Encyclopedia Titanica

Lifeboats extinguished their lights!


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Lifeboats extinguished their lights!

Lifeboats from the Titanic extinguished their lights in order not to become attractive beacons for swimmers after the sinking.

They cut themselves off from sight, and the grim truth is that they thereby callously cut off the lives of their former shipmates.
Identical decisions in individual boats cruelly left those in the water blind as to where they should go if they were to save themselves.
In closing off the last possibility that those who were already safely in the boats could lose their lives, the decision to extinguish lights also extinguished lives, very likely by the score, if not the hundred.

The above is what must have happened, although it has never been openly stated in print. It may have been an emergent issue carefully avoided, if not suppressed, at the British inquiry. This article, however, will set out reasons why what must have happened did indeed happen, shameful as some might consider it.

Titanic lifeboats at New York

Titanic lifeboats landed at New York.
Without a powerful magnesium flash, this would be a black square.

We begin with the order to clear the lifeboats, given around midnight. Officer Lightoller said he started with No. 4 boat on the port side. ‘From the time we commenced to strip No. 4 boat cover, until the time when we swung them out I should judge would be probably at most 15 or 20 minutes.’ (Br 13828).
It is therefore 12.20am. ‘I swung out No. 4 with the intention of loading all the boats from A deck, the next deck below the boat deck. I lowered No. 4 down to A deck. (Br. 13834).’
It is around this time on the boat deck, when one of the men lowering the falls of No. 4 gets a direct order from Captain Smith.
Lamp trimmer Samuel Hemming told the US Inquiry (p. 665): ‘It was No. 4 boat… we lowered the boat in line with the A deck, when I had an order come from the Captain to see that the boats were properly provided with lights.
‘I called Mr Lightoller and told him that I would have to leave the boat's fall, so he put another man in my place. I went away into the lamp room, lighting the lamps, and I brought them up on deck.’
They were all burning. ‘…I lit the lamps and brought them up, four at a time, two in each hand.’

Samuel Hemming Lamp Trimmer

Samuel Hemming brings lamps, four at a time, to the boat deck. Adapted from a 1912 Titanic illustration

The lamps were like hefty carriage clocks, ten inches high and six inches wide. He could carry only two in each hand. These were all substantial, bright lights, not mere courtesy lights or anything of that sort. A lamp is inherently powerful - when the stokeholds were blacked out, Fireman Barrett was among those fetching lamps before electric light was restored. So they must have been able to illuminate caverns...
‘The boats that were already lowered, I put them on the deck, and asked them to pass them down to the end of the boat fall. As to the boats that were not lowered, I gave them into the boats myself,’ Quartermaster Hemming said.
He told Senator Smith that some few boats, three or four, had been lowered before he got there with the lamps. ‘Quite three or four.’ But this does not mean those boats had cleared the ship’s side, as he said he gave them to the crew still at the falls, asking that they be passed down. Such very likely happened.
With the other lights he had, he mostly gave them to persons in boats not yet lowered. But he also personally placed them into two or three boats on the port side.
Smith asked: ‘And you put lamps into the others - on the starboard side?’
Hemming interrupted that crucial question in the affirmative, and at its end he emphasised: ‘Yes, sir; on the starboard side.’ (US p. 672)
He affirmed: ‘I passed them all in, myself. They were the boat lamps.’
He described them: ‘It was a square lamp. About that high and that square. (indicating). Yes, about that high (He agrees with ‘10 inches’ suggested by the Senator).
Senator Smith: ‘And about 6 inches square? Was it square or round?’ – ‘It was square, sir.’

Hemming said colza oil was burned in the lamps. This is a vegetable oil used extensively in domestic settings and even for lighthouse ilumination before the advent of coal gas or kerosene.
Brighter than whale oil, it was the preferred oil for train lamps, and was used for lighting railway coaches in Britain before gas and later electricity. The oil and size of the ship's lamps spoke to their intended clear brightness. And one went early into every available Titanic lifeboat.
Hemming told his story again to the British Inquiry (Br 17750 onwards). He had a message from the Captain to go and get some lamps. He couldn’t say how many boats he put lamps in, but it was those on the davits.
The exact number of lamps emerged in six questions asked at the end of Hemming’s British evidence by Sir Robert Finlay, counsel for the White Star Line.

