William McMaster Murdoch was born at "Sunnyside", Dalbeattie, Dumfries, Scotland on 28 February 1873. He was the fourth of seven children of Captain Samuel Murdoch (1843-1917) and his wife Jane 'Jeannie' Muirhead (1839-1914).
The Murdochs had been a seafaring family for many generations and together with their related families (e. g. Rae, Black, Cumming) formed one of Britain's larger families of masters in