The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

20. No. 5 and Loading Capacity

First Class Passenger Norman Campbell Chambers left with Mrs. Chambers in No. 5, and was a particularly astute witness:

"By the time we were settled and I began to take note of the things on the ship I noticed a tall young officer clad in a long overcoat, which may help identify him, giving orders to another officer to go into our boat and take charge of the boats on our side. As a parting injunction he gave our officer (whom I later found to be a Mr. Pitman) instructions to hold onto his painter and pull up alongside the gangway after the boat had reached the water." (Page 1043)

Chambers was mystified; he felt No. 5 had been sufficiently full when he and two other men had simply stepped into it to join their wives, and he was also "morally certain, myself that no doors in the ship's side had been opened." (Pages 1043-1044)

Second class passenger
Lawrence Beesley.

Lawrence Beesley saw Murdoch crossing the boatdeck some time later, and affords the only glimpse that night of Murdoch without his polished poise. Several boats had now been lowered or were in the last moments of loading. Still clad in his greatcoat, he was, in Beesley's phrase, "striding along the deck". Murdoch's expression struck Beesley with staggering force; the latter would write that the First Officer was "from his manner and face evidently in great agitation, but determined and resolute." Murdoch leaned over the edge and shouted to a lifeboat: "Lower away, and when afloat, row around to the gangway and wait for orders". A seaman below replied "Aye, aye, sir". Murdoch then "passed by and went across the ship to the port side".

Beesley went to the edge and looked down, too; he was seen by Chief Fireman Fred Barrett, in charge of No. 13, then being lowered past B Deck. Assured by Beesley that there were no ladies to be seen on the boatdeck, Barrett pointed to a space forward in No. 13 and told him to jump. Beesley stepped off the deck instantly. The look on Murdoch's face had, in fact, been the sort of expression that makes all the hair on the back of the neck stand up; it was more than sufficient to make a man who had never before been to sea leap off the side of an oceanliner and free fall three decks into the bow of a lifeboat suspended some 40 feet above the North Atlantic.

Like W. T. Sloper, Beesley made it to New York and wrote a book. His description of Murdoch is instructive for the words he did not use. It was approximately 1:30 in the morning when Beesley jumped for it, and Murdoch was now desperate to get passengers into lifeboats, but he was merely "striding" down the boatdeck. Able seaman Edward Buley would use equally exact language when describing Murdoch as No. 10 on the port side was readied:

"Mr. Buley. We loaded all the women we could see, and the chief officer rushed around trying to find more, and there was none, and our boat was lowered away." (Page 609)

Buley had worked under Murdoch's direction all night, following him from boat station to boat station, and had also assisted Lightoller; he would testify that No. 10 was the last lifeboat, and he knew also that the end was very near firemen and stewards were throwing overboard anything that could float as No. 10 was lowered. Nevertheless, even now, Murdoch conformed to his prescribed role: he "rushed" about. British officers do not run.

By this time, whatever his outward correctness, Murdoch no longer had patience for dawdling passengers. Able Seaman Frank Oliver Evans was ordered into No. 10 by Murdoch:

Mr. Evans. . . . He said, "Get into that boat," and I got into the bows of this boat, and a young ship's baker was getting the children and chucking them into the boat, and the women were jumping. Mr. Murdock made them jump across into the boat.
Senator Smith. How far?
Mr. Evans. It was about two feet and a half, sir. He was making the women jump across, and the children he was chucking across, along with this baker. He throwed [sic] them onto the women, and he was catching the children by their dresses and chucking them in. . . . . .
Senator Smith. Did the women hesitate about getting in?
Mr. Evans. One or two women did, sir; but he compelled them to jump. He told them that they must.
Senator Smith. Did any women refuse to jump?
Mr. Evans. One or two women refused, in the first place, to jump; but after he told them, they finally went." (Pages 675-677)

One of the queries never satisfactorily answered was why, with inadequate lifeboat capacity well known and approximately 2200 souls aboard, only 705 persons were waiting in Titanic's boats when the Carpathia arrived. Lightoller, in his own phrase "hand firmly on the whitewash brush", proffered various explanations, and the surviving junior officers were adamant that they feared the lifeboats if loaded to specifications would break up under their feet. None of them knew that Harland & Wolff had tested Titanic's lifeboats, lowering each weighted for its stated capacity. They did not know because it was information that had not been passed on back in Belfast exactly the sort of omission that might be expected in the atmosphere created by Lord Pirrie's ferocious schedule. It was a lethal mistake.

Moreover, with no prior time on the Olympic, Lightoller and the junior officers had no experience of the sister ship on which to rely. They might, of course, have asked Thomas Andrews; but there is no evidence that Andrews was on the boatdeck until near the end he was, almost certainly, down below with the crew manning the pumps. The other eight Harland & Wolff employees would not have been helpful; four were apprentices and those who were engineers would be below with Andrews. Murdoch, Wilde, and Captain Smith, however, did know the new class of liner, and might be presumed to know that the lifeboats could be safely loaded to capacity while in the davits. Why then, was this not done? The answer appears to lie partly with the general disorganization, resulting in a sporadic lack of passengers to place in the boats, and partly with the decision not to announce the danger clearly and precisely. First Class passenger Henry C. Stengel would tell Senator Smith of an overheard conversation on just this point on the Carpathia:

