Dalbeattie Town History

Murdoch of the 'Titanic'

2. The Life of
William McMaster Murdoch

Lieutenant William
McMaster Murdoch, RNR.
c. 1907

Ada Florence Banks, 1907

Return to W.M. Murdoch's life 1873-1900

Return to W.M. Murdoch's life 1900-1907

"William Murdoch was our brightest star."

- Commodore Sir Bertram Hayes, White Star Line (retired 1925) Comment to Frederick Topping, former Vice-President and Director in New York. (Not mentioned in Hayes's book, as he had his pension from White Star to think of.)

Dalbeattie has been the birthplace of many seamen, few better known or more maligned than William McMaster Murdoch, First Officer (First Mate) of the RMS 'Titanic' of the White Star Line. A monument to this seaman is set in the granite walls of Dalbeattie Town Hall. It recalls his death aboard the 'Titanic' after she sank on 15th April 1912, having collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

In this third part of his life, we look at his service aboard the ships 'Adriatic' and 'Olympic' of the White Star Line and his marriage to Ada Florence Banks. In the final section, we consider the effects on Ada and the Murdoch family of his death on 'Titanic'.

The 'Adriatic' and Marriage to Ada : 1907-1911 :

(Picture of this ship being obtained)
RMS 'Adriatic' First Officer W.M. Murdoch c. 1910 Ada Florence Banks c. 1907

During the year of his marriage, and for four pleasant years afterwards, William Murdoch became First Officer of the last of the 'Big Four', from her maiden voyage onwards. At 24,500 tons, she was the largest ship he had been on, but her twin-screw engines only gave her a rated speed of 17 knots. The word was of the new steam turbines, whose effectiveness had been displayed by Charles Parson's 'Turbinia' in 1903. 'Adriatic' was approaching the limits of the steam piston engine with her quadruple-expansion engines. Driven fast and hard, she was worn out by 1934 and later scrapped.

Returning to his domestic life, Murdoch missed one voyage on 'Adriatic' so he could marry Ada on 2nd September 1907. The White Star Line had moved to Southampton to be convenient for the wealthy society travellers, who would board ship at Southampton or at Cherbourg in France. It was at St. Denys's Church in Southampton that the pair married, their residence then being a guesthouse at 'Oakfield', possibly a former estate gate lodge, at Manor Farm Road. The proprietors, William James Hannah and his wife Elizabeth Jane Hannah, were witnesses to the marriage.

St. Denys Church, Southampton 94, Belmont Road, Southampton

As William was at sea in the 'Adriatic' by 23rd September 1907, the honeymoon could not last for very long. The capable Ada may in fact have arranged the purchase of their home at 94, Belmont Road, Portswood, Southampton. This little semi is now re-numbered as No. 116, but it still survives. In 1908, the house was registered in Ada's name, but in 1909 it was registered under William's. Ada was 33 when she married, so children were increasingly unlikely; this does not seem to have troubled William, who called her his 'Aid' in his letters to his parents and sister. But she had been a very courageous woman in consenting to marry William, for they lived remote from both her family in New Zealand and his in Scotland. William and Ada seem to have been the world to one another, even despite William's continued affectionate letters to his sister 'Peg'. As 'Peg' and 'Aid' had found sisterly affection for one another, one may guess that William had brought Ada to see his family and that 'Peg' may have come by train to visit her sister-in-law.

In that day and age it was expected that a married woman should give up her employment to care for her husband and their family. It must be recalled that this duty was even less easy than it is today. There would have been no washing machine, no tumble-drier, no vacuum-cleaner, no freezer, and very few canned goods. Mass-produced clothing was at an early stage, so many women sewed their own at home, - on a treadle or hand sewing-machine, if they could afford that luxury. Being a good housewife called for some skill, even if the Murdochs could have afforded a servant or two. Ada was remarkable in that there are reports that she may have defied convention by continuing to work for a time as a teacher. William appears to have been content with this arrangement, - no doubt, because she had something for her energies whilst he was at sea, - but they appear to have been some decades in advance of their time.

William was to discover that marriage meant more than one change in his life, for by 1911 he was to lose the moustache that had decorated his upper lip for so many years. The waxed moustache of 1907 looks a bit more 'walrus' by 1911, and it was gone by the time his next picture was taken on the 'Olympic'. The writer sees the influence of Ada, having himself lost his own moustache by the will of his wife.

