The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

Robert Hichens

  • Name: Robert Hichens
    Birth Date: September 16, 1882
    Death: September 23, 1940
    Birth place: Newlyn, Cornwall, United Kingdom
    Death: Aberdeen, Scotland

    Born September 16, 1882 in St. Peter's Square, Cornwall, England. Robert Hichens was the eldest son of a fisherman and worked on ships his entire life.

    On the 23 October 1906 he married Florence Mortimore in Devon; his marriage certificate shows him as a ‘master mariner’. On 6 April 1912 Robert signed up on Titanic as one of six quartermasters. He gave his home address as 43 St James Street, Southampton where he lived with his wife and two children.

    Hichens was at the wheel on April 14, 1912, when a warning came from the lookout that an iceberg had been spotted. He was ordered by First officer Murdoch to turn the wheel 'hard-a-starboard' to avoid the iceberg, but it was not enough to avoid the collision. He was put in charge of lifeboat 6, which departed the sinking ship with only 28 of its 65 seats filled. Hichens conduct aboard the lifeboat would later come under intense scrutiny after female passengers claimed he lay uselessly huddled in blankets, drinking whiskey and refusing to return to the Titanic to rescue others. He refuted all claims.

    During World War I, Hichens served in the Royal Naval Reserve and Labour Corps. In the 1920s, he and his family moved to Torquay, Devon, where his wife ran a guesthouse and he had an unsuccessful boat charter. In 1931, after his wife and children left him, Hichens became a heavy drinker. On December 1, 1933, he attempted to kill the man who sold him the boat for his failed business with the intention of killing himself afterward. He was released from prison in 1937 and died aboard a cargo ship three years later and was buried in Aberdeen, Scotland.

New Evidence - Why Hichens Was Not in Cape Town in 1914

Written by Senan Molony

Senan Molony

Editor's note: Senan Molony has kindly contributed the following article and documents in response to Quartermaster Robert Hichen's great-granddaughter Sally Nilsson's recent book entitled "The Man Who Sank Titanic". The book includes a letter by Thomas Garvey that tells of Henry Blum who docked in Cape Town in 1914 and met a 'Harbourmaster' who allegedly said he was Titanic's quartermaster during the iceberg collision. Notably, this 'Harbourmaster' also alleges that First Officer Murdoch was at the time 'asleep and drunk at the rear of the pilot house.' For more information on this serious allegation and how illogical it is please refer to the article Was Murdoch Drunk at the Wheel?

The accuracy of the Garvey letter, or rather testimonial, helpfully printed in full in Sally Nilsson’s book (p. 15) depends on Titanic quartermaster and steersman Robert Hichens being in South Africa in 1914.

Henry Blum did exist, and was indeed born in Norway - he shows up in the 1940 US Census giving his place of birth. There can be little doubt therefore that Thomas Garvey met his old shipmate in New York and heard a powerfully gripping sailor’s story from him, which he evidently believed and later recorded for posterity.

However, reasoning a priori, the story is hearsay, and one of its most important aspects is that Blum does not refer to Robert Hichens by name. No name at all is given.

It may therefore be true, even if it is established that Hichens spent the whole of 1914 in England, that Blum was himself told the story by another old salt, such that Blum, like Garvey in turn, was convinced of its truth.

A young Robert Hichens.
Photograph: Senan Molony/Mirror
(Click image to enlarge)

However it would have been a basic precaution for Blum to have established who the narrator giving him this story was by name. The Titanic’s ‘last steersman” (actually Hichens was relieved at the wheel of the maiden voyager, even if no navigating was subsequently done) had twice given public evidence, and providing his name, and evidence of identity, would have established the narrator’s bona fides.

Had this been done, the reader is entitled to the view that Blum would in turn have passed on the name - since he had apparently recollected every other detail and was prepared to now publicise secrets to Garvey - and done so if only to establish his own creditworthiness.

A person telling a tall story, knowing only the rudiments of the Titanic disaster, would not have a name to pass on... verisimilitude can be hard to achieve in the colonies when detailed reports of a two-year-old calamity are not to hand.

It is similarly reasonable to infer that the nameless allegation cannot be divorced from the very odd circumstance of a ‘harbourmaster’ visiting a ship. The claim to high local office therefore would appears to be of a piece with the lurid story subsequently told, if not also with the failure to offer proof of identity.

