Was Murdoch drunk at the wheel?


In an interesting twist, Quartermaster Robert Hichens' great-granddaughter Sally Nilsson has accused Murdoch of being asleep and drunk at the time of collision in a new book designed to clear Hichens name.

Her primary evidence consists of a letter naming Hichens as a Cape Town harbourmaster and seemingly supported by Hungarian Luis Klein who claimed to be a crew member.

Captain Smith, Fifth Officer Lowe and Hichens himself have all been accused of drinking alcohol on that fatal night, and one member of crew -Charles Joughin (chief baker)- alleged he survived due to drinking. But was First Officer Murdoch really "out cold from the wine he had consumed at a celebration for his captain" and Hichens unable to wake him as Nilsson will have us believe?

I have researched both sides of this serious allegation and collated it into this article (link): Was Murdoch drunk at the wheel?

I don't know if this is the first time an article has been written regarding accusations of Titanic's crew drinking, so please feel free to send any feedback, suggestions, corrections etc
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Sally Nilsson is correct -- and deserves our support -- in her work to clear quartermaster Hichens of any blame. He did as ordered, when ordered, and was no more at fault for the accident than the walls of the wheelhouse in which he stood. I don't find fault for what he did in the lifeboat when he yelled for Murdoch (the officer of the watch). Hichens knew there would be an inquiry and he knew that his actions would be scrutinized. As the ship took the berg, Newtonian forces would have caused the bow to yaw to the left. A good quartermaster like Hichens would automatically have begun applying right rudder. His job was to steer a straight course. From the testimony of quartermaster Olliver we learn that Murdoch did not yell his right rudder order (in 1912 parlance he said, "hard a-port") until after the ship struck. It is probable that after the sinking Hichens became concerned that Murdoch's order was a rebuke for letting the ship veer to its left: and worse, that Murdoch may have thought Hichens thus allowed the accident to occur. Speculation, yes, but that's the way people think when looking back on major events.

All of the above said, I fear trying to defend the man against one falsehood by concocting an even worse one is ridiculous.

Just when in 'ell would there have been time in the watch rotation for the officers of Titanic to have staged a celebration of Captain Smith? The junior officers worked watch-and-watch with the crew while the seniors did 4 and 8s. Just to survive the juniors had to sleep between each tour on deck and at least one of the seniors had to be slumbering during his 8 hours off as well. So, when was this party? And, as to Murdoch's being "out cold," how is it that we have eyewitness accounts of his wide-awake activities at change of watch, during the accident, and afterward loading lifeboats? Sorry, but the argument that Murdoch was drunk does not pass the guffaw test.


-- David G. Brown


PS -- At no time was Murdoch "at the wheel." Damned automobile thinking. The officer of the deck does not turn the wheel. That's the quartermaster's job. In circumstances like the night of April 14, 1912, the OOD is responsible for the actions of the ship while the QM is responsible for following orders.
 
Many thanks David for your always insightful comments!

I agree that Hichens, in the midst of an incredibly stressful situation, has not been fairly treated by history and so Nilsson is right to set the record straight. However her conclusions regarding Murdoch are most unfortunate...read my article and you will see why.

I take your comment regarding the "at the wheel" description, although clearly used here as a simplistic/condensed reference to his overall command, rather than his actual job at the time. A bit off-topic but as we are discussing semantics you refer several times in your post to it being an "accident". Personally, I prefer the term "collision" as the word "accident" implies there was nobody to blame. Was this a conscious decision?
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Just when in 'ell would there have been time in the watch rotation for the officers of Titanic to have staged a celebration of Captain Smith?<<

And of all people, why cite Luis Klein....a known imposter....to support this?
 
Jan 28, 2003
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There seem to be more than a couple of threads recently wondering if crew on the Titanic were drunk - officers, sailors etc. This is HIGHLY unlikely. I'm wondering if it is the late-20thC obsession of the Americans with drunkenness - having been rather enthusiastic exponents of the condition themselves before about 1970, and having endured Prohibition decades before? I well remember visiting the USA in the 1970s, and I can tell you that they were all Mad Men. I have no moral approach to this sort of thing at all, but I do know the Americans changed very, very visibly from 1980 onwards. An extraordinary national sea-change, and probably all for the better. BUT ... it does not mean that earlier generations were drunk. In fact, in the early 20thC they were most unlikely to be.
 
