Lifeboats extinguished their lights


Terence Keefe

It’s good to see that, in the feverish run-up to the 100th Anniversary, new theories are still appearing. But Senan Molony’s defence of his view that ‘Lifeboats from the Titanic extinguished their lights in order not to become attractive beacons for swimmers after the sinking’ is seriously flawed in a number of respects. It would take an article of equivalent length to demonstrate this in detail, but here are a few preliminary pointers.

1) Any theory that rests almost exclusively on testimony from the two Inquiries needs to be checked carefully against extensive evidence from memoirs, letters, interviews, newspaper items, and other sources.
2) Any theory based on the assertion that something must have happened — ‘It happened, because it must have happened’ (italics original) — is inherently weaker than one resting on direct testimony that it did — of which there is, at the moment, none.
3) The fact that someone, at a given moment, did not see lights does not constitute proof that they were not there at that time (‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’). Strangely, Molony admits that ‘For those with the keenest night vision, the maximum visibility in the inky black appears to have been just fifty yards and must have been much less for most.’

In any case, there is the more fundamental question of how many lifeboats had working lights in the first place. Assuming that Hemming, as he says, brought 14 lamps up to the boat deck, there is still the greatest uncertainty about what exactly happened after this, to the point that the best that Molony can suggest is what is likely (‘he gave them to the crew still at the falls, asking that they be passed down. Such very likely happened’; ‘The likelihood is that not one of these lamps was wasted, and that they went therefore into fourteen Titanic lifeboats’ — my own italics). Yet likelihood mysteriously seems to turn to certainty when — with Boxhall saying that there were always lamps in the two emergency boats — Molony claims: ‘Therefore all standard Titanic lifeboats were provisioned with brightly-lit lamps from very early on in the sinking’ (bold in the original); ‘And one went early into every available Titanic lifeboat.’

The major problem with this claim is that there are numerous explicit denials by various crew members questioned at the British Inquiry that their lifeboat had a light (Molony does not ignore much of this evidence but, bizarrely, takes it to confirm that they did, but extinguished it!). At a quick reckoning, these denials cover 13 separate lifeboats (boats 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, C, D). And, most significantly, this is entirely consistent with virtually everything that we learn from different witnesses at the American Inquiry, where there are explicit assertions that there was a light in boats 2 and 6; and a denial that there was a lamp in boat 10. Equally consistent is the fact that two witnesses state that there was a light in boat 8 (although, as Molony records, they both register difficulties with the lamp).

Leaving aside the overturned collapsible B, this information covers 17 of the 19 boats and, apart from one or two loose ends, there is a quite remarkable coherence to it all. Against Molony’s ‘likelihood’ that lamps went into 14 boats, we have direct evidence to back up the suggestion that 14 of the 19 lifeboats had no lights that might later have been deliberately extinguished, and only up to 5 did. (And ‘up to 5’ is consistent with virtually all statements made by crew members: ‘some’, ‘four’, ‘five or six’, ‘several’, etc.)

Personally, I find wholly implausible the suggestion that the pattern of the testimony across two inquiries is to be explained by conspiracy to lie on a massive scale, or by such widespread self-deception that it amounts to much the same.

I have not systematically measured the above results against statements made by passengers in places other than the inquiries, but I notice that, again consistently, Elizabeth Shutes denies there was a light of any kind in boat 3.

One further thought. As far as lights seen on the water are concerned, in the British Inquiry there is mention of ‘Holmes Lights’, which light up when they fall into water. Dave Gittins has claimed that Holmes Lights were attached to 6 of Titanic’s lifebuoys. At some stage these must have been immersed, and they may have lit up. If so, for how long did the lights last? Perhaps these were the only lights, if any, that later went out?

Some extremely interesting side issues about lamps arise out of Molony’s research, but he entirely fails to support his central theory. This is no trivial matter, since that theory potentially blackens the name of many survivors: ‘Of course the lifeboats put their lights back on after the drowning people very satisfactorily were dead and silent’.