The 'Olympic' and Captain Smith : 1911

(Picture of this ship being obtained)
(Picture of Captain Smith being obtained)

The final stage of Murdoch's career can be said to have started in May 1911, when he joined the new 'Olympic', 45,000 tons, with an unusual mix of two triple-expansion piston-engines and a turbine, to drive her at a rated speed of 21 knots. Intended to outclass the Cunard ships in luxury and size, - if not in speed, - 'Olympic' needed the most experienced large-liner crew that the White Star Line could find. Captain Smith assembled a crew that included Henry Tingle Wilde as Chief Officer, William Murdoch as First Officer, and the Chief Purser Henry W. McElroy. On 14th June 1911, the big ship made her maiden voyage to New York, with the Director James Bruce Ismay on board. Also present was Thomas Andrews, taking time away from his duties building 'Titanic', to review the performance of the first in the new class of super-liners.

Because 'Olympic' was so big, - twice the tonnage of 'Adriatic', 'Celtic' or 'Cedric', nearly three times that of 'Oceanic', - Captain Smith appears to have handled her with care on leaving Southampton. He did put on speed towards the end of the voyage, by report reaching 24 knots. That was well above her rated speed, so 'Olympic' arrived early at New York. Ismay had a winner, the press had a field day. Murdoch settled calmly into his duties as her First Officer, content to be gaining yet more experience.

The Collision of 'Olympic' and the HMS 'Hawke' :

The first echoes of trouble occurred aboard 'Olympic' on her fifth voyage, whilst a pilot was taking 'Olympic' down the Solent past Cowes on her way to the Channel on 20th September 1911. HMS 'Hawke' was sailing parallel to 'Olympic', then one of the two vessels changed course, dragging 'Hawke' into the wash of the huge liner. The stempost of the cruiser crashed against the starboard quarter of the 'Olympic', holing her above and below the water line. The Chief Officer (then on watch) was Henry Wilde; he and Captain Smith were cleared of blame, but the White Star Line insurers had to pay two-thirds of the costs to the Royal Navy of repairing the 'Hawke'. Initially, the White Star Line tried to blame the 'Hawke' for ramming 'Olympic', but water-tank tests with scale models revealed the truth. At a high enough speed, the Bernoulli effect would tend to draw a considerably smaller or lighter vessel in towards the stern or quarter of the liner.

Murdoch found himself giving evidence, as his docking-station had been at the stern of the ship. His evidence was inconclusive, for whilst he was very precise, he did not volunteer any new information. As a matter of interest, Mr. Laing, who questioned him on behalf of White Star, was later to appear in the Board of Trade Inquiry on the 'Titanic'. Susanne Stormer considered that the answers to Admiralty's counsel Mr. Bateson showed too much self-assurance and the attitude of a hostile articulate witness. The writer suggests that it was more likely that he had been instructed by White Star's counsel to say as little as possible.

A key phrase in his testimony was that, when he heard two short blasts on the ship's whistle or siren, signalling a turn to port, he "looked to see what it was for". Susanne Stormer considers that this indicated a well-trained officer ready to take note of anything affecting the ship. What it also reveals was that he was attending to his duties in seeing that the mooring ropes, winches and other docking-tackle, were properly secured before the ship reached the open sea. In common with other large liners, the 'Olympic' had a rear steering-position that could be used whilst docking and in case of damage or fire to the main wheelhouse on the bridge. Murdoch thus had a highly responsible position.

Financially, the collision was a disaster for White Star, as the voyage to New York had to be abandoned and the 'Olympic' taken to Belfast for repairs. Those took a good six weeks, so William may have spent time ashore in Belfast or stayed with his wife in Southampton. He may have been unable to rejoin his ship before the Admiralty Court had made its decision, and the repaired 'Olympic' left for New York on 19th November 1911, - but commanded by Bertram Hayes, Murdoch's former superior from the old 'Arabic'. It was not until 11th December 1911 that Murdoch rejoined his ship, serving on her until sometime in March 1912.

In Dock Again : The Propellor and Grounding Incidents :

Smith was losing his grip, as two lesser incidents showed. Early in February 1912,'Olympic' struck a sunken wreck whilst three days out of New York. She arrived in Plymouth on 27th February and was forced to return to Belfast and be drydocked, this time for replacing a broken propellor-blade. She left Belfast on 4th March 1912, touched her bottom on a mudbank, and nearly ran aground.

Murdoch must have been relieved to reach Southampton. There, he learned that he had been appointed as Chief Officer of the new 'Titanic'. Lightoller later remarked that "three very contented chaps" headed north to Belfast, for he had been appointed First Officer, and their friend Davy Blair was to be the new second officer. Awaiting them would be an old 'Adriatic' hand, Joseph Groves Boxhall, as Fourth Officer, and others who would be old and familiar colleagues. Captain Bartlett, the senior shore captain and Marine Superintendent, would be taking them out of Belfast, but they were not yet sure of their eventual Captain for the maiden voyage to America. It might be Captain Bertram Hayes, likely to be a future Commodore, or it might be the ageing Edward John Smith, Commodore and on the verge of retirement.

