Encyclopedia Titanica

Robert Hichens

Robert Hichens
Robert Hichens

Robert Hichens 1 was born in St Peter's Square, Newlyn, Cornwall on 16 September 1882. He was the son of a fisherman, Philip Hichens and Rebecca Hichens (née Wood) who was originally of Whitby, North Yorkshire2.

Robert was the eldest of the family, his younger siblings were, Angelina, William (Willie), Richard (Dick), Julliette, Frederick (Feddoe), Sidney (Sid), James (Jim) and Elizabeth (Lizzie).

By 1906 he was shown on his marriage certificate to be a "master mariner". He had married Florence Mortimore at the parish church of Manaton, Devon on 23 October in that year.

Hichens had served as Quartermaster on many vessels but never in the North Atlantic. He had worked aboard mail boats and liners of the Union Castle and British India lines. Immediately prior to Titanic he worked on the troop ship Dongola sailing back and forth to Bombay, India 3. At the US Enquiry into the sinking of Titanic Hichens stated that he had served on ships 'up about Norway and Sweden and Petersburg, and up the Danube.'

On Titanic he was one of the 6 Quartermasters and signed-on on 6 April 1912. At that time he gave his home address as 43 St James Street (St. Marys, Southampton), he lived there with his wife and 2 children4.

On the night of 14 April 1912 Robert Hichens was at the ship's wheel (having relieved Q.M. Oliver at 10 p.m.) when the warning came from the lookout that an iceberg had been spotted ahead of the ship. When the order came to hard a'starboard he immediately swung the wheel as far as it would go.

At about 12.23 he was relieved by QM Perkis at around which time one of the officers shouted 'That will do with the wheel, get the boats out.' Later, Second Officer Lightoller told Lookout Fred Fleet to get into Lifeboat 6 on the port side and put Robert Hichens in charge of that boat. The lifeboat (capacity 65) left the ship at about 12.55 with only 28 persons on board with the order that they were to make for the lights that could be seen in the distance.

Robert's conduct on the lifeboat would later come under intense scrutiny. After being rescued and landing in New York, Senator William Smith had subpoenaed 29 crew members for the US Inquiry and the remaining crew were to return to England on April 20 aboard the steamer Lapland. Robert hadn't received any notification, and so he was aboard Lapland when it left New York at 10 a.m. Shortly after departing the ship received a wireless to stop and await a boarding party. When the boarding party arrived 5 more crew were taken ashore, among them was Robert.

He gave his testimony on 24 April.

'I was put in charge of lifeboat 6 by the Second Officer, Mr Lightoller. We lowered away from the ship. I told them in the boat that somebody would have to pull. There was no use stopping alongside the ship, which was gradually going by the head. We were in a dangerous place, so I told them to man the oars - ladies and all. 'All of you do your best.' I relieved one of the young ladies with an oar and told her to take the tiller. She immediately let the boat come athwart, and the ladies in the boat got very nervous; so I took the tiller back again and told them to manage the best way they could. The lady I refer to, Mrs Mayer, was rather vexed with me in the boat and I spoke rather straight to her. She accused me of wrapping myself up in the blankets in the boat, using bad language and drinking all the whisky, which I deny, sir. I was standing to attention, exposed,steering the boat all night, which is a very cold billet. I would rather be pulling the boat than be steering, but I saw no one there to steer, so I thought, being in charge of the boat, it was the best way to steer myself, especially when I saw the ladies get very nervous. I do not remember that the women urged me to go toward the 'Titanic'. I did not row toward the scene of the 'Titanic' because the suction of the ship would draw the boat, with all its occupants, under water. I did not know which way to go back to the 'Titanic'. I was looking at all the other boats. We were looking at each other's lights. After the lights disappeared and went out, we did hear cries of distress - a lot of crying, moaning and screaming, for two or three minutes. We made fast to another boat - that of the master-at-arms. It was No 16. I had thirty-eight women in my boat. I counted them, sir. One seaman, Fleet; the Canadian Major, who testified here yesterday and the Italian boy. We got down to the 'Carpathia' and I saw every lady and everybody out of the boat, and I saw them carefully hoisted on board the 'Carpathia', and I was the last man to leave the boat.'

After the close of the inquiry Robert returned to England aboard the Celtic, arriving in Liverpool on 4 May 1912. On 7 May 1912 he testified at the British Enquiry where he had 492 questions put to him.

It has been claimed that Hichens went to South Africa a year or two after the Titanic sinking and became Harbourmaster at Cape Town, although research has shown that he never in fact held any such senior position5.

