Captain Smith and His Officers


Nathan Robison

What was Captain Smith's relationship with his senior officers like? Did these men share any connection outside of serving on the same ship? Were they likely to be together when the ship was in port, especially in NY? Was/Is it typical for a captain to fraternize with his officers? Wilde and Murdoch served under Smith on Olympic; certainly, the Captain felt some sort of bond between these two men.

Did Captain Smith have any say in the selection of Titanic's deck officers? What about on Olympic?

I'm especially interested in Smith's opinion of Murdoch. McCloskie et al. wrote that "His reputation was as a canny and dependable man." The Dalbeattie website characterizes Murdoch as a hero. What did the Captain think about Murdoch?

From Gibbs' "Deathless Story of the Titanic":

"(Captain Smith) swam up to it, supporting a baby on his left arm and swimming with his right. 'Take the child!' he gasped.
A dozen hands reached forth to grasp the baby which was taken into the boat. They tried to pull the captain into the boat, but he refused.
'What became of Murdoch?' he asked.
When someone replied that he was dead, 'the captain,' said Mr. Williams, 'released his grasp of the gunwale and slowly sank before our eyes.'"

Now, I really doubt the validity of this account, but it does raise an important question: Why would the captain ask about Murdoch? What was it about the First Officer that would prompt Smith to ask about Murdoch while the Captain was trying to stay afloat in the frigid North Atlantic?

Even if this account is false (and it most likely is), someone (the witness or the writer) thought enough of the Smith/Murdoch relationship to put it into words. The account of Smith being in the water may be false, but is there some truth to him holding William Murdoch in high regard?

Nathan Robison
Better from her than me...I'll just start another brawl.

What are you doing slumming around a thread about White Star Line officers, anyway, Eric? Not enough interest in Captain Turner to keep you occupied?

Oops...I shouldn't have said that. Eric knows enough of my secrets to obliterate me whenever he so chooses...

Hey, Parks:

-- "Better from her than me...I'll just start another brawl."

Glad you said it. It saved me the trouble....

-- "What are you doing slumming around a thread about White Star Line officers?"

"Slumming." What a perfect word when talking about White Star! :)

-- "Eric knows enough of my secrets to obliterate me whenever he so chooses."

Yes, but now is not the time, OM. Soon, though. Soon....

I haven't been around this message board for a long time, so please forgive me if my opinion doesn't make much sense or isn't validated by evidence.

>but is there some truth to him holding William Murdoch in high regard?

I shall reply to this part alone, because as you have mentioned, the other parts may be false. Since Murdoch had served under Smith before, I think that it would be reasonable to expect that Smith might have felt closer to Murdoch. Having him as the First Officer (again? I can't really remember what Murdoch's post prior to this was, whether it was as Second or First Officer) would indicate that he probably was comfortable with Murdoch in that area.

I would think that if Murdoch was described as being such a "canny and dependable man" and "hero", Smith would have held him in high regard. In fact, I think that this would have applied for all officers who can be described in this way.

Just my 2 cents worth...
Eric, I love the way you greet the idea of a post from me - it's rather like the anticipation with which one looks forward to 'the coming war with China'...'global warming and its consequences'...'the coming plague'...'the imminent post from Inger'!

I think Charmaine’s comments (and G’day and welcome, Charmaine!) are probably on the money as far as Murdoch and Smith’s professional relationship goes. They’d been serving together since both were on the Adriatic, and this was their third maiden voyage with Smith as master and Murdoch as first - indicative of Smith’s confidence in Murdoch, I believe. Masters did have a say in their senior crew, or so some remarks about another WSL captain and promotion under him indicate (am at work - will dig up precise references when I get home). Murdoch generally seems to have been highly regarded - crewmen at the inquiries made a special mention of him:

Senator Newlands. Is there any particular point that you would like to speak of, or anything in regard to the collision that you know that you think you ought to tell?
Mr. Wheelton. I would like to say something about the bravery exhibited by the first officer, Mr. Murdoch. He was perfectly cool and very calm.

(Senate Inq.)

There’s also Hardy’s comment at the American inquiry that “Of course I had great respect and great regard for Chief Officer Murdoch.”

Geoffrey Marcus was inspired to write ‘The Maiden Voyage’ by one of Murdoch’s old shipmates, who still cherished a very high personal and professional regard for the Titanic’s first officer many decades after the loss of the Titanic.

Geoff Whitfield is the best person to comment on the Smith/Wilde relationship, but the indications are that they had a private friendship as well as a professional relationship (or at least their wives did).

