Chief Officer Wilde
Much to their disappointment, Murdoch and Lightoller had to step down from their respective roles as Chief Officer and First Officer to make way for Wilde to take up the role as Chief Officer as he had been on the Olympic. In his book Lightoller describes how this happened:
"Unfortunately whilst in Southampton, we had a reshuffle amongst the Senior Officers. Owing to the Olympic being laid up, the ruling lights of the White Star Line thought it would be a good plan to send the Chief Officer ot the Olympic, just for the one voyage, as Chief Officer of the Titanic, to help, with his experience of her sister ship. This doubtful policy threw both Murdoch and me out of our stride; and, apart from the disappointment of having to step back in our rank, caused quite a little confusion Murdoch from Chief, took over my duties as First I stepped back on Blair's toes, as Second, and picked up the many threads of his job, whilst he - luckily for him as it turned out - was left behind. The other officers remained the same. However, a couple of days in Southampton saw each of us settled in our new positions and familiar with our duties." (47.)
This change was also disappointing for Wilde himself, as he was seemingly hoping for his own promotion to captain of a White Star vessel. In Lightoller's article from the Christian Science Sentinel (December 1912) this is referenced when he writes:
"Shortly before we sailed from Southampton, Wilde, who was formerly chief of the Olympic, and who was to have been given command of another of the White Star steamers, which, owing to the coal strike and other reasons was laid up, was sent for the time being to the Titanic as chief, Murdoch ranking back to first, myself to second, and Blair standing out for the voyage." Christian Science Sentinel (December 1912)
Additionally a letter from David Blair, originally assigned as Titanic's Second officer, dated 4th of April 1912 mentions "I shall have to step out to make room for [the] Chief officer of the Olympic who was going in command but so many ships laid up he will have to wait..." (On a Sea of Glass, p.58 (54.)). However the letter makes it unclear whether Blair was referring to Wilde being captain of the Olympic or whether it was another ship, which is more likely.
A Mr Smith, a manager of a New York club for mercantile mariners, wrote in April 1912 saying that Wilde "would have been Captain of the Cymric two trips ago, only the coal strike and the tying up of some of the ships altered the company's plans." ("Portbrush letter" by Senan Molony (8.))
Elizabeth Gibbon's also has evidence of possible captaincy:
"In the 1950s surviving friends of Wilde told Geoffrey Marcus, author of "The Maiden Voyage", that Wilde was only talked into accepting the last minute assignment by their insistence that this was a brilliant opportunity not to be declined. Wilde was evidently preparing for his own captaincy, but there was something much more serious than pique in his disquiet. Why Henry Wilde did not wish to serve as Chief Officer on the Titanic is not known. White Star would later insist that Smith wanted Wilde because of the later's experience with the giant liners, an explanation which explains nothing because it does not address the question of why Smith felt two experienced senior officers (Wilde and Murdoch) were obligatory for Titanic, when Haddock had just taken Olympic to sea with no experienced officer available except her Second Officer. The explanation has been proffered that Smith was going to take Titanic on the shorter northern route, the intention being to bring her into New York in the shortest time possible for a maiden voyage record, and preferred to have his two trusted officers from Olympic taking the night watches, when the risk was greatest." (55.)
Whether Wilde would have been Captain of previously mentioned Cymric has not been conclusively established. It may also have been the Oceanic. Richard Edkins, writing on his Murdoch Dalbeattie website, also references this:
"Probably Smith's wish to have his best men to hand, - resulted in Wilde taking over as Chief Officer of the 'Titanic'. There has been a claim that Smith's wife and Wilde's were close friends, so pressure from his young wife may have been there. As against that, Wilde did not really wish to go aboard 'Titanic', as he made clear in a letter posted from 'Titanic' at Queenstown."... One further possibility is that the White Star's Marine Superintendent, Captain Bartlett might have suspected that the ageing Smith's judgement was faulty, and allowed him the two experienced officers from 'Olympic' as an act of support ...Wilde was unhappy about being aboard 'Titanic', maybe because it meant the popular Murdoch had been set back, together with the now-annoyed former First Officer, Lightoller. For Wilde, it was a considerable comedown from the 'Oceanic' captaincy, though surely not significant to a confident seaman." (8.)
It is also worth noting that Wilde had quite possibly already been a captain prior to Titanic. Please note the image of Wilde's cap on the next page of this article. It is presently in the possession of his grandson, Chris Bayliss. The curious aspect is that the brim of the cap has oak leaves on it, which is what is used to indicate captain. This has caused some to speculate that prior to Titanic he was in fact captain. Susanne Störmer has apparantly stated that Wilde had temporarily been in command of a vessel, possibly a White Star Line cargo ship, based on information from Lloyd's Register of Captains in the Guildhall Library. Titanic researcher Gael Bordet also notes that he may have commanded the Mersey for a month in 1908; he did not receive his next command until 1911, which was the Zeeland. That command lasted about a month. However all of this inforamtion is presently speculation and subject to confirmation.
Edkins reference of a "claim that Smith's wife and Wilde's were close friends, so pressure from his young wife may have been there" seems to have arisen due to a letter dated 4th June 1915 to the Titanic Relief Fund in which it is mentioned that Captain Smith's widow was anxious about the welfare of Wilde's four children and wanted their allowance to be increased:
Mr. Allen had a personal interview with Mrs. Smith, the widow of Captain Smith, yesterday afternoon, who is anxious that you should be good enough to consider her claim that the allowance, in respect of the four children of Mr. Wilde the First Officer, should be reconsidered. I have no doubt the matter has been properly dealt with by your Committee, but shall be very glad if you will kindly send her a short report of what your Committee has done for them. Mrs. Smith's address is: The Nook, Runcolm, Cheshire.(1.)
There are quite a number of letters that Wilde wrote at the time of Titanic's voyage: he wrote to his daughter Jennie from Olympic on 30 March then on April 7th to his two nieces, on April 9th to the children's nurse, and then three letters on April 11th to his family and his sister.
On board "Olympic"
On April 7 he wrote as "Uncle Harry" to his two nieces "Norah and Edie" (their mother being his sister Ada, married to Owen Jones Williams) a letter which describes how busy he is, the doubt over his position aboard Titanic and how she is a "wonderful ship":
On board R.M.S. "Titanic"
This letter, on Titanic letterhead, was up for auction in March 2012 and expected to make £35,000. (source)
On April 9th, the day before Titanic set sail and the day he took up duties as the Chief Officer, he wrote to the "Nurse", the children's nanny.
On board "Titanic"
Then he wrote three letters that were posted while Titanic docked in Queenstown, Ireland, three days before the sinking:
On board R.M.S. "Titanic"
On board "Titanic"
In another letter written at the same time to his sister Ada, Wilde famously reveals his misgivings about the voyage, possibly after the near collision with the New York in their departure from Southampton. It also reveals an almost dramatic change as only days before he had described the ship to his sister's children as "wonderful". At present we do not have the full transcript other than the following oft-quoted line:
"I still don't like this ship... I have a queer feeling about it."
To view higher resolution images of some of these letters click on the images below:
- What Did Titanic's Officers Look Like?
- Rare letter from doomed Titanic’s Chief Officer goes up for auction
- William Murdoch: Titanic