Terry Keefe

Jun 18, 2011
[Technical difficulties obliged me to post my message of 14 December under a 'guest name'.]

No one has yet responded to my criticism of Senan Molony's article. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts of my own on the general topic of lifeboats and their lights - less a theory than a set of questions and hypotheses.

Despite some uncertainty about who gave the order, and whether he had assistance or not, there is no particular reason for doubting Samuel Hemming's claim that he brought 14 lamps to the Boat Deck from the lamp room (one for each standard lifeboat?), or even that, at that stage, the lamps were properly filled and alight. But after this there is almost nothing that we can be entirely sure of.

Hemming himself does not know whether the 'several' boats already lowered got lights or not, and yet lamps somehow found their way into 3 boats (numbers 2, 6 and 8 - all forward on the port side, with 8 and 6 probably being the first to leave from that side). At the Inquiries, however, for 14 of the remaining 16 boats - B, of course, floated off upside down - there is at least one witness who asserts unambiguously that there was no lamp in the boat (1,4,5,7,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,C and D). Additionally, in Gracie's book Elizabeth Shutes says there was no lamp in boat 3. If there is no definite statement either way for collapsible A, in the circumstances it seems highly unlikely that it had a lamp.

Hence there is very good reason for the important, though unexpected, hypothesis that only 3 of the ship's boats had the appropriate lamp or lantern. Or, more properly, we should say a 'functioning' lamp, since it is possible that there were lamps in some boats which went out very quickly or did not work at all. In fact, two witnesses assert that there was no oil to make the lamp in boat D work, and we know that there was much difficulty with the lamp in boat 8.

Yet certain issues need to be addressed if the supposition of only 3 boats with a working lamp and 16 without is to be maintained. At the American Inquiry Boxhall first claims that lamps were lit every night at 6 o'clock in the two emergency boats, then says he will not be 'driven' to affirm that there was one in boat 1: 'I do not think they were exactly in the boat. They were hanging in the wheelhouse or in the bridge, covered over with a canvas cover - not exactly in the boat.' In any case, there are two particularly emphatic denials by crew members that there was a lamp in boat 1 (Hendrickson and Symons, who was in charge of the boat). But what of Hemming's assertion that he actually put lamps into some of the boats, and its apparent corroboration by other witnesses?

At the British Inquiry he says he put lamps into ‘a good many boats’, but when pressed at the American Inquiry, he had claimed only, on the port side, to put lamps into ‘two or three’ boats (later ‘one or two’). At first making no reference to lamps on the starboard side, he later says he put lamps into the remaining boats there, but there may be some confusion in the questions and answers, since this is especially problematic. If, as he says, when he reached the starboard side, 'The starboard collapsible boat [C] had just been lowered' (was 'away from the ship'), this puts the time at after 2.00 a.m., at which point the only remaining boat there was collapsible A on the roof of the officers' quarters!

Against this background, there is justification for scrutinising very carefully the apparent corroboration by other witnesses of all Hemming says he did. Boxhall doesn’t say that he saw Hemming puts lamps into boats, only that ‘he was … seen’. In fact, Boxhall admits to not knowing how many lamps were put in. Then the statements by Lightoller, Crawford and Hichens are general and rather vague, only to the effect that Hemming distributed lamps 'to' the boats (James Johnson mentions seeing a lamp 'standing on the deck'). Again, Lightoller, in the end, says he is unable to offer information on whether certain boats had lanterns; and both Crawford and Hichens, who left the ship fairly early on, may be taken to be referring primarily to forward port-side boats - could they possibly be sure exactly what was happening even to those aft on the port side? In short, we have no specific and reliable confirmation that Hemming actually put lamps into many boats at all. In any case, a version of my earlier point is that, if he put more than 3 in, then some clearly appear not to have worked.