Go to 'RMS Titanic' for the prelude to the disaster

The Effect of the 'Titanic' on the Murdoch Family

The Murdochs had already lost four of their menfolk to the sea within five years, so they knew that death was all too possible. The worst impact would be the allegations of murder, bribery and suicide. In that event, Charles Lightoller's letter must have been a relief for Ada and for her in-laws. William's elder sister 'Peg' kept a picture of Ada in her bedroom for many years, showing how close these sisters-in-law had become. Samuel Murdoch and his wife Jeannie, retired to Oakland Cottage, were to be supported magnificently by the local people.

Even before the Board of Trade Inquiry, the Town Council had looked at the evidence to hand, and the local paper had no doubt of the heroism of William. The Town Council held a meeting that decided to erect a memorial to William, even before the outcome of the Board of Trade Inquiry. The Minutes of the Meeting were to be published in the 'Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Advertiser' not long after Lightoller's letter. The Council was also to set up the Murdoch Memorial Prize fund paying £ 4 a year to the school as a prize for the best 14-year-old scholar, later the 'Junior Dux'.

Jeannie Murdoch, William's mother, died on the 20th January 1914, aged 75 years. Although she suffered from considerable illness in her later years, it is possible that the tragic loss of William was a factor in her decline. Samuel Murdoch died on the 6th March 1917 aged 75 years; it is interesting that he seems to have been three years younger than his wife, which maybe explains why there was no objection to William marrying Ada when she was 33.

Ada Florence Murdoch probably left Britain before the memorial was erected and stayed for a time in Brittany, possibly to try to overcome her anguish and to be close enough to deal with the sale of her house. The start of the First World War (Great War) in 1914 made Ada leave Brittany and settle in London, where she was visited by some of her New Zealand relatives who were on leave from the fighting in France. In 1918, Ada returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, dying on the 21st April 1941 aged 65 years.

To the day of her death, Ada remained bitter at the way in which the White Star Line had ignored her as William's widow. She never married again. She said to her family that her only disappointment in the marriage was that she and William had never had any children. Her love must have been abiding and very deep.

Lt. W.M.Murdoch
Memorial to
Lt. W.M.Murdoch (1998)
Ada Florence Murdoch
in later life

Screen Images : Portrayals or Betrayals ?

The recent release in the United Kingdom of the Cameron production of 'Titanic' has put before the public the remarkable construction of this ship and its still more incredible final resting place. It has yet again brought the actions of her crew under public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this has also perpetuated myths about the principal officers such as Captain Smith and his First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The film has incorrectly portrayed Murdoch as a man who committed suicide by shooting himself for being responsible for the collision. The writer trusts that this account will set set forth the truth about a very worthy seaman.

The Last Word... From Loreen Ridge Philyaw :

I felt that the following was a worthy epitaph to the man, so I have added it to the website. :-


It took years of effort
and training with the best on the sea
in both sail and modern steam
to make an officer of me.
Yet blistering hands among the ropes
was easier by far
than assuaging tempers of a crew, mid-ocean,
The war: A verbal spar.
Yes, it took much more training
developing inner strength
to be an officer for White Star
on a ship of such great length
and power, and breadth,
entrusted to the hands of men
who kept a level head.

You know the story, or all that matters,
and it disturbs my rest to see
good people tossing thorny insults when
they should agree to disagree
about the vaguaries of history and about the end of me!
I didn't know, nor could I guess
Such conflict would be
my legacy...
It was in the line of duty I gave
all that was mine to give:
my life...
For which I owe no apology.

Return to W.M. Murdoch's life 1873-1900

Return to W.M. Murdoch's life 1900-1907

This page was prepared with detailed assistance from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic'.

Back to Murdoch Homepage The White Star Line RMS Titanic Collision and Aftermath The Board of Enquiry


This Prize is competed for annually by Fourth-Year scholars at Dalbeattie High School.
The Murdoch website has been prepared because of that Memorial.
The fund supporting this Prize needs to be increased and the account has been reopened by the Board of Governors of the Stewartry Educational Trust.

To make a Donation to the official Memorial Prize.

In Memoriam

Monument to William McMaster Murdoch on Dalbeattie Town Hall

Enquiries about William McMaster Murdoch for Mr. S.S. Murdoch can be forwarded by e-mail through :-

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Murdoch site started 23rd January 1998,
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