Who looked out for the Lookouts


Titanic’s Lookouts Hadn’t Had Their Eyes Tested in Years.

By Senan Molony

Foreword: File MT9/920C of the Public Record Office at Kew in London has been available for inspection for years and is even now available in digital format. Its contents are simply rewritten here. Nonetheless, because it has been generally neglected by Titanic authors (perhaps because of geographical location), it may prove of interest to ET readers.


THERE a phrase in the transcripts of the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster that resonates hauntingly - "Well if we can see through that we will be lucky."

Lookout Reginald Robinson Lee testified that his mate in the crow's nest, lookout Fred Fleet, uttered the remark when a haze sprang up shortly before the pride of the White Star Line was confronted with an inescapable berg. Fleet denied saying it, although he conceded there had indeed been a slight haze. The court would ultimately decide there had been no such thing.

But there was certainly a haze elsewhere. Because a damning document (MT9/920C) in the archives of Public Record Office at Kew shows that neither of the lookouts had had his eyes tested in years! How could such a basic failing be allowed to happen? And how did it stay out of the newspapers?

Fred Fleet, the man who rang the crow's nest bell with three strikes warning of an object dead ahead, had not undergone an eyesight test since 1907, a full five years before the sinking. The test he took was obsolete, childish, no test at all...

But not quite as bad as the record of his companion on lookout, Reg Lee, he of the impenetrable haze. Lee had never once had his eyes tested on ocean service. In fact the last time his eyes had been tested was during his army service days in 1900, a full twelve years earlier!

The British Board of Trade was forced to investigate the quality of eyesight of the two untested lookouts after some embarrasing evidence given to the official Inquiry. Consider this tranche of contradictory evidence from Reginald Lee:-

2688. (Mr. Lewis.) Is your sight good ?–I hope so.
2689. Never anything the matter with your sight at all ?–No.
2690. Is there an examination of the eyes before you are appointed look-out man at Southampton, or elsewhere ?–Yes.
2691. Who by ?–You go through the Board of Trade office.
2692. At Southampton ?–Yes.
2693. What doctor examined you ?–I do not know his name.
2694. A doctor did examine you at Southampton; did he particularly examine your eyes; did he test your sight ?–Yes.
2695. Do you swear that he tested your sight at Southampton at the Board of Trade Dock there; do you swear that ?–No.
2696. Let us be quite clear. You were examined by the Board of Trade doctor at the Southampton–is that so?–I am not going to answer that.
2697. (The Commissioner.) What did you say ? Were you examined at Southampton by a doctor?–Yes, Sir, but not for eyesight though. He only just asked me–not a test to get a certificate for so that I can prove it. There is a doctor’s examination when you fall in.
2698. Were you asked about your eyesight ?–Not specially.
2699. Were you asked in any way about it ?–I cannot say that I was.
2700. (Mr. Lewis.) Can you tell us what form the examination took then. Were you examined separately; were all the men examined separately? What sort of examination did the doctor make ?–I suppose he pleased himself. A medical man generally does, doesn't he?
2701. What sort of examination did he make of you? What did he say to you ?–You might ask me something easier because I cannot remember what the man said.
2702. You say you were examined by the doctor– this is very important. I want you to answer the question. What form did the examination take; how long did it take ?–We were falling in on the lounge deck and the doctor came and examined us all. I do not know that he particularly asked me anything.
2703. Just a casual examination ?–It was a casual kind of examination.
2704. He did not ask you anything at all about your eyes?–No.
2705. No special examination. Has there been any examination by anyone since, by a ship’s doctor or anyone else, with respect to your eyes ?– No.

Incredible! And then there is testimony from Fleet -

17224. Had your eyes been tested by the Board of Trade ?–Yes.
17225. You have gone through an examination ?– Yes.
17226. And got a certificate ?–I had one, but I lost it.
17227. Lost it?–In the “Titanic.”

