“Any coincidence”, said Miss Marple to herself, “is always work noting. You can throw it away later if it is only a coincidence.”
Anyone who has wandered down Ducks Walk in recent times will have seen the blue plaque commemorating the life of Charles Herbert Lightoller who once lived there. Lightoller was born in 1874 and went to sea when he was only 13. In 1912, after many adventures at sea, he was appointed Second Officer aboard the ‘Titanic’, the White Star Line’s new and ‘virtually unsinkable’ ship on its ill-fated maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
Lightoller’s heroism on the night of 14 April 1912, when the ‘Titanic’ ran into an iceberg and sank, has often been told in books and films. After organising passengers into lifeboats Lightoller personally saved over 30 survivors by diving into the freezing water and encouraging them to cling to an upturned boat. They were all eventually rescued by the ‘Carpathia’. Second Officer Lightoller was the last survivor to be pulled from the water.
What is less well known is this familiar story of a huge ‘unsinkable’ ship hitting an iceberg in mid Atlantic and sinking had been told 14 years earlier in almost identical detail in a popular novella. This time the ship was not the ‘Titanic’ but the ‘Titan’! How’s that for similarity?
American writer Morgan Robertson’s book “The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility” was published in 1898. It follows the exploits of John Rowland, a disgraced Royal Navy lieutenant, cashiered because of his drinking. He manages to find work as a deck hand on the mighty ‘Titan’. This is how Robertson describes the ship in his book…
She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men…
From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable…
Unsinkable – indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people. So, it was confidently expected that when her engines had limbered themselves, the steamship Titan would land her passengers three thousand miles away with the promptitude and regularity of a railway train.
This all sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? If I were Leonardo DiCaprio I would be reaching for my lifejacket - right now! Surprisingly the similarities between the ‘Titan’ (fiction) and the ‘Titanic’ (fact) do not end there…
- The ‘Titanic’ was 882 feet long displacing 66,000 tons. The ‘Titan’ was 800 feet long, displacing 75,000 tons.
- The ‘Titanic’ had three propellers and two masts…and so did the ‘Titan’.
- The ‘Titanic’ had 16 watertight compartments. The ‘Titan’ had 19.
- The ‘Titanic’ steamed from England on her maiden voyage in April 1912. The ‘Titan’ was launched in April.
- The ‘Titanic’ carried only 20 lifeboats, less than half the number required for her 3000 passengers The ‘Titan’ carrying “as few as the law allowed”, had 24 lifeboats, less than half needed for her 3000 capacity.
- Travelling at 23 knots the ‘Titanic’ struck an iceberg at 11.40pm on the night of April 14, 1912 in the North Atlantic. The ‘Titan’ also hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic ‘near midnight’ on an April night while travelling at 25 knots.
- The’ virtually unsinkable’ ‘Titanic’ sank, and more than half of her 2,207 passengers were lost. The indestructible ‘Titan’ also sank, nearly all her 2500 passengers drowning, their “voices raised in agonized screams.”
To be fair there are also some sizeable differences between the fact and the fiction that we should note – e.g. 705 people were saved from the ‘Titanic’ while only 13 aboard the ‘Titan’ survived. The ‘Titanic’ was sailing east to west on its maiden voyage. The ‘Titan’ was sailing in the opposite direction on her third transatlantic voyage. The ‘Titanic’ hit the iceberg in perfect sailing conditions, while the ‘Titan’ hit the iceberg in foggy conditions. However these differences only serve to emphasise the incredible similarities.
Some argue that concurrences like the Titanic - Titan coincidence are manifestations of cosmic predestination which sensitives, like Morgan Robertson, can read in advance. Others think that it would be much more remarkable if coincidences never happened at all!
Let’s get back to the pages of “The Wreck of the Titan or Futility.” John Rowland, our disgraced hero saves a young woman, Myra, from the sinking ship by jumping onto an iceberg with her, and fighting off a polar bear. (He was lucky. Leonardo DiCaprio had to jump onto a bed and fight off Kate Winslet!) John and Myra are both rescued and Rowland eventually wins a lucrative Government job restoring his fortune and his position in society. In the closing lines of the book he receives a message from Myra’s mother pleading for him to visit Myra as she is asking for him…!
Charles Herbert Lightoller’s enthusiasm for the sea remained undampened by his experience aboard the ‘Titanic’ . During World War 1 he served on torpedo boats and destroyers and finished up as a Commander with two Distinguished Service Crosses to his credit, one for sinking a German U-Boat. In World War 2, Lightoller, now retired, took part in the Dunkirk Evacuation, rescuing 130 soldiers from the beaches with his private yacht “Sundowner’. After the war Lightoller and his wife Sylvia moved to 1 Ducks Walk, East Twickenham where he managed a small boatyard building motor launches for the River Police. He died on 8 December 1952 aged 78, of heart disease exacerbated perhaps by the Great London Smog which had begun 3 days earlier.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Recently, poking around the back of the sink in my kitchen, I found an old silver plated fork. On its reverse side it had an engraving of a swallow tailed flag with a five pointed star - the emblem of the White Star Line, the company that owned the ‘Titanic’. Is this a coincidence - or just a fork?
– from Martyn Day