17779. How many lamps did you bring up? — Fourteen.
17780. Were they all full of oil? — All full of oil.
17781. And properly trimmed? — All brought up alight. I lit them myself.
17782. Did you supply them yourself to a good many boats? — Yes.
17783. You did not put those 14 [lamps] yourself, as I understand it, all into the boats? — No.
17784. But they were there for the use of the boats? —They were there for the use of the boats.

Finlay asked no further questions (likely because he dared not), and the witness withdrew. The likelihood is that not one of these lamps was wasted, and that they went therefore into fourteen Titanic lifeboats.
There is another point. Titanic had sixteen standard lifeboats, so Hemming would appear to be two lamps short. But Fourth Officer Boxhall said in his evidence (Br 15436/7). ‘There is always a lamp in the emergency boats. They are lighted every night at 6 o’clock.’
The emergency boats were the cutters, Nos. 1 and 2. Therefore all standard Titanic lifeboats were provisioned with brightly-lit lamps from very early on in the sinking. The significance of this simple point cannot be overstated.

Officer Boxhall
(Washington Times)

Boxhall said elsewhere (Br. 15440) that he had been concerned himself that the boats would be properly lit. He spoke about it to Chief Officer Wilde (responsible for lifeboat contents). ‘I mentioned to him that there were no lamps. That was earlier on, when they started to clear the boats (midnight). I mentioned to him the fact that there were no lamps in any of the boats… and he told me to get hold of the lamp trimmer.’

The lamps were in the lamp-room then, and Boxhall said he found the lamp trimmer after a little trouble. ‘He was on the boat deck working amongst the men. I told him to take a couple of men down with him and fetch the lamps, and he was afterwards seen to bring the lamps along the deck and put them in the boats.’
Whether Hemming responded to a direct order from the Captain or one from Boxhall (one would have to favour Hemming’s own repeated evidence) is less interesting than whether he acted alone or took ‘a couple of men down with him’ as recommended by the Fourth Officer.
If he acted alone, then he must have made four trips to the lamp room, located immediately to the port side of the forecastle, at the forward well deck. He could carry four alone, but a fourth trip for the last two would be needed to reach 14.
The evidence is silent on the subject, but knowing the number of lamps needed, it must be possible that Hemming, a Quartermaster with some seniority, enlisted help.
He refers to no-one else but himself, yet appears to have been only personally seen on the port side, whereas he plainly insisted that lamps had also been distributed to starboard.

Alfred Crawford (boat 8 – all even-numbered boats to port):

18037. ‘The lamp-trimmer put the lamp in the boat before we lowered.’

In his US evidence, once more emphasising earliness, Crawford said: ‘The lamp trimmer brought a light long before we were lowered into the water.’ He named Hemming, who ‘had a handful of lamps, taking them to all the boats.’ He repeated that he saw Hemming do so.
The one handed into No.8 boat was kept burning, Crawford said. ‘The wick kept falling down, but we kept raising it and lighting it. There was plenty of oil in the lamp.’ Mrs J. Stuart White said: ‘The lamp on the boat was absolutely worth nothing. They tinkered with it all along, but they could not get it in shape.’

Robert Hichens (boat 6):

1227. Did you look in your boat for a light? — I had a light served out to me before I left the ship.
1228-2. Who served it? — A lamp-trimmer, Sir… I see him coming along with the lights, and he had orders to give me one of them.
1233. Did he have any other lanterns with him? — Yes, Sir, several.
1234. Of the same kind that you had? — Yes, Sir.
1235. And he served you out one as he passed? — Yes, Sir.
1236. And then went along as far as you could see to the other boats, is that right? — Yes, Sir.

Officer Lightoller, when asked at one point the leading question as to why 'so few' lifeboats apparently had lamps, replied (Br 14479/80): ‘I don’t think I have conveyed the idea that so few had lamps… Well, I didn’t look for lanterns, and I cannot say. You can get that evidence as to the lamps from Hemming, the lamp trimmer, who took the lamps and lighted them and went round and distributed them to the boats.’ All the boats, said Crawford.
Thus the port side is well attested (further examples could be cited). No-one mentions Hemming, or refers to him as a lamp trimmer, on the starboard side; nonetheless we have Hemming’s evidence that he served lamps out to starboard.