This leaves a broader, but apparently more powerful, objection to the 3-with-and-16-without-lamps supposition. Are there not references by a number of witnesses to lights that they saw in the lifeboats? Yes, but it takes only a moment's thought to realise that an important distinction needs to be made between 'lights' on the one hand and 'lamps' (or 'lanterns') on the other. The 'green lights' on Boxhall's boat 2 figure particularly prominently in accounts, and it is obvious that, from time to time, lights of one kind or another would have been showing in many of the boats: we know from survivors that some had torches and matches, that some smoked, and that some lit materials for the light they gave. In fact, in the various references to lights seen in boats on the water, only three witnesses actually use the term 'lamp': Boxhall (who also says: ‘I could see the reflection of the lights; I did not see the lights themselves’), Pitman, and Hart (who says he saw 'three' lamps). My hypothesis, then, is that most of the lights from other boats seen by survivors were 'casual' lights rather than regulation lamps. There is also the possibility I mentioned, that some of the lights seen on the water were 'Holmes Lights' (Hichens actually thought that some of the lights were 'buoys'.)

Still, intriguing questions remain. Do we know if the 'Holmes Lights' came into operation? For how long were the regulation lamps expected to burn before they needed refilling from the spare can of oil possibly kept in the boats? Were they bright, or ‘dim’ as one or two survivors suggest? If there was a lamp in each boat in Belfast, when were they transferred to their special place in the lamp room? What of the claim that some lamps were kept in the wheelhouse or bridge? And what of the claims that they were kept in the ‘after-locker’ of the boat or ‘underneath one of the thwarts’ (4 crew)? Was the procedure of putting a functioning lamp into the two emergency boats really carried out every day? Why did BoT regulations require only four lifeboat lamps? And why does the Commissioner at the British Inquiry seem so anxious to press the absurd point that absence of lamps made no practical difference?

Terry Keefe
Dec 29, 2006
I too am surprised that nobody has yet responded to Terry Keefe's criticism of Senan Molony's article. For what it is worth, my own view is that Senan has published some really great material on the Titanic, much of this being of a (most welcome) revisionist nature. However, I cannot help feeling that, in the "lights" article, Senen has gone too far; I find it hard to believe that lights were deliberately extinguished in up to 20 lifeboats out of a selfish and supine sense of self-preservation.
Mar 22, 2003
Chicago, IL, USA
To add to this discussion, there are the claims by both Reginald Lee and Lawrence Beesley that in boat 13 someone (a lady according to Lee) was able to read the time of foundering off their watch and said it was 2:30; by Daisy Minaham in boat 15 who said that a man in her boat saw 2:20 on his watch; by 3/O Herbert Pitman in boat 5 who said he looked at his watch at the time and told those around him it was 2:20; by Annie Robinson in boat 11 who looked at her watch and it read 1:40 which was "by altered time"; and Marion Thayer in boat 4 who said a passenger's wrist watch placed the foundering time at 2:20. If there were no lit lamps in any of those boats at the time Titanic went under, then there had to be some other light source to enable one to read the dials of those watches. I don't believe radium watch dials existed in 1912.

Terry Keefe

Jun 18, 2011
Sam (if I may),
Yes, answer or answers needed to this puzzle.

It's possible, of course, that they read their watches by the light of matches or torches. Indeed, in a 30-ft boat they might need to be pretty close to a lamp to read their watch by lamp-light (Back to my question of how bright the lamps were).

As it happens, for all of the boats you mention but one, there is more than a single denial that there was a lamp:- boat 13:Beauchamp and Barrett; 15:Rule and Hart; 5:Etches, Shiers and Pitman (!); 11:Brice and Mackay. It is just Ranger who says there was no light in boat 4. (Naturally, I'm subject to correction on all of this.)

Incidentally, having seen your fine Reappraisal since formulating my questions about the 6 'Holmes Lights', I notice that they were 'usually stowed in the area of the bridge and individually sealed until needed'.

Terry Keefe

Jim Currie

Apr 16, 2008
NewtonMearns, Glasgow, Scotland.
You have to admit. Senan's article got the desired response.

