Encyclopedia Titanica

A Last Bright Shining Lie


    Hide Ads

THEY died, to a man, at their posts; fighting to give the opportunity of life to others until walls of water overcame them.


The last lie of Titanic's extensive mythology is that the engineers died down below in the belly of the ship.

They didn't.

The engineers made it topside like everyone else, able to throw their eyes to a starlit heaven in hope of deliverance instead of death. Then they waited for a seeming eternity for the horrible question to resolve itself - and eternity is what they entered. Not one survived.

It is startling how material and corroborated evidence about the near-total escape of the Titanic engineers - save for the unfortunate Jonathan Shepherd (and possibly Harvey and Wilson) - was ignored in order to foster the blatant untruth that all the men died in the greasy canyons of the great engine entrails.

The British establishment and public entered into a pact of self-deception about the engineers, seeming to prefer delusion to plain attested facts.

They suspended their critical faculties, and wilfully rejected open evidence in order to embrace a fiction.

That fiction has been perpetuated in a number of engineer memorials, most notably in East Park, Southampton.

The inscription on this monument says the engineer officers of the Titanic "showed their high conception of duty and heroism by remaining at their posts."

Meanwhile a brass tablet in the London entrance hall of the engineers' professional association says their members on the Titanic "gave their lives at the post of duty when the vessel sank."

And there is an eternal flame obelisk to the engineers in Liverpool which further conveys the impression that they remained to the last, keeping to the caverns of the stokeholds until swallowed in the final swooping plunge.


As late as 1992, the Institute of Marine Engineers Guild of Benevolence produced an 80th Anniversary brochure entitled A Tribute to the Engineering Staff, in which the Chairman wrote that it was an "undeniable fact" that the engineers were "still at work in the depths of the ship, keeping the ship's lights ablaze until three minutes of the vessel sinking."

None of the foregoing is true. The Chairman is spouting the same "undeniable" hogwash that first gushed forth in 1912.

If the engineers all died at their posts, how is it that newspapers reported in the wake of the Titanic crew's return on the Lapland that Joseph Bell, the Chief Engineer no less, had been implored by some mates to climb onto a raft, replying: "No, my extra weight would sink it." - why wasn't he entombed fathoms deep with the rest of his noble lads?

The purpose of this article is not to denigrate the engineers of the Titanic who undoubtedly did their full duty and more. Their selfless courage in toiling steadily below as the ship was taking huge tonnages of water is not in question. But words have lost all their meaning if the claims of men "dying at their posts" are intended to be interpreted as some form of metaphysical reality after they had given up the unequal fight and gone above.

The British Inquiry, while eulogising the engineers, bemoaned the fact that none survived for the valuable evidence they might have furnished. They thus overlooked fireman Thomas Dillon [left], who was a virtual engineer because he was seconded to the engine room under engineering direction. His stokehold was inactive and he had been detailed to cleaning gear. It was his "first trip down below."

Dillon said the personnel in the engine room eventually got the order (Br 3807) “All hands on deck; put your life preservers on.”

This order came at a quarter past one, he said. (Br 3813). An hour before the sinking.

Dillon makes it clear (Br 3902) that the engineers came aft "in a bunch" from the boiler rooms (forward of the engine room) where they had been fighting the influx.

Jonathan Shepherd
Bertie Wilson
Herbert Harvey

It will be remembered that Jonathan Shepherd was lying prone in the pump room of boiler room five, having broken his leg in a manhole, when a torrent of water swept in from forward (boiler room six). Engineers Bertie Wilson and Herbert Harvey, his immediate surperiors, were there too. Harvey ordered fireman Fred Barrett up the escape ladder, but it is conjectural [although not certain] that Harvey himself, Wilson and Shepherd all died in No. 5.

The watertight door to the rear of this trio was never opened. Behind that door, in No. 4, many other engineers were working the pumps. These seem to be the "bunch" who now came aft to the engine room.

The implied fate of the bunch, from Dillon's testimony, is that they evacuated, made it up onto the poop deck with him, and waited "about 50 minutes" for the ship to go down. So much for remaining at their posts to the last.

On his own, Dillon might be dismissed. But his story is almost exactly paralleled by another who was down below until the suspension of operations.

Greaser Fred Scott tells an even more explicit story about the fate of the engineers.


5640. Did you get an order to go up on deck? — Yes, the engineer came down and told everybody to go out of the engine room... I think it was one of the senior engineers.