Thanks Monica, that is an interesting point regarding a late 20th century obsession with drunkenness.

As for why these allegations, I think it is due to a spate of recent books about Titanic's officers that except for one (Inger Shell's excellent book on Lowe) that are trying to find some conspiracy angle to increase publicity for what might otherwise be a pedestrian read: Lightoller's granddaughter Louise Patten's book "Good as Gold" (steering error allegation...), Lightoller's grand-nephew Valentine Palmer's terrible "The Strange Case of Uncle Bertie" (Lightoller was really covering up a switch with the Olympic...) and now Hichen's great-granddaughter's "The Man Who Sank Titanic" (Murdoch was asleep or drunk during the collision...). All of it based on very dubious evidence that does not stand up to logic.
 
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I used to go on business trips to the USA in the mid-1970s. I endured 3-Martini lunches (quite beyond the abilities of an English female) and also waited hours and hours for dinner at about 9.45pm whilst every one else was cheerily drinking. Being young, and able to recover, I thought it was all rather fun, though I didn't think I could keep it up on a daily basis, but they seemed to be able to. Then - just as I was beginning to get the hang of it - they all suddenly changed. They started jogging and working out, gave up smoking, and were extremely censorious of anyone drinking more than about two glasses of wine a week. It was a puzzle. I don't like to say that they were a darn sight more fun before ... but they were, you know. However, I can't criticise anyone for wanting to live longer, which I think was the motivation, together with changing societal mores. However, I absolutely refuse to accept anyone claiming that highly-disciplined and/or poor, and very often highly religious - sailors, of whatever rank - were drunk on duty on the Titanic. It's a ludicrous suggestion. I can't quite imagine what's going on with these various grandchildren / grand nieces and nephews. But I don't think it's scholarship....
 

Adam Went

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Apr 28, 2003
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It's not out of the realms of possibility that some of the crew might have had a glass or two of wine at dinner or something similar, but this would absolutely not have rendered any of them drunk or incapable, especially when it was nearly midnight. If it was a genuine issue then it would have come up long before now. Don't get me wrong, i've got no time for Robert Hichens who I think was a nasty individual to say the least, but I don't believe he was at the ship's wheel under the influence. Nor was Murdoch, his actions pre and post striking the iceberg have been very well documented in the past 100 years.

Seems to be to just be a bit of childish "he said, she said, no you are."
 
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Yes, I think so, Adam. And, of course, the demon booze was even more proscribed in the early part of the 20thC than it has ever been since - for good reason. Those good people trying to raise society above the poverty level knew very well that drink was the opiate of the masses, and it therefore had to be diminished. Anyone who had a proper job, like on board a ship, knew very well that it was absolutely forbidden, for both practical and religious reasons. My forebears were abstemious and religious (didn't last!). Baker Joughin might have had a bottle hidden in his room, but he didn't seem to sip from it until the last moment - and I don't suppose he drank enough to kill himself, since he survived. I don't know why people bother about this sort of thing.
 

Adam Went

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Agree with you, Monica. I think it's because there always must be a scapegoat. Failing everything else for the past century, now it is time to suggest that members of the crew were under the influence of alcohol. I mean I think that if Murdoch particularly was drunk on the bridge, we would have known about it pretty quick, his actions during that crucial minute or less are household knowledge.
 

Jim Currie

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Hello Adam,

Being a liner, Titanic had a regular run. Such ships were highly sought-after by married men, particularly those with families. The majority of these men were steady, reliable individuals who, in many cases, stayed with a particular ship for many years. Any bad conduct such as drinking on board resulted in a 'DR' which usually meant a search for a new berth. Not a desirable outcome for a man who had others depending on him.

All other ships signed 2 year Articles which meant they could be, and often were, away from home for 2 years. On such ships 'weevils in the porridge' were a common sight.. even after WW2.
Wine was totally unheard of.