Alfred Olliver QM (Boat 5 – odd numbered boats to starboard)

Senator Burton: Did you see a light?
Olliver: I saw lights in the boats, being displayed by the boats.

Third Officer Bert Pitman left in the same boat, and said it was the second one lowered on this side, after No. 7. In going very early, it could have missed out on a lamp:

Senator Smith: Did you have any lights on No.5 lifeboat?
Pitman: I did not have a light in my boat, no.
Smith: Do you know of any boats that did have lights on them?
Pitman: Yes there were several of them that had.
Smith: But they did not all have lights?
Pitman: No.

Officer Pitman at a lifeboat

Pitman at a lifeboat on the Adriatic.

The key factor here is that Pitman, on the starboard side, attests that several boats that he could see (therefore also on the starboard side) had lights. While he was lying on his oars at 1.30am, he told Senator Smith, ‘some of our [already launched] boats had lamps.’
But these ‘several’ would soon dwindle…

Steward John Hart (boat 15)

10275. Did you find a lamp in your boat when it was lowered? — No, there was no place to look for any lamp.
10276. Were there lamps in any of the other boats you saw in the water? —Yes.
10277. How many? — I saw three.
10278. Three other boats with lamps in them? — Yes, three other boats with lamps in them, and there may have been more.

Greaser Frederick Scott (eventually saved in No. 4) saw ‘a lot’ of what proved to be boat lights on the starboard side when he eventually gained topside, the order to leave the engine and boiler rooms being given at 1.20am.

5663. Could you see at all whether there were any boats forward on the starboard side?
Scott — No. I saw a lot of lights a tidy distance away from the ship, and the chaps thought it was a ship overhauling us and somebody said they thought it was a lifeboat, and the others said they could not have got out so far; but we happened to find out it was a lifeboat.

Later in evidence, Scott reiterates:

5830. Did I catch you to say that you saw the lights of a number of boats belonging to the Titanic when you were on board? — Yes, on the starboard side well away from the ship.

Samuel Hemming
Samuel Hemming

The lights were thus on a number of starboard boats when they were on the open sea, having departed. The evidence of Hemming is corroborated. But the significance of what now emerges is that the boats must have doused or hidden their lights, one by one, as the sinking worsened and it became increasingly obvious the Titanic would go down.
Think of the pressure that a light switching off in a boat exerts on other boats on the starboard side. Presently another light disappears, then another. Soon it is a deadly infectious panic: ‘She’s sinking! Put out that light!’
All boats were fearful of being swamped by swimmers. They ignored megaphone calls from the Captain to come back closer, the evidence shows. Keeping a light on when others have doused theirs increases the chances of your own boat swamping because more swimmers will make it their target. The irresistible urge is to follow suit when other boats are disguising their location.

It happened, because it must have happened. And because Hemming, who supplied them with those lights, stayed on the ship to the last, and tells of climbing the officers’ quarters roof to help free Collapsible B. While there, Hemming says:

‘I went to the bridge and looked over and saw the water climbing upon the bridge. I went and looked over the starboard side, and everything was black
Everything was black over the starboard side. I could not see any boats.’

There are never any exclamation marks in the inquiry transcript. But this is a realisation of horror on Hemming’s part. There should be a necklace of lights out to starboard. But there are none. Everything was black.
This points to just one conclusion. Lifeboat lights were systematically put out. Many witnesses, post sinking, refer to the darkness. And it is worth reflecting – for our own illumination - on the fact that not a single survivor who went into the water stated that: 'I swam for a (boat's) light.'