17420. Have your eyes been tested? –I got tested at Washington in the Marine Hospital lately, while I have been at Washington.
17421. That is since the accident? –Yes.
17422. (The Commissioner.) Were your eyes all right? –Yes
The Attorney-General: I think they were tested before.
17423. (The Commissioner.) But you have had your eyes tested since the accident? –Yes.
17424. And they have been found all right? –Yes.
17425. (Mr. Scanlan.) When were your eyes tested before the accident? –I do not know; it may have been a couple of years or a year.
17426. When were they tested, and where? – Southampton, by the Board of Trade.
17427. When this test was made by the Board of Trade, was it made by a doctor? –Oh, I do not know; it got done by the Board of Trade; I do not know who it was through.
The Commissioner: I should have thought that any person who knew how to do it could easily test eyesight. I daresay you know how it is done?
Mr. Scanlan: There is some importance attaching to this, because there is a rule of the Board of Trade about this.
The Commissioner: What is it?
Mr. Scanlan: I understand that a test is supposed to be made, but I am told it is not invariably carried out...

A poor state of affairs, a test that is supposed to be made, but simply not enforced. Casual complacency at official level appears to have been rife before the disaster. Meanwhile Fleet’s memory, at least, is faulty — it was not a year or a couple of years since his sight had been tested, but a full five years.

Behind the scenes, the lookouts’ evidence caused consternation. None of it was allowed to show publicly, but it did result in a searching internal investigation. Documents in the Board of Trade file on the eyesight problem spell out matters clearly:

“It will be observed that Lee’s sight was not specially tested before he shipped on the Titanic. He has since informed the Southampton Receiver of Wrecks that he has never undergone the Board of Trade sight tests and that the only occasions on which he was tested were when he joined the Hants Yeomanry in 1900, and earlier, when he had joined the Royal Navy as an assistant paymaster.

“According to present regulations, candidates for this post must be free from physical defect, but no definite standard of form vision is prescribed. Cases of short sight are specially considered. We have therefore no recent information as to the state of Lee’s sight and it may be pointed out that a man’s form vision frequently deteriorates as he grows older.”

In the case of Fleet it was noted: “It has since been ascertained from the Superintendent Mercantile Marine Office, Southampton, that Fleet passed the Board’s sight tests at that office in September 1907. (But) the only form vision test used at that time was the ‘old’ test, which requires a comparatively low standard (half normal, with both eyes used together) and which will not be in force after 1913.

“We therefore have no information as to the exact standard of visual acuteness which he attains.”

The report went on: “It will be seen that we do not know even approximately what was the form vision of either of the men who were on lookout at the time of the casualty. It would therefore appear desirable that the sight of each should be specially tested now, in order that the standard of their form vision may be exactly ascertained.”

That was in May 1912. At the same time, a Departmental committee appointed to look into the whole question of Board of Trade eyesight tests was reporting:

”We think it regrettable that effect has not been given to the recommendation as to the testing of witnesses contained in the report of the committee of the Royal Society in 1894, and we desire to repeat the recommendation that, in case of judicial inquiries as to collisions or accidents, witnesses giving evidence as to the nature or position of coloured signals or lights should be themselves tested for colour and form vision.”

Civil servants further noted that every candidate for a Master or Mate’s certificate was required to pass a sight test.

The test for Captains and officers consisted in 1912 of two parts - a check against colour-blindness, and then a “form vision” test, of the Snellen’s type. Familiar even today, this involved letters arranged in seven horizontal lines, with the largest letters on the top row and smallest on the bottom.

Until January 1914, a certificate of competency could be obtained if the candidate could read five out of eight letters on the fifth of the seven lines. This pass-level ability was deemed to be “half normal vision,” which was all that was required.

Even this modest threshold was far more stringent than the test Fleet had successfully completed. The above test had been introduced in 1909, more than a year after Fleet passed the “old” test at Southampton in late 1907. There were no records of an F. Fleet having sat any test since January 1908.

A note about Reg Lee reported ominously: “For all we know (his eyesight) may have been quite bad at the time of the casualty.” Are there words to describe such an admission and its possible import?

In 1914, two years after Titanic, the tests were tightened up. A candidate now had their eyes tested separately, instead of both being open at once.