5645. Then did you go on deck? —Yes, up the working alleyway. [this refers to Scotland Road on E Deck]

So far Scott agrees with Dillon, who had also been in the engine room. Scott told how those who now evacuated had to scour for lifebelts (Dillon: "put your life preservers on”), and the very act of scavenging for buoyancy aids shows that no-one was intent on dying at their posts.

"We got them (lifebelts) at the Third Class," said Scott at Br 5647. He was referring to a store-room all the way aft on E Deck, reached after the men had climbed to the main crew passageway from below. "From there we went up on the boat deck," he added, citing the aft third class stairs.

Lest anyone should choose to interpret Scott's "we" like Dillon's "bunch" as conceivably referring only to greasers or firemen (as Scott and Dillon were, respectively), Scott helpfully spelt out who was near him on the boat deck in response to Br 5685.

"All the engineers and firemen and all that," he said.

"All the engineers?" gasped the Attorney General, Sir Rufus Isaacs. It was Sir Rufus himself who had told Commissioner Lord Mersey only the day before (May 9) during the evidence of George Cavell: "All the engineers were drowned. They all remained at the bottom of the vessel."

Now Scott was apparently saying that the engineers did not remain at the bottom of the vessel to fulfil a romantic role ascribed to them by the Press by virtue of their mass decease. One can imagine the question hanging in the air - All the engineers on the boat deck?

"Yes," said Fred Scott.

Sir Rufus Isaacs

"Do you mean the officers?" persisted the Attorney, perhaps hoping for deliverance. "Yes, the engineers that were on watch," replied Scott.

"Then, if I understand it aright (Br 5688)," said the AG, holding out a last hope that such was not the case, "all the engineers had come up too?"

This was Scott's last chance. Many an eye must have swung in his direction and locked onto his face. "They were all at the top," Scott insisted, in front of the most senior legal adviser to the British Government, the bench, the Press, and all.

"Did they come up when you came up?" - "Just afterwards, but some of them went up on the boat deck with me. They came up the ladder just behind me."

These men, having their secured lifebelts aft, had climbed the third class stairs from E Deck. This brought them onto the third class well deck. Evidently "some of them" went from there up onto the boat deck with Scott - via the ladder leading to second class, as he says

5690. When you say they were standing there, where were they standing? — Just against. the electric crane aft.

5692. On the boat deck? — On the boat deck.

5693. That is the last you saw of them? — That is the last I saw of them.

None of these responses was satisfactory for anyone seeking to find a gleam of sacrifice to redeem a hopelessly futile marine casualty, an accident whose sheer fatuousness was also marked out by massive loss of life.

The Attorney General retired hurt, but Mr Roche entered the fray for the Marine Officers Association, also intent on throwing those engineers back down again:

5706. I want you to tell me with regard to the engineers you saw on the deck, when did they come up? — They came up just after I did.

5707. How long was that? — It was twenty minutes past one when I left the engine room. [Agrees broadly with Dillon's 1.15am]

Mr Roche was still not happy. We know this from a later speech he gave to Lord Mersey. But now he thought he could call Scott's bluff -

5710. Which of the engineers did you see? Can you tell me their names? — Mr Farquharson. I do not know the names of the others.

It is important to stop here to dwell on the importance of this answer. Not only was Scott supplying the surname of an engineer (pronounced Far-kwer-son), but a man who happened to be second in rank only to Chief Engineer Joseph Bell. Farquharson was the Number Two. He could not have been a runaway. His presence on the boat deck, along with the best available references to Bell at the sinking, shows that the senior command had led an evacuation en masse of the engineers.

None stayed back. For there was nothing to stay back for. The battle for Boiler Room 4 could not be won, it had obviously eventually been decided, and so the battleground had been rightly abandoned. Farquharson's presence on the boat deck chimes with Scott's earlier utterance that a senior engineer had entered the engine room to order all hands up top. At twenty past one.

Roche, meanwhile, for the Marine Officers Association, wanted to dent Scott's testimony as much as he could:

5711. How many of them did you see? — I should say there were about eight of them [who made the highest deck via the ladder from the well deck.]

5712. There are 20 or more in the ship? — Yes.

5713. You think you saw eight, of whom you can remember the name of one? — Yes.

5723. Did you get any summons to go on deck, or did you go on your own account? — No, we were ordered up out of the engine room.