What Hemming should have seen to starboard - lifeboat lights

Those that survived all swam blind and were effectively lucky in bumping into boats or eventually seeing them after their exertions. 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.
The Phillip Gibbs’ ‘Deathless Story,’ published immediately after the disaster, credited George McGough with a tale of how as four firemen were seen on the poop deck just before the vessel sank.
One of the boys, named Dillon, said to Bannon: ‘Johnny, there’s a light over there. I’m going to strike out for it. Are you coming?’ It tells how Dillon then went over the side.
But this is journalistic assumption of a light in view. Dillon eventually gave evidence himself and made it clear: ‘I did not dive into the water.’ He said (Br. 3871) ‘I went down with the ship, and shoved myself away…’
He was swimming about 20 minutes he says, before he was picked up. He expressed it in the passive. There was no light he was aiming for. He also said he saw other people in the water (Br 3879) ‘about a thousand.’ They had no visual guidance either. Disaster dehumanises their possible deliverers...

Swimmers reach collapsible B

Swimmers reach Collapsible B. Detail from a contemporary illustration

Lifeboat 4 picked up several people, but No. 4 was close to the side of the Titanic both before and after she went down. Emily Ryerson, in that boat, said in an affidavit: ‘We had no lights... after the Titanic sank we saw no lights, and no one seemed to know what direction to take.’
Steward Andrew Cunningham swam around in the water until he saw the ship go down, then turned to look for a lifeboat. Asked ‘Did you see one?,’ he told the US Inquiry: ‘No, I heard one, and I called to it.’ The lifeboat didn’t come toward him – he swam toward it.
It is likely that No. 4 never had a light, since Hemming was called away and the boat was later rather forgotten as it hung at A deck. But if they saw no lights themselves from 4, then it is indicative that the port side boat lights had gone out one by one, as they did to starboard.
We know a flotilla of boats was formed on both the port and starboard sides after the sinking, but there is zero evidence that these were concentrated islands of light - hence the opposite must be true. The lights were out.
Officer Lowe only left his port side flotilla to go back towards the death zone when the cries had thinned out. They didn’t reach him.
Of course failure to reach is a product of both darkness and distance – the lifeboats tried to get as far away as they deemed safe for themselves, mentioning only suction rather than a fear of their fellow humanity in their later evidence. But that same dread produced a policy of blackout. This can actually be seen in one of the more puzzling concerns to modern students – what we regard today, without thinking, as rather quaint complaints about smoking in the boats.
The same Mrs Ryerson of boat 4 said in a 1913 deposition: ‘I said to this man in the bow, Perkis, he was smoking a pipe and seemed quite unconcerned, and I said, “What were your orders?” and he said, “There is another [gangway] aft, and we are ordered to go there,” and some of the women were standing up in the boat, and they said “Don’t go, the ship is going down and we will be swamped” and he didn’t seem to care.’
There is the fear of swamping, which became a panic. And the distaste for smoking was akin to a primitive fear of fire – because the flare of a match lighting, or a pipe being lit, was illumination. And even a flash of light could identify one’s own self for extinction.
Those panicked in the boats did not want smoking because they did not want lights. By the time the survivors reached shore, the original fear instinct had been forgotten and the smoking issue had become transmuted into an upper class foible or social gracelessness.
Mrs J. Stuart White said: ‘Imagine getting right out there and taking out a pipe and filling it and standing there smoking, with the women rowing, which was most dangerous. We had woollen rugs all around us.’ Her mind justified her primeval fear when it came to penning an affidavit. There was plenty of water around to put out any rug fire. Her original fear was of the flare of a match acting like an airport landing light, guiding swimmers in her general direction.
