James Johnstone, the 'star tip' & Nichols' fate


Arun Vajpey

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One of the more obscure but nevertheless interesting testimonies is by survivor Saloon Steward James Johnstone (referred to as 'James Johnson' in the Titanic Inquiry Project) during the British Inquiry. He stated that the 'boatswain' advised him to 'watch the star' while he, Johnstone, was working on Emergency Lifeboat 2, on which he was also rescued. The boatswain could only have been Alfred Nichols and since Lifeboat 2 was lowered at 01:45 am, Johnstone's statement is at odds with several accounts which believe that Nichols and his 6 assistants perished while they were trying to open a gangway door on the D-deck (or was it E-deck?) on the port side. Second Officer Lightoller is supposed to have given Nicholls an order to gather 6 sailors and go and open that gangway door at 1:05 am; the two men parted company and Lightoller later testified that he never saw Nichols again. It is from that statement, AFAIK, that the speculation about the fate of Nichols and his men developed and grew.

Therefore, I became interested in Johnstone's statement about the boatswain's 'star tip', especially when it was given. At the British Inquiry, Johnstone said:


3511. Did you row back at all towards the wreck?
- Well, the boatswain told us to keep a star and keep looking at this star and not to lose it, and keep within the vicinity of it.


3512. Keep within the vicinity of what?
- Of the star, underneath it rather
.

I believe there was only one boatswain on board the Titanic and that was Alfred Nichols. Looking at Johnstone's movements in various Titanic works, it appears that he arrived a bit early Lifeboat 2, probably around 01:25 am. He might even have been one of the crewmen who had jumped into the boat and were ordered out by Captain Smith. In any case, Johnstone remained, fitted the plug into the boat's floor and was then given some orders by Chief Officer Wilde. The boat was loaded with passengers before Boxhall finished with the rockets and arrived on the scene later.

My conjecture is that while the above activity was going on around Lifeboat 2, Nichols and his men returned from below decks, having found that opening any gangway doors was not a practical solution (which explains why no one on board Lifeboat 6, launched by Lightoller at 01:10 am, reported seeing an open gangway door on the port side). Nichols very likely dismissed his 6 men, whose identities we might never know. Nichols himself would have gone to the forward port boats (which is where Lightoller gave him the order) but it is very likely that by then the Second Officer had moved down to A-deck to begin his shenanigans with Lifeboat 4. In Lightoller's absence, Nichols would have reported to Wilde or Smith, both of whom were in the vicinity at the time. Looking at the timelines, it was very likely around 01:30 at the time and that was when Nichols probably encountered Johnstone, realized that the Saloon Steward was going on Lifeboat 2 and gave him the star tip.

After his encounter with Johnstone, Nichols very likely moved to the starboard aft part towards where Lifeboats 13 and 15 were about to be loaded. This ties in with the statement that Leading Fireman Fred Barrett made in an article in the Ulster Echo. Barrett was rescued on Lifeboat 13 and started that Nichols was helping with the loading and instructed Barrett to 'get into the boat and pull an oar'. Lifeboat 13 was lowered at around 01:40 am.

Back around lifeboat 2, Johnstone (who had received the 'star tip' from Nichols earlier) was still there when Boxhall arrived to take charge of the boat. Johnstone was also ordered in by Captain Smith and the boat was lowered at 01:45 am.

IMO therefore, it seems like Nichols both the star tip to Johnstone at around 01:30 am and the 'pull an oar' instruction to Barrett some 10 minutes later. That suggests that the boatswain and his men did not die trying to open the gangway door below decks.
 
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Arun Vajpey

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Great Analysis.
To be honest, the 'analysis' is not my original but based on Brad Payne's very interesting article Whatever happened to 'Big Neck' Nichols? that can be found here on ET. I have read that article several times and based on the information therein, formed a timeline for Nichols that explains ALL the reported sightings and also reasons why others who knew him did not see him at similar times.
 

William Oakes

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To be honest, the 'analysis' is not my original but based on Brad Payne's very interesting article Whatever happened to 'Big Neck' Nichols? that can be found here on ET. I have read that article several times and based on the information therein, formed a timeline for Nichols that explains ALL the reported sightings and also reasons why others who knew him did not see him at similar times.
Well, that said, you did a masterfull job of laying out the timeline in easily understandable language.
Thank You!
 
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Arun Vajpey

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It was D-Deck, as its open, or at least the door used to be attached
I agree, but not because that door is now 'open'. This is how I look at the Nichols' scenario.