Given that they worked together 24/7 while at sea, it’s not difficult to see that personal bonds would form. I know that Moody, for example, and another colleague from the Oceanic together visited a mutual acquaintance for tea very shortly before he was reassigned to the Titanic. WSL officers socialised ashore as well as aboard ship - anyone left in doubt as to their inclination to fraternise with each other would enjoy the photos in the Bell album. In some of the NY photographs, officers from other WSL ships then in port have come aboard to visit their colleagues. Murdoch and Lightoller were friends as well as shipmates (perhaps not surprising - both were genial men, popular with their colleagues). Comments in a letter I have that was written by one of his Titanic colleagues before the disaster indicate that Lightoller was held in high regard by the writer who had served with him before, and that although he did not personally know Murdoch and Blair they both enjoyed a good reputation. Lightoller remained in contact with at least one of his surviving Titanic colleagues even after he himself had left the Line, and social visits took place between the two many years later.

Lowe seems to have been somewhat outside the social loop in WSL circles - something to elaborate upon later.

~ Inger
I can relate what my experience has been, but be forewarned that it may or may not be applicable to the particular instance of Titanic's crew.

When on a voyage, the officers do tend to band together. Certainly, there is the odd man who doesn't fit well within the clique and maybe another who just doesn't have a sociable personality. But, by and large, the men are bound together by the simple fact that their profession requires certain attributes to attain their rank, so these men will have those attributes in common.

Whenever the ship pulls into port during a voyage, it is natural to explore the port together, or with friends from other ships visiting the same port. A trip across the dock to another ship in a foreign port is a good time to renew acquaintances with past shipmates.

Back in the home port, though, it's different. A mariner's time to spend with the family is rare, so the officer will leave his ship and shipmates behind as soon as he's released from the "sea and anchor detail" or inport watch schedule. There may be some social interaction in the home port, but this is usually the exception rather than the rule. It doesn't have anything to do with whether or not the men like each's just the matter of taking full advantage of the opportunity to renew and enjoy relationships with the family and/or non-seagoing friends.

The interaction between shipmates usually begins again the night before departure. Some prefer to spend the last night ashore with family, others prefer to avoid the teary goodbyes and spend the last night ashore aboard the ship. For the latter, they usually find another of like mind to accompany them on a late-night pub crawl.

The Master of a vessel is a special case. Because he is the commander, he must remain somewhat aloof from the rest of his officers. Sometimes his duties are such that he simply doesn't have the time to fraternise; others feel (in varying ways) that they must be a remote figure to project a command presence. It all depends on the individual's personality. Of course, even a Captain needs friends, and more often than not, he will associate with the most senior officers, especially if they have served with him in the past. The Captain rarely fraternises with the junior officers and definitely not with the crew. To them, he really is the "Old Man."

In Captain Smith's case, he enjoyed a certain prestige as the senior Captain of the White Star Line. His was the honour of taking to sea each new flagship on her maiden voyage. One of his privileges was the ability to pick and choose his officer complement. As Inger pointed out, Smith kept Murdoch as his First Officer for three maiden voyages. No one knows exactly why Smith chose to bring Wilde in as Chief Officer just before Titanic's departure, and while that indicates that Wilde must have performed well as Chief in Olympic, it does not necessarily mean that Smith had any less confidence in Murdoch. Personally, I believe that Smith wanted Wilde aboard because both Wilde and Murdoch had performed transits of the dangerous Grand Banks area under Smith before, so their seamanship abilities were of a known quality. Even though Lightoller came aboard with sterling credentials, Smith had not personally assessed his skills. Better to be transiting the Grand Banks with two proven officers sharing the was no coincidence that Lightoller was just going off the watch as Titanic was approaching the region of ice. Nothing against Lightoller...Smith just didn't have the have the comfort level with Lightoller as he had with his two most senior officers, both of whom had served together under him in Olympic. Of course, bringing Wilde aboard knocked Murdoch and Lightoller down a notch, something that might seem a professional slap in the face. It was not, merely a matter of seniority. Based solely on the letters written by the two men afterwards, Murdoch accepted the shift in rank with good grace, Lightoller not so much so. I see this as evidence to support the contention that Murdoch understood Smith's motives instinctively after serving with him for so long. Lightoller, the new fish, didn't understand Smith's motives as well and it appears that Smith didn't take the time to fully explain the reasons behind his logic. Or, maybe he did, and Lightoller was a little impatient to prove his worth. Whatever the reason, you can see why a Master cannot be buddy-buddy with his officers -- his decisions can impact the lives of his officers. His evaluations will determine each officer's promotion opportunity in the Line. A Master cannot show favouritism, but it's almost impossible to avoid giving off some appearance of it. Lightoller noted the bond between Smith, Wilde and Murdoch and resented it to some degree (enough to mention it in a letter, at any rate). Captain Lord's approach to building a command presence appears to have been that of having all his officers fear him. No hint of favouritism there. Obviously, Smith and Lord had two wildly divergent styles of command presence.