I'm afraid that the only 'wine' that poor sailors might have sampled would have been on a trip ashore. Then it would have been 'Red Biddy' or some such plonk. Rum and beer were the favourite tipples.
Fortified wines of extremely rough quality were the preferred choice of alcoholics. (sometimes flavoured with an injection of towns gas from a nearby street or allyway light)

The men on Titanic would have been fed and watered in the forecastle.. not a very nice place I can tell you. The food on offer would have been pretty basic and nothing like that enjoyed by the paying passengers.

A glass of wine with dinner, as far as the ordinary British public was concerned, was alien up until the late 1950s early 60's, except at Xmas and even then, only at the tables of the better off citzens. In fact the expression 'dinner' was used to describe the mid-day meal. The evening meal was either 'tea' or 'supper' depending on location.

As for all the 'juicy' Titanic stories about mis-conduct and devious behaviour: I think that is part of a modern 'sickness' and in most cases, consists of badly written, outrageous, sensationalist garbage.
A bit like newspapers, films and TV programmes which seem to me (as a cantankerous old codger) to be hell-bent on exposing this and that conspiracy.. finding fault with almost everything and everyone and worse of all: striving to be 'realistic'. Classic example is the series 'Once Upon a Time'.. the true story of Snow White... for adults.

Is it any wonder that books by J.K. Rowlings together with all those incredible animated films and clever cartoons attract adults?

Oh I'd better shut-up!

Jim C.
 

Adam Went

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Jim:

Thanks very much for your insight. Somewhat surprising! So even the high up members of the crew woul be fed only basic meals? What of the real sweat workers down in the engine rooms and so forth then, did their catering vary much from the officers on the bridge?

I suppose it's one of those things that's drilled into this particular generation, and the last 50 years or so, the old glass of wine or alcohol with dinner....

Cheers,
Adam.
 

Jim Currie

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Hello Adam,

The deck and engine crew were fed and watered in messrooms in the bow section. Galleys were there to cook the food and dish it up. It would probably have been basic but there was already a minimum victualling Act.

The QMs and senior PO's might have had a separate messroom but I've lost my plans so can't tell you if they did have.
What is almost certain is that the food they consumed was prepared in the same galley as that of the other hands.
The navigation officers had a messroom on the boat deck. It was situated aft of Boxhall's cabin on the starboard side.
Their food would be prepared in a different galley from that of the crew.

Shipowners were bound by Acts of Parliament to ensure minimum vicualling leves for every crew member regardless of rank.
Various labour Unions made a point of ensuring that rations were fair and of good quality. Not always easy on ships far away from home but on liners like Titanic, it was very easy to ensure quality and quantity of rations.

My own Article of Indenture illustrate this very clearly and the wording in that dates back to before the beginning of the 20th Century.

Yes! I am an old codger.

Jim C.
 

Adam Went

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Hi Jim,

Many thanks for that information, interesting stuff!

I suppose there would have to be some sort of system for the crew members as well on ships as large as the Titanic with such a hefty quantity of all sorts of crew members.

Cheers,
Adam.
 

Arun Vajpey

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I absolutely refuse to accept anyone claiming that highly-disciplined and/or poor, and very often highly religious - sailors, of whatever rank - were drunk on duty on the Titanic. It's a ludicrous suggestion. ..

I agree 10% and then some. And Murdoch of all people, who showed more logical thinking and common sense in loading the lifeboats than any other officer. IMO it is blasphemy to even suggest that he was drunk.
 
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I'm sure sailors were often drunk (for entirely understandable reasons) in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. But by the late 19th / early 20th Centuries, times had changed. Shipping Lines were well established, as were rules, and the responsibility of Captains and officers. It was an era of established and routine voyages - nothing like the journeys of 100 years' previously, when few people really understood navigation and were more superstitious. By 1912, it was very ordered and crews knew this, and drink was proscribed on the voyage, and unavailable to the crew. The Captain might have had a glass at dinner with the first class passengers because he was in a PR role, but I do not believe he did any more than that. Drink to excess? Rubbish. The Titanic disaster was just an accident with an unseen iceberg - unseen, due to now-known meteorological circumstance,. although still quarrelled about among some. I know many posters here will not want to accept this verdict. But I really think, after all this time and after all the evidence, that it just was a terrible happening. You can blame the Californian, but ... come on ... given the circumstances, it's not very viable, is it? And you would have done ... what .... differently?
 