5724. Who by? — The Senior Engineer, I think it was.

5725. Who was in charge of your section, the turbine room ?—One of the juniors I think it was, about the sixth. [William McReynolds]

5726. What is his name; do you know? — No.

5727. Do you know the name of the engineer who ordered you out? — I think it was Mr Farquharson.

5728. The gentleman you did see on deck afterwards? — Yes.

5429/30. And were the other engineers you saw on deck those belonging to your section, the turbine room? — Yes.

The following exchange shows how Roche continue to batter away at Scott, who had earlier stated that ALL the engineers were "at the top" (topside) but only SOME had followed him to climb from the third-class well deck to the topmost second-class boat deck

5831. How many engineers do you think there were? — Eight I saw.

5832. Officer engineers, I mean? — About eight I saw on deck.

5833. There are 36 I am told, all told? — I think so.

5834. So when you said you saw all the engineers you must have meant all the engineers that you knew? — Yes.

5835. You saw only eight of them? — I saw eight of them.

5836. Out of 36? — Yes.

There is something strikingly odd about counsel for the engineers seeking to drown as many of his members down below as possible. But Roche could get little change out of Scott, who said he eventually got to the boat deck about twenty to two. He then climbed over the No. 16 davit when a lifeboat drifted close, plunged into the water nearby, and was pulled in.

Scott's Escape Route

Scott helped to save his own life by being proactive, but Dillon went down with the ship on the poop deck, presumably with a large body of the remaining engineers. Dillon could have chosen to go to the boat deck. He appears not to have done so because a departing boat on the port side cried out that it was the "last one," and that any more women should get in quickly.

Dillon and others then "chased" two women from the well deck up the ladders in answer to the boat's appeal. For most of the engineers in the well deck there would thus have been no point in going to the boat deck, as they believed the last boat was leaving with all available women. Dillon says it: "We stopped where we were. It was no use us going there." (Br 3836).

There is that "we" again. Dillon's use of "we" throughout his testimony refers to the occupants of the engine room, the engineers. He agreed that by the time the men got to the well deck, there were a great many people there. A retreat to the poop was the best option, at least for Dillon.

Dillon was most fortunate to later regain consciousness in a lifeboat - under two others plucked from the sea. Both Dillon and Scott cheated the odds, just as the random odds cheated every single engineer of his life. But Dillon and Scott, remarkably, were in the engine room as non-engineers, and survived. They knew and told the truth as to what the engineers did.

But the truth was not wanted.

Second Officer Lightoller was later questioned by Roche:

14567. Did you see any of the engine-room officers on the deck at all? — No, I did not see any of the engineers at any time.

14568. So far as you know they were down below to the end? — Yes.

Roche has asked Lightoller a leading question in the second instance. He might as well have asked Lightoller that as far as he knew, they were all in the after well deck, or on the poop? But instead he reverted to a proposition popular in the Press, but not actually attested to by anyone at either Inquiry. The contrary had actually been set down.

Roche did the same with Boxhall:

15599. (Mr. Roche) Did you see any of the engineers on deck at all when you were attending to your boat? — No.

15600. Not one? — No.

Roche has a strange requirement of engineers if it is their duty to be down below at the time of the sinking. For what purpose?

But this brings us neatly to the reasons flimsily adduced for men "dying at their posts."

It was either to "keep the pumps providing every inch of draught," or to ensure they "kept the lights blazing 'til the last."


The engineers did have "all hands to the pump" in the crucial battle for boiler room 4, a fascinating struggle about which there is only circumstantial evidence.

But there came swiftly a point at which pumping would simply not have any effect, and neither could it be carried out in safety or at all. Edward Wilding, naval architect to Harland and Wolff gave evidence to this point (Br 20373) - "If the damage existed in No. 4, it was only a question of delaying it perhaps an hour."

He added in reply to a question from the Commissioner (Br 20374): "The evidence is that it rose in spite of their pumping, my Lord. I have no doubt that the engineers in No. 4 were doing their best."

Pumping was a strategy that failed early. There was nothing to be gained by persisting in pumping, particularly when the flooding had already passed the tipping point.That point was boiler room 5, ahead of number four.


Engineers were simply not needed down below at all times to maintain electric light for those above. Engineers ran the engines, although a small proportion of their number were electricians.

