When I was working in Cornwall I used to say, jokingly, that the Titanic had been ‘handmade by Irish craftsmen, but sunk by English navigation’– adding, and a Cornishman was steering! This was, of course, an allusion to Quartermaster Robert Hichens (1882-1940), a native of Newlyn, who was at the wheel when the liner struck the iceberg on 14th April 1912. It has often been suggested that Hichens, the son of a Newlyn fisherman, would be a good subject for a biography, and the news that his great-granddaughter, Sally Nilsson, had written a book (The Man Who Sank Titanic?: The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hichens, History Press, 2011) was therefore received with great interest. It should be pointed out, however, that this is not a full biography, insofar as only five of the book's fourteen chapters contain biographical details – the remaining nine chapters being devoted to a re-telling of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. The book is, moreover, written for general readers who may not know the story of the Titanic, and this non-academic approach may not appeal to Titanic specialists.
As far as the biographical sections are concerned, Chapters One and Two deal with the early life of Robert Hichens, who was born in Newlyn, Cornwall on 16th September 1882, the second son of Philip Hichens, a fisherman, and his Whitby-born wife Rebecca Hichens (née Wood). The author explains that because Rebecca's first son Phillip had been born out of wedlock, he was brought up by another family in accordance with custom in this strongly-Protestant community. Robert thereby became, by default, the ‘eldest of the family’, his younger siblings being Angelina, William (Willie), Richard (Dick), Julliette, Frederick (Feddie), Sidney (Sid), James (Jim) and Elizabeth (Lizzie). Sadly, brother Phillip was lost at sea (although this is not mentioned until much later in the book).
There is, perhaps inevitably, an element of speculation in these early chapters. For example, the author mentions the serious Sabbatarian rioting that convulsed Newlyn on 18th May 1896, when around 1,000 men and women occupied the south pier, while about thirty local fishermen boarded over a dozen east coast boats that had been fishing on the previous Sunday, and threw their entire catches into the sea. There is no way of knowing if Robert, then aged fourteen, participated in the riots, although she speculates that the sight of the gunboat HMS Curlew and two torpedo-boat destroyers, which were sent to help restore order, may have encouraged him to take an interest in the Royal Navy.
We are told that ‘Robert left his family to start a career as a trainee in the Royal Naval Reserves’ although, annoyingly, no date is given; pedantic readers might reflect that, as the RNR is essentially a part-time organisation, it would not have provided much of a career – although any seamanship qualifications gained under naval tutelage would obviously have been of value to an aspiring merchant seaman who hoped to work on top class ocean liners. It would have been interesting to have known a little more about Robert's naval service, although it may be that the sources simply do not exist - his name does not appear among the very restricted number of pre-1908 RNR ratings' records held at Kew. We are nevertheless informed that Robert served aboard the old ironclad HMS Alexandra and the ‘Royal Sovereign’ class battleship HMS Revenge.
In 1905, ‘while on shore leave from the yacht Ariano’, Robert met Florence Mortimore, a local farmer's daughter, and the couple were married in the parish church of Manaton, in Devon, on 23rd October 1906. The marriage certificate reveals that Robert was, by that time, a ‘master mariner’. Photographs reproduced in the book show that Robert was somewhat shorter than his wife – these images, many of which presumably come from family sources, being an added bonus for readers.
The newly-married couple initially lived in Torquay, but they subsequently moved to a shared house at 43-45 James Street in Southampton, this move being important in that it meant that Robert would be better-placed to find employment with the largest and most prestigious shipping lines. In the next few years he served aboard many vessels, including mail steamers and liners of the Union Castle and British India lines. Prior to joining the Titanic as one of the liner's six quartermasters he worked on the P&O liner Dongola, which had been ‘re-commissioned as a troop ship sailing the Bombay route’.
The Titanic enters the story in Chapter Three, ‘Setting Sail’, and at this point the author adopts a sort of ‘drama documentary’ approach, as shown in the following extract:
‘It was just after 11.30 am when once again a train's whistle blew with the arrival of the first-class passengers from London. As the locomotive advanced slowly up the tracks, a group of men could be seen hurrying from the other side, kit bags on their backs. They were two of the ship's firemen, Nutbean and Podesta, and the Slater boys who came from the Northam and Chapel area - who had just been having one last pint down the Grapes pub up from the dock. This was a favourite haunt of sailors and firemen who relished a last jar before their long voyages. Looking to the right, the men could see the train was almost upon them. Nutbean and Podesta leapt over the tracks just in time, red faced and breathing hard they hurried up the gangplank; but the Slater boys, seeing the huge metal fenders just feet from them, had left it seconds too late and could not cross. As the train steamed slowly onto its stop 100 yards on, the lads ran along the other side trying to catch it up and overtake it, but again they were not quick enough. The doors opened, porters arrived and the huge amount of luggage that was essential for first-class travel was hastily taken aboard’.