Inger Sheil

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Glad to see you've looked into this, Dan - I wrote an article on Luis Klein some years back for The White Star Journal that should demonstrate how very evident it was that the man was a fraud. I was thinking of writing an article on allegations of intoxication among the crew, but you've beaten me to it :) One of the things that inspired the idea was an exchange I had with a relative of Daisy Minahan - he wondered if perhaps her hostility towards Lowe might have stemmed from the fact that she thought he was drunk, and she was a strong tee-totaller. I'll scan it and send it to you when I next call up the documents if you like. I also promised Sally that I'd find and scan the copy I have of Hitchens' RNR records, in which it becomes very evident that far from enjoying a plum position as a harbourmaster, he was down as a deserted from his ship at the time he was in South Africa (he was later able to explain why he was unable to rejoin his ship, but whatever he was doing there, he wasn't a harbourmaster).

Harold Lowe was extremely incensed at the charge of being drunk for very good reasons (and not only the personal one that his father was an alcoholic and he abstained partly in response to that). As he explained to reporters, it added to an officer's value to the master and to the line to be able to produce references that made it clear that he was temperate, given that intoxication could - and still can - cause some maritime accidents. Lowe's references are very clear on this point - the words "strictly sober" are fairly pro forma, but in some instances they were underlined in the references his masters wrote for him.
 

Jim Currie

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Hello Inger,

" I have of Hitchens' RNR records, in which it becomes very evident that far from enjoying a plum position as a harbourmaster, he was down as a deserted from his ship at the time he was in South Africa (he was later able to explain why he was unable to rejoin his ship, but whatever he was doing there, he wasn't a harbourmaster). "

As a former Harbour Master, I can add a little insight ito this.

Unless Hichens had obtained the proper qualifications, he could never have held-down the job of Harbour Master in a port of any size handling ocean-going vessels. In most cases, in 1912, the minimun qualification for anyone to be considered for the post of Harbour Master was Master Mariner (FG). The same went for Sea and Harbour Pilot. He might have got the job at a tucked-away fishing villiage.

Did you find friend Klein in Californian when he had his one man 'Titanic' show?

Jim C.

PS Seems to me I remember a photograph of him sporting 4 bars on his sleeve. Since the unauthorised wear of an MN uniform was an offence subject to a fine, I wonder who authorised them?
 

Sally@Hichens

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Hi Inger. If you don't mind me saying Jim, I found Luis Klein in California and as for Hichens being a harbourmaster I think that part of the Garvey letter was possibly incorrect. I believe Hichens met Blum in Cape Town but as for his postition, I think he could have been something else. Blum never mentioned Robert by name according to the Thomas Garvey letter. I wonder if he used his name or another? Obviously this is total speculation but questions I wish I had the answers for. From the research I did I don't think Robert had a high rank at all after Titanic and he certainly never was a quartermaster again. Shame after all his years of training.
 

Jim Currie

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Hello Sally,

In fact, there was no specific training for a Quartermaster. The term is a throwback form sailing ship days.

Usually it was only passenger ships that had them. Some very posh Companies called them 'quartermaster' but it was just a 'yuppie' term for helmsman.

Basically they were up-market Able Seamen (ABs). In all ships except passenger ships, all deck ranks took a 'trick' at the wheel but due to length of service and consequently accumulated hours behind the wheel, only ABs could sign-on as a QM.
In passenger ships, the QM's duties consisted of Steering, maintaining bridge bright work, looking after compasses, keeping the Movement Book, manning the emergency boat, running bridge errands, calling the OOW, noting patent log readings, keeping the bridge tidy etc. In port, they manned the gangway as a sort of sentry.
All Quartermasters were not Petty Officers. The only Quartermaster who was and still is a Petty Officer is the Chief Quartermaster if one is carried.

I know that Quartermaster Rowe was a Chief PO in the Navy. The Chief PO on Titanic was the Boatswain.

Jim C
 

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