Recently, I realized that many people, including dedicated researchers, have misunderstandings about the loading of the rear boats. I hope this summary of my findings helps clear up some of the confusion.
The evidence of what happened on the Titanic is, as anyone who has done any research knows, often contradictory, always mindboggling, and, too frequently, tantalizingly short of conclusive. Nevertheless, if you listen carefully to what the survivors say, you can mine nuggets of fact that, collected and put in order, tell a tale reasonably well.
This is such a story.
The clearing of the rear boats started early.
Saloon steward William Ward told the Senate Inquiry he went to his station at Boat No. 7 (the first boat to leave the ship) only to find he wasn't needed. The lifeboat was already lowered level with the boat deck and the order was given to load the ladies in. He was sent aft to Boat No. 9 where he "assisted in taking the canvas cover off" and in lowering the boat ready for passengers.
Able Seaman Frederick Clench told the same inquiry he was unlacing the cover to No. 11 lifeboat when "an officer came along and drafted me on the other side."
It appears there were more crewmen working on the starboard rear boats than on the port side. At least three crewmen (Clench, A.B. Joseph Scarrott and A.B. Ernest Archer) told of being ordered from starboard to port to help get the boats out on that side of the ship.
There's no reason to believe that clearing boats on one side of the Titanic took more time than on the other, so we can assume that the rear boats, port and starboard, were ready to load at about the same time.
The starboard rear boats were loaded and lowered sequentially (that is No. 9 first, then No. 11, then 13, then 15). The situation on the port side was more complicated, as you'll see.
Saloon steward William Ward testified that after No. 9 was made ready, the crewmen stood around, waiting, for several minutes until First Officer William Murdoch arrived with a crowd of women.
The Purser or Murdoch (Ward wasn’t sure) asked “Are you ready?” Then came the order “Pass the women in.”
But wait. There's something obviously missing from this version of the story given to the U.S. Senate Inquiry. That piece of the puzzle is found in the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic.
There, Steward Charles Mackay testified that he heard Murdoch order Steward Joseph Wheat in charge of lifeboat No. 11. Wheat testified he took about 70 stewards with him to A deck while Mackay and Steward Edward Wheelton rounded up about 40 women from the boat deck and took them down as well.
It's obvious that the intent was to load women from A deck. This was a plan attempted by some officers and not by others. It had been attempted, then abandoned, at Boat No. 4. And school teacher Lawrence Beesley wrote that an unidentified officer of the Titanic had come to the back of the ship early in the sinking, when the roaring steam was still deafening everyone, and ordered the women down to A deck. But the decks had obviously filled up again by the time Murdoch arrived at the rear of the ship, and he intended on giving the procedure another go.
Sending about 110 people to A deck would have certainly thinned out the deck around the starboard rear boats. And just as certainly, it happened before No. 9 was loaded with the women Murdoch brought with him.
Steward James Widgery at No. 9 recalled what happened after some women were loaded into the boat.
“The Chief Officer was there and called out for more women---there seemed to be none,” Men were allowed to get into the lifeboat and four or five did. No. 9 was lowered to the ocean and Murdoch called to the bosun to keep 100 yards off.
If Murdoch had tried loading No. 9 before he gave Wheat his orders, there would have been plenty of women topside to fill the lifeboat. Instead, Widgery says "there seemed to be none." Where were they all? Down on A deck with Wheat, Wheelton and Mackay, of course.
No. 9 was lowered without stopping at A deck. But Murdoch followed the two-stop procedure for the other three lifeboats on his side of the ship.
Steward Charles Mackay testified that No. 11 was sent to A deck empty. Seaman Walter Brice said the boat was "filled from A deck." And it was filled to overflowing. There were so many women and children waiting to get into No. 11 than some families were split up. Ruth Becker, 12, couldn't get in with her mother, brother and younger sister and was told to take the next boat. Jane Quick's two daughters. Winifred, 8, and Phyllis, 2, were put in, but she was held back until a sailor couldn't stand her screams of anguish and squeezed her in too. Mrs. Quick recounted seeing another mother screaming in despair on the Titanic after being separated from her baby.
Eventually the boat was full and, according to Fireman George Beauchamp, Murdoch gave the order: “That’s enough. Lower away.”
Murdoch moved to the next boat in line, No. 13.