Whether or not Robert Hichens was ever in South Africa is unclear, but it is known that his brother William lived around this time in Johannesburg6. In 1917 a fellow Titanic survivor (possibly Edith Haisman) claimed to have run into Robert there. During the First War Robert served in the Royal Naval Reserve and in a Labour Corps. It was later stated that his Service character was very good.

It is known that by 1919 Robert Hichens was working as a third officer on a small vessel named the Magpie out of Hull. His crew records at that time show that he held no Board of Trade certificates whatever.

Towards the end of the 1920's Robert and his family moved to live in Torquay, Devon. (A harbour town in the south west of England where his wife's sister, Beatrice was living.) It is believed that Robert's wife, Florence, ran a guest house business in the fashionable Warberry area of the town. Flo's younger sister had married a man from Torquay, and it seems the two were very close.

In Torquay Robert was engaged in boat charter and for this business in 1930 he purchased a motor vessel, Queen Mary from a Torquay acquaintance, Frederick George Henry Henley (known as Harry). Harry had put his boat up for sale due to arguments with other Torquay boatmen which had ultimately led to the subsequent loss of his license. Harry then followed the occupation of fish dealer.

Robert purchased the boat for £160 of which he paid the initial sum of £100 with the remainder to be paid within 2 years. Robert then arranged a £100 loan from a Mr J E Squires of Torquay. He was able to repay £50 but due to a poor season in 1931 he was unable to repay the balance to Squires who then took the boat from Robert to settle his debt.

It appears that by the end of 1931 his wife and children had left Robert and moved to Southampton. For the next 12 months Robert toured the country looking for work, a search which proved unsuccessful. It is believed that Robert became a heavy drinker, brought on no doubt by various factors in his life. Perhaps his experiences on Titanic, bleak job prospects, having no money to speak of and the fact that his wife had left him.

So much so that toward the end of 1933 he was determined to kill Harry Henley who had sold him the boat in Torquay and in Robert's eyes was the main cause of his current predicament. Somewhere on his travels he had managed to acquire a revolver for £5 and came to Torquay to carry out the deed.

He arrived in Torquay on 12 November 1933, having paused briefly at Newton Abbot on the way. Shortly after arriving in Torquay Robert met up with Thomas Robert John Holden, a fisherman whom he had known previously in Torquay. He was later quoted as saying to Holden 'I have come down to do Henley and myself.'

By 6pm in the evening Robert was drinking with another acquaintance, a docker, Charles Henry Stroud, who had known Robert for about 4 years. Robert showed Stroud the revolver who said 'Put it away. Don't be a fool. He isn't worth swinging for.' Robert replied 'I'll take your tip, I shan't give the hangman a job.' Later in the evening Robert produced the gun again saying 'This is harder than a boxing glove.'

By 10.00pm Robert was heavily intoxicated on rum having been to at least 3 public houses during the course of the evening. After closing time he took a taxi, driven by Harry Scrivings to Harry Henley's house at 6 Happaway Court, Stentiford's Hill, Torquay.

What happened next is taken from the Torquay Times newspaper of 1 December 1933.

Henley opened the door and came outside. Hichens was standing with both hands in his pockets, and in his right hand pocket was the revolver. He asked Henley for money, saying 'I am on the ground I want you to pick me up.' Henley naturally said 'Why do you expect me to pick you up when you owe me £60 already?' Hichens said 'I am sorry, it is all through the drink that I am like this.' Henley said 'Then I have to suffer for that as well as you. I wont lend you a penny because you have been a rogue and a scamp to me.' Hichens later said 'Is this your last word?' he then pulled his hand suddenly from his trousers pocket and with the words 'Take that' raised his hand to the level of his head. It was an ill-lighted place and Henley thought that Hichens was hitting him with his fist and put up his arm with the idea of warding off a blow. Then came 2 explosions. Hichens had fired the revolver and very nearly succeeded in his object because the shot went through the head and came out 3 and a half inches behind, but he did not strike a bone, and although Henley lost a lot of blood he was not really seriously injured. Henley pushed Hichens away and in an instant fired another shot which went downward and wide. Henley then punched Hichens in the face and Hichens fell. After Hichens fell Henley ran to the Police to fetch help. After falling Hichens got up again but after 30 yards fell again and lay down on the footpath. While lying on the footpath Hichens put his hand towards his head and fired but the only injuries found on him when the Police came were injuries to the nose caused no doubt, by the blow Henley struck.

Robert was then taken to the Police station in a semi-conscious state and said, amongst other things 'Is he dead? I hope he is' and 'He is a dirty rat, I would do it again if I had a chance, I intended to kill him and myself, too. He has taken my living away.'