While none of this is necessarily incorrect, readers may wonder how much of the material is factual, and how much is an imaginative reconstruction – the difficulties being compounded by the absence of footnotes (although there are 39 ‘end notes’ at the very end of the book). The passage quoted above raises certain questions regarding the timing of the events described, insofar as it implies that the gang planks were taken in at, or shortly after 11.30 am, whereas Lawrence Beesley stated that the gangways were withdrawn shortly after noon, when ‘the whistles blew for friends to go ashore’.
The book is not without errors, some of them trivial but others of greater significance. Many of these mistakes should have been spotted by the publishers. For example, Southampton was not a city in 1912, it remained a mere town until 1964, and there were no horse trams running on Good Friday because the Southampton tramway system had been converted to electric operation in stages between 1900 and 1903. Cornish fishing boats had lug sails rather than ‘square sails’, and 1882 was not ‘the year the artists began to arrive’in Newlyn – Walter Langley and Henry Pope were painting in Newlyn in 1880, while Langley and Edwin Harris returned in 1881, by which time Langley had received a commission for a whole year's work. More worryingly, there is an element of confusion about technical matters, and Titanic specialists will surely disagree with the following passage:
‘Titanic was originally designed as a twin-screw vessel which would mean she could achieve a speed of 21 knots, but during construction they added a third, centre screw, driven by a steam turbine which could increase her speed by another 3 knots. The black gang worked on 160 furnaces using 600 tons of coal every day to keep the fires going; these fires heated the water in the boilers to produce steam; the steam powered her 75,000 hp engines, and the engines drove the turbines which turned the propellers, pushing Titanic ever faster towards her destination’.
Some other obvious errors*, spotted at random, relate to the sinking. Twenty lifeboats got away from the ship, so there would have been more than ‘the sixteen on the water’; Major Peuchen was not ‘the only other male passenger to have been allowed into a lifeboat apart from Bruce Ismay’; and it would clearly have been impossible for the Titanic to have been ‘towed to Halifax in England’.
The advanced publicity and press releases that accompanied the book launch of The Man Who Sank Titanic state that ‘Robert’s great-granddaughter Sally Nilsson seeks to set the record straight and reveal the true character of the man her family knew. This is one man’s story of survival, betrayal and determination’. In this context, chapters Five ‘Ice Straight Ahead’ and Twelve ‘Spirited Away’ are central to the author's thesis. In essence, we are encouraged to believe that, on the fateful night of 14th April 1912, Robert Hichens was alone at the wheel when urgent warnings came from Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee in the crow's nest that icebergs had been spotted ahead of the ship. There was, however, no response from the officer of the watch, who was asleep and quite possibly drunk ‘at the rear of the pilothouse’. As a result of this gross dereliction of duty, the vital order ‘hard-a-starboard’was not given in sufficient time, the ship struck the iceberg, and over 1,500 -people died unnecessarily in the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic.
It is claimed that Hichens was ‘spirited away’to South Africa after the Titanic disaster in an attempt to keep him silent about what he had witnessed while on duty as quartermaster at the time of the sinking - the source for this story purportedly being a man named Henry Blum, a quartermaster on a British vessel that docked in Cape Town in 1914. According to Blum, the ‘harbour master’who came out to meet his ship was Robert Hichens (although research has shown that he could never have held such a senior position). The story was told to a man called Thomas Garvey who, in turn, wrote a letter which was eventually acquired by Don Lynch. While acknowledging that the Garvey letter is a dubious source, Sally Nilsson has chosen to use it as the primary source of evidence for her version of the chain of events that led to the sinking. The controversial letter is shown in full, so that readers can ‘decide which story’ to believe, this being the crucial section:
‘While serving as quartermaster on a British ship, they called at Capetown in 1914 - The Harbormaster came aboard and after pledging Henry to secrecy for 10 years, related the following account saying he wanted to tell someone to relieve his conscience. He had been, he said, the quartermaster on the Titantic (sic) doing his 2 hour trick at the wheel the night of the disaster. He heard the Look-out in the crows nest call out, "Iceberg dead ahead". Seconds later the Bow Look-out called out "Iceberg dead ahead'. The First Officer was lying on the lounge at the rear of the pilot house. The Quartermaster said he then shouted the warning in the First Officer's ear but could not awaken him. He then returned to the wheel and held her steady on her course as he should’. When the survivors were rounded up he was placed under house arrest and spirited away to Capetown. He was given a life long job with good pay for as long as he remained silent’.
