The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Lady Louise Patten
Lady Louise Patten (born 1954) is a British businesswoman and author, who is the wife of the Conservative politician, John Patten and the granddaughter of the RMS Titanic's Second Officer, Charles Lightoller.
Patten went to St Paul's Girls' School and then to Oxford University. She married John Patten in 1978 and has one daughter, Mary-Claire Patten.
She started work at Citibank in 1977 and subsequently worked at Wells Fargo Bank, PA Consulting, Hilton Group and Harveys Furniture. In 1998 she started as NED of Somerfield, a chain of small supermarkets. She rose to become chairman and stayed there until it was taken over by The Co-operative Group in March 2009.
In 2006 she started as a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer.
She was later the chairman of Brixton plc, a FTSE 250 property business. In 2003 she was nicknamed "Queen of the Sheds" and described "the most powerful woman in property" due to this role.
In September 2010, 57 year old novelist Lady Louise Patten, Second Officer Lightoller's granddaughter and married to former Conservative education secretary and life peer John Patten, released information that accused experienced sailors of making a fatal steering error and later deliberate negligence.
In what seemed to many to be a co-ordinated marketing push for her fictional new novel Good as Gold, Patten went public with what was labelled a 'family's Titanic secret' -that confusion over rudder orders had caused 'an officer to steer into an iceberg instead of away.'
Firstly she alleges that “First Officer William Murdoch was on watch when he saw a large iceberg about two miles ahead. He ordered the steersman Robert Hitchins [sic] to ‘hard a starboard’, which should have turned the ship right, to sail round the iceberg. Remarkably Hitchins [sic] steered in the wrong direction.” (Daily Express, Monday October 31,2011 news article).
In her book she also adds that Murdoch saw the iceberg and gave instructions before the lookouts sounded the warning. However the wheel was turned the wrong way and this lasted a minute before being corrected, with still a minute left before the iceberg collision. She explains the steering error was caused due to the fact that it occured during a period when shipping communications were in transition from sail to steam and a difference existed between the commands used.
She also accuses Bruce Ismay of persuading Captain Smith to continue sailing after the collision which quickened the sinking.
"Ismay insisted on keeping going, no doubt fearful of losing his investment and damaging his company’s reputation,' said Lady Patten. (Daily Mail, 22 September 2010 news article)
"My grandfather described the decision to try and keep Titanic moving forward as criminal," said Patten. "The nearest ship was four hours away. Had she remained at 'stop', it's probable that Titanic would have floated until help arrived." (The Guardian, Wednesday 22 September 2010 news article)
The Cover Up
Patten then describes how her maternal grandfather Lightoller discovered the steering mistake and deliberate decision to sail on when the four senior officers later met in the first officer's cabin (which was when the firearms were being handed out in Murdoch's cabin). She explains that she heard this via her grandmother, Sylvia (Lightoller's wife) as Lightoller himself was warned by his employers to keep quiet and became implicit in a large cover-up which Lightoller himself publicly labeled in his autobiography a "whitewash".
"By his code of honour, he felt it was his duty to protect his employer - White Star Line - and its employees. It was made clear to him by those at the top that, if the company were found to be negligent, it would be bankrupted and every job would be lost. The enquiry had to be a whitewash. The only person he told the full story to was his beloved wife Sylvia, my grandmother. (BBC News, 22 September 2010 news article)
In her book she also implies that the cover up was connected to insurance:
'Granny was quite clear that my grandfather has not always told the truth when giving evidence to the two inquiries, but in her view he's simply done what he believed to be his duty. In the words Granny said to me time and time again, "It was all about the insurance," and while they were still on Carpathia, the Chairman [sic] of the White Star Line had shown my grandfather where his duty lay. Due to certain exceptions in [the] Whte Star Line's insurance policy, Bruce Ismay had told him, if the company were found to be negligent it would be bankrupted, and every job would be lost. Rightly or wrongly, my grandfather decided that his first duty was to protect his employer and his fellow employees, and in his autobiography he made it clear that this was exactly what he had done...' (Good As Gold p. 421)
Regarding Lightoller's peception of what happened she said: “My grandmother told me my grandfather was always very gentle about Hitchins [sic] as he believed he made an honest mistake. However he remained angry about Ismay’s decision which he believed resulted in the huge loss of life.” (Daily Express, Monday October 31,2011 news article)
So why did Patten not reveal this information until the release of her book? She responds: 'As a teenager, I was enthralled by Titanic. Granny revealed to me exactly what had happened on that night and we would discuss it endlessly....'She died when I was sixteen and, though she never told me to keep the knowledge to myself, I didn’t tell anyone. 'My mother insisted that everything remained strictly inside the family: a hero’s reputation was at stake.' (Daily Mail, 22 September 2010 news article)
She says that she "didn’t keep quiet out of shame. It’s just when you have known about something all your life it somehow loses its significance. I’d have probably kept quiet if my mother or the children of Bruce Ismay had still been alive as then it wouldn’t have felt right to bring this into the open.” (Daily Express, Monday October 31,2011 news article)
Since Murdoch was officer of the watch from 10pm - 2pm during which these alleged incidents occured that makes him culpable of gross incompetence if this new information is true. It also puts the blame on Quartermaster Hichens who was at the wheel and Sixth Officer Moody who was overseeing that Murdoch's orders were carried through. And then it accuses J. Bruce Ismay and ultimately the White Star Line of decisive negligence.