Robert had 2 letters on his person when arrested. One dated 11 November 1933 written at Newton Abbot was addressed to the Editor of the Sunday Chronicle, the second, dated 12 November 1933 said ''My dear little brother - Just a last note to you. You may come to identify my body as your brother. My home is gone - no dole - no pension - can't get an officer's berth - result death by my own hand.''

The following morning at the Torquay Court he was remanded in custody for a week. On the 29 November 1933 he appeared at the Winchester Assizes. His wrists were bandaged as during remand he had attempted to cut his wrists.

Released from prison in 1937, Robert Hichens died on 23 September 1940 aboard the cargo ship English Trader.  For many years it was assumed that he had been buried at sea but In 2012 Sally Nilsson, with the help of Aberdeen Council, discovered that Robert was in fact buried in Trinity Cemetery Aberdeen.

Florence continued to live in Southampton until her death from a brain tumour in the early 1960's.


  1. On Robert's birth certificate the spelling is "Hichens", but Rebecca, his mother, signs with a cross, so this is probably just the way the Registrar thought it might be spelled. (Rebecca had never been taught to read or write - a too common situation in the Westcountry prior to the Education Act of 1870). On the marriage certificate it is spelled "Hitchens", and this is the way many officials and also his wife's relatives spelled it.
  2. Rebecca Wood was born in the 1860s (Source: Birth Certificate) and died in Newlyn,Cornwall in 1929 (Source Death Certificate)
  3. The Dongola was built in Glasgow in 1905 and broken up at Barrow in 1926.
  4. Robert and Florence were to have 3 further children after 1912, Doreen (born in Southampton in 1914), Robert (known as Bob, born in Southampton in August 1918) who was to subsequently lose a leg in an accident in Torquay. The names of the other children were Florence, Freddie and Edna.
  5. The source for the story is purportedly one Henry Blum [in a letter to a Thomas Garvey], who was an acquaintance of Hichens. Blum was a quartermaster on a British vessel that docked in Cape Town in 1914. According to Blum, the "harbour master" who came out to meet the boat was Hichens, although harbourmasters do not routinely meet ships but are in charge of overall port traffic and tariffs. Blum claimed he and Hichens had a talk in which he was alleged told that Hichens had been set up in South Africa in return for his secrecy regarding Titanic.
  6. From a surviving letter it is known that William Hichens was in South Africa on November 8th 1915. William Hichens returned to England in 1918 to marry Penelope Rouffignac Cotton. Penelope was born in 1893, and christened 14th Jan 1893, in Paul parish, Cornwall. Penelope and William where married in Paul parish Newlyn. Together they had two children, Penelope Hichens and William Hichens. Shortly after marriage they returned to South Africa to live. Penelope died in Johannesburg in 1959.

References and Sources

Senate Hearings, 24th April, 1912, Testimony
Board of Trade Hearings, 7th May, 1912, Testimony

Research Articles

Phillip Gowan and Brian Meister ET Research (2003) Whatever Happened to Robert Hichens
Lee Kendall Titanica! (2006) A Pen to Sink a Thousand Ships
The British Titanic Inquiry and the Art of Fortunino Matania
Senan Molony Titanica! (2008) 12.45am - A Time to Go!
What time did the first lifeboat depart the Titanic?

Newspaper Articles

Cornishman (18 April 1912) NEWLYN MAN RESCUED
The New York Times (21 April 1912) SEALING THE LIPS OF TITANIC'S CREW
Chicago American (24 April 1912) ISMAY ASKS TO LEAVE THE WRECK PROBE
The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph (10 August 1933) A CORNISH SEA DOG ON THE ROCKS
The Times (30 November 1933) TORQUAY SHOOTING CHARGE
Daily Mirror (26 July 1937) Titanic Survivors Prison Cell Claim


Stanley C. Jenkins Titanic Review (2011) The Man Who Sank Titanic
Sally Nilsson, Hichen's great-granddaughter, attempts to set the record straight and reveal the true character of the man her family knew.


Donald Hyslop, Alastair Forsyth and Sheila Jemima (1997) Titanic Voices: Memories from the Fateful Voyage, Sutton Publishing, Southampton City Council. ISBN 0 7509 1436 X
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Titanic Crew Summary

Name: Mr Robert Hichens
Age: 29 years 6 months and 29 days (Male)
Nationality: English
Marital Status: Married to Florence Mortimore
Occupation: Quartermaster
Last Ship: Dongola
Embarked: Southampton
Rescued (boat 6)  
Disembarked Carpathia: New York City on Thursday 18th April 1912
Died: Monday 23rd September 1940 aged 58 years
Buried: Trinity Cemetery, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

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