The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Murdochs At Sea - A Brief History

  • "The Murdoch family was to lose many of its men in twelve horrifying years, drowned at sea in performance of their duties. In April 1901, William's cousin, a Captain John Murdoch, was lost with his new bride aboard the Craignair. His uncle, another William Murdoch, drowned when the schooner Mary was wrecked on Rascarrel Rocks at Auchencairn Bay in April 1906; that uncle, though retired, had agreed at the owner's request to assist the schooner's master. Regrettably, it appears that the master had got drunk in Whitehaven, and old William had a cup too many himself. Another John Murdoch, William's only surviving paternal uncle, was to be lost in April 1907, when First Officer of the Anglo American Company's ship Alcides. Also in 1907, Captain James T. Thorburn, husband to one of William's aunts, was lost with his 15-year-old son and 12 crew when the barque Dundonald was wrecked in the Auckland Islands off New Zealand." (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic)

Seafaring Life

Undated image of a
young William Murdoch
(1.)

William Murdoch had two cousins both born in the same year as him, in 1873: James Cumming of Kippford and William Black of Palnackie. It is quite possible that the three boys, being of the same age, spent time between the ports of Dalbeattie, Palnackie and Kippford, together discovering the navigation of ships along the River Urr. (45.)

James Cumming,
in Kippford,
courtesy of Wendy
Murdoch Roberts
(Click image to enlarge)

Finishing his schooling, graduating from Dalbeattie High School with top honors in 1887, he followed in the family seafaring tradition and was apprenticed for five years to William Joyce & Coy, Liverpool, but after four years (and four voyages) he was so competent that he passed his Second Mate's Certificate on his first attempt.(1.)

According to Elizabeth Gibbons "he is believed to have sailed with his uncle, Captain John Murdoch of Kippford, on the Loch Urr, which his father had commanded from 1873 to 1880; Loch Urr was a 731 ton steel barque built in 1870 in Port Glasgow for J. Sproat & Co. of Liverpool, which vanished with all hands off Cape Horn in 1891 or 1892, after she had passed to a new master. A model of her still exists, safe inside a glass case. William and his uncle both built models of the elegant little Loch Urr, but the one on display in Stranraer is William's creation." (55.)

Model of the Loch Urr
(Future Museum, South West Scotland)

In 1888 at the age of 15, he served his apprenticeship aboard the Charles Cosworth of Liverpool, a 1079 ton Barque that had San Francisco as its first destination, with Captain James Kitchen. With a voyage that included rounding the infamous Cape Horn it would have been a harsh apprenticeship, but it gave Murdoch the determination he needed to succeed. The Charles Cotesworth sailed to Portland,Oregon (1889/90), Valparaiso (1890/91) and Iquique (1891/92) (13.) .

The barque Iquique aboard
which William served under his father.
(Click image to enlarge)
(49.)

In 1892 Murdoch left the Charles Cotesworth, and having successfully passed the examination for his 2nd mate's certificate in August 1893 signed on aboard the full-rigger, three masted Iquiqe, as second officer. Master of this ship was none other than his father, Captain Samuel Murdoch and they sailed from Rotterdam to Frederikstad (Sweden) and then to Cape Town, Newcastle, Antofagasta and Iquique. The voyage took approximately 18 months, and it was the first and the last time that Murdoch sailed on a ship that was commanded by his father. (8.) According to French researcher Tiphaine Hirou "it is also possible that they lived together in Liverpool during few years, because it seems that Captain Murdoch had kept a house in this city to sleep in it between two journey, and in one of his Board of Trade registration, William indicates his address in Liverpool, and not Dalbeattie." (49.) Descendant Wendy Murdoch Robert writes that "he came to Liverpool and lived at 86 Upper Stanhope Street, which was occupied by James E Wallace, an ambulance driver, who rented furnished rooms to anybody needing cheap accommodation. Liverpool was as busy as usual, full of ships and full of life. William was taking his second mates certificate." (50.)

Stanley Lord mistook
Murdoch for a fellow
apprentice.
(1.)

According to Dalbeattie resident Richard Edkins, while Murdoch was an officer aboard the Iquique, he met another apprentice named Stanley Lord, who was serving aboard the Naiad. The two met each other when the Iquique and the Naiad were both at the same port and crew from both ships visited aboard the Iquique. Apparently, Lord was unaware of Murdoch's rank due to his modesty and Lord thought him to be another apprentice (Lord would later become captain of the Californian, a ship that might have been able to assist Titanic and Murdoch.)

