The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Boxhall's Evidence at the British Board of Trade Enquiry (22 May, 1912)

  • Fourth Officer Boxhall
    soon after the disaster.

    Boxhall: "I heard the First Officer give the order 'Hard-a-starboard,' and I heard the engine-room telegraph bells ringing... I was almost on the bridge when she struck."

    He said that immediately after impact the telegraphs indicated the engines were '"'Full speed astern,' both. " and he "saw Mr. Murdoch closing them [watertight doors] then, pulling the lever... The Captain was alongside of me when I turned around...He asked him what we had struck... The First Officer said, 'An iceberg, Sir. I hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines, and I was going to hard-a-port round it but she was too close. I could not do any more. I have closed the watertight doors." The Commander asked him if he had rung the warning bell, and he said 'Yes.' "

    Boxhall then went with the Captain and the First Officer to the starboard side of the bridge to see the iceberg.

    Commissioner: " Was Mr. Murdoch standing with you while you were observing the iceberg?"

    Boxhall: "Yes, he pointed at it - like that."

    However, Boxhall "was not too sure of seeing it. I had just come out of the light, and my eyes were not accustomed to the darkness."


Fredrick Fleet.

Please note: For the purpose of simplicity the following iceberg collision sequence is according to a generally accepted order of events. Alternative and revisionist theories are discussed separately.

At approximately 11:30pm lookouts Fleet and Lee note a slight haze appearing directly ahead of Titanic, but it is only at 11:40pm that Frederick Fleet sees an iceberg dead ahead about 500 yards away towering some 55 – 60 feet above the water. They immediately sound the warning bell with three sharp rings (collision warning) and telephone down to the bridge. Sixth Officer Moody picks up the telephone in the enclosed wheelhouse.

Sixth officer James Moody.
(Click image to enlarge)

Moody: Yes. What do you see?
Fleet: Iceberg right ahead!
Moody: Thank you.
Hanging up the phone, Moody relays the message to Murdoch
Moody: Iceberg right ahead!

Opinions differ on whether or not Murdoch, on the wing bridge, spotted the iceberg before or after Moody received the call from Fleet. Some imply that he may not have seen it at all (1.). But it is possible that he heard the three rings of the warning bell on the starboard wing of the bridge, drawing his attention to the obstacle, the visual information providing the reasons for his subsequent commands.

Murdoch depicted by artist Ken Marschall sighting
the iceberg on the starboard wing.

Nevertheless, his response is immediate and instinctive. He rushes into the enclosed navigating bridge and orders Quartermaster Hichens to put the helm to “Hard-a-starboard”. Under an archaic system of helm orders then in force, this meant the ship’s bow would swing to port. According to Fourth Officer Boxhall he also sets the engine telegraphs to “Stop engines”, then to “Full astern together” however this testimony was contradicted by Greaser Frederick Scott and Leading stoker Frederick Barrett who stated that the stoking indicators went only from “Full” to “Stop”.

Hichens turns the wheel hard over and acknowledges “Hard a-starboard, sir.” According to the book Triumph and Tragedy “quickly [Murdoch] glanced at a set of printed instructions posted near the helmsman: ‘In case of emergency, to close watertight door on tank top, press bell for 10 seconds to give alarm; then move switch to “on” position and keep it there…’ He then reached for the lever which electrically activated the doors…” (7.)

Quartermaster Robert Hichens

Remembering that all this activity is taking place in a space of a few seconds, it is quite likely that Murdoch may have not waited for the warning bell to ring for ten seconds, pressing the bell and pulling the lever almost simultaneously. In doing so, he activates a hydraulic system that automatically lowers the watertight doors into a closed position in the engine room and boiler room bulkheads. Within 15 seconds of pulling the emergency lever, the bulkhead lower doors are shut.

After what must have seemed an eternity, the Titanic begins to veer to port. The lookouts watch helplessly as the iceberg nears and then finally strikes the starboard bow, brushing along the side of the ship. According to Quartermaster Alfred Olliver, as the iceberg passes amidships, Murdoch then orders the helm “hard-to-port,” apparently with the intention of swinging (or "fishtailing") the vulnerable propellers, rudder and stern away from the iceberg. In this, Murdoch succeeds. He has also avoided a head-on collision, but what results is a far more fatal 'glancing blow.' Beneath the water line, the iceberg scrapes along Titanic’s hull, denting the plates, popping rivets and causing enough damage to breach the first five watertight compartments to the sea. Based on the mathematical certainty that if more than four holds are flooded, water will spill into the next compartment and so on, the Titanic is sure to sink, albeit gradually over the next several hours.

Depending on their location aboard the ship, some are startled by the impact, while others are completely oblivious to what has just occurred. One person roused by the collision is Captain Smith, who, within a minute, rushes up to the bridge.

Captain Edward John Smith

Captain Smith: What have we struck?
First Officer Murdoch: An iceberg sir. I hard a-starboarded and reversed the engines and I was going to hard-a-port around it, but she was too close. I could not do any more.

According to Fourth Officer Boxhall, who appears on the bridge during the time of the collision, Murdoch’s reply is: “We have struck an iceberg. I put her hard a-starboard and ran the engines full astern, but it was too close; she hit it. I intended to port around it, but she hit before I could do any more.”

Captain Smith: Are the watertight doors closed?
Murdoch: The watertight doors are closed, sir

Richard Edkins mentions the following orders on his website: “Elizabeth Gibbons surmises that the Captain put the ship’s telegraphs to ‘Half Ahead,’ then to ‘Stop,’ to avoid reversing into the iceberg and bring the ship to a halt. It is possible that Murdoch himself would have done this. Hichens (although an unreliable witness) claimed that Murdoch told Alfred Olliver to make a note of that in the log book, ‘at 20 minutes [short] of 12.’ This is the primary evidence of the time of collision.” (1.)

After their quick exchange, Smith, Murdoch and Boxhall walk out on to the starboard wing to look aft, as described in Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember: “Smith, on reaching the wheelhouse after the crash, paused only long enough to visit the starboard wing of the bridge to see if the iceberg was still in sight. Murdoch and Fourth Officer Boxhall trailed along and for a moment the three officers merely stood peering into the darkness. Boxhall thought he saw a dark shape far astern, but he wasn’t sure.” (20.)

Titanic's starboard navigating bridge (colourised). (19.)
(Click image to enlarge)

Also refer to box at left: Boxhall's Evidence at the British Board of Trade Enquiry (22 May, 1912) above left.