by an American destroyer.
This incident is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least that the shrewd Hayes had turned 'Olympic' sharply. To do this, he must have run one of the main engines full astern, the other full ahead, assisting the rudder. That this was not done with the 'Titanic' at the time of collision is the only omission that might be levelled at Murdoch, but it is possible that he had far too little time.
RMS 'Britannic', third of the 'Olympic' class, was finally launched on 26th February 1914, with some of the largest lifeboat davits ever fitted to a liner. She was adapted and put into service on 12th December 1915 as a hospital ship in the Eastern Mediterranean, under the command of that remarkable man, Captain Bartlett. When 'Britannic' struck a mine in the Kea Channel, Bartlett tried to beach on Kea Island but she sank within an hour. Only 30 of her 1,100 passengers and crew were lost, most (according to the memoirs of the Stewardess Violet Jessup) when lifeboats being launched were sucked into her propellors and shredded. This remarkable contrast with the 'Titanic' should take into consideration the fact that Mediterranean waters are much warmer than the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and that 'Britannic' was carrying barely half of her peacetime capacity. As against that, Bartlett was probably the best Captain that the White Star Line had, in his efficiency maybe better than Captain Hayes.
'Olympic' resumed her reliable career in July 1920, and for fourteen more years transported people across the Atlantic. But she still had a new blot to add to her reputation. On 15th May 1934 she rammed and sank the Nantucket light vessel, seven out of its eleven crew being drowned. She maintained a reputation for gracious living right up to the end. When she was finally scrapped in March 1935, much of her remarkable luxury interior was removed and sold. That timberwork is almost as close as one can get to the luxury of the 'Olympic' class as first designed.
The decline of White Star had lead to its sale in 1925 by IMMC to British interests, but this did not halt the rot. The British government finally agreed to rescue White Star from its position, but at the cost of takeover by Cunard in 1934. The name 'Cunard White Star' was to carry on until 1938, when it was to disappear. 'Olympic' herself was thus scrapped by Cunard, but she was ageing in any case. Significantly, the rampant lion flag of Cunard was hoisted above the White Star pennant, much as the White Ensign was once hoisted above the ensign of a captured enemy.
Joseph Bruce Ismay had retired in June 1913 from the board of the International Mercantile Marine, but his loss of reputation over the 'Titanic' was to keep him in retirement. The Board of Trade Inquiry had acquitted him of influence and cowardice, but it had not dispelled the feelings of the country that he had shown 'bad form' by leaving 'Titanic' ahead of other passengers. He died in 1937, apparently unable to reconcile himself to events, and unwilling ever to have 'Titanic' spoken of in his presence. The gradual decline of the White Star Line must have been a harsh reminder of his own position.
1938 : The Cunard White Star Insignia
And yet, the 'Titanic' still lives on. The tender 'Nomadic' was built at the Harland & Wolff yard at Belfast to act as Cherbourg tender to the old 'Olympic' class. Later re-named 'Ingenieure Minard', the 'Nomadic' is moored in the middle of Paris as a floating restaurant, - a fitting tribute to luxury and maritime history. The writer would be grateful for a current picture of her, to add to this site.
This website has been prepared with information and editorial assistance from Ernest Robinson, the maritime historian, and Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic'.
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Monument to William McMaster Murdoch on Dalbeattie Town Hall
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