In March 1895 Murdoch passed his 1st mate's certificate examination and from May 1895 he was First Mate on the Saint Cuthbert, which was to later sink in a hurricane off Uruguay in 1897. The Saint Cuthbert sailed from Ipswich to Mauritius, and from there to Newport (Wales) via Newcastle, Callao and Hamburg (Germany). (8.)

Murdoch in White Star uniform
c.1900. The photograph was sub-
mitted by cousin John Sloan to the
Times-Despatch of Richmond,
Virginia. Wednesday April 24.
(courtesy of Senan Molony).
(Click to enlarge)

Murdoch gained his Extra Master's Certificate No. 025780 on first attempt at Liverpool in September 1896, at the age of 23. He is the only one of his fellow Titanic officers to pass all of the Board of Trade exams on first attempt. The Extra Master’s Certificate was the highest qualification for a nautical officer at that time and Murdoch achieved it within only eight years and two months which is about the minimum time to obtain this ticket. Edward John Smith (who later became master of the Titanic) and Henry Tingle Wilde (who later became chief officer of the Titanic) both failed in their first attempts due to issues with the subject of “Navigation” (13.) . These Merchant Service applications note some finer details about William, for example referencing his height as 5' 8" 1/2 to 5' 9", a fair complexion, brown hair and hazel grey/hazel brown eyes. You can view these applications and certificates in full resolution here.

In April 1897 Murdoch signed a crew agreement again, joining the J.Joyce & Co. steel four-masted 2,534-ton barque Lydgate as first mate (officer). The Lydgate sailed from New York to Shanghai, then to Portland, Oregon, afterwards to Tsientin (China), from there to Portland, Oregon again and finally to Antwerp (Belgium) where Murdoch signed off on 2nd May 1899. (8.)

During the Boer War, Murdoch trained as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, which qualified him to join the White Star Line as a steamship officer in 1899.(1.)

The White Star Line "Medic" and Australia

As Second Officer aboard
the SS Medic, 1900, aged 27.
(Click to enlarge)

From 1899 - 1912, Murdoch gradually progressed from Second Officer to First Officer, serving on a successive number of White Star Line vessels, firstly the Medic on the Australian run (along with Charles Lightoller, Titanic's second officer) in which he started as fourth officer but became the third officer in April 1900 and served aboard until June 1901.

The Medic was one of the first large, luxury ships of its day that William Murdoch joined on 30th June 1899 as fourth officer. Listed as "W Murdock, fourth officer" in the September 30, 1899 edition of The Australian Town and Country Journal, the Medic was apparently a "mammoth steamer," which at the time hinted at the large luxury vessels William was to sail during his career. A White Star ship the article states that it entered Wolloomooloo Bay "September 21, about 10.45 where a great crowd had assembled to witness the arrival, but only privileged persons were allowed on board -a very wise precaution on the part of the agents."

Australian Town and Country Journal article
dated 30 September 1899, with officers of Medic,
taken on its maiden voyage, with Murdoch
in the centre. Courtesy of Tiphaine Hirou
(Click image to enlarge)

The article goes on to describe the ship as "11,984 tons gross register, and has a carrying capacity of 18,797 tons. She is 550ft in length, 63ft beam, and has accommodation for 326 passengers....The Medic has no saloon accommodation; but offers special advantages for third-class passengers. A piano is provided, also a library and state rooms. The steamer is intended for the Australian meat trade, dairy produce, and fruit, and for this most complete refrigerating machinery has been fitted. - The Medic- left Liverpool on August 3, arriving at Capetown on August 23. During the passage fine weather was experienced. After a stay of 11 and a half hours at the Cape, the steamer left for Albany, arriving, there on September 8. In the run across, fine weather, with the exception of an occasional moderate, gale, -was experienced.. Albany, left on the 9th, Adelaide being made on the 12th, Melbourne on the 15th, and Sydney on the 21st."