If Lightoller gave the order at 01:05 am, it would have taken Nichols about 5 or 6 minutes to round-up his 6 sailors and check the feasibility of the task. By then, the E-deck gangway door on the port side would have been quite close to the sea level and so Nichols would quickly have realized the impracticality of the order and not followed through. They might then have briefly opened the D-deck gangway door instead as this was not only a deck higher but further aft than its E-deck counterpart; given the forward trim of the Titanic, the D-deck door would have been well above the water.

But I don't believe that Nichols and his men actually left any gangway door open that night; they either did not open any door at all or briefly opened the D-deck door and closed it again (which explains why no one on Lifeboat 6 saw an open gangway door as they rowed past on the port side). I am not sure if the Titanic's port list had started by 01:15 am; if it had, it would have been an incentive to Nichols' realization that loading of people into lifeboats by that route would not be possible. I believe that the open d-deck door on the wreck, if that really is the case, is the result of damage due to impact with the ocean floor.
 

Cam Houseman

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I agree, but not because that door is now 'open'. This is how I look at the Nichols' scenario.

If Lightoller gave the order at 01:05 am, it would have taken Nichols about 5 or 6 minutes to round-up his 6 sailors and check the feasibility of the task. By then, the E-deck gangway door on the port side would have been quite close to the sea level and so Nichols would quickly have realized the impracticality of the order and not followed through. They might then have briefly opened the D-deck gangway door instead as this was not only a deck higher but further aft than its E-deck counterpart; given the forward trim of the Titanic, the D-deck door would have been well above the water.
Hmmmmm.
I think they were sent a little later, and the Door wasn't opened until Lifeboat 6 was already lowered away. The Port list was probably beginning to manifest. Nichols and his Men opened the Door, but saw how close the Sea was too close to the Baseboard, so they tried to close it. But, the door was too heavy, and with the Port list, close to impossible. Maybe they tried until the Water was surging over the Step. You said Nichols was seen later in the Sinking? Maybe he and another man got away, just in time.

I agree, but not because that door is now 'open'. This is how I look at the Nichols' scenario.

If Lightoller gave the order at 01:05 am, it would have taken Nichols about 5 or 6 minutes to round-up his 6 sailors and check the feasibility of the task. By then, the E-deck gangway door on the port side would have been quite close to the sea level and so Nichols would quickly have realized the impracticality of the order and not followed through. They might then have briefly opened the D-deck gangway door instead as this was not only a deck higher but further aft than its E-deck counterpart; given the forward trim of the Titanic, the D-deck door would have been well above the water.

I believe that the open d-deck door on the wreck, if that really is the case, is the result of damage due to impact with the ocean floor.

Yet, the Starboard Gangway Door isn't open. Neither the B-Deck Starboard Gangway Doors.
Starboard Gangway Doors:
1606001796930.png

And, neither the Portside B-Deck gangways.
titanic_port_side_mosaic_by_quartei_d8sx0rq-fullview.jpg


I get where you're coming from, as its possible the Officer's Quarters windows popped open on impact, but the D-Deck Gangways, or the Gangways in general, are most likely More secured, for Rough Weather, or something.
 

Arun Vajpey

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I think they were sent a little later, and the Door wasn't opened until Lifeboat 6 was already lowered away.
I have to disagree here. Lightoller said that he gave that order to Nichols when the two men were working on Lifeboat 6, which would have been just after 1 am. If he did give that order, Nichols would have realized the reason it was being given and tried to carry it out right away. Say 5 minutes to gather 6 men and go below to the gangway door; a further 6 to 8 minutes to find out that it was not possible, cogitate with the men about other options and finally decide that Lightoller's plan was unworkable. Therefore, IMO Nicholls and his men would have been back on the boat deck by 01:25am at the latest; since Nichols chose his men, he could have dismissed them to other tasks at that point but he would have had to report back to Lightoller. But unbeknown to Nichols, Lightoller had moved to A-deck in the interim but Smith and/or Wilde were in the area of the forward port boats, probably near Lifeboat 2 which was the only forward port boat being worked on at the time on the boat deck (boats 8 and 6 had been launched, boat 4 lowered to A-deck and Collapsible D had not yet been readied). IMO it therefore makes sense that Nichols reported to Smith or Wilde, then saw Johnstone and gave him the star tip. Having done that, Nichols would have gone about other tasks himself (he might have been ordered to go help with the starboard aft boats, where there was a lot of activity going on at the time). That ties in with Fireman Barrett seeing Nichols just before Lifeboat 13 was lowered at 01:40.
 

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