The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

George Behe

  • Ships Monthly is a UK based monthly magazine, devoted to both modern and archival ships and shipping artistry. Worldwide sales exceeds 18,000 copies per month, with the magazine divided into catagories such as ferries, expedition ships, corvettes, preserved vessels and cargo ships. It contains photographs and illustrated articles on various genres of ships: mercantile and naval, sail and steam, past and present.

An Honest Hero...
First Officer Murdoch and the "Titanic"
by Ian Harvie (England)

A scan of the article "An Honest Hero" in Ship's Monthly magazine.
(Click image to enlarge)

Note: It is believed this article was originally published in Ship's Monthly, most likely between 1998 and 2003 (precise date unknown) on pages 363 and 364. It is a surprisingly balanced article, quite unlike most of the articles that ran after the release of Cameron's film in 1997.

The commercial and, if the Oscars are a reliable guide to such matters, critical success of the film "Titanic" has not been unattended by historical controversy. In particular, its depiction of the ship's First Officer, William Murdoch. as a murderer and eventual suicide has generated feelings of resentment. and calls for public apologies from the film's makers. by relatives and self appointed defenders of Murdoch's reputation in his home town of Dalbeattie in Scotland. A website. sponsored by Dalbeattie Town Council. has been set up to challenge the image presented in the film and contains extensive biographical information about Murdoch and his career with the ship's owners, the White Star Line (

In March the local MP, Alisdair Morgan, wrote to the film's director, James Cameron. hoping to set the record straight. As a result, 20th Century Fox - the film's backers - donated £5,000 to a memorial fund set up in Murdoch's name and expressed their regret for any distress caused by the film's portrayal of someone who they acknowledge to have been an "honest hero".

The known facts of Murdoch's career indicate that he was a thoroughly competent professional seaman, highly respected by his peers and employers. Born into a sea-faring family, he entered the merchant marine immediately after leaving school, serving his apprenticeship with a Liverpool based shipping company trading with South America. Sometime around 1900 he joined the White Star Line, and for the next few years served as second officer on the 12,000 tonnes plus liners Medic and Runic, employed on the Liverpool-Sydney, Australia run. In 1903 he joined the Arabic plying the Liverpool to New York route. During one such voyage he countermanded the order of a superior officer so as to avert a collision with an oncoming sailing vessel. This demonstration of decisiveness and self possession on Murdoch's part stands in marked contrast to the weak and uninspiring figure he cuts in the film.

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

In the following year Murdoch joined the Celtic, at 21,000 tonnes one of White Star's largest vessels, and marking the beginning of his association with superliners like the Titanic. White Star's decision in 1907 to build a new class of superliners arose out of their rival. Cunard's, construction of their own breed of transatlantic leviathans Mauretania and Lusitania, in the same year. Named the Olympic class, and half as big again as the two Cunarders, they embodied the same spirit of monumentalism and technological daring evident in the construction of the world's first all big gun battleship, Dreadnought, the year before. Although slower than their Cunard competitors, they re-defined standards of opulence among vessels operating on the highly competitive North Atlantic run. The extraordinary array of comforts and facilities they afforded first-class passengers. together with the general capaciousness of their accommodation (third class included). was reflected in their exaggerated dimensions. The constraints which this imposed on their manoeuvrability however demanded superior levels of seamanship. so that the officers recruited to serve aboard the "Olympics" represented the elite of White Star's personnel.

Murdoch's standing with White Star by the time the name ship of the class set out on its maiden voyage in June 1911 was sufficiently high for him to be appointed its First Officer. Unlike the maiden voyage of its sister, it passed off without major incident. For the next nine months he continued to serve aboard the Olympic, reaffirming his reputation as a thoroughly dependable officer and one probably destined in due course for his own commands. ln March 1912 he became Chief Officer designate of the Titanic, though a subsequent reshuffling of personnel eventually saw him demoted to his more familiar berth of First Officer when she left Southampton for New York on April 10.

On the night of her collision the Titanic was steaming at high speed (an estimated 221/2 knots) towards a reported ice field south of Newfoundland. Although course and speed followed the dictates of the captain. Murdoch, as officer of the watch at the time of the impact, was immediately responsible for the ship's safe navigation. Whilst it was within his discretion to reduce speed if, in his judgement, conditions warranted it. corporate pressure may have been applied to officers to complete a fast first passage for publicity purposes. By 1912 a culture of speed and calculated risk taking prevailed among many transatlantic ocean liners. This seems to have been particularly pervasive aboard the Titanic, whose reputation for unsinkability seems to have instilled complacency among both captain and officers as to the risks associated with collision at sea.

Murdoch's actions between the interval the iceberg was sighted and the ship struck it have been subjected to minute scrutiny and "what if" hypothesising both by the subsequent official inquiries and marine commentators. The time which elapsed between the two events did not exceed forty seconds and as it took up to half a minute for the ship's rudder to begin responding to alterations in course emanating from the bridge - and a great deal longer for the ship to stop - there was little or nothing Murdoch in effect could have done to significantly alter the point of impact, let alone avert it. This is significant in the light of subsequent claims that had the Titanic hit the iceberg head on, rather than suffered the glancing blow which Murdoch's attempt to avoid it may have induced, the design of her bulkheads may have enabled her to survive. Whether Murdoch felt any guilt or responsibility for the collision, and whether this in any way affected his subsequent actions, can only remain a matter for speculation.