Eddie Ryan, an Irish steerage passenger, told the Evening Herald in 1969: ‘We managed to get a hundred yards away from the ship and out of immediate danger. I found I still had my pipe, so I scraped around in my pocket linings for some tobacco dust and then lit up. This offended a first class woman passenger who asked me to stop smoking. Possibly she thought I was too unconcerned, but the truth of the matter is I was scared stiff.’
He added: ‘At this time there seemed to be hundreds of people jumping overboard, some with lifejackets on and some without.’
Detestation of smoking was fear of fire - aversion to light - the very real phobia of being sunk by swamping swimmers, those hundreds jumping overboard.
Of course the lifeboats put their lights back on after the drowning people very satisfactorily were dead and silent. Some re-lit and some didn’t. They only lit papers in the boats when it was safe to do so… and only when it was important to their own rescue, not the rescue of others.
Even though Hemming had supplied the boats with lights, the simplest thing afterwards was to say your own boat never got one, or you couldn’t find it. Nobody could be in a position to prove to the contrary, yet it could even be that people genuinely convinced themselves, so that what follows are not barefaced lies. Some may be true.
Starboard side denials:
Beauchamp (starboard boat 13):
767. Was there any lantern or lamp on the boat? — No, Sir.
769. Where did you look? — We looked everywhere, everyone tried and looked the best they could, and there was no light in the boat, none whatever.
Reg Lee (also boat 13):
2630. Were any of these three or four boats that you assisted in launching provided with lights, lamps? — I did not look for them. [He avoids directly answering the question].
Lawrence Beesley, also in this boat, wrote: ‘None of the other three boats near us had a light, and we missed lights badly: we could not see each other in the darkness.’ But it may have been that they had lights displayed at one time.
Hendrickson (boat 1):
5071. You had no lights? — No.
5072. Do you mean there was no lamp or lantern in the boat? — Not a lamp or lantern. AB George Symons agrees (Br 11827).
Yet it had been Hemming’s duty to light this boat, and he had done so at 6pm.
Albert Horswill (also boat 1) ‘I was ordered to the port emergency boat (no. 2). I was ordered to put the lantern in the boat…’ But this boat had likewise been equipped with a light since 6pm.
William Brice (boat 11):
Senator Bourne: Did you have a light on your boat? — No, sir, no lantern, sir. I searched for the lantern. I cut the lashing from the oil bottle and cut rope and made torches. [Later in the morning, presumably]. Corroborated by Wheat (Br 13216).
Fireman W.H. Taylor (boat 15):
‘We kept on pulling along to keep up with the other boats, all the small boats being together.
Senator Bourne: How far could you see on the water that night; how far off could you see another boat? — About 50 yards.
Could you see the boat itself, or could you just simply determine it by its lights? — We could see the boats. [indicating the other boats were darkened]
Edward Wheelton, a steward in boat 11, said: ‘I would think, myself, the men took a chance and jumped overboard and swam for it and were picked up by boats. We had very powerful swimmers aboard the ship. Some of the best men I ever saw in the water were on that ship, sir.’
He is talking about his fellow crew. But virtually none of these very powerful swimmers lived, the facts show. He admitted to Senator Newlands that he saw no men saved in this way. None was taken into his boat.
Newlands: Did you see them being taken into any other boat? — ‘No; it was too dark. I could not see, sir.’ The lifeboat lights were obviously out. Being a powerful swimmer was of no use.
The Senator's next question was this: Did you see anything of either of the rafts or collapsible boats? — ‘No, sir. We did not sight another boat until daybreak next morning. We saw the lights, but we did not get near enough to them.’
Wheelton is effectively saying lifeboats lights came on again later in the morning. They could safely be re-lit or displayed after the cries had subsided.