To see the full article including images of the Medic's bridge and crew photographs visit page 37 and page 38 or download the following the PDFs:
The Australian Town and Country Journal -page 37
The Australian Town and Country Journal -page 38
(Courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

Postcard of the SS Medic. (Click image to enlarge)

The reverse of the Medic's menu signed by the officers on September 9, 1900.
At the very bottom of the image Murdoch has quoted a line from a poem by
Scottish writer John Henry Mackay: "Whatever obstacles control, go on,
true heart, thou'lt reach the goal.
" It is signed the day after the other
officers: "W.M.M.Murdoch 10/09/00" (Click image to enlarge)

The North Atlantic and Romance Beckons

Crew of the Medic in Melbourne 1900, with Murdoch
in the centre, with Lightoller to his right (taller).
(Click image to enlarge)

Next he worked aboard the Runic as second officer (June 1901 - June 1903) another vessel on the Australian run and which departed on her maiden voyage 3 January 1901. It was during this time, in 1902, William's cousin of the same age James Cumming was an AB Seaman on a sailing ship and was walking down Lime Street in Liverpool, having just returned from a voyage, when he a met a group of White Star Officers in their best uniforms on their way to the Adelphi Hotel, a famous public bar. Among this group was William Murdoch who upon recognising his cousin shouted "come and have a drink Jimmy". This was despite the fact that James was still in his working clothes, while the officers were in their best White Star line uniforms. This resulted in James "sitting in the lounge of the Adelphi Hotel with all the swells of society and him just a common AB." It is likely that James would not have been allowed within the luxurious Adelphi Hotel if it were not that he was accompanied by his cousin officer. William's cousin Captain James Cumming who died at Kippford in 1948 said that William had a great name among sailors as being the "best and smartest sailor afloat." (50.). However, Elizabeth Gibbons notes that the story may well not be entirely accurate. She writes that at the time Cumming was " Second Mate of the Rae barque Annie Fletcher. There is nothing unusual about asking a brother officer to have a drink, but strikingly clear is the significance of Cumming wrongly attributing the story to his years on the lower deck; the courtesy belonged to the combination of characteristics that defined Murdoch in the minds of the crew."(55.)

1903 was an eventful year for Murdoch. On a Runic voyage that commenced 12th February 1903, William met Ada Florence Banks, 29-year-old New Zealand school teacher, on the return leg from Australia to Europe. Ada Florence Banks was by many accounts a beautiful and very lively woman, and they soon began long-distance correspondence.(1.)

New Zealand party group with Runic's officers. Murdoch on the far right with apparently a cigar in hand (although hard to tell), Ada stands next to him.
Photograph: Derek Webley/Susanne Störmer (A Career At Sea).
(Click to enlarge)

It was also during 1903 that Murdoch finally reached the stormy and glamorous North Atlantic run as Second Officer of the new liner Arabic as second officer (June 1903 - 24th May 1904). The Arabic departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage on 26 June 1903 bound for New York. (8.) His cool head, quick thinking and professional judgment averted a disaster when a ship was spotted bearing down on the Arabic out of the darkness. He overrode a command from his superior, Officer Fox, to steer hard-a-port, rushing into the wheelhouse, brushing aside the quartermaster and holding the ship on course. The two ships passed within inches of one another. Any alteration in course would have actually caused a collision.(1.). Captain Jones seemed to be still very impressed by Murdoch’s action when he recalled this account to Captain Villiers and pointed out that Murdoch reacted before he had adjusted his eyes to the light on the bridge, and before anybody else had seen the other ship at all. Jones final judgement on Murdoch was: “There never was a better officer. Cool, capable, on his toes always – and smart toes they were.” (Alan Villiers, Of Ships and Men, London, 1962, page 124) (13.)

Murdoch saved the Arabic from near disaster
by overriding a superior's command.

According to an account by Elizabeth Gibbon's, there is more to the story. After the incident, Murdoch had assumed command when "Edwin Jones, an officer from the China coastal trade whom Murdoch had teasingly nicknamed "Chang", rushed back and announced that a passenger on deck for a little night air had seen the near miss. Murdoch had immediately instructed Jones to inform Arabic's captain, Bertram Hayes, that there was a witness: 'For God's sake, go and tell Bertie'. Jones had already advised the passenger that he had merely seen the Flying Dutchman, a bit of whimsy perfectly reflecting the company axiom that mishaps and rumors of mishaps do not help trade and ought not be communicated to the customer. If Murdoch had not agreed that silence was wise policy, he would still have ordered the captain awakened in the middle of the night out of obedience to orders, but would he have done so in words (and probably tones) suggesting alarm?" (55.)

Next he became second officer on the Celtic from January 1904, later promoted to first officer for its voyage (24th May 1904 - November 1904). With a gross tonnage of 21,035 the Atlantic run Celtic was the largest ship afloat in 1901 and the first of the "Big Four" White Line ships. (8.)

