The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Men on the Starboard Side

  • Regarding Murdoch allowing men aboard, Walter Lord writes: “Men had it luckier on the starboard side. Murdoch continued to allow them in if there was any room. The French aviator Pierre Marechal and sculptor Paul Chevre climbed into number 7. A couple of Gimbels buyers reached No. 5. When it came to lower No. 3, Henry Sleeper Harper not only joined his wife, but he brought along his Pekingese Sun Yat-sen and an Egyptian dragonman named Hamad Hassah, whom he had picked up in Cairo as a sort of joke.” (A Night to Remember, p.56 (20.))

    In Lord’s The Night Lives On, he further added: “There was no consistency in loading the boats. To Lightoller, ‘Women and children first’ meant women and children only, even if that meant not filling a boat. Murdoch, on the other hand, put in men when there were no women. On the Titanic, a man’s life could depend on which side of the boat deck he happened to step out on.” (21.)

    Peter Engberg-Klarström, a frequent correspondent in the “Survivors’ suicides” section of the Encyclopedia Titanica message board, writes: “About 100 of 131 surviving male passengers entered a starboard lifeboat” (Encyclopedia Titanica, March 29, 2000 (8.))

    Author and historian Charles A. Haas described survival on Titanic depending on not making "one wrong turn": "As Titanic’s grand staircase ascended to the boat deck, it divided into left and right halves. First-class male passengers who chose the left side were doomed; Second Officer Charles Lightoller strictly enforced the "women and children first" rule on the port side, allowing just one male passenger into a boat to help with rowing. Those who turned to the right at the top of the staircase had a chance to survive; First Officer William Murdoch enforced a policy of "women and children first, but men when there were no women." (New Jersey News, Sunday, April 08, 2012)

Starboard Evacuation

The loading of the lifeboats as Titanic began to sink has been the source of legend and folklore, as an interesting interplay of characters participated in the evacuation of the ‘unsinkable’ liner. Three main factors were involved that made this an event central to the story of Titanic:

1. Few realised the seriousness of the situation until it was too late, many lifeboats leaving the ship half empty
2. There were only a enough lifeboats for barely half the number aboard
3. The enforcement of the “women and children first” rule led to sad good-byes, most men opting to ‘go down as gentlemen’.

At 12.00 am, 20 minutes after the crash, Smith had ordered Chief Officer Wilde to uncover the boats and Murdoch to muster the passengers and crew to their lifeboat stations.

“[Murdoch’s] first order from Captain Smith was to rouse the passengers throughout the ship and get them to the boat deck. He did this in the most efficient and logical way possible: He assembled the deck stewards who were then supposed to alert passengers in their charge.” (Loreen Philyaw, True Heart of Titanic (23.))

These two officers were then placed in charge of launching the boats: Wilde overseeing the port side, with Second Officer Lightoller assisting, and Murdoch overseeing the starboard side (although Fourth Officer Boxhall “saw Murdoch on the port side at times” - United States Inquiry(25.)), with officers Lowe, Pitman and Moody assisting.

In the words of Edward Buley, an able seaman “the next order from the chief officer, Murdoch, was to tell the seamen to get together and uncover the boats and turn them out as quiet as though nothing had happened. They turned them out in about 20 minutes” (United States Inquiry (25.)). During the Board of Trade Enquiry on 17 May 1912, George Symons said:

"The order I got on the boat-deck from Mr. Murdoch, and also the boatswain was, they gave an order to uncover the boats and get the falls out. I assisted generally in the boats and the starboard fore end, 3, 5 and 7 in the boats on the starboard fore end, 3, 5, and 7... they never worked better or more comfortably. I have never seen them work better in any ship I have been in... there was one order when we were at boat No. 3. Two or three men of some description, whether stewards or passengers I do not know, were asked to keep back to give the men room to work... After we got all the covers out, the orders were given by Mr. Murdoch to start swinging them out. We started No. 5 first, and then we came back to 3, and then to 7... That was the order, 'Women and children first.'" (24.)

Richard Edkins of the Dalbeattie web-site asserts that the Wilde-Lightoller pairing on the port side was “a bad choice, as they dislike each other” (1.). This might be one factor that led to the port side evacuation being less efficient than Murdoch’s starboard evacuation, although there are other reasons for the difference:

“Over on the port side, things had preceded more slowly with the forward boats under Lightoller’s charge. He had followed his orders to the letter and been much more strict than First Officer Murdoch about not letting men into the partly full boats. He made no exception for Colonel John Jacob Astor.” (Discovery of the Titanic p.26 (10.))

“For various reasons, partly because Murdoch was slightly less strict about the interpretation of the women and children first order and partly because of difficulties caused by the fact that the ship was listing slightly to starboard, the boats on this side [starboard] were generally got away more quickly.” (Titanic Marriott, p.105 (39.))