"1) Any theory that rests almost exclusively on testimony from the two Inquiries needs to be checked carefully against extensive evidence from memoirs, letters, interviews, newspaper items, and other sources"

The best time to get evidence of an accident is as soon after it happened as possible. The most accurate part of Verbatim newspaper reports are often the inverted comas inserted by the reporter! Such reports by themselves tend to be boring if they are truly verbatim. It;s the embelishment that surrounds them that needs sorting out.

On the subject of lamps:

I actually have two of them.

It was filled with colsa oil and gave of a warm glow rather than a bright white light.

All full size lifeboats were suplied with a container of such oil enough for 12 hours burning with a properly trimmed wick. All boats were checked by the BoT Surveyor before the voyage commenced and all would most certainly have one.

The practice of passing a lit lamp full of oil into a loaded boat before it was less-than-carefully lowered to the sea was a folly which fortunately did not end in tradgedy. Can you imagine what would have happened if a lamp had been spilled on the way down?

Another bit of folly was to light the lamps so soon. These lams were meant to attract attention at night. There was not an infinite supply of oil nor was there absolute certainty they would not have to spend a few days in the boats. The ocean is a big place.

As to how bright these lamps were: It depended on how well they were trimmed. Even so, they would be located at the feet of the Coxwain.. at the stern, Low down, below the gunwale. They would normally be kept there with the wick turned way-down to conserve oil. Only the coxwain's face would be illuminated. In a fully loaded boat they would be almost invisible from most directions.
They would be lashed to the boathook and raised high when another light was sighted.

You are correct Sam about radium watches... they came along a little later.

Pitman's boat,did not have a light source at all. Olliver said it was so dark when Titanic went down, he could barely make her out so its a mystery how Pitman was able to see his hand in front of his face, let alone a watch!

There was a lady with a walking stick which had a battery and bulb on the end. Another guy lit a rope's end soaked in colsa oil.

Incidentaly; the problem with water and watches is that good ones will keep the water out for a lot longer than the cheaper versions. Has anyone ever done a test as to how long it takes for a non- watertight watch to fail when submerged?
The point being: The time on a watch stopped by ingress of seawater might not be the instant the watch was submerged.


Terry Keefe

Jun 18, 2011
I don't know about Senan's article getting 'the desired response'. The only response to my criticisms of the article so far is Jim Currie's implied point that the 'best' evidence is that from the Inquiries. Maybe so (that's where virtually all of the evidence I have used comes from), but it's not the only evidence.

The information about lamps in Jim's post is very valuable, but it doesn't seem to address some of my own central queries. When he says all boats 'would most certainly have one', it's not entirely clear whether he means a lamp or a container of oil. Even allowing for the inspection in Belfast, having a lamp available for each boat is not the same as each boat having a lamp in it when launched. Hemming says he had to bring 14 lamps from the lamp room. The question is: what exactly happened to them after that? The fact remains that - if I'm right - separate witnesses deny that there was a lamp in 15 of the boats.

Taking Jim's point about the lamps being located at the feet of the Coxwain, perhaps someone wants to defend the argument that some (many?) witnesses thought there was no lamp in their boat when there was one (although most were crew, of course, and might be expected to know where the lamp would be).

Jim's reference to lights in the boats other than lamps is, precisely, one of the points I made. And his worry about the 'folly' of passing a lit lamp into the boats could be taken to strengthen my own doubts that this happened in more than, literally, one or two cases.

Terry Keefe

Senan Molony

Jun 28, 1998
Boxhall's 1962 audio recording is available here:

BBC - Archive - Survivors of the Titanic - Commander Joseph Boxhall

Go to 12.54 - Boxhall has gone around the stern in lifeboat 2. The Titanic is still afloat.

"What struck me as a bit strange was that all the other boats, I couldn't see one of them."

13.39 - "I couldn't see a boat anywhere."

"That is when I lit the green lights to attract other boats."

The Titanic was still afloat.

Boxhall speaks to you in audio, rather than transcript text. He was there.

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