The ship’s lighting circuit worked off a generator which did not involve any direct input by engineers. If the main supply should fail, the electricity needed to maintain lights was provided by the immediate start-up of a stand-by battery. This secondary source of power was introduced by means of an automatic switch in the circuit. No human hands were needed in the process.

The generator was aft in the ship and late to be immersed. The lights flashed off - and then came back on again - when the stern was in the process of upending. This is widely testified, and is the standy-by battery coming automatically into effect. The remaining engineers were topside at the time.

The engineers did not "keep the lights blazing 'til the last" because the start-of-the-art lighting system meant they were largely out of the equation.

The mythmakers are thus robbed of any credible reason for all the engineers to remain "at their posts."

In effect, those "posts" vanished relatively early in the night.

But Mr Roche still wanted cloaks of martyrdom for his lost clients. His extraordinary closing speech to Lord Mersey included the following:

"Now the fact of this case is this: practically speaking, there is no evidence of any engineers being on deck at all after the calamity. There is the evidence of Scott, who speaks, first of all, in answer to the learned Attorney-General about seeing all the engineers on deck when he came on deck, but that was after all the boats were gone... it appeared, in answer to myself, that all he was speaking about was some eight engineers — he did not know their names except one — who came from his section."

An attempt to reduce 36 to one, and perhaps very tangentially to suggest that Scott was lying about even that individual because he plucked the only name he knew. Lord Mersey asked to have Scott’s evidence read over again, and they came to mention of the eight. Roche opined, even more audaciously: "Whether he meant eight engineers and firemen or not, I do not know."

The Commissioner: "He is speaking of engineers, I think, and not of firemen."

Lord Mersey avoided all reference to the engineers in his final report, despite Roche's appeal for an honourable mention.

It may have been a clever move. He left the public to their rose-tinted glasses and sentimental inscriptions.


The engineers were overwhelmingly Scottish. Anyone who does not know the pragmatism of the breed can perhaps guess their outlook by the nature of their calling. Marine engineers are not romantics. They are practical men, in the most practical of trades.

Joseph Bell [right] had a wife and four children. William Farquharson, Senior Second Engineer, had a wife and three children. The only reason they were in the tough old way of the sea was to make a living and to live, so that their children might be clad.

Their duty, after it was paid in full to the ship, was to their families. So big men put on their lifebelts and went up top. Their discipline was born of a very flinty realism. They did not abandon their higher calling, figuratively or literally.

The Engineers owed no duty of drowning to the penny Press, but their funeral bower was nonetheless a confection of posies and paeans, founded on ignorance. The syrup that has oozed ever since is a grave disservice to men who knew heroism, but knew it honestly, in its workaday clothes, without pomp or regalia.

Honour the engineers! yes. Salute them - that they quit like men.

© Senan Molony 2004
All images courtesy of the author


Senan Molony, Ireland


  Send New Information

Comment and discuss

  1. Richard Stagg Richard Stagg

    Joseph Bell, so far as we know, was not a Scotsman. He was born in Cumbria, apprenticed in Newcastle and then spent his life in Liverpool and eventually Southampton. (There was a famous Scottish Joseph Bell, who was a surgeon.)

  2. Christine Hughes (2456) Christine Hughes (2456)

    Only two of the marine engineers were Scottish. James Fraser, born in Aberdeen, 1883, and James M Smith, born Elgin, 1877.

  3. Stephen Carey

    I've just noticed this page after doing some research on the Titanic, which started with cold-starting the ship (not normally done except when leaving dry-dock). Seeing your article made me think of what would happen as the ship started to plunge, so I checked the position of the auxiliary seawater intakes in the main engineroom (starboard side, outboard of the IP cylinders, and underneath the auxiliary condenser. To run the generators, steam and seawater are the basic commodities, so losing one or the other would put the lights out. From Ken Marschall's excellent paintings and a couple of Youtube animations, plus drawing a line on the ship's profile view, it seems that they would run out of seawater when a line is drawn from the forward base of the 3rd funnel, to the bottom of the ship normal to the forward end of the 4th funnel - or shortly before. Watching the animations, the lights stay on until just that time - they suddenly go out, which would be when the seawater failed

Leave a comment

Find Related Items


Encyclopedia Titanica (2004) A Last Bright Shining Lie (Titanica!, ref: #3503, published 24 August 2004, generated 24th January 2023 04:47:50 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/a-last-bright-shining-lie.html