Beauchamp told the British Inquiry that after abandoning the engine room he wound up on the boat deck beside No. 13.
“I went aft to the boat deck and across to the starboard side and stood on the deck of the ship by the boat and one foot on the boat and one foot on the lifeboat, like that, and helped the ladies and children in that were there.”
School teacher Lawrence Beesley was there as well, and in his account (The Loss of the S.S Titanic, Its Story and Its Lessons) he picks up the story.
“An officer--I think First Officer Murdock (sic)—came striding along the deck, clad in a long coat, and resolute: he looked over the side and shouted to the boats being lowered: “Lower away, and when afloat, row around to the gangway and wait for orders.”
And this, as you’ll see, is a perfect juncture to leave the starboard boats and see what was happening on the port side all this time.
Able Seaman Frederick Clench had been, as mentioned, unlacing the cover to No. 11 lifeboat when an officer ordered him to start clearing the port boats.
He went to No. 16 “and started getting out the boat falls to let them down; I got out the two falls and coiled them down on the deck. When I was putting the plug in the boat in readiness to be lowered they were swinging the boat out.”
Clench jumped out of No. 16, then repeated the clearing process at Boat 14 and Boat 12.
“Then I assisted Mr. Lightoller…Him and me stood on the gunwhale of the boat helping load the women and children in. The chief officer was passing them along to us…” he told the Senate Inquiry.
Able Seaman Joseph Scarrott had been working at starboard boat No. 13 when Chief Officer Henry Wilde sent him across the ship to port boat No. 14. “Directly I got to my boat I jumped in, saw the plug in, and saw my dropping ladder was ready to be worked at a momen’ts notice; and then Mr. Wilde, the Chief Officer, came along and said: “All right, take the women and children.”
Able Seaman Ernest Archer testified in London that he had just lowered three starboard boats level with the boat deck when an officer “sang out that they wanted some seamen on the other side, on the port side…”
“I went over then and assisted in getting Nos. 12, 14, and 15 (he meant 16) out. I assisted in getting the falls and everything ready, and the passengers into No. 14 boat.”
From his account, Archer came over to port side later than Clench and later than Scarrott. He came after he lowered three starboard boats. Remember, Clench had just started unlacing No. 11 when he left. And Scarrott was getting No. 13 ready, something that had to be done before it was lowered level with the deck.
Archer went to No. 12 first. He saw the falls were already out (because Clench had been there before him.) Archer didn’t stick around. He went to No. 14, checked the falls, which Scarrott had already laid out. Then he helped Scarrott load the passengers.
So we have Clench, Wilde and Lightoller loading No.12 and Scarrott and Archer loading No. 14.
From here on the evidence comes in a series of leaps that require the researcher to work backwards. After each leap we have to recreate the steps that lead to the starting point. We begin with the arrival of Able Seaman John Poigndestre at Boat No. 12.
He testified before the British Inquiry.
Q. Now having got to your boat, was it in a line with the boat deck or had it been lowered?
A. It was lowered, but in line with the boat deck.
Q, Was there anybody there looking after it?
A. Mr. Lightoller.
Q. Was there anybody else with him?
A. No, only myself.
Q. Only you two?
Where, then, were Clench and Wilde?
The answer is in the testimony of Frederick Clench at the U.S. Senate Inquiry. I used a partial quote of his testimony earlier. Here is the relevant quote in full.
”The second officer. Him and me stood on the gunwhale of the boat helping load the women and children in. The chief officer was passing them along to us, and we filled the three boats like that.”
Where were Clench and Wilde when Poigndestre arrived at Boat No. 12? At Boat No. 14. And we can even guess when they went and why.
Joseph Scarrott testified he had supervised the loading of 20 women into Boat No. 14 “when some men tried to rush the boats…I had to use a bit of persuasion. The only thing I could use was the boat’s tiller.”
A scramble at Boat No. 14 was just the sort of thing to attract the attention of Chief Officer Wilde. It’s not hard to see him leaving No. 12 in the hands of Lightoller and going over with Clench to handle things at No. 14.
The loading of Boats 12 and 14 continued. Archer said he spent some time at No. 14 then went to No. 16.
Here we have another of those leaps in evidence—a big one.
Fifth Officer Harold Lowe showed up at Boat No. 14.
