The Titanic Steaming

In November 2008 the St Margarets Community Website carried an article about one of East Twickenham’s most distinguished residents, Charles Lightoller, the hero of the Titanic. Here is an extract…

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 maritime adventures, 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.

Charles Lightoller

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.

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.

Louise Patten

Now Charles Lightoller is back in the news again. Nearly 60 years after his death his granddaughter, Louise Patten, has revealed that the sinking of the “Titanic” was not as straightforward as it seemed. There were other undisclosed reasons why the ship went down and Lightoller knew them, sharing them only with his wife Sylvia.

  • The iceberg was first sighted by First Officer William Murdoch who gave the order “Hard a-starboard” (sharp turn to the right). Although the man at the ship’s wheel, Quartermaster Robert Hitchens, had been trained under “rudder orders”, he knew that the older “tiller orders” of sailing days were still operating in the North Atlantic. Under this system the command “Hard a-starboard” meant push the tiller to the right, which has the effect of steering the ship to the left - and that is what Hitchens did, directing the Titanic towards the iceberg, not away from it as intended. Although his error was quickly corrected it was not quick enough to prevent the collision with the iceberg.
  • Lightoller learned of this confusion over the steering orders at a meeting held in the First Officer’s cabin as the ship was sinking. At this meeting it was also revealed that instead of bringing the Titanic to a complete stop after the collision - relieving the pressure on the ship’s damaged hull and the interior watertight bulkheads - Captain Edward Smith was persuaded by Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line who owned the ship, to keep the vessel moving. “My grandfather described the decision to try and keep Titanic moving forward as criminal”, said Louise Patten. “The nearest ship was four hours away. Had she remained at “stop” it’s probable that Titanic would have floated until help arrived.”

newspaper clipping

Charles Lightoller was a brave and conscientious man and one cannot help wondering why he did not reveal this information at the Board of Enquiry held in 1912. Patten has an answer. “He made the choice to keep it a secret; he thought he had a duty to protect his employers and he never doubted for a moment that it was the right thing to do. I think that if I had been him, I would have done the same. It was for the best of reasons.”

There are some who are sceptical about Louise Pattens’ claims. Michael McCaughan, a maritime specialist who has been writing about the Titanic for 30 years, says that he had heard the “rudder/tiller confusion” theory before. “But of course as we come up to the centenary (of the disaster), this is clearly interesting. It’s a new piece of aural evidence and it will give rise to a lot of discussion and debate.”

Michael McCaughan was right about discussion and debate. The day after Louise Patten’s revelation was reported in the national press this letter appeared on in the “Guardian”.

“As an ex-quartermaster who served on ocean liners I must comment on the secret supposedly taken to the grave by CH Lightoller, Titanic’s second officer. True, a rudder controlled by a tiller moves starboard (right) when the tiller is pushed to port (left) whereas a wheel controlled rudder moves to starboard when the wheel is turned starboard. From this we are asked to believe the quartermaster turned the wheel in the direction opposite from instructed because he responded as if steering by tiller, confusion made possible by the prevalence of two different conventions on helm instructions.

Sail and steam instructions are different, but not confusable. Steamship instructions are for port, starboard or midships, whereas on a sailing ship course alterations are to “leeward” or to “windward”. Never port, never starboard. If Titanic was steered into the iceberg by the quartermaster the explanation will not be found in quasi-nautical nonsense.”

Ronnie McDonald - Aberdeen

With nearly 100 years between us and that night in April 1912 when the Titanic sank with the loss of 1517 lives it is likely that we will never know what actually happened. Louise Patten is using Lightoller’s revelations in her new novel “Good as Gold”, published this week. As for her grandfather, the brave man who lived at 1 Ducks Walk, East Twickenham, he isn’t saying.

Vernon Dalhart

In 1920, Vernon Dalhart, famous for his recording of “The Runaway Train”, recorded a song about the sinking of the Titanic. Enjoy it here.


– from Martyn Day