Although not listed on his White Star Line Service Record (you can view it here) he kept his rank as first officer and made two voyages on the Germanic during 1904 (September/October) with Captain Bartlett also of the White Star Line. Mark Barber explains the omission in the White Star Line records: "By 1904, Germanic was no longer with White Star; she made her last White Star crossing in September 1903, and spent 1904 with IMM's American Line, although still named "Germanic," and then in 1905 became the Dominion Line's Ottawa." (8.) According to Murdoch researcher Susanne Stormer this was a "set back" in his career when he was "transferred to Germanic, kept his rank as 1st officer though and made two voyages on this ship." Stormer believes this ship could possibly have been for 'testing' or training purposes.(13.)

In 1905 a mutiny took place on the Oceanic, as published in the
New York Times of October 12, 1912.
(Click image to enlarge)

Murdoch then joined the White Star Line flag ship the Oceanic as second officer from January 1905 to February 1906. He was once again with his friend and colleague Charles Lightoller, serving under Captain John G. Cameron. In October, 1905, the Oceanic became the first White Star Line ship to suffer a mutiny, which according to a New York Times article printed on October 12, 1905, resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 35 stokers open their arrival in Liverpool. The crew were apparently upset with the officers over working conditions and the standard of their accommodation (source). At present there is no information on Second Officer Murdoch's role in this. However it is interesting to note that the White Star Line ship's carried firearms on board locked up and in the control of the ships Master-at-Arms. They were intended for use in the event of piracy, mutiny or uncontrollable misconduct. We do not know if they were used in this instance. It is also interesting to note that this same ship, later in 1912 when Murdoch was Titanic's First Officer, became involved in a near collision with Titanic while the Oceanic was alongside the SS New York and broke from her docking and nearly collided with Titanic due to her large displacement wake.

William Murdoch served aboard the Adriatic from April 1907 - 23rd May 1911.
(Click image to enlarge)

In 1906 Murdoch and Captain Cameron were both transferred from the Oceanic to the Cedric for two voyages Cedric, Murdoch as first officer, in February 1906 until the 9th of May 1906. This brief departure from serving aboard the Oceanic has been explained by Captain Haddock researcher and author Louis Francken as due to the fact that Cedric's captain Haddock and was transfered by the Royal Navy to the Teutonic for three voyages. It was apparently training for his service in the RNR, as the Teutonic was armed with guns. After his brief service aboard the Cedric he returned to the Oceanic and served as second officer again, but it was only for one more voyage, sailing on her from the 9th of May 1906. After that, he was promoted to first officer on sailing and kept this rank until April 1907. (8.)

94 Belmont Road, Portswood, Southampton.
The Murdoch's rented the apartment on the right.
The road has subsquently been renumbered
and is now number 116.

In May 1907 Murdoch became first officer on the new Adriatic which was once again the largest company ship, the fourth of the "Big Four", the Master Captain Edward John Smith. Adriatic's maiden voyage departed from Liverpool, England, for New York. Subsequently White Star's premium service to the United States departed from Southampton, not Liverpool. He remained 1st officer of this ship until May 1911 (April 1907 - 23rd May 1911) (8.)

First Officer Murdoch (right) with his wife Ada (centre) and Chief Officer E.J. English (left). Likely on the Adriatic, 1908 - 1910, which means Will and Ada would possibly be newly married. It also looks like Ada is sharing a joke with someone off camera, while Will tries to hold it together and smiles to the camera. Photograph: Derek Webley/Susanne Störmer (A Career At Sea). Click to enlarge.

However, Murdoch stepped out for one round trip in 1907, but for good reason. On the 2nd of September 1907, William (aged 34) and Ada (33) were married at St. Denys Church and after a short honeymoon they settled in Southampton, residing at 94 Belmont Road, Portswood, in Southampton.(1.)

Announcement that Murdoch had been promoted to RNR Lieutenant in the London Gazette of September 10, 1909. (Courtesy of Valeria Gallone.)

On the 8th of September 1909, William was promoted from Sub-Lieutenant to Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, the event announced in the London Gazette of September 10, 1909. Murdoch remained on the Adriatic and signed on for the next voyage in May 1911, but was replaced on sailing day by C. H. Greame. Murdoch was being sent to Belfast to join the newest, and yet again largest ship of the White Star Line fleet: the Olympic. (8.)

First Officer Murdoch (right) relaxes while smoking a pipe beside purser Appleyard, likely on the Adriatic, 1908 - 1910. For information on Murdoch's pipe recovered from the wreck site click here. Photograph: Derek Webley/Susanne Störmer (A Career At Sea). Click to image to enlarge.