“We were practically full up. I was taking the women in when Mr. Lowe came,” said Seaman Scarrott.
Lowe described his arrival to the Senate Inquiry: “I met Sixth Officer (James) Moody, and asked Moody, “What are you doing?” He said,”I am getting these boats away.” So we filled both 14 and 16 with women and children.”
Lowe was asked by the Senators “Why did you go to her (No. 14) in particular?”
His answer: “Because they seemed to be busy there.”
Q. Who was in charge there?
A. I do not know who was in charge there. I finished up loading No. 14 and Mr. Moody was finishing up loading No. 16.”
Where were Chief Officer Wilde and Second Officer Lightoller? The answer appears to be at No. 16 where Seaman Clench said he and the officers also worked loading passengers.
Lowe told the U.S. Senate Inquiry that he briefly saw Lightoller.
Lowe: He was there part of the time, and he went away somewhere else. He must have gone to the second boat forward. (i.e. No. 12)
But where did Lightoller come from? From No. 16 if we believe Clench. And the reason for his leaving No. 16 is obvious---Moody had arrived, and there was no need for three of the Titanic’s officers (himself, Wilde and Moody) to supervise one lifeboat.
Lightoller would have indeed headed for No. 12 which he left with Seaman Poigndestre in charge.
Seaman John Poigndestre told the British Inquiry that after No. 12 was filled with women and children, he left it on the davits and went to No. 16.
Now, his testimony leaves the impression that he had been with Second Officer Charles Lightoller at Boat No. 12 all along up until the time he went to No. 14. But a closer reading of his evidence shows this wasn’t the case.
Q.Now having, to use your own phrase, filled it up with about 40, what was done with the boat?
A. It was left there.
Q. Left on a level with the boat deck?
A. Yes, with the boat deck.
Remember that Seaman Clench said he helped load Boats No. 12, 14, and 16 with Chief Officer Wilde and Second Officer Lightoller.
Assume, then, his testimony was accurate. When he and Wilde left for No. 14, Lightoller was left alone at No. 12 until Poigndestre arrived. At some point, Lightoller left No. 12 for No. 14 to recreate the triumverate that Clench spoke of.
And then, the trio moved on to No. 16, which Clench testified to. All the while Poigndestre would have been at No. 12, alone.
But Poigndestre provides another important clue in his testimony. When he arrived at No. 14, he said, Chief Wilde was in charge.
Again, that’s a logical development. Assuming Wilde and Lightoller were at No. 16, once Moody arrived to finish loading, the superior officers left. Lightoller went back to No. 12, freeing Poigndestre to help at No. 14. Wilde, delayed by the need to speak to Moody, would have followed Lightoller’s footsteps, stopping at No. 14. At that moment all the rear port boats would have had one officer supervising.
Lowe by this point would have climbed into No. 14 preparing to descend to the ocean. He never mentions seeing CO Wilde.
“Did you go by anybody’s orders?” he was asked in London.
“I did not,” he answered. “I saw five boats go away without an officer and I told Mr. Moody on my own that I had seen five boats go away and an officer ought to go in one of these boats. I asked him who it was to be—him or I--- and he told me “You go; I will get in another boat.”
Scarrott picks up the story…
Scarrott: “Mr. Lowe came in our boat. I told him that I had had a bit of trouble through the rushing business, and he said, “All right.” He pulled out his revolver and he fired two shots between the ship and the boat’s side and issued a warning to the remainder of the men that were about there…He asked me, “How many got into the boat?” I told him as near as I could count that that was the number and he said to me,” Do you think the boat will stand it?” I said, “Yes, she is hanging all right.” “All right,” he said, “Lower away 14.”
While Lowe confirmed he fired his gun—he said three shots—Scarrott’s account appears to be chronologically reversed. It makes more sense if the discussion about the stability of the lifeboat came first, then the discussion of the “rushing business.” Here’s why…
Lowe testified he didn’t fire his gun while the lifeboat was still level with the boat deck. He fired as it was being lowered, one shot fired horizontally along the side of the ship at each of the lower open decks to intimidate the horde of men “all glaring, like wild beasts ready to spring.”
But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.
Return to the moment when the rear port boats are loaded at last and ready to be launched. Moody is in charge at No. 16. Wilde at No.14 and Lightoller at No. 12.