I've rambled a bit...have I answered the question?

G'day Parks - and thank you for that professional insight into personal interaction (and yes, you're making exquisite sense!). I doubt that much would have changed between 1912 and your own experience, and it certainly seems to accord with what I've read about that era. Lowe, when a married man, spent as much time as possible in between voyages with his family (which involved a bit of travelling as his home was in North Wales and he sailed out of Liverpool for much of his career). Even at the time of the disaster and his early period with the WSL he was courting a girl in North Wales - a big inducement to head back to his home turf between sailings. Moody - young and single - seems to have spent some of his time ashore in the UK with his crewmates, but also a good deal with family and friends. Your reference to the last night ashore reminded me of one of his earlier voyages, when the night before sailing was spent in a Liverpool music hall with his shipmates.

Lightoller and Smith would have had some familiarity with each other - they'd served together on the Majestic. It's interesting to note that when discussing in his memoirs what he called the 'doubtful' decision to change the line up of senior officers, Lightoller made no mention of Smith - only the WSL as a general entity (which, of course, could encompass Smith).

Out of curiousity, what do you make of the fact that the Olympic also made her maiden voyage with three senior officers who had served together on a previous ship? (Smith, Evans and Murdoch had come together off the Adriatic).

I quite agree with your point that the demotion was not a 'professional slap in the face.' I have a letter from another officer who had to step down a rank for a colleague in which he commented without any rancour that this was a matter of course, as the individual he made way for 'was a senior man' to him.

~ Ing

I didn't mean to insinuate that Lightoller was a complete unknown to Smith...that was a slip-up on my part. I was referring to the Lightoller's exposure to Smith as a senior deck officer...I believe that Lightoller had yet to prove himself to Smith. More on that in a moment.

It could very well be that the Line imposed Wilde on Smith, but I personally find that doubtful. I have always assumed that Smith made the decision, although it could be that Smith was accommodating Wilde's particular situation.

Personally speaking, I see Smith's record of keeping certain officers with him to be an indicator of his personality. To my mind, it is evidence that Smith was the type of commander who surrounds himself with good men and delegates his command through them. I have known several successful commanders who operated this way (a couple of whom I served as one of the trusted) and in political circles, it has been said that President Reagan operated in the same manner. Once an officer had proven himself to where Smith could trust him implicitly, he was "in." Smith would keep that officer with him until the latter was ready for his own command. In Lightoller's case, I'm sure that his record was such that Smith was impressed, and Titanic's voyage was probably originally considered an opportunity for Lightoller to prove himself. Maybe that's one reason why Lightoller was miffed at being bumped back by the unexpected appearance of Wilde. Before that, Murdoch and Lightoller would have navigated the ship during the most hazardous portion of the transit. With the new structure, it would be Wilde and Murdoch. This is all supposition on my part, you understand.

Actually, Captain Lord enjoyed a rather friendly relationship with his Chief Officer, George Stewart. They were the same age, and Stewart was near to getting his first command when he served with Lord on the Californian. I think Lord felt that Stewart was more his equal than the lower-ranking officers.

As a very private man, Lord probably did not do much in the way of socializing with any shipmates while ashore. He reserved this time strictly for his family, which was not at all unusual, as a previous thread pointed out.

While ashore for an extended time in 1916, waiting for the completion of Latta's newest ship which had been reserved for his command, Lord ran into Stewart while running errands in town (Liverpool, if my memory serves me). Stewart was now a fellow Captain and the two had much to talk about, so they went to a nearby coffee shop. Though normally a taciturn man, Lord and Stewart found so much to talk about that Lord missed his suppertime by several hours. This produced some sharp comments from his wife, which has always made me chuckle.....Mrs Lord was certainly not intimidated by her husband.

Later on in his career, while he was in command of the Anglo Chilean, the ship's apprentice fell into the hold and became trapped. Lord rescued him personally and this turned into a lifetime friendship between the two, with the young man visiting the Lord family at their home.