So how accurate are these dramatic -and if true- startling claims? In summary, her specific claims are:
1. That Murdoch saw the iceberg first two miles ahead (four minutes before impact) and took corrective action, even before the lookout alert
2. That confusion over rudder and tiller orders caused QM Hichens to turn the wheel the wrong way and that this lasted a minute, was then corrected a minute before the iceberg collision
3. That Ismay persuaded Captain Smith to continue sailing after the collision which quickened the sinking
4. That the four senior officers conspired in Murdoch's cabin while handing out firearms to keep the fatal mistake quiet
5. That the White Star Line engaged in a cover up to keep the fatal mistake quiet at the subsquent inquiries and for reasons of insurance.
Firstly, are her claims completely without foundation, as they may appear on first glance? Actually, there are aspects that are quite possibly correct. Historians have long argued over the possibility that Murdoch sighted the berg prior to or simultaneous to the lookouts. As for a steering error, it is interesting to note that steward Thomas Whiteley filed a law suit against the White Star Line in January 1914. The Times of Saturday January 17 1914 notes that the plantiff alleges "negligent steering and unseaworthiness of the vessel".
Researcher Senan Molony who wrote an Encycopedia Titanica article ‘Why Did White Star Settle With Whiteley?’ asks: "Was it because the words ‘negligent steering,’ uttered in open court when applying for a date, acted like an Open Sesame to negotiations? The case did not proceed – but thereafter Whiteley has a lovely life that brings him to Hollywood." He also mentions that "Hichens (according to the Daily Mirror) attempted to sell a story about his knowledge of a ‘secret’ relating to the Titanic sinking when he got out of prison. As an ex-con, he would have had no credibility. But it would be nice to know what he was thinking of alleging…" Molony also writes that he has been in correspondence with Lady Patten and that she wrote to him: "'Needless to say there was a great deal more that she [Lightoller's widow Sylvia] told me - not only about Titanic but also about what was said + done on Carpathia - that I didn't put into Good As Gold.".(8.)
We also know from accounts such as Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley's that the Titanic did continue sailing albeit slowly ("half speed") for several minutes after the collision. And it is well established that Lightoller was not always forthright with the truth and offered various and conflicting accounts, described by some researchers as a "company man" in his attempts to protect the White Star Line and ultimately his job. He also called the British Board of Trade Inquiry a "whitewash" in his autobiography.
However, there are some aspects of her allegations that most definitely require further analysis. The key issues are:
1. Four minutes If there was more than four minutes before collision, then there would have been ample time to correct an error. According to Tim Maltin, author of 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic...But Didn't "had it been the 4 minutes Patten claims, Titanic would easily have had time to correct any error... but would not have needed to, as turning either port or starboard would have avoided the iceberg at that distance (1.5 miles)."
2. The steering error The steering error as described is very unlikely as most importantly, both Sixth Officer Moody (standing next to Hichens) and First Officer Murdoch (on the wing bridge) would have immediately noticed if QM Hichens had turned the wheel the wrong way and it would have been almost instantly rectified (as commands were repeated and confirmed). If we are to believe Patten's allegation then all three would have had to have made the error without realising it. Patten's alleged error simply is not supported by testimony at both the British and U.S. inquiries, which established that the second watch officer, Sixth Officer James Moody, was stationed behind Hichens, supervising his actions, and he had confirmed to First Officer William Murdoch that the order had been carried out correctly. Simply put, in 1912, orders were given with reference to the tiller (refer to the diagram). 'Hard a starboard' meant 'put your tiller as far as possible to starboard'. This was done by turning the wheel to port and the ship turned to port.
3. Experience Murdoch was a highly experienced sailor who had steered the Titanic and her sister the Olympic. Murdoch had been an officer of the watch of steam ships since 1900 and he was highly spoken of and so competent that he passed his Second Mate's Certificate on his first attempt. And he had already proven his ability to make a correct steering call under pressure when in 1903 as second officer on the Arabic he overrode a command from his superior, Officer Fox, to steer hard-a-port, which saved the ship from collision.
4. Lookouts Fredrick Fleet the lookout never mentioned any issues with incorrect steering, other than a seeming delay to turn.
5. Hichens There is no evidence to suggest that Quartermaster Hichens was incompetent at the wheel. He had already experienced daily practice of steering the ship and would have understood if Murdoch happened to have some peculiarities in the method of giving commands (although there is no evidence he did).
6. Orders There is no evidence of any confusion over tiller/rudder orders in 1912. According to Wikipedia Tiller orders were in use up until the 1930s (Wikipedia article) so would have been well understood in 1912. According to Dave Gittins "in 1912, steering orders were given in accordance with a very old convention, which was not phased out on British ships until January 1st, 1933. (Sir James Bisset)." Check his excellent website for an indepth analysis of Titanic's wheel and the misunderstanding possibly caused by Walter Lord surrounding it.
