The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

Dalbeattie Memorial

First Officer Murdoch's memorial
tablet in Dalbeattie, Scotland.
(Click to enlarge)


After Murdoch's death the Dalbeattie Town Council held a meeting that decided to erect a memorial to William, even before the outcome of the Board of Trade Inquiry. Additionally, the Council set up the Murdoch Memorial Prize fund paying £4 a year to the Dalbeattie school as a prize for the best 14-year-old scholar, later the ‘Junior Dux’.

The Dalbeattie memorial tablet reads:

"This tablet is erected to commemorate the heroism displayed by Lieut. William McMaster Murdoch R.N.R a native of Dalbeattie. When, on her maiden voyage, the R.M.S. Titanic of which he was first officer collided with an iceberg and sank and 815 of her passengers and 688 of her crew including Lieutenant Murdoch perished, 14th and 15th April, 1912. A memorial prize is also to be competed for annually in Dalbeattie Public School where Lieutenant Murdoch was educated."

Was Murdoch Religious?
Written By Ashleigh Luschei

On the night Titanic sank, religion and life after death was close to mind for many of her passengers and crew. For her first officer, God seems a complicated matter.

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Undated image of a
young William Murdoch

When William Murdoch’s brother James died of epilepsy in 1906 at only 39 years old – the same age William would be when he stood his fated watch on Titanic -- he was one of five male relatives to pass away in a span of two years. One of his uncles, Captain William Murdoch, had already died that year in a disaster at sea. The next year would see two more seafaring uncles perish in shipwreck--one who would be killed with his teenage son off the south coast of New Zealand.

James Murdoch’s funeral reveals how William Murdoch lived differently from us. At the time, funerals in southwest Scotland happened at the home of the deceased, according to ethnological archives from Dumfries and Galloway. (1.) The coffin was brought into the home under the cover of darkness; during the funeral, the minister led a service for the male family members and the congregation on the front doorstep while the women waited with the body inside. The body was then taken to the cemetery, privately and without fanfare.

Murdoch was working aboard Oceanic when his brother died and did not make it back home until after the funeral. It was November: the tragedy put a bitter end to a happy year for Murdoch, who had recently welcomed his fiancée Ada after several years apart.

James’ death was not the only tragedy that would soon strike the Murdoch family—not by a long shot. But in the winter of 1906, the family must have struggled to come to terms with so much misfortune in one year, leading naturally to questions of their beliefs around death, afterlife or divine punishment.

An undated postcard photograph of Dalbeattie's Established Church.

Religion in Dalbeattie

The southwest of Scotland had long gained a reputation for staunch, rebellious Presbyterianism—calling to mind Burns’ mockery of congregations dressed in “doleful black,” their “visage wither’d, lang an thin,” as they listened to the sermons that offered “nothing but tidings of damnation.”(2.)

However, the reality of William’s religious upbringing seems to be quite different. By the late nineteenth century, the changes ongoing within the Church of Scotland caused Murdoch to grow up in a town affected by schism. In a town of under five thousand people, Dalbeattie had seven different churches—four of those being independent Presbyterian “free churches” who had split from the Established Church.(3.)

Murdoch family grave stone
in the Dalbeattie cemetary.
(Click image to enlarge)

The divisions in faith present in Dalbeattie ultimately stemmed from two wider issues within the Kirk that had driven over a century and a half of schism. The first issue was about patronage, the privilege retained by town councils and landowners to appoint their own ministers to vacant parishes. British courts upheld this top-down tradition despite congregation members’ calls to pick their own ministers. In 1843, this tension culminated in a massive secession of one third of ministers and congregations from the Church – an event named, with classic Scottish understatement, as the Disruption.(4.)

When the Murdoch family moved to Dalbeattie in 1870, they joined the Established Church, a conventional choice that hints at their social ambitions. It also hints at the family’s moderate religious views for their era: the Kirk was softening its position on the unforgiving doctrine of predestination, still embraced by many evangelical churches in Scotland.(5.)

Furthermore, while all the Murdoch children were baptized, no other evidence exists to suggest the family was particularly religious. The family headstone in the Dalbeattie omits any hint of God, as does the memorial raised in Will’s name. In his three personal letters that survive, Murdoch himself never mentions a god—in contrast to his boss, Captain Smith, who often added an abbreviation of deo volente (“God willing”) to his private communications.

The Mackay quote written by Murdoch on the Medic menu in 1900 offers the rare direct glimpse into his thinking: “Whatever obstacles control, go on, true heart, thou'lt reach the goal." However, this quote does not suggest a religious meaning – if anything, it hints at a bit of romanticism in his nature.

A close up in colour of Murdoch's signature poem quotation,
courtesy of Senan Molony. (Click image to enlarge)

Of course, nothing conclusive can be drawn from such scarce evidence; what is left in the sieve after over a century has run through almost certainly offers a skewed portrait. Other explanations cannot be ruled out. Taken in context, however, suggests that, if religious, Murdoch was likely a moderate.

Whatever his views about religion, Murdoch was probably influenced by his minister, John Mackie. Educated at university in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Mackie led an adventurous life before coming to Dalbeattie. He had been abroad to Canada and the Caribbean; he had published an account of his adventures in 1891.(6.) A well-educated, charismatic and travelled man, Mackie was a likely influence on a young Murdoch, who was interested in adventure outside his small town.

Even outside his own congregation, Murdoch was known and well liked. After his death, the Rev. J. A. Paton of the United Free Church in Dalbeattie seconded the resolution for a memorial after his death. "He said he had always been struck with Mr Murdoch’s courteous, brave, and unassuming manner, and in commemorating his action on the night of the disaster they were honouring themselves and the community, as well as offering solace, comfort, and satisfaction to his grief-stricken relatives."

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Dalbeattie Parish Church, Craignair Street.
The Church of Scotland parish church for
Dalbeattie and Kirkgunzeon. Built between
1878 and 1880, it is a Category B listed
building. © Copyright Richard Sutcliffe and
licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
Licence. (Click image to enlarge)

What did Murdoch believe the night of the sinking? Did he think anything waited for him beyond death in the freezing water? If he did, did he believe himself damned? Would he have considered the sinking predestined by God?

Taken altogether, what little evidence survives struggles to provide a satisfying answer to any of these questions. We know that he was raised in the Kirk, but not whether he believed in its teaching. However, while it would be a mistake to take the absence of evidence as proof of Murdoch’s atheism, it is safe to conclude that Murdoch would have had a more moderate attitude toward religion than his grandfather or great-grandfather, considering the late Victorian shift to secular schools and increasing acceptance of scientific challenges to the literal veracity of the Bible.

Whatever he might have believed, his upbringing in the Kirk would have instilled the values of discipline, kindness and humility within him, as well as cool-headedness and rational thinking. Murdoch clearly lived by and embodied those values throughout his life, even to the very end.

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As Samuel and Jeannie Murdoch mourned the death of a second son in 1912, without a body to bury next to his brother, they doubtless felt the same despair as many families of seamen had for millennia --

“Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, HERE lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like [the families of seafarers]. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave. As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here.”(7.)

Murdoch’s family church, now known as Craignair Parish. Although refurbished in the twentieth century, the original stained-glass windows are still intact.



Article submitted by Ashleigh Luschei



References:

1. European Ethnological Research Centre, University of Edinburgh
2. Robert Burns’ The Holy Fair
3. Slaters’ Directory for Scotland 1886
4. “History” Church of Scotland
5. “Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,” Scottish Journal of Theology.
6. Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae; the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation, vol 2
7. Moby Dick.