Lifeboat with lantern

A lifeboat showing a hoisted lantern. Detail from an Illustrated London News 1912 image

Lamp trimmer Hemming was amazed and shocked that everything was black on the starboard side, and yet we have the greatest evidence of his passing down lit lamps into all those boats in turn on the port side.
But here, too, there are denials. Because pleading ignorance of any light or lamp is easy to do, and becomes an established practice.

Frank Evans (boat 10):

Senator Fletcher: Was there any light in this boat, No. 10? — No, sir.
No lantern? — No lantern at all.

AB John Poingdestre (boat 12):

3170. When you hailed the other boats in the course of the night before being rescued, did you observe whether or not they had lanterns? — Nobody had a light; only Mr Lowe had a flash electric light belonging to himself, I believe.
3171. Is it your evidence that all the boats you came across from leaving the Titanic until you were rescued were unprovided with lanterns? — Yes, quite right.
3173. (The Commissioner) No harm occurred as far I know from there being no lanterns on board? — No, my Lord, none whatever.

An astonishing interruption! Does he expect the dead to testify?
Later Poingdestre was quizzed again on the issue (Br 3329).

Now, with regard to the lights on the boats, you saw none at all after the boats were all in the water? — No.
3330. Don’t you think you may be mistaken? — I saw a light, I saw another accident boat [cutter] burning a blue or a green light.
3331. I mean ordinary boat lights? — No, I did not.
3332. (The Commissioner) The ordinary boats’ light is white? — Yes.
3333. (Mr Laing.) Did you see the lamp trimmer carrying about a lot of lighted lamps on the boat deck? — No.
3334. And serving them out to the boats? — ‘I never saw the lamp trimmer whatever.’

But others did, and received lights from him. Once that was admitted in evidence, the pretence of everyone showing lights had to be maintained:

QM Robert Hichens (boat 6):

1293. Were you sufficiently near the other two or three boats to observe whether or not they had lights? — Oh, yes. We kept on showing our lights. The boats that had lights kept on showing their lights. Everybody did not have a light.
1317. You said that after you left the Titanic the boats that had lights were showing them to each other? — Yes.
1318. Can you say how many boats you saw lights in? — No; I did not count them.
1319. Were there two, or three, or four? — Five or six of us.
1320. Five or six other boats had lights as well as yourself? — Yes.

Lifeboats at Carpathia

Detail from The Graphic, 1912

1341. Did you borrow a fireman from one of the other boats to help you to row? — Yes that was in the morning part, to row back to the Carpathia.
1342. — In fact I know we pulled back to the ship immediately I got him aboard, because all the other boats were going ahead of us showing us their lights.
1362. (The Commissioner) Couldn’t you hear where these cries came from? —Your Lordship, in the meantime, the boats were yelling one to the other.The boats were yelling one to another, as well as showing their lights, to try and let each other know whereabouts they were.

Hichens’ evidence goes to show there were initial lights when launched, that these were extinguished when danger to the lifeboats loomed from those in the water (with boats only concerned with their own safety), and then lights were shown when important to identify themselves to the Carpathia.

Passenger Arthur Peuchen was also in boat 6:
‘We had lights in our boat, but some of the other boats did not. I know there was a boat that hung near us that had not lights. Whether it was on account of not being able to light their lights I do not know.’
A new excuse - they had already been lit. This is the same Peuchen who also testified (US p.337): 'As we rowed, pulled away from the Titanic, there was an officer's call of some kind... a sort of a whistle. Anyway, the Quartermaster told us to stop rowing so he could hear it, and this was a call to come back to the boat... But the Quartermaster said, "No, we are not going back to the boat." He said, "It is our lives now, not theirs."

Later, in his evidence Peuchen describes a changed scene:
‘We could see those different lifeboats that had lights. They were all over. They were not all staying together at all. Some of them were going east, west, north, and south, it seemed to me, but there was one boat that had a sort of an electric light, and one a sort of a bluish light as well.’ Peuchen thus saw lifeboat lights 'all over' at a particular time - but no surviving swimmer saw one when it mattered.

Seaman Joseph Scarrott was in boat 14, which eventually returned under officer Lowe to look for survivors.
475. — There was one thing we found was not in her after going away, and that was the boat’s lamp.
479. And it was not there? — It was not there. I looked under all the thwarts.
Scarrott later agreed that it was very important that a lifeboat laden with a full complement of passengers should be provided on a dark night with a lamp.
That’s obviously what Boxhall thought when he wanted them all so provided. There is no point rehearsing the endless contradictions of those who swear they were left with no lamp, and on the other hand, those who claimed to have been brightly lit and that many another boat was lit as well (which rather blames the swimmers for their own demise).
But since Boxhall, with his green pyrotechnics, later became the bearer of light (and his No. 2 boat thereby the flagship of all escape craft), it might be worth considering his account.
First note that crewman James Johnson in boat 2 said (Br 3440): ‘This man handed me a lamp out of the boat. I saw a lamp [another] standing on the deck. It was ready-lit. I said, “It will be all right for us,” so I stowed it in there.’
Boxhall may have tried to maintain a fiction of the lights being on in all boats after the sinking. He doesn’t sound credible when he tries to suggest they were dim in this period, but bright-sounding ‘lighted lamps’ later:
Senator Smith: Were there any other lights visible on the lifeboats except those on your boat?
Boxhall: I saw some lifeboat lights, but the usual lifeboat's lights. They were very dim, small lamps.
Senator Smith: If all those lifeboats had been lighted, it would have impressed itself upon you, would it not?
Boxhall: Lighted the same - [Here he stops and avoids answering the question. US p. 248.]
Later in his evidence:
Boxhall: I saw several of the boats - in fact all of the lifeboats - when I was in my boat, which had lighted lamps in them.
Senator Smith: Had lamps in them?
Boxhall: Had lamps in them - before I saw the Carpathia.
So all the boats had lamps in the later morning. This is what Boxhall asserts, what he wanted to achieve earlier in the night, and a desire which Hemming implemented. Yet many boats claimed to have no light at all.
In Collapsible D, there was the attempted Peuchen defence of non-working lights, even though they had been passed in while burning, and it seems it would have been necessary to manually open a glass door to quench them. We have no information on who made the Titanic lifeboat lamps, or what they looked like. It has been suggested that the picture below shows a lifeboat lamp being removed while lifeboat 2 is hauled onto the Carpathia. But this is pure conjecture - it could as easily be a bag or box or somethng else.