The boats were lowered starting with aft boat No. 16. Then 14, then 12.
“Numbers 12, 14 and 16 went down pretty much at the same time,” Lowe told the British Inquiry.
Poigndestre provides the evidence to confirm the order of the lowering.
He testified he saw No. 14 lowered.
Q. What did you do next?
A. I went to my own boat.
Q. When you got back to No. 12, was there any Officer there?
A. Mr. Lightoller.
Q. Any seamen, firemen or anybody else?
A. Yes, there were some sailors there.
Q. What were their names?
A. There was Lucas, who lowered the boat, and another man who lowered the other end I did not know, but another man I asked to come in the boat by the name of Clinch.
Ungarbling his answer we see Poigndestre said there were two men, who eventually lowered the boat—Lucas and another he didn’t know—and “Clinch”, as the court reporter rendered Clench’s name.
Clench, who had been at No. 16 was now at No. 12, obviously because No. 16 had been launched ahead of No. 14. Poigndestre, following the launch of No. 14, went to No.12 which was, in turn, lowered to the sea.
Back to Starboard
It’s at this point we should return to the rear starboard boats.
We left as First Officer Murdoch had loaded No. 13 on the boat deck.
School teacher Lawrence Beesley takes up the story.
“An officer—I think First Officer Murdoch—came striding along the deck, clad in a long coat, from his manner and face evidently in great agitation, but determined and resolute: he looked over the side and shouted to the boats being lowered : “Lower away and when afloat, row around to the gangway and wait for orders.”
…And the officer passed by and went across the ship to the port side.”
We can pinpoint the time and place of Beesley’s observation by the very next paragraph of his written account.
“Almost immediately after this, I heard a cry from below of “Any more ladies” and looking over the edge of the deck, saw boat 13 swinging level with the rail of B deck…”
So, No. 13 had been loaded on the boat deck, lowered to a deck below (A deck actually, Beesley made the mistake of assuming the boat deck was A and the deck below B), Murdoch gave the crew in the lifeboats instructions, and then he WENT ACROSS THE SHIP TO THE PORT SIDE.
Steward Frederick Crowe testified at the Senate hearings that he had helped load No. 14 on the port side with women and children until he was told to man the boat. His testimony is key.
Q. Who told you to man the boat?
A. The senior officer. I’m not sure if it was the first officer or the chief officer, sir, but I believe the man’s name was Murdoch.
The significance of this can’t be overstated. It provides the best time link between the starboard and port rear boats. Boats 9 and 11 off the ship, Boat 13 lowered to A deck, Boats 16, 14, and 12 still on the davits, Boat 14 starting to load crewmen preparatory to being lowered.
Murdoch would have spent little time at the port boats. He would see immediately he was not needed, that the port boats were well supervised by officers.
On his return to starboard he would be disappointed to find No. 13 still was not in the water.
After loading what women and children were available on the boat deck, No. 13 was lowered to A deck. Dr. Washington Dodge, in an address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, May 11, 1912, said:
“Here, as the boat was lowered even with the deck, the women, about eight in number, were assisted by several of us over the rail of the steamer into the boat.”
Repeated calls were made for more women (were these what Beesley heard?). “None appearing,” said Dodge,”the men were told to tumble in.”
An estimated 9-12 male passengers and crewmen piled into No. 13. A crewman called up to Beesley “Any ladies on your deck?” No, said Beesley. “Then you had better jump,” the crewman said. And Beesley leaped down into No. 13.
But before it could be lowered, two more women were located and put in. Lowering was started, and stopped again as a family—father, mother and child—were located and had to be fit into the lifeboat.
Even then, it could not be lowered to the Atlantic. The boat was coming down directly over the engine room discharge and would be swamped if it didn’t stop and wait for the Titanic to sink deeper until the discharge was below the water level.
We can’t tell when during this course of stops and starts Murdoch returned to No. 13. But there wasn’t much he could do. He still had to load the last lifeboat on the starboard side, No. 15.
No. 15, unfortunately, is a mystery boat. At least four crewman who survived on No. 15 testified at the British Inquiry—Fireman George Cavell, Steward John Hart, Steward Sam Rule and Fireman James Taylor. They may as well have been talking about four different boats for all the good it did.