The next key claim is that the helmsman was ‘placed under house arrest,’ presumably even after the official inquiries, and despite what his family might think of this state of affairs (did the ‘harbourmaster’ not know of his own spouse and children?) subsequently ‘spirited away’ to Cape Town.

The gravamen of the matter, however, is that ‘he was given a lifelong job with good pay for as long as he remained silent.’

Let us immediately here observe that a steamship company that loses an enormous number of passengers through collision with an iceberg has, ipso facto, suffered the worst commercial setback that can be imagined. Any drinking, negligence or lassitude whatever is mere detail thereafter - the public conscience is incapable of being shocked further, nor is any more damning damage than disaster itself capable being inflicted by any witness.

There is, of course, the matter of negligence in terms of the compensation that might have to be paid. A company would have to think long and hard about a de facto criminal contempt of court (if not the danger of inviting charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice) if it were to be tempted to ‘nobble‘ any witness.

Its principals, who guided its operations, would be notably be breaking a record of many decades of scrupulous business dealings - evident by the extraordinary gentleman’s agreement governing the building of their ships by Harland & Wolff on simply a ‘cost plus’ basis. Whether this code of honour was now to be set aside, they might also be expected to value their freedom.

Nilsson states that Hichens was
in Cape Town ‘in early 1914’
without evidence

Businessmen prone to sudden nefarious impulses might also be expected to carry out a cost/benefit analysis of anything they purposed to do. They would realise that to engage in an open-ended commitment to any seafarer (Lookout Frederick Fleet, who ended up a newspaper seller, is another popular alleged recipient of subsequent reward) would, as time progressed, gradually result in the person with the ‘bought silence’ obtaining the upper hand and holding the company itself to ransom, and doing so long after the original furore may have died down.

But the crucial point to be grasped in any argument as to negligence and compensation is that the entire issue was legally fought out on technical grounds (See Ryan v. OSNC). Moreover it had been settled by the House of Lords by 1913. No returned crew member could have been expected to interest himself in separate US litigation, the world being a more insular place in those days.

Casting all these considerations aside, however, the harbourmaster story depends ultimately for even the slimmest chance of its being actually true on Robert Hichens physically manifesting himself in Cape Town in 1914.

No hard evidence of this simple requirement, quite apart from whether Hichens, or any relation, was in the broader South Africa in any other year, has ever been disclosed to contemporary analysis. Later port records for Hichens in many countries should serve only to heighten the absence of any relating to South Africa in the timeframe required.

On the contrary it is abundantly evident that Hichens was in England in 1914, although he would later that year move abroad - but to France.

Sally Nilsson states categorically (p 127) that Hichens was in Cape Town ‘in early 1914’ without providing evidence for any part of this equation. It is important to point out that the Garvey testimonial says only that the Blum meeting with the narrator of the story was in 1914 simplicitur.

Hichens' World War One Enlistment.
Document: Senan Molony
(Click image to enlarge)

It is Ms Nilsson imputing an ‘early’ aspect to the 1914 Cape Town encounter because she knows that Robert Hichens was called up as Royal Navy Reservist on August 2, 1914.

He went to a depot ship in Portsmouth and provided an English address. This was likely the address to which his call-up papers went, rather than a next-of-kin convenience.

Robert Hichens was certainly in England in July, because the trigger event for the Great War and mass mobilisation was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Look at the date it happened - July 28, 1914.

Consider the length of time required to return home by steamship from the Cape, not that Britain flung her net that far in the early stages of the war. An experienced and high-ranking port official elsewhere in the Empire surely should have been highly valued in situ... while such a harbourmaster might be expected to take issue with low level and impertinent correspondence, if not to ignore it completely, had it issued, or been forwarded by slow steamer.

Ms Nilsson acknowledges that Hichens was speedily ‘invalided out of the reserves,’ having been diagnosed with neurasthenia. The difficulty now is that once again Hichens might be expected to abandon his family to return to the vaunted ‘lifelong job’ in the Cape, despite the intervention of wartime.

Again there is no such record, but there is instead the evidence of his youngest daughter, Ivy Doreen, being born in England in 1915.

Now to new evidence - because an enlistment paper exists to show that Robert Hichens, born in Newlyn as the Titanic quartermaster was, signed up with the Army Service Corps.