Lamp taken from lifeboat Carpathia

The book The Ship Magnificent raises this object as a possible lamp

QM Arthur Bright (D)
Senator Fletcher: Did you have a light in your boat?
Bright: ‘There was a lantern passed into the boat, but I could not light it. I tried to light it.’ Fellow occupant Hugh Woolner backed him up: Senator Smith: Did you have any light in your boat? Woolner: ‘There was a lantern, but there was no oil in it.’
Yet Hemming, who had worked at this very boat – admitted in a clumsy way by Bright – when asked the question (Br 17756): ‘Were oil and wicks in the lamps?’ gave this answer: ‘Yes.’ He also clearly said (Br 17780) that they were 'all full of oil.'

Boxhall, who stated that all the boats had lamps, nonetheless also testified in London:

15469. After she sank, did you hear cries? — Yes, I heard cries… I was showing green lights in the boat then, to try and get the other boats together, trying to keep us all together.
15470. Were there other boats round about, near yours? — ‘I could not see any boats…’

But if they were lit during the period of the cries, then he should have done.
The society women who hated smoking also hated the idea of their ever having had lamps. It was an inconvenient embarrassment to be blotted out:
‘That as to equipment of the lifeboats there was none in her boat…. nor any kind of lantern. On questioning occupants of other lifeboats, they told her the same story - lack of food, water, compass, and lights.’
Affidavit of Imanita Shelley (boat 12)
The occupants of other boats were rallied to the White Lie flag. Should not some occupants have told her that they did indeed have lights? Miss Shelley has over-egged her pudding.
‘There were absolutely no lights in the lifeboats… there were no lanterns, no provisions, no lights, nothing at all in these boats.’
Affidavit of Catherine Crosby (attributed to boat 7). Whether her boat went early, and thereby missed a lamp, how could she know of all others?
Boxhall, meanwhile, continues twisting and turning, not knowing what is for the best –

Senator Smith: Where were those lights displayed?
Boxhall: I was not close enough to see.

A few questions later -

Boxhall: Just in the bottom of the boat. I could see the reflection of the lights; I did not see the lights themselves.
Senator Smith: But you are not ready to say that they all had lights burning, are you?
Boxhall: ‘No; not that they all had lights burning, but I saw several.’

Which way does he want it? James Johnson suggested there might even have been two lights in No. 2, besides its box, or boxes, of flares or company signals.
Mrs Walter Douglas was also in boat 2. She said: ‘He (Boxhall) put the lantern - an old one, with very little light in it - on a pole which I held up for some time.’
Nobody did anything of the kind when the swimmers actually needed it.
There are contradictions here. There may even be exceptions. Hemming managed to get into No. 4 when it was near the Titanic at the very end. That near boat also picked others up:

Senator Smith: How long did you lay by at that time - after you picked these seven people out of the water?
Hemming: Not long, sir. We made for a light.
Senator Smith: You saw a light?
Hemming: Yes; one of the boats' lights.
Senator Smith: You mean a lifeboat light?
Hemming: Yes, sir.