"Mr. Stengel. I think so far as the loading of the boats after the accident was concerned, sir, they showed very good judgment. I think they were very cool. They calmed the passengers by making them believe it was not a serious accident. In fact, most of them, after they got on board the Carpathia, said they expected to go back the next day and get aboard the Titanic again. I heard that explained afterwards by an officer of the ship, when he said, 'Suppose we had reported the damage that was done to that vessel; there would not be one of you aboard. The stewards would have come up' not the stewards, but the stokers 'would have come up and taken every boat, and no one would have had a chance of getting aboard of [sic] those boats'." (Page 975)

This was true to a point, but excludes the fact, which Stengel could not have known, that Lightoller himself did not understand the extent of the damage and therefore was in no position to base any decision on private knowledge, and the junior officers did not make the decisions. It also evades stating that the need was to keep the passengers under control; the stokers not only knew the gravity of their situation but some had come up on deck and commandeered a lifeboat. Murdoch had thrown them out of it.

First Class Passenger Mrs. J. B. Mennell (Miss Allen on the manifest) saw 16 to 18 stokers calmly board port side emergency boat 2, and William Murdoch promptly order them back on deck. Mrs. Mennell quoted Murdoch as snapping "Get out, you damned cowards; I'd like to see everyone of you overboard", following with the command, "Women and children into this boat". The men meekly got out and the women, Mrs. Mennell among them, got in.

Major Arthur Peuchen witnessed another similar incident. He described watching some 100 stokers, duffel bags in hand, who had come up on deck and were crowding between the boats and passengers; Murdoch had arrived and, in Peuchen's phrase, "drove these men right off this deck like a lot of sheep". Stokers were notoriously and necessarily a tough lot, yet they proffered no resistance, obeying Murdoch without complaint. Peuchen was impressed: "I admired him for it". (Pages 335)

As Peuchen was ordered into No. 6, launched at approximately 1:10 am, and emergency boat No. 2 was lowered at approximately 1:45 am, these are probably two separate incidents; both are a sudden, sharp glimpse into Murdoch's mind. As he knew the Titanic would sink and knew, moreover, that the stokers knew or could guess, describing their perfectly comprehensible behavior as cowardly could not be improved upon as an illustration perhaps the illustration of his conception of discipline and of duty. Before the end, he would enforce his orders with more than words.

Both Mrs. Mennell (who supplied a narration of her experiences) and Major Peuchen were quoted on the stoker incidents by another military man who survived, First Class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie. Gracie was regular army with one year at West Point, and was a military historian with a capacity for combining professional detachment with an acute sensitivity to divine judgment. He had made himself useful to the officers, then went down with the ship, surfacing near overturned Collapsible B. Once on the Carpathia, Gracie spent much of his time in conference with Lightoller and with Pitman, whom he already knew. Gracie died in late 1912 of the aftereffects of his ordeal, but lived long enough to write a book, in which, as in his Senate testimony, it is obvious that Lightoller, with unerring instinct, had put his finger on the man who was going to help immortalize Lightoller's version of events and persons.

Lightoller let it be understood that he had been in charge of the port side, whereas he had, in fact, supervised the first four stations only, and even then excluding No. 2; collapsibles A and B were never properly launched, but floated off as the Titanic went under. Titanic's compliment of lifeboats consisted of 16 full size, 2 emergency boats and 4 collapsibles; all but No. 4, 6, 8 and collapsible D were lowered under Murdoch's general supervision, and there is no evidence that he considered loading them to capacity to be hazardous. He did not do so in some cases (of which emergency boat No. 1 would become the best known) but why cannot be inferred with certainty. So far as can be discovered, however, his intentions differed dramatically during the night.

No. 7 was lowered at approximately 12:45 am, and according to Sloper and the Bishops was not full; presumably, it was to pick up more people from the lower decks. No. 5, with Pitman in charge, was lowered at approximately 12:55 am, and Pitman was specific that he had been instructed by Murdoch to "hang around the after gangway". (He did not.) No. 9 was lowered at approximately 1:20 am, and according to Boatswain's Mate Albert Haines, placed in charge, had 60 people, perhaps more. Haines had assisted in turning out all the boats before reporting to his assigned station at No. 9:

Senator Smith: What happened then?
Mr. Haines. We had the boat crew there, and Mr. Murdock came along with a crowd of passengers, and we filled the boat with ladies, and lowered the boat, and he told me to lay off and keep clear of the ship. I got the boat clear, sir, and laid out near the ship. I did not think the ship would sink, of course, sir."
. . . . .
Senator Smith: Did Mr. Murdock tell you to do anything with that boatload of people and to then come back to the ship; or did any officer tell you that?
Mr. Haines: No, sir; he told me to keep them away, and lay off clear that is what he said." (Pages 657 659)

Yet, some 15 minutes later, Beesley overheard Murdoch ordering a lifeboat to row around and evacuate passengers from the lower decks. Why this was not done is another of the night's conundrums: perhaps because the Titanic was sinking far faster than thought likely or perhaps because of the alternating list noted more than once that night. Fourth Officer Boxhall, ordered to take charge of No. 2 by Murdoch, rowed around to the starboard side, intending to take a few more people although already crowded. He discovered the list was now too great and he could not do so; then he discovered a slight suction toward the liner. He rowed away to a safe distance. (Page 912)