7. Lightoller Lightoller was not an eyewitness so these allegations are second and third-hand accounts and should be treated as such. Researchers agree that it is better to place more importance on 1912 evidence than later oral evidence that can be tainted by age. In 1913 Lightoller testified at the Ryan trial that he thought the accident could have been prevented if Murdoch had only had "the helm whipped over and put one of the engines astern" when seen at 500 yards ahead. He made no suggestions of anything else regarding the commands given after the sighting of the iceberg.
8. Evidence There are no letters or diaries, and nothing from Lightoller himself. Just an oral history relayed by Louise Patten. And no colloborating evidence from any other sources.
9. Reliability No doubt due to a variety of factors, Lightoller's evidence is often unreliable (for example he changed his evidence regarding the use of guns and insisted the ship did not break in two).
10. Motive This information was timed for released at the same time as Lady Louise Patten launches a fiction book containing the claims. While she is not in need of money (or possibly fame for that matter) it's release certainly is not coincidental but clearly part of a publicity campaign to promote the book (possibly suggested as a marketing campaign by the publishers to raise its profile).
11. Credibility Louise Patten would have been younger than 10 years old when she heard the allegations and is now relating them 40 years later. Since Lightoller died before she was born she heard it through her grandmother Sylvia. Sylvia died in 1970, when Louisa Rowe (Louise Patten) was 16. According to Patten she says she spent much of the previous four years at Lightoller’s old home at 1 Duck Walk, Richmond with her grandmother due to some unspecified childhood illness. In fact according to the Guardian she was 10 when she heard it first: "I've known since I was 10." (The Guardian, Wednesday 22 September 2010 news article)
12. Board of Trade Lightoller's reference to the British Inquiry being a whitewash was not aimed at the White Star line but the Board Of Trade (BOT), as they were originally responsible for ensuring there were competent regulations regarding lifeboat numbers and behaviour at sea. However Lightoller could see that the BOT were very unlikely to put the blame on themselves, and so, as it transpired, the blame was essentially put on someone unable to defend himself: Captain Smith.
13. Conspiracy The conspiracy is just too big and too complex to have occured and to have remained a secret for so long. While Patten seems to think that the conspiracy would have been confined to the senior officers in Murdoch's cabin, in actual fact it would have been much larger than that. Other witnesses who would have to be bought off are Quartermaster Hichens, Fourth Officer Boxhall, lookouts Lee and Fleet and any number of crew or passengers who witnessed the collision. Soon after the disaster it would have been very difficult for the White Star Line to know which potential witness had survived and they would have had to act quickly to get everyone's stories straight prior to the Senate hearings. And if Lightoller and others were bought off then why did the White Star line take the risk of treating them so badly, with neither Boxhall or Lightoller captaining a White Star ship. They could have become disgruntled and told "the truth" to the press. And in later years, with renewed interest in the sinking, and after White Star was absorbed by Cunard, what was left to hide? They could have made a good deal of money telling their story. Patten's theory rests on the assumption that they were all loyal to a fault (thanks to Brian Robert Rose for his insightful thoughts on this conspiracy analysis).
14. Physics General consensus seems to agree that it is unlikely that maintaining way at 'slow ahead' would have caused pressure build up in the flooded compartments as the water ingress was through relatively small apertures.
Hichen's great-granddaughter's defence
Sally Nilsson, the great-granddaughter of Quartmaster, Robert Hichens was interviewed on British television (Channel 4 News) and responded that there “is no way on earth” that Patten's theory is correct. "Ms. Neillson [sic], who is working on her own book about her great-grandfather,'Hard-a-Starboard,' due to be published in 2012, claims to have new theories of her own to be divulged later, and said, 'Hichins [sic] had 10 years experience, seven of those as a quartermaster. He sailed the Titanic for four days before the accident, during which he did shifts of four hours on, four hours off. He would have steered the vessel during these times, so been familiar with the systems. He knew ships. These were experienced men, a very experienced crew. I completely disagree with this theory.' (Maritime Matters, Thursday, September 23, 2010 new source). It transpires that the new theories involve an astounding claim that First Officer Murdoch was asleep, even drunk at the time of collision (discussed and analysed in a separate article).
Later, in a BBC news article, when it is mentioned that Hichens possibly misinterpreted the steering orders and steered Titanic the wrong way, into the iceberg, Nilsson responds: "I dispute this because he had been at sea since he was 14 and he was 30 when he was on the Titanic. He had worked as a quartermaster for seven years and he would never have made a glaring error like that." (BBC News, Surrey, 13 April 2012 news article)
While there is no particular reason to doubt Lady Patten's sincerity and even the accuracy of her account (despite the fact that she must have been aged ten at the time) the essential truth is this: while her story may well be completely accurate, that does not mean her grandmother did not simply get the story wrong. Neither of these women worked on ships and it is quite likely that Lightoller, in his retelling of what happened, or Sylvia later in her version, explained that 'hard-a-starboard' actually in those days meant hard-to-port. This explanation, as in a game of Chinese whispers, could have become something more than originally intended and in its repetition transformed from clarification into an what seems a most unlikely conspiracy.