They couldn’t agree whether No. 15 loaded on the boat deck, A deck or B deck. There was some consensus that a group of passengers was picked up on A deck, but they couldn’t agree on the composition of men, women and children.
And where did the female passengers come from? It’s clear that there were no women on the boat deck when Beesley jumped to No. 13 and no women on A deck when officers tried to fill No. 13. Yet minutes later, No. 15 is being loaded. The answer may be that Steward Hart’s testimony to bringing a group of 22 women and three children to No. 15 was the simple truth after all.
But it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article. What’s known is that No. 15 was loaded and lowered last on the starboard side.
Murdoch then went to lifeboat No. 10 port. The officers who oversaw the loading of the port boats also passed to No. 10, eventually leaving its lowering to Murdoch as they hurried to load the forward boats before the Titanic sank.
Boat 9 was the first of the rear boats to be loaded and lowered. It was followed by No. 11. No. 13 was loaded on the boat deck and lowered to A deck where loading continued. But various delays kept No. 13 attached to the Titanic for longer than anticipated.
Meanwhile the loading of the port boats started with No. 12, followed with No. 14, then No. 16. Only when all three were loaded did the lowering begin in reverse order, No. 16 first, then 14, then 12.
As the three port boats were being lowered, starboard boat No. 13 finally reached the water and No. 15 was loaded and lowered.
No. 10 was the last of the rear boats to leave the Titanic.
There’s one last mystery involving the rear boats. What took Fifth Officer Harold Lowe so long to get to No. 14?
At the two inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic, Lowe gave contradictory versions of his movements about the Titanic.
In New York he said: “The first boat I helped to lower was No. 5, the starboard boat.”
In London, he said: “The first boat I went to was No. 7”
Q. Did you assist there?
A. I did.
Q. Did you see that boat lowered?
A. I did; I assisted in lowering it.
At both venues he was consistent in answering where he went after the forward boats—7, 5, 3, and 1-- were sent off.
Q. That accounts for all these four boats.
A. Yes, the forward section.
Q. Where did you go then?
A. I went to No. 14
Q. You had lowered 5 and 3 and 1…Where did you next go?
A. I went across the deck.
Q. To the other side?
A. To the other side, that is the port side and I met the Sixth Officer, Moody…
Only that’s not what happened.
It was the better part of an hour between the time No.1 left the ship and the time Lowe appeared at No. 14. Where was he all this time?
Murdoch was with Lowe at No. 1, and by the time Lowe showed up on the port side of the ship, Murdoch had loaded and lowered Nos. 9, 11 and 13.
Lowe might have been trying to tell the Senators that he loaded No. 1 by himself, thereby giving Murdoch a head start on loading the rear starboard boats.
Q. And with everything quiet and orderly who selected the persons to fill these boats?
A. Let us see. Mr. Murdoch was on No. 5 and No. 3. Then I took one-
Q. No, do not get away from those two. I will get to the other later. Was it part of your duty to select the people who were to get into lifeboat No. 3 and lifeboat No. 5?
A. Yes, I aided Mr. Murdoch generally, but...
Prior to the first interruption, did Lowe actually say “Let us see. Mr. Murdoch was on No. 5 and No. 3. Then I took (No.) 1”?
Regardless, No. 1 was loaded with only 7 passengers. There’s no way looking after the least loaded lifeboat consumed all that time.
Lowe may have accidentally revealed where he had been.
He testified to the British Inquiry:
“I saw five boats go away without an officer and I told Mr. Moody on my own that I had seen five boats go away and an officer ought to go in one of these boats.”
What were these five boats? Lowe told the Senate Inquiry he slept through the early part of the sinking. He was awakened by the sound of voices, and by the time he dressed and made his way to the starboard lifeboats, No. 7 had been sent off , so he went to work loading No. 5.
He revised this story for the British Inquiry to say he did, indeed, help with No. 7.
Assuming his evidence in New York is the truth, then the five boats would be Nos. 5, 3, 1, 9 and 11.
Lowe may not have taken part in loading or lowering No. 11. Perhaps his role was to keep order on A deck or deeper within the ship. But it makes more sense that he came to No. 14 from No. 11 than what he would have the inquiries believe.
And, serendipitously, Lowe claimed to have gone to No. 14 from No. 1 when he more likely came from No. 11---or, in other words, Number One-One.