While there is some truth to Lord's intimidating presence, I think this aspect has been embellished and exaggerated well out of proportion over the years.

BTW, while never what anyone could call close friends, Lord was acquainted with Wilde, though I don't know if they kept up with one another in the years following their time in navigation school together. If I'm not mistaken Lord did apply to White Star at Wilde's recommendation, but later turned down a position with them, as he felt that a holder of an Extra Master's certificate deserved more than a fourth officer's berth.

Thank you for your illumination of Lord's character. I was, of course, basing my evaluation on the testimony of his junior officers.

Question: do you think the junior officers of the Californian embellished their fear of Lord at the enquiries with the benefit of hindsight, or did they always feel that way?

Please keep in mind that I'm not commenting on the effectiveness of Lord's command style, just pointing out the differences between Smith's and Lord's. I have also known successful commanders who accomplished their goals by intimidating the junior officers, especially if the juniors are the type who require intimidation to be motivated.

Well, I think that Second Officer Stone was just the type of officer that might have needed a bit of intimidation to get moving!

As I've mentioned in other posts and as Leslie Reade pointed out in his book, Stone came to the Californian carrying quite a bit of psychological baggage, before he ever met Lord. He came from an abusive, dysfunctional family and Reade suggested that he might well have gone to sea simply to get away from his father. Though a tough, no-nonsense type of captain, Lord was not an unfair man. But because of his upbringing, Stone had "authority issues" and probably had very little confidence in himself. Stone never attained a command and he spent his last years working on the docks in Liverpool.

So far as Stone goes, in reference to your question, I think he always felt this way about Lord.

So far as Groves and Gibson go -- especially Groves -- I think they made the most of this aspect with the benefit of hindsight. I'm suspecting that Groves enjoyed the attention, and, of course, he had his own butt to cover. It's interesting to note that on the Californian's first visit back to Boston, after Lord had been relieved of its command, Groves went to a Boston newspaper, telling them he had a Titanic-Californian story for them. The newspaper was not interested, so they sent Groves on his way. This was reported to Lord by some friends of his who lived in Boston.

You wrote, "Lightoller noted the bond between Smith, Wilde and Murdoch, enough so that he mentioned it in a letter."

Can you tell me more about this letter? Is this something that I'll be able to read? What exactly does Lightoller say?

The same for the letter written by Murdoch where you said that Murdoch understood the motives for bringing Wilde aboard and accepted it with good grace.

Nathan Robison
>Of course, bringing Wilde aboard knocked Murdoch and Lightoller down a notch

I remember reading somewhere (I believe it was the Dalbeattie site) that although Murdoch was First Officer for one of his voyages before this, the next voyage that he took after that one, he was the Second Officer on the ship because the Captain had chosen many good men, and Murdoch didn't seem to mind the "demotion". Would that have substantiated why Murdoch did not seem to mind having to remain as First Officer on the Titanic?

I don't know much about the customs and practices aboard ships, but is there any particular reason why Wilde was pulled in to be the Chief Officer (i.e. not any other position?)

Murdoch's letter of 8 April to his sister contains the following:

"I am still Chief Offr until sailing day + then it looks as though I will have to step back, but I am hoping that it will not be for long. The head Marine Supt. from L'pool seemed to be very favourably impressed + satisfied that everything went on AJ + as much as promised that when Wilde goes that I am to go up again."

I may have been mistaken about Lightoller's comments coming in a letter. As Inger mentioned, he shared his feelings about the reshuffle in his 1935 memoirs. That's what I get from posting at work, where I don't have access to my reference library.


It was not unusual for merchant officers to occasionally "step back" a rank during their career. Transitioning from sail to steam, joining the Line, switching from the Australian to the North Atlantic run, accepting a posting to the flagship of the Line...these were all good career moves that might require a temporary reduction in rank. I don't believe that any one incident could be pointed to that would substantiate Murdoch's view of "stepping back" in Titanic.

I don't know the particulars of Wilde's posting to Titanic, but I believe it had to do with a) Smith's desire to have Wilde's expertise during the Grand Banks transit portion of Titanic's maiden voyage and b) something involving Wilde's anticipated command didn't work as expected, so Titanic's maiden voyage was an opportunity for Wilde to get a little more experience before getting his own ship. This is just speculation on my part, however...the real reason behind Wilde's posting has never really been made clear. Judging by Murdoch's letter above, even Murdoch wasn't sure about the reasons for the change.