The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Murdoch on the Adriatic?


  • Unidentified photograph of William Murdoch. (Click image to enlarge)

    Do you recognise this image of William Murdoch as an officer, sitting in a chair, possibly on the Adriatic c.1910? Here is the full crew photograph:


    Unidentified photograph of William Murdoch amd crew.
    (Click image to enlarge)

    Please use the contact form if you can help identify context i.e. the ship and crew.

R.M.S.Olympic

Olympic's officers. Standing: First Officer William Murdoch, Purser Hugh McElroy, Purser Claude Lancaster, 2nd Officer Robert Hume. Seated: Captain EJ Smith, Chief Officer Joseph Evans. (Click to enlarge)

The White Star Line

The final stage of Murdoch's career began in May 1911, when he joined the new Olympic, at 45,000 tons. Intended to outclass the Cunard ships in luxury and size - if not in speed - Olympic needed the most experienced large-liner crew that the White Star Line could find. Captain Edward J. Smith assembled a crew that included Joseph Evans (late replaced by Henry Tingle Wilde) as Chief Officer, William Murdoch as First Officer, and Chief Purser Henry W. McElroy. On June 14th, 1911, Olympic made her maiden voyage to New York.

Olympic's officers. Standing: Standing: Purser Hugh McElroy
3rd Officer Henry O. Cater, 2nd Officer Robert Hume,
4th Officer David W. Alexander, 6th Officer Harold Holehouse.
Seated: 5th Officer Alphonse Martin Tulloch, Chief Officer Joseph Evans,
Captain Edward John Smith, and 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch.
(Click image to enlarge)

Olympic's officers (slightly different shot from above). Standing: Purser McElroy, Cater, Hume, Alexander, Holehouse. Seated: Tulloch, Evans, Captain Smith, Murdoch.
(Click image to enlarge)

The first indications of what was to come occurred on Olympic's fifth voyage on September 20th, when she had her hull badly damaged in a collision with the Royal navy cruiser HMS Hawke while leaving Southampton. Since Murdoch was at his docking-station at the stern of the ship during this collision -a highly responsible position- he found himself giving evidence in the inquiry into an incident that turned into a financial disaster for the White Star Line, as the voyage to New York had to be abandoned and the Olympic taken to Belfast for repairs, which took a good six weeks and also slightly delayed the construction of Titanic.

Murdoch's evidence at the Olympic-Hawke inquiry is generally non-eventful. However Elizabeth Gibbon's notes the following:

"The tone of Murdoch's testimony is consistent with his belief that blame lay with the Navy, but, with the hindsight of events in 1912, there is one item of acute interest: Murdoch, extremely busy on Olympic's stern and boatdeck, not involved in navigation, nevertheless instantly reacted to the ship's steam whistle. Two blasts in inland water meant a port turn, and a port turn down the channel was not outside routine; nevertheless, in his own words, he "looked to see what it was for". This automatic reaction of the well trained officer is a point to remember when deciphering what happened on Titanic's bridge on April 14, 1912."(55.)

This incident does raise the question of whether Murdoch was ever part of a union, which may have come to his assistance over such matters. According to Elizabeth Gibbon's he was non-union:

"On April 18, 1912, on Page 7, the Scotsman reported the Imperial Merchant Service Guild had released the names of Titanic's four surviving officers, and had further advised that it had no information regarding Chief Officer Wilde and Sixth Officer Moody; the Guild stated that all the named officers were well known to its Executive, which classified them as "enthusiastic supporters". No mention was made by the Guild of Murdoch. It could not have been an oversight; this was official, and the Guild was telegraphing relatives of the surviving officers. The Scotsman reported the "great anxiety" in Dalbeattie over the silence surrounding Murdoch's fate two columns to the right on the same page, so the omission could not have been in Edinburgh, either. The logical assumption is that Murdoch kept clear of union activities." (55.)

It was not until 11th of December, 1911, that Murdoch rejoined his ship. During the time that he served aboard Olympic as First Officer (until some time in March, 1912) there were two further -though lesser- incidents, striking a sunken wreck and having to have a broken propeller replaced, and nearly running aground while leaving Belfast.

Olympic's officers in summer white uniforms.
Murdoch stands second from the right. (8.)
(Click image to enlarge)

Olympic's officers seated in summer white uniforms, at lifeboat no.6.
Murdoch is standing on the far right. (8.)
(Click image to enlarge)

However, upon reaching Southampton, he learned that he had been appointed as Chief Officer of the new Titanic, sister ship to Olympic and reputedly the largest and most luxurious ship afloat. Lightoller later remarked that "three very contented chaps" headed north to Belfast, for he had been appointed First Officer, and their friend Davy Blair was to be the new second officer(1.). Awaiting them would be an old Adriatic hand, Joseph Groves Boxhall, as Fourth Officer, and others who would be familiar colleagues, including the now aging Edward John Smith, as Captain, and on the verge of retirement. It was Murdoch's fifth maiden voyage (and the fourth as senior officer plus third with Edward John Smithin command and the second of a ship of the Olympic class. (8.)

Captain Smith and Olympic's senior officers. Murdoch stands to the left,
a little detached from the main group. (Click image to enlarge)

A colourised version of the same photograph.
(Click image to enlarge)

In the above photographs we see a clear full body shot that reveals him to be tall, lean and a modest gentleman. Note Murdoch has two strips on his sleeve, marking him as First Officer, while Smith has four, as Captain. Regarding this photograph, Elizabeth Gibbons writes:

"The photograph of Murdoch alone on Titanic's bridge (generally used by publishers) should perhaps be less favored in considering what he actually looked like in 1912, nearing middle age; he appears severe but shadows indicate he faced the sun and was merely uncomfortable. Usually described as "tall" (crew members, passengers) and sometimes as "large", "powerful" (the Kirkcudbrightshire Advertizer) Murdoch followed his family pattern: well built, broad shouldered, commanding presence, chestnut hair, hazel eyes. In the words of the last family member who knew him, he stood "six foot plus". As his brother Samuel was 6'1", it is possible, but Murdoch appears to be 5'10" or 5'11" in most photographs, suggesting the extra inches were an illusion created by military bearing and force of personality. (55.)