Ms Nilsson has rejected this evidence because the age has a slight discrepancy and the person involved denies prior military or naval service. But this is what someone invalided from one branch of the armed services would likely do if they still hoped to serve.

Hichens was born in Newlyn. Photograph:
Senan Molony (Click image to enlarge)

There is only a single other Robert Hichens born in Newlyn since 1850 who could be a contender. He was born in late 1863 (registered in January 1864), whereas Titanic Robert was born in September 1882. The recruit claims to be 34 years and 60 days, meaning a birthday in September 1880.

The specific age claim is false, as there was no Robert Hichens born anywhere in the United Kingdom in that quarter of 1880. (Titanic Hichens had a habit of giving as age as that of his next birthday, not his last).

Our 1914 recruit makes further false statements on the enlistment attestation, despite his being cautioned that any untrue answer could result in two years’ hard labour.

Question 11 - Have you ever served in... any naval reserve force? ‘No.’ But the Titanic helmsman received an RNR long service medal in 1910 (not mentioned in Ms Nilsson’s book).
Question 12 - Have you truly stated the whole, if any, of your previous service (a re-phrasing of Question 11)? ‘Yes.’
Question 13 - Have you even been rejected as unfit for the Military or Naval Services of the Crown? If so, on what grounds? ‘No.’

Hichens' signatures:
1st - Titanic's sign-on manifest
2nd - Titanic's sign-off
3rd - Enlistment
4th-6th Souvenir signatures
Document: Senan Molony
(Click image to enlarge)

The Titanic helmsman would be giving false answers to these questions. But there are interesting coincidences in that the recruit is also married and also living in Southampton - as were the wife and family of the man who testified at two shipwreck inquiries.

The attestation signature is broadly similar with other monikers of the Titanic Hichens. Put another way, it is not so wildly at variance with his other signatures over time that it must be reasonably likely to belong to another.

Two signatures of the ‘other’ Robert Hichens, living in Cornwall by the 1911 census are, naturally, consistent with each other, but contra-indicated in comparison with the known signatures of Titanic Hichens as well as that of the man signing up for the Army Service Corps.

Now for the clinching evidence.

A description of a river trip of the Thames for convalescing soldiers, published in The Times on September 4, 1915, mentions a member of the Army Service Corps who is also a survivor of the Titanic disaster.

“The only man who had not been to the front - and he was very angry that he had not - was an Army Service Corps man, who has driven up a Lewisham contingent [of recuperating wounded] in a motor-omnibus.

“He, to make up for having had no fighting, was a survivor from the Titanic. He described the scene wonderfully well, and ended his story with the graphic touch, that when he got home again he ‘couldn’t help but laugh to think of all he’d been through.’”

The Times, Saturday 4th September, 1915, p9.
Document: Senan Molony
(Click image to enlarge)

This can only be Robert Hichens. The quartermaster was back at the wheel.

Sally Nilsson has again made an unfortunate choice in terms of what to believe and disbelieve.

Army records show that Hichens served until 1918 with the Royal Army Service Corps. He had arrived in France for a tour of duty in the supply lines, likely supervising the unloading of military materièl at ports, on December 6, 1914.

But the point of is not to show that Hichens was in Britain in the second half of 1914 (and into late 1915.) That appears to have been already conceded.

It is instead to draw attention to the answer on the attestation sheet to question 5 - What is your trade or calling?

Hichens answers ‘stevedore,’ or docker. This was his occupation, then, earlier in 1914. He cannot call to mind any recent service in ‘early 1914’ as a prestigious harbourmaster in Cape Town.

This should form a requiem for the preposterous Blum story. All the actual evidence is against it. There is not a scrap in support of the Garvey testimonial.

Conclusion: it’s poppycock.

Editor's note: After publication of this article Senan Molony has also discovered two Irish newspaper articles which further go to show that there is no evidence to support the Garvey letter. The Leitrim Observer, Saturday July 29, 1933 and The Kerryman, Saturday May 11, 1935 carry interviews with Hichens which have no reference to either being in South Africa in such a prestigious position or of officers being asleep or drunk at the time of the collision. According to Molony these accounts "suggest he had no intention of revealing a navigational or helm error as the cause of the Titanic foundering. His big secret, if it ever existed, may have been confirmation of an officer’s self-despatch" (The Titanic Commutator edition No 202, 2013). For more information about the officer suicide please see this article and for information on how this relates to the Garvey letter check here.)