But this may be the exception that only proves the rule. Hemming saw but one light. After picking up seven men – meaning a considerable time post-apocalypse. As his boat was heading to the outer rim at last, he might have been seeing Lowe’s No. 14 on the way back in - only for claims that she too, did not have a light!
Later, undoubtedly, some of the lights went back on. When it was safe to do so. Edward Brown (saved on Collapsible B) may have described this re-twinkling from blackness -
10603. As you were one of the last to leave the boat before she sank, I want to ask you this question: Did you observe just at that time [ie, before she sank] the lights of any ship in your vicinity? — I never saw any, sir.
10604. Or even when you got into the water and onto the raft? — ‘Only the lights of our own boats.’ His raft was not relieved from some hours, and these sequential questions do not mean their time periods had to closely follow one another. Did he see lifeboat lights when he was on the raft? Yes, he did, but later.
Collapsible B was washed over to starboard. Hemming said there were no lifeboat lights there just before then and Brown agreed with him (Br 10603).

The evidence is clearly telling us what happened, yet it needs to be judiciously sifted. Certainly witnesses saw lifeboat lights, and quotes can be ripped from context, but the timing was probably later on. They were lit up when rushing for the Carpathia. When they wanted to be seen.


Detail from The Graphic

Now consider the attitude of the bench in the studious avoidance of this important issue -
British Inquiry Commissioner Lord Mersey stated (during Lightoller’s evidence, Br 14490): ‘We have a great deal of evidence that there were no compasses in some of the boats; that there were no lamps… it may be [that] at the right time one will have to consider whether these are matters which ought to be more closely attended to than they are, but, in point of fact, in connection with this calamity they made no difference. All the people in the lifeboats got to the Carpathia.’
Yes, all the people already in the standard lifeboats. The related lifeboat equipment questions about compasses, food and water, etc, in some cases are attempts to muddy the water, or to distract through addition.
The Commissioner later added: ‘No misfortune can be attributed to the fact that there may not have been a lamp on board some of them. I daresay the things ought to have been there, but the fact that they were not there does not appear to have made any difference.’
He’s lying. It made an enormous difference to the last hope of swimmers. As the final witness will explain in righteous indignation:


14865. With regard to the lamps which those lifeboats carry, did you yourself see any lights while you were afloat in the boat? — I did, several.
[When he had eventually been rescued from upturned Collapsible B. The lights of other lifeboats had now come back on...]
14866. From other boats in the sea, I mean? — Yes.
14867. In which the people were? — Yes.

Suddenly Lightoller now decides to tell it like it is. In further reply to the above question, he turns and adds dramatically -

‘I also found several lamps hanging in the thwarts, when we were on board the Carpathia, which evidently had not been used.’
14888. (The Commissioner) Lamps belonging to the Titanic? — Lamps belonging to the Titanic’s lifeboats.
14869. (Mr Laing) They had not been used? — ‘They had evidently been hidden under the thwarts by some people in the boats.’

Lightoller with Rostron

Storekeeper Frank Prentice
Lightoller with Captain Rostron on the Carpathia Storekeeper Frank Prentice

Not used. Hidden by those in the boats. So that they could not be seen. An accusation totally overlooked in the Titanic canon. ‘Almost like murder, wasn’t it?’ storekeeper Frank Prentice said to ITV in 1982 in reference to the whole tragedy. He was eventually pulled from the water into No. 4 boat. In a 1912 newspaper account, he said those in the water had 'encouraged one another by shouts.' They had no other resort.
Lightoller knew the truth of the Great Betrayal. He had every right to feel pure disgust.
Because Lightoller - like Hemming, like Prentice - was a swimmer.

(c) All rights reserved. Article available for licensing. All images courtesy of the contributor.


Senan Molony, Ireland


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  1. Terence Keefe 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

  2. Terry Keefe Terry Keefe

    [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

  3. Stanley C Jenkins

    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.

  4. Samuel Halpern

    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.

  5. Terry Keefe Terry Keefe

    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

  6. Jim Currie

    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

  7. Terry Keefe Terry Keefe

    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

  8. Senan Molony Senan Molony

    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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Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) Lifeboats extinguished their lights! (Titanica!, ref: #14793, published 6 December 2011, generated 23rd March 2023 05:54:26 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-lifeboats-extinguished-their-lights.html