An examinee had to be able to read nine letters of twelve on the sixth line with his “good eye” closed. It can be immediately grasped that this bad-eye test is far tougher than that previously obtaining, involving both eyes reading from only the fifth line.

Then, closing the bad eye, a tested person from 1914 had to be further able to read eight out of the fifteen smallest letters appearing on the last line — the seventh. To succeed, a person had to have “practically normal visual acuteness” with his better eye, while even the bad eye alone had to be able to read the entirety of the fifth line.

So much for would-be Masters and Mates. It is important to realise that in 1912, the Board of Trade had no power to compel any persons other than candidates for such positions to undergo the sight test. Lookouts could get off Scot-free.

Reg Lee offered, when the question of his sight was delicately broached behind the scenes, to have his eyes tested anew - provided the Board of Trade paid all expenses for a trip to London for a proposed searching examination. The request for expenses was transmitted up the line, but there is no surviving evidence that either Lee or Fleet were ever tested afresh in Britain in the aftermath of their evidence.

Meanwhile, by way of mitigation for their own failings, the file in the Public Record Office shows that the Board of Trade routinely consented that sight tests be given to any person serving or intending to serve in the Mercantile Marine — volunteers, in other words, besides candidates for Officer or Skipper certs.

The file discloses: “In practice, many Lines, including it is understood the White Star, require their lookouts as well as their officers to pass periodically.” But this is self-serving nonsense, because there were simply no proper safeguards in place on either side to ensure that it was done.

One is reminded of Second Officer Charles Lightoller’s comment in his book “Titanic and Other Ships”, when referring to principles of lifeboat drill: “Just so much theory, concocted ashore with a keen eye to dividends.”

This is how the testing arrangement was reduced to a total mess — the Board would accommodate volunteers, but had no powers of compulsion; whereas the shipping lines, rather than enforce their own stringent tests, were satisfied in the absence of legislation merely to encourage their men to obtain a check from someone else.

And if the men lied about taking tests, where was the proof that they had done so?

Clearly the Lines were abrogating responsibility and doing so at least half-knowingly. They could perhaps have made sure through better communication that men sent for testing were actually tested — but this would have resulted in a vastly increased workload for Board of Trade inspectors, and the Lines could hardly have been expected to avoid incurring costly charges for themselves.

And so, as it stood, it suited both the Board of Trade and the shipping Lines to pay only lip-service to the need for eye tests. Never anybody’s fools, sailors themselves could see that the entire affair was a pretence, operating on the basis of “see no evil.” Indeed!

It is tempting to conclude that the system operated completely on a “nod and a wink.” And as another old phrase has it, “a nod is as good as a wink to a blind man.”

Inger Sheil

Fascinating - and rather chilling - material there, Senan. Fits in with my idea that no recent researchers have looked deeply into the background of the lookouts - good to see you're addressing that. I have some documents that I'll send you when I return to London that shed even more light on the experience of at least one of the Titanic's Lookouts.

Erik Wood

Very well written Senan, By chance are a member of the Irish Titanic Historical Society. I am, and I do believe that I have seen your published work in our quarterly letter.

Yeah, I write a few half-baked articles for the Irish Society's "White Star Journal" now and then. You gotta look after your own, first and foremost.

Actually, while we're at it (and I never seek payment or anything like that for Titanic contributions to magazines), I do have a bit of a gripe about the Titanic Commutator.

This is a magazine that charges a phenomenal amount of money for subscriptions, particularly to non-US residents. It has 7,000 subscribers - well maybe less now.

I reckon it makes $300,000 annually.... a huge amount of it pure profit, given their reliance of volunteers, and I feel it should, as a gesture, give an annual subscription (four lousy mags!) to anyone who successfully contributes an article. It's the least they could do...

What's more, if they had that type of incentive it could improve the quality of the articles for the benefit of the most important people, the subscribers. Too many of the articles are a complete waste of newsprint, although of course there are examples of sterling work too.

When the THS is lashing money about for new acquisitions (derived from subs of course, and which most members will never see), I think the above would be "a modest proposal." Greater competition to be published means better quality all round.