“Murdoch… said,
‘I believe she has
gone, Hardy.”
– John Hardy, Chief
Second Class Steward

(For more information on this, please refer to Men on the Starboard Side on the top left). Another factor that may have increased Murdoch’s urgency is his knowledge of the true extent of the damage to Titanic. In the subsequent inquiry into the disaster, Chief Steward John Hardy of Second Class (who knew Murdoch from previous voyages) gave the following testimony to Senator Fletcher: “I had great respect and great regard for Officer Murdoch, and I was walking along the deck forward with him, and he said, ‘I believe she has gone, Hardy,’ and that’s the only time I thought she might sink –when he said that.” (25.). Interestingly, however, German Murdoch biographer Susanne Störmer suggests that Murdoch was actually referring to the mystery ship on the horizon.

This exchange, showing that Murdoch understood Titanic’s dangerous condition more than many of those around him, took place a good half an hour before the launch of Hardy’s boat, collapsible D (according to Loreen Philyaw, this conversation took place after launching collapsible C -True Heart of Titanic (23.)).

In addition to this, when lifeboat No.5 was being lowered, Murdoch said “Goodbye, good luck” to Third Officer Herbert Pitman who at that time (12:45am) did not think the ship was going to sink, even though a high ranking member of the crew. The expression “Good luck” made him realise that Murdoch did think the ship was going to sink, showing that Murdoch was far more cognizant of the situation then even his fellow officers (also refer to “Good-bye, Good Luck” -Pitman). It is also interesting to note that Mr. Hugh Woolner, a passenger, when questioned at the American Inquiry, described Murdoch as “very active” in connection with the loading of the boats. (25.)

The order to load the lifeboats was given by Captain Smith at approximately 12:25am. Based on a wide selection of sources (although most notably detailed research by Bill Wormstedt and Tad Fitch) I have concluded the following approximate launch times and occupant numbers (times refer to the beginning of the launch):

Murdoch's Lifeboats




Launched by

In charge





Lookout George Hogg





Fifth Officer Pitman





Able Bodied Seaman George Moore





Lookout George Symons





Boatswain Albert Haines
Able Bodied Seaman George McGough





Able Bodied Seaman Sidney Humphries





Fireman Frederick Barrett





Fireman Frank Dymond





Able Bodied Seaman Edward Buley





Quartermaster George Rowe






Notes: Lifeboat ccupant numbers total 436, which is 61% of the 712 Titanic survivors. The lifeboats were launched within five to ten minutes of each other, except for between No.1 at 1:05am and No.9 at 1:30am, a gap of 25 minutes. Hence it seems likely this was when the officers went to Murdoch's cabin and armed themselves with guns and ammunition (approximately 1:15am).

Murdoch’s Evacuation

Overall, Murdoch’s evacuation of the starboard side was more efficient than Lightoller’s port side. Some have attributed this to Murdoch not being as strict and allowing men into boats; Murdoch applied the women and children first rule while Lightoller interpreted it as women and children only. However, since so many lifeboats left without a full complement of crew and passengers, Murdoch’s allowance of men to board should not been seen as negligence. If he had not done so, the final number of survivors (712) would have been far less. According to William McMaster Murdoch, Titanic Hero Unstuck in Time by Charles Pellegrino "all told, nearly 75% of the people who rowed away from the Titanic that night owed their lives to Murdoch." (40.). Similarly, Author Tad Fitch, who co-wrote On a Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic, feels “heroic” Murdoch’s experience and calmness under pressure saved the lives of hundreds of passengers. He said: “When the most accurate estimates of survivors in each lifeboat is examined, one sees that roughly 61 per cent of the 712 survivors were in lifeboats which Murdoch directly supervised the loading of, or played a part in the loading of."(The Galloway News, March 15 2012)

In Julian Champkin's article entitled Titanic: did 'Women and Children First' cost lives? Murdoch's evacuation is described as "less rigid". It goes on to relate: "'I dont think he ignored the rule’ says Philip Littlejohn, steward Littlejohn’s grandson and author of a book ’Titanic - Waiting for Orders.’ ‘It was certainly not first come first served. He got the women on first; but after that he was flexible.’ More people got off the Titanic from the starboard-side lifeboats, where Murdoch had been flexible, than from the ones on the port side of the ship where Lightoller had strictly ensured no queue-jumping. The figures are four hundred and sixty-one versus three hundred and ninety-nine." (Titanic: did 'Women and Children First' cost lives?)

Neither should the fact that many of his first boats left with so few be seen as negligence, since it is quite clear that he had ordered the boats, once lowered, to take measures to obtain more passengers -for instance, school teacher Lawrence Beesley's account. More than anything else, the details of the starboard evacuation give pertinent insights into Murdoch’s character and the subsequent mystery surrounding his death. We can sense his frustration as he shouts “Are there any more women and children?” and his anger as he calls “Stand back!” as men rush the boats. We have moments of humour, saying “I wish you would” or words to that effect to the Duff Gordons and the sight of a fat man tumbling into a boat causing him to say “I think that is the funniest thing I’ve seen all night.” We have his conversations with Hardy, “I think she’s gone” and the expression “Good bye. Good luck” to Pitman, which show a man in tune with the tragedy and more aware of their circumstances than so many of his comrades.

Film director James Cameron says of Murdoch: “I’m not sure you’d find that same sense of responsibility and total devotion to duty today. This guy had half of his lifeboats launched before his counterpart on the port side had even launched one. That says something about character and herioism.” (James Cameron’s Titanic, p.129 (29.))