The story of Robert's rôle in charge of lifeboat No.6 is recounted in some detail in chapters Six ‘Lifeboat Six’ and Seven ‘Rescue’. His conduct and alleged surly demeanor while in the boat would later come under intense scrutiny – his reputation being further damaged by an extremely unsympathetic portrayal in the 1997 film Titanic, in which he refuses to go back for survivors and tells Molly Brown that ‘there will be one less in this boat if you don't shut that hole in your face’. The author points out that the Quartermaster had been placed in command of the boat by Second Officer Lightoller, and the lives of those aboard were in his hands; if he considered that it was simply too dangerous to return to the site of the wreck, in the dark and without a compass, that was his legitimate decision.
The lifeboat was severely under-manned, with just one other seaman (Fred Fleet) and the pompous Canadian yachtsman Major Peuchen to man the heavy oars. The presence of Arthur Peuchen was a mixed blessing, as far as Robert was concerned, in that, as a ‘gentleman’, the part-time militia officer thought that he should have been in command of the boat, and resented taking orders from a mere quartermaster. Robert had further problems with the vociferous Mollie Brown and, all things considered, it is easy to see why mutual ill-feeling should have developed so rapidly in Boat No.6 as the quartermaster struggled to exert some authority over his sullen and increasingly mutinous ‘crew’.
Chapters eight to ten cover the voyage to New York and the American Inquiry, the message being that Hichens, Fleet, Lightoller, Lowe and the other surviving officers and seamen were so well ‘drilled’ by the White Star company that they were able to hide the supposed incompetence and gross negligence that had caused the disaster. This is followed by Chapter Eleven ‘Homecoming’, in which the author deals (albeit briefly) with the Board of Trade Inquiry and reiterates her theories about the sinking – the blame being placed, once again, firmly on First Officer Murdoch:
‘If the first officer, William Murdoch, had been at his post, on watch and meticulously scanning the horizon for the known dangers ahead, Titanic would perhaps not have steamed into an iceberg that most people agreed was big and white and hard and iceberg shaped - like all the other icebergs ships had reported and the survivors said they had seen in the area the following morning. Expert witnesses had even told how they believed a blue/black iceberg was incredibly rare. If there had been more lookouts stationed on the bridge or around the ship at a time when Titanic was known to be reaching the ice region, the collision may not have occurred. While Fleet and Lee stuck to their duty as special lookouts, and Robert held the wheel and took his orders for as long as he felt he could, there remained one awful conclusion. According to the Thomas Garvey letter, Robert had shouted in Murdoch's ear but couldn't wake him - why? Because Murdoch was out cold from the wine he had consumed at a celebration for his captain? It had been freezing on the outer bridge, maybe he had just sat down out of the cold for a minute and with the heaters fired up, he had fallen asleep.
Whether the rule laid down by White Star was total temperance among the crew or not, this night had been an exception, a special occasion, and whether the officers had drunk one sip or three glasses of wine, the evidence points to the fact that in all probability they did. The rules were broken and in the end human error, or gross negligence depending on your view, was to blame for the death of 1,500 people. White Star Line had essentially gotten away with murder, as it was the shipping company who were ultimately responsible for the Titanic. All White Star Line had to do now was to keep the secret by silencing the key witnesses, of which there were few, and the only way they needed to do that was with the promise of employment and financial support for as long as their mouths were kept shut’.
The final chapters describe Robert's ill-starred final years. By 1914, he was back in the Royal Navy, his conduct being recorded as very good. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed as suffering from a nervous complaint known as neurasthenia, a condition associated with what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, which must have been caused by his experiences during the Titanic disaster. Having been invalided out of the Navy, Robert returned to civilian life, and in the mid 1920s he returned to Torquay, where his wife Florence ran a guest house in the fashionable Warberry area of the town.