I, for one, won't bother writing anything for them again while they continue to appear intent on soaking their subscriber base.

Oh well, rant over.
I take a day off to be sick and look what gets posted to the list. :)

Everything Senan wrote here helps explain the attitude of Lightoller ("I never rely on a lookout. I keep a lookout myself, and so does every other officer") and some of the Master Mariners called to testify before the Commission when discussing the role of the lookouts.

So, to answer Senan's original question: The deck officers looked over the lookouts.

If I wasn't still under the weather, I would have had the presence of mind to include this in my last post.

I agree on all points. This is a decidedly chilling revelation here, especially when you consider it may well have been commonplace to gundeck visual exams and testing...or just pay lip service to the requirements which existed. It's a wonder the Titanic wasn't joined on the bottom by a few other liners.

Michael H. Standart
Hi Erik, it might have helped the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm to actually learn how to use their radar sets and deep six the ASSumptions they made that night. Something especially about the latter always seems to invite Trouble to the party and Trouble is happy to attend.

Michael H. Standart

Erik Wood

I have learned that lesson more then a few times. I have made the wrong ASSumptions and I did different and do different from time to time.


Inger Sheil

It also puts some of Rostron's remarks with the more elitist ring to them - the ones referring to the superiority of officers over other seamen as lookouts - into a rather different light.

I have to agree, Sen, that much of the Kew material has probably been overlooked because of its geographical location. Some of the BTS members have been doing some sterling work there in order to address this - as individuals who have attended some of the lectures at the PRO by BTS members would attest - but the sheer volume of material can overwhelm the researcher. In past years it seems that interest has centered only on the BOT inquiry testimony in its bound form - a pity, as there is so much more in the documents that deal not only with the Titanic specifically, but with other WSL ships and crewmen as well. From the Olympic/Hawke inquiry to the agreements and Official Logs for many WSL ships and the CR10 files - the surface has barely been scratched.

Erik Wood

I think what interests me most about this particular post is the fact that so many (including myself) have not really thought on this subject. We just say as most attempted authors and researchers say "oh they should have had more look outs" and leave it at that. Lookouts as much as I distress there use do have a fundemental role in maritime travel. Radar as the Andrea Doria pointed out can only accomplish so much so the need of well trained man power comes into play.

Parks Stephenson and I had a conversation about training of lookouts both in the current civilian fleet as well as the military fleet for lookouts and the lack of serious training in both was something that astonishes me to this day. I would be happy at a later time to post more about current training for shipboard lookouts if there is interest. When Lightoller made his remark about him being the only look out that is reliable he took the words out of my mouth some 90 years before I had the chance to say them.

Underway in my standing orders I can not stress to my officers enough the need for them to look out and not in the radar. These men. Most of whom are academy graduates for some kind have still had a very limited view on what to do. As far as the lookout position goes. So I think that it is good that we are digging this up and giving new light to something that most have given up on as a source of new info.


Kathy Savadel

Erik wrote:

I would be happy at a later time to post more about current training for shipboard lookouts if there is interest.

I would be very interested to learn about this.


I'd be interested in hearing more about formal lookout training myself. I know that qualification standards existed during my Navy career, but more often then not, all training was on the job with the novice in short order being on his own thereafter. Sometimes the paperwork was filled out, and sometimes it wasn't. At least that's the way it worked on board the commands I was assigned to. I hope it was better elsewhere.

Any number of things can go wrong at sea, and when it does, it happens in one fine hurry. Radar is nice...indispensible even...but far from foolproof as fools gladly demonstrate.(Ask the watch team on the Andrea Doria!) Even today, it's very common for lookouts to spot fishing trawlers, submarines running on the surface and small craft which escape detection on the radar.

The wise captain is the one who makes use of ALL his/her resources and doesn't rely exclusively on any one at the expense of others. A good qualified lookout who knows what he's doing can easily be all that stands between a ship and disaster. Which fact Captain Rostron demonstrated on his run north to pick up the Titanic's survivors. Had his people not been on the ball, the Titanic would have had some company on the bottom.

Michael H. Standart