This article originally appeared in Voyage, the quarterly publication of the Titanic International Society, issues 72/73, summer and autumn 2010. Reprinted here courtesy of TIS.
Titanic’s original Second Officer,
“It was perhaps the most catastrophic lapse of memory in history, costing more than 1,500 lives. A sailor called David Blair forgot to leave behind a key as the Titanic set off on its maiden voyage. Without it, his shipmates were unable to open a locker in the crow’s nest containing a pair of binoculars for the designated lookout....”
With a further reference to “the key which may have saved the luxury liner,” so ran a story on the website of the London Evening Standard on January 16, 2007,1 continuing one of the most famous “what if” stories in Titanic history. This oft-repeated tale holds that a pair of binoculars designated for the lookouts’ use had been placed in a cabinet in the officers’ quarters with the key held by David Blair, the former Second Officer who lost his place on the ship in a last-minute shuffle of officers. According to the story, Blair had the key in
his pocket, and following his departure no one knew where the binoculars were. For want of a key the ship was lost - or was it? As we will see, there are a number of misconceptions, misunderstandings and blatant inaccuracies surrounding this popular belief, and in reality, Titanic’s fate did not turn on a set of missing binoculars.
The above story most likely has its origins in testimony by lookout George Hogg following the sinking. Hogg testified at the British Inquiry that on the trip from Belfast to Southampton, the lookouts had been loaned by Blair a pair that were marked “SECOND OFFICER, S.S. TITANIC.” Upon Titanic’s arrival at Southampton, Blair had been in the crow’s nest using the binoculars himself. (When docking the ship, each officer had an assigned station, and the crow’s nest position was assigned to the Second Officer.) Hogg was asked:
17501. When you left the ship at Southampton, what did you do with those glasses?
Mr. Blair was in the crow’s-nest and gave me his glasses, and told me to lock them up in his cabin and to return him the keys.
17502. Who returned the keys?
I gave them to a man named Weller2, as I was busy on the forecastle head.3
17503. As far as you were concerned, the glasses, you were told, were to be locked up in the cabin
of the second officer?
I locked them up.
Much was made of this story in August of 2007, when the auction firm of Henry Aldridge & Son announced that this key would be made available for bid,4 having come to them from the British and International Sailors Society, to which the key had been left by Blair. (Also auctioned was a postcard written by Blair to his sister expressing his regret at missing Titanic’s sailing.) However, as we shall see, this missing pair of binoculars had nothing to do with the collision with the iceberg. It’s also likely that the missing pair had nothing to do with binoculars not being provided to the lookouts after Southampton.
Having been provided with a pair for their use on the trip from Belfast to Southampton, the lookouts expected that they would have them available for the next leg of the voyage. Lookout George Symons stated that, “After we left Southampton and got clear of the Nab Lightship, I went up to the officers’ mess-room and asked for glasses. I asked Mr. Lightoller, and he went into another officer’s room, which I presume was Mr. Murdoch’s, and he came out and said ‘Symons, there are none.’ With that I went back and told my mates.” (B11324)5
Blair’s replacement as Second Officer was Charles Lightoller. His version of the event, although differing in a few minor details, bears out Symons’ story: “I was in my room, and I heard a voice in the quarters speaking. I recognized it as Symons, the look-out man, so I stepped out of my door, saw him, and said ‘What is it, Symons?’ He said, ‘We have no look-out glasses in the crow’s-nest.’ I said, ‘All right.’ I went into the chief’s6 room, and I repeated it to him. I said, ‘There are no look-out glasses for the crow’s nest.’ His actual reply I do not remember, but it was to the effect that he knew of it and had the matter in hand. He said that there were no glasses then for the look-out man, so I told Symons, ‘There are no glasses for you.’ With that he left.” (B14485)
According to Lightoller, there were five pairs on board: “A pair for each Senior Officer7 and the Commander, and one pair for the Bridge, commonly termed pilot glasses.” (B14327) Even if the whereabouts of the Second Officer’s pair was unknown, another pair could have been loaned to the lookouts if had they been deemed a necessity – but as we shall see, they were not.