Tired, perhaps, of lengthy overseas voyages, Robert became a boatman and in 1930 he purchased a motor launch called the Queen Mary for £160 from a man called Harry Henley. The purchase arrangements involved an initial payment of £100, while the remainder would be paid within a period of two years. To finance this arrangement, Robert obtained a £100 loan from Mr J.E.Squires of Torquay, but he was unable to repay the full amount during the Depression years of the early 1930s, and the boat was taken by Squires in settlement of the debt. This led to a major row with Harry Henley, who continued to press Robert for the payments which were still due to him.
Meanwhile, Florence and the children decided to move back to Southampton while Robert looked for work, a search which proved largely unsuccessful. Having descended into a drink-fuelled depression, Robert decided to shoot Harry Henley, who he blamed for his current predicament, and having acquired a revolver for £5 he arrived in Torquay on 12th November 1933. There, he embarked on a mammoth pub crawl, telling a friend that there would be 'two less in Torquay tonight’. By 10.00 pm Robert was blind drunk, and after closing time he travelled by taxi to Harry Henley's house at 6 Happaway Court, Stentiford Hill.
Henley opened the door and the two men faced each other. After an angry exchange of insults Robert pulled the gun from his pocket and with the words ‘take that’raised his arm and fired two shots, one of which wounded Henley in the head. Henley, a much bigger man, then punched Robert in the face and ran to the police station to fetch help. After falling to the ground, Robert got up and chased his enemy for about 30 yards down the street before he fell over again and rolled into the gutter. The former Titanic quartermaster then attempted to shoot himself, but the gun was apparently out of ammunition.
Having failed to take his own life, Robert was arrested, and on the following morning he was remanded in custody at the Torquay Court. On 29th November 1933 he appeared at the Winchester Assizes, his wrists bandaged as the result of a further suicide attempt. In the event, the judge showed mercy, and although Robert was found guilty of attempted murder, he received a relatively light sentence of five years in penal servitude.
The final chapter is almost unbearably sad. Robert was released from Parkhurst Prison in 1937 and he lived in Southampton with his wife Florence until her death from a brain tumour on 23rd March 1940; Robert had cared for her at home until she was finally taken into a nursing home. With little to keep him at home, the ageing and ailing seaman returned to sea as third mate on the 3,753 ton cargo vessel English Trader. This was to be his final voyage and, having complained of breathing difficulties and other problems, he told fellow crew members that his heart was very bad, and he would ‘not live to sea England again’. A few days later, he retired to his bunk and refused to eat, although the master and the chief steward persuaded him to sip a little water or coffee. He was found dead in his bunk on 23rd September 1940, the cause of death being recorded as heart failure. There was no record of a burial, the likelihood being that this troubled and unhappy survivor of the Titanic disaster was, appropriately enough, buried at sea.**
It is perhaps unfortunate that Robert's family rarely spoke about him, while Robert ‘carried his past very close to his chest out of guilt and shame’. However, the author was able to interview members of his family, including ‘Ching’, his daughter-in-law, and Barbara, his niece, who remembered Uncle Robert in his navy-blue jumper patting her on the head and saying ‘you're a lovely looking maid, which was typical of the way he spoke’.
A relatively full ‘life’ of Robert Hichens by Peter Clarke, Steve Coombes, Chris Dohany, Senan Molony, Graham Pickles and Brian Ticehurst is available in Encyclopedia Titanica, together with an additional article by Phil Gowan and Brian Meister, and this very useful material has clearly been used by Sally Nilsson. Indeed, a number of other ET contributors, including Dave Gittins, Senan Molony and Inger Sheil are mentioned by name in the acknowledgements or in the bibliography. The question one must ask is. ‘Does this new book contribute any new information to the story of Robert Hichens’? And I think the answer must be yes, insofar as there is new material about Robert's childhood background in Newlyn, his RNR training and the Torquay murder charge. There is, in addition, new information about his last voyage on The English Trader, much of which has been obtained from the ship's log and other documents in the National Archives at Kew.
* The review is of the first edition. The errors identified in the review were corrected in subsequent editions.
** In 2012 Sally Nilsson, with the help of Aberdeen Council, discovered that Robert was in fact buried in Trinity Cemetery Aberdeen.