The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Murdoch and Bruce Ismay

  • Bruce Ismay
    President of the White Star Line

    Although much was made of White Star Line President Bruce Ismay’s (above) departure from Titanic in Collapsible C, his work alongside Murdoch previous to this has generally been overlooked.

    In evidence on the first day of the United States Inquiry hearings, Mr. Alfred Crawford, a bedroom steward (who knew Murdoch “I have been with him on several ships”) recalls seeing Bruce Ismay and Murdoch working together to lower lifeboat No.5, which he said was “probably the third” to be lowered from this side: “Mr. Murdoch was running it through the blocks.”

    Later, Crawford described this in more detail: “I went on the starboard side to No.5 boat. I saw Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Ismay helping to get the passengers in. They were calling out and assisting all the women into the boat. Mr. Ismay stopped Mr. Murdoch from lowering the boat a bit because the after end was getting hung up. Mr. Murdoch called out to the aft man that was lowering the fall to lower away all the time, that he would beat him, and they lowered the boat to the water.”

    On Day 7 of the Inquiry, Mr. Edward Wheelton, 28, a first class steward, also relates: “We worked at No.7 and got her down, and then No.9. Mr. Murdoch was there, and Mr. Ismay stood up by all the boats I saw get away. I walked along when No.9 went, and Mr. Murdoch, the first officer, turned around. He sent the assistant second steward down to A deck, and he said to me, ‘You go, too.’ He got hold of me by the left arm and he said, ‘You go, too.’ We went down to A deck. Number 11 boat was hanging in the davits. We got into the boat. Mr. Murdoch shouted ‘Women and children first’. He was on the top deck then, standing by the taffrail. We loaded the boat with women and children, and took in a few of the crew… I shouted to Mr. Murdoch, ‘The boat is full, sir.’ He said, ‘All right’. He said, ‘Have you got your sailors in?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He told two sailors to jump into the boat.”

    When under questioning by Senator Newlands, Wheelton provided further insight into Ismay’s actions:

    Wheelton: They were lowering No.5 when I left to go to the storeroom, and I saw No.7 and No.9. I went away in No.11, sir.
    Newlands: What was Mr. Ismay doing?
    Wheelton: He was standing aft, sir (Mr. Murdoch was standing forward) and he was going like this (indicating), ‘Lower, lower, lower,’ lowering the boats.
    Newlands: Who was?
    Wheelton: Mr. Ismay, sir. He stood right by the davit with one hand on the davit and one hand in motion to the officer lowering.
    Newlands: Why was he motioning to the officer?
    Wheelton: That was to let him know how far he wanted him to go. If you are lowering cargo or anything else –stores or anything else- that motion of the hand means to lower, and if the man stops making that motion with his hand that means to stop lowering.
    Newlands: He was regulating the lowering down to the water?
    Wheelton: Yes.

    It is possible that Ismay’s assistance (others have termed it interference) was one reason why Murdoch allowed the President of the White Star Line to step into collapsible C -and into what was to be a life of criticism and suspicion?

No. 10 and the Collapsibles

1:50am: Lifeboat No.10

Time

Lifeboat

Occupants

Launched by

In charge

1:50am

No.10

57

Murdoch

Able Bodied Seaman Edward Buley


It now seems reasonably certain that at this point in the proceedings, with only the two collapsbles left on the starboard side, that Murdoch crosses over the port side to check on progress and assists with the loading of lifeboat no.10.

Able Seaman
Edward John Buley

This can be primarily based on the eyewitness evidence of Frank Evans and Edward Buley, both able seaman from Southampton, presented to the United States Inquiry on day seven. They refer to “Chief Officer Murdock” (Murdoch’s surname was almost always spelt incorrectly even years after the disaster) stating that he assisted with the loading of lifeboat No.10 on the port side. In the context of their evidence they seem to show no ignorance of details regarding Titanic and her crew. This is also verified by, Fourth Officer Boxhall who said he “saw Murdoch on the port side at times.”

Mr. Buley: “We lowered all the starboard boats and went over and done the same to the port boats. There was No.10 boat, and there was no one there, and the chief officer asked what I was, and I told him, and he said, ‘Jump in see if you can find another seaman to give you a hand.’ I found Evans, and we both got in the boat, and Chief Officer Murdock and Baker also was there. I think we were the last lifeboat to be lowered. We got away from the ship.”

Millvina Dean in her mother's arms
a few weeks after the disaster.

Mr. Evans: “We then lowered the starboard boats. After they had been lowered I went over to the port side and seen my own boat...Mr. Murdock was making them jump across into the boat…It was about two feet and a half, sir. He was making the women jump across and the children he was chucking across, along with the baker. He throwed them onto the women, and he was catching the children by their dresses and chuck them in…. One woman slipped and fell. Her heel must have caught on the rail of the deck, and she feel down and someone on the deck below caught her and pulled her up…[Murdock] compelled them to jump. He told them they must…One or two women refused in the first place, to jump; but after he told them, they finally went.” (25.)

Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the sinking who died aged 97 in 2009, was nine weeks old when she along with her mother, Georgetta, and two-year-old brother, Bert, survived by boarding lifeboat no.10. Her family had been traveling in third class to America.

2:00am: Collapsible C

Time

Lifeboat

Occupants

Launched by

In charge

2:00am

C

40

Murdoch/Wilde

Quartermaster George Rowe


Racing back to the forward part of the starboard boat deck, then prepares to lower a Englehardt collapsible lifeboat, consisting of a “flat wooden bottom and canvas side which could be raised and rigged to give a freeboard of around three feet”. (Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic and Britannic, p.310 (3.))

Collapsible C was to become a scene of high drama. One event involved pantryman Albert V. Pearcy who was ordered by Murdoch into the collapsible boat to take charge of two babies.

Attorney-General: When you got to the boat deck will you tell us what you saw?
Pearcey: I saw two babies on the deck; I picked them up in my arms and took them to the boat.
AG: Do you know what boat it was you took them to?
Pearcey: A collapsible boat.
AG: Was there any Officer there?
Pearcey: Yes.
AG: Who?
Pearcey: The Chief, Mr. Murdoch.
AG: Do you remember whether the collapsible was on the starboard or the port side?
Pearcey: On the starboard side.
AG: Did Mr. Murdoch give you any order?
Pearcey: Yes.
AG: What was it?
Pearcey: He told me to get inside with the babies and take charge of them.(25.)

It was also to become a scene of increasing panic.

“All the way forward, there was more trouble at Collapsible C, which had been fitted into the davits used by No. 1. A big mob pushed and shoved, trying to climb aboard. Two men dropped in. Purser Herbert McElroy fired twice in the air. Murdoch shouted, “Get out of this! Clear out of this!” Hugh Woolner and Bjornsrom Steffanson –attracted by the pistol flashes- rushed over to help. Yanking the culprits by arms, legs, anything, they cleared the boat. The loading continued.” (A Night to Remember, p.66 (20.))

On day ten of the United States Inquiry, Hugh Woolner, a first class passenger and “director of various companies” describes the incident:

“…. they got out a collapsible and hitched her onto the forward davits and filled that up, mostly with steerage woman and children…seemed to be quite full and was ready to be swung over the side, and was to be lowered away, I said to Steffanson: ‘there is nothing more for us to do here.’ Oh, no; something else happened while that boat was being loaded. There was a sort of a scramble on the starboard side, and I looked around and I saw two flashes of a pistol in the air…. I heard Mr. Murdock shouting out “Get out of this, clear out of this,” and that sort of thing, to a lot of men who were swarming into a boat on that side…it was a collapsible boat…on the starboard side.

“We went across there because we heard a certain kind of shouting going on, and just as we got around the corner I saw these two flashes of the pistol, and Steffanson and I went up to help to clear that boat of men who were climbing in, because there was a bunch of women –I think Italians and foreigners- who were standing on the outside of the crowd, unable to make their way toward the side of the boat…. so we helped the officer pull these men out, by their legs and anything we could get hold of…we pulled several each…I should think five or six. But they were really flying before Mr. Murdoch from inside of the boat at the time.” (25.)

As to the source of the gunfire, Senator Smith later pressed Woolner for further details.

Smith: Who fired those two shots, do you know?
Woolner: Mr. Murdoch, so far as I can tell.
Smith: Mr. Murdoch, the chief officer?
Woolner: Yes; he was the first officer, was he not?
Smith: You are quite certain it was not Mr. Lowe?
Woolner: I am pretty certain. I think I recognised the voice of Mr. Murdoch. (25.)

Some have thus attributed the gun fire to Murdoch, rather than Purser McElroy: “It is claimed that during its dramatic launch, the collapsible was rushed by several men, causing an officer, possibly Murdoch, to fire three warning rounds with his revolver.” (Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic and Britannic p.335 (3.)) Either way, it had its desired effect, bringing assistance from various quarters to remove the interlopers.

White Star Line President
Bruce Ismay

But interestingly, only a short time after hastily removing these men, a man stepped aboard to become the most famous interloper of the entire Titanic tragedy. His name was J.Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, though officially a first class passenger. When no one responds to the call “Anymore women and children?” Ismay steps in as the boat is lowered. Richard Edkins writes that this occurred “in the presence of Murdoch, who stood and said nothing. He then gestured to the seamen and they continued to lower the boat. It is said that Ismay’s act cost him any sympathy and respect that he might have gained from assisting at the lifeboats. Whether Murdoch would have dared pull Ismay back on board is another matter; as Ismay was more than ‘just another passenger,’ Murdoch had little authority over Bruce Ismay.” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic (1.))

Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic and Britannic notes that Ismay “subsequently stated that he stepped aboard only because there were no other passengers waiting in the vicinity, while other witnesses claim that he pushed through a crowd of men in order to force himself aboard….” (p.310 (3.)). However, the latter claim seems unlikely, since most of the crowds had moved aft once it was realised that most of the forward boats had now gone (Also refer to Murdoch and Ismay on the left).

Nonetheless, Chief Officer Wilde and First Officer Murdoch ordered this boat lowered at 2:00am with Quartermaster Rowe in charge of some 40 occupants, many of whom were women passengers from third class. As the list to port grows, it is feared that the rivets on the side of the ship will damage the canvas-sided craft and hands and oars are used to push the boat away from the ship as it is lowered.

2.15am: Collapsible A

Time

Lifeboat

Occupants

Launched by

In charge

2:15am

A

12

Murdoch/Moody

-


At this point, exact details as to events become blurred by the chaos and confusion that occurs as the ship enters its final death throws. As Titanic tilts deeper into sea, water creeping up towards the forward boat deck, a group of men furiously wrestle with collapsible A, trying to lower it from a davit. Either during at collapsible C or A, Albert Victor Pearcey, testifying at the the Board of Trade Enquiry on 16 May, 1912, referred to the "Chief, Mr. Murdoch." standing by a collapsible boat on the starboard side who "told me to get inside with the babies and take charge of them." (24.)

Collapsibles A and B were stored on the roof of the officer’s quarters, on either side of the forward funnel. According to Walter Lord, they were of “poor design” because they were in such an “inaccessible spot” and there was “no mechanism for getting them down”. (Walter Lord, The Night Lives On (21.)). However, Murdoch led a small group up on to the roof, the boat was maneovred to the edge, where oars were placed to slide it down on to the boat deck.

Several authors give similar versions of what occurred:

“Now Lightoller and several other crewmen climbed onto the roof of the officer’s quarters to attempt to free collapsible B, but they had little success as the ship’s tilt grew steeper. Meanwhile, Murdoch and Moody were faring somewhat better on the starboard side with collapsible A, which they managed to get down from the roof and attach to the davits where lifeboat No.1 and then collapsible C had been launched. Before they could load it, it was washed off the deck and floated free.” (Discovery of the Titanic p.27 (10.))

“Collapsible A …eventually held 12 survivors, although eight dead aboard when it was discovered by Officer Lowe…originally stored on the starboard side of the roof of the officers quarters, it was dropped to the Boat deck and attached to the falls from which boat 1 and Collapsible C had been launched. As the loading was about to commence, however, the forward end of the Boat deck disappeared below the water and while still attached to the davits the boat began to drift away. The falls were quickly cut by Saloon Steward Edward Brown and another man who jumped onto the boat, though at this point a wave had swamped the boat.” (Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic and Britannic p.334 (3.))

“Collapsible A was brought down from its storage point on the officers' quarters. Murdoch was seen by Lightoller trying to disentangle or cut the forward falls (ropes, halliards) of lifeboat No. 1's davits, to use them to launch Collapsible A. Jack Thayer claimed that he was trying to cut the aft falls of the lifeboat at this time. The sudden sinking of the forward section made the sea surge and sweep many people from the deck. A.B's. French and McGough later stated that Murdoch, then straightening the forward falls, waved to those about him to get further back up the tilting deck. The sea then engulfed them, and Collapsible A was left floating at the davits until it broke loose. (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic (1.))

Colonel Archibald Gracie was also on the starboard side, in among a number of others wresting with the collapsible. A Gracie loaned the sailors his penknife to cut the ropes securing the collapsible:

“Soon after that the water came up on the boat deck. We saw it and heard it. I had not noticed in the meantime that we were gradually sinking. I was engaged all the time in working, as I say, at those davits…could see then that there was no more chance for us there –that there were so many people at that particular point- so we decided to go toward the stern, still on the starboard side.” (United States Inquiry evidence (25.))

Third class passenger Rhoda Mary Abbott
was the only woman to survive the
sinking who was pulled from the water.

One of the notable occupants of collapsible is 39 year old Mrs Rhoda Mary Abbott, a third class passenger who has the distinction of being the only woman to survive the sinking who was pulled from the water (all the other women survivors were occupants of Titanic’s lifeboats). Rhoda was travelling with her sons Rossmore (16) and Eugene (13), and realsing that her boys would not be allowed aboard collapsible C and would be left behind she decided to stay with them on the boat deck. When the ship went under she struggled to keep them with her but they were lost. She was pulled into collapsible A. (8.)

One thing we can be sure of is that Murdoch did at least succeed in readying the No.1 davit for launching the collapsible -evidence for which can be seen still today on the wreck of the Titanic -refer to The No. 1 Davit - Forensic Evidence

What happened next to First Officer Murdoch has been the source of much controversy and conjuncture and will be discussed in detail in the next section: The Mystery.