Depiction of "bribery" in James Cameron's 1997 film "Titanic".

The events in the film which Murdoch's champions take exception to concern his actions after the collision; namely, his acceptance of a bribe from a male passenger seeking room in a lifeboat: his shooting of a passenger: and his suicide. The scene involving his acceptance of a bribe is pure fabrication and is one of those moments when the film's faithfulness to known historical facts is sacrificed to satisfy the demands of its main fctional storyline. As the bribe is both forced on him however and eventually thrown back in the lace of the character offering it, it struck this cinema-goer that no impugning of Murdoch's integrity is involved. Far more damaging to his reputation are the allegations of murder and suicide, both of which have some substance in eye-witness testimony.

ln the wake of the collision firearms were distributed to a number of officers for purposes of crowd control in the event of passenger disturbances. At least one survivor claimed that Murdoch fire shots into the air to prevent passengers stampeding a lifeboat. Two others. who do not mention Murdoch by name. implicate him in their claims that an officer shot a passenger before turning the gun on himself. lt is this scenario which the film chooses to recreate. lt is certainly possible that Murdoch fired warning shots to quell passenger unrest. A number of survivors speak of shots being fired, though other officers besides Murdoch have been identified as possible perpetrators of this act. The charge that he shot and killed a passenger is at best a matter of speculative guesswork. The proximity of Murdoch to the alleged incident does make him a possible candidate however. The same applies to his alleged suicide. which is just one among a number of suicide stories which attached themselves to crew members in the wake of the sinking, including the ship's captain. ln all cases the testimony conflicts with other more reliable eye-witness evidence.

A convincing body of testimony establishes that Murdoch spent his final hours organising the launching of the lifeboats on the starboard side of the boat deck along with Third Officer Pitman. A number were launched filled to less than full capacity, something which both the "Titanic" and an earlier film about the sinking. "A Night to Remember", seek to make capital out of. ln fact, Murdoch, along with sortie of his colleagues, entertained doubts as to the strength of the lifeboats on board the Titanic and in particular their ability to withstand the strain of being lowered full to capacity without rupturing. Hatchways in the side of the hull however meant that they could be filled whilst in the water. Murdoch gave explicit instructions to Pitman, who he put in charge of the boats after they had been launched, to "lay around the after gangway " in order that this could be done. They were instructions which Pitman failed to act on, perhaps because by the time the boats had been lowered the hatchways were no longer viable escape routes. According to the testimony of Second Officer Lightoller and Wireless Operator Harold Bride it was whilst he was trying to launch one of the last remaining collapsible life rafts that the Titanic made a sudden plunge toppling Murdoch over the side and to his death.

In interviews, and in the book which accompanies the film, director James Cameron has been at pains to establish the film's factual credentials. "I made it a sacred goal of the production, a goal that came to be shared by everyone involved, to honour the facts without compromise.

"Titanic" director James Cameron

"l wanted to be able to say to an audience, without the slightest pang of guilt: This is real. This is what happened. Exactly like this. If you went back in a time machine and stood on the deck, this is what you would have seen Second Officer Lightoller would be over there, at lifeboat number six, and Wallace Hartley would be leading the band in a lively waltz just there, a few yards away, by the port-forward first class entrance, and Quartermaster Rowe would be firing the first distress rocket right about now!"

What is real and what is myth in so far as the Titanic's final hours are concerned is often impossible to distinguish. The history of the Titanic disaster is an agglomeration of substantiated testimony and uncorroborated rumour - something which Cameron himself acknowledges. This being the case it is inevitable that choices and compromises will be made. and if in its depiction of Murdoch's final moments the film engages more with rumour and the mythology of events rather than with likelihood or fact - if it adopts the sensationalist rather than the mundane and prosaic option - then this is understandable where the principal objective is to entertain rather than to inform. Even so, where so much is a matter of conjecture rather than incontestable fact, it is fundamentally dishonest of Cameron to insist on the film's factual accuracy without proper qualifications and disclaimers. Recreating a historical event within the memory of living generations carries with it certain responsibilities, especially towards those descendants of participants who may, understandably, be sensitive to issues of murder and suicide.

But does the film's treatment really amount to a disparagement of Murdoch? ln the accompanying book, Cameron describes Murdoch's devotion to duty in trying to launch the lifeboats up until the very last minutes before the ship foundered as heroic. One of the principal sources for the murder and suicide story was filled with nothing but admiration for the officer concerned.

"Whilst the last boat was leaving. l saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing more for him to do, the officer told us. "Gentlemen. each man for himself, good-bye". He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head. That's what I call a man!!!" Notwithstanding the feelings of Murdoch's relatives, those who watch the film may very well come away with the same impression.

Whichever way the film's portrayal is received, it has nevertheless served a beneficial purpose in igniting interest in the real historical figure of William Murdoch. which a less controversial portrait would not have done. Immediately after his death. the local council established the Murdoch Memorial Prize to provide an award of £4 to the best fourth year student at Dalbeattie High School, where Murdoch had once been a pupil. Over the years the value of the prize has failed to keep pace with inflation. but largely because of the controversy aroused by the film it has been decided to re- launch the fund so that a more worthwhile annual award can be made. As a result of Fox's £5,000 gesture of atonement. the original target figure of £1,000 has been revised upwards to £10,000. The strength of civic pride felt by the people of Dalbeattie about their local hero will no doubt be gauged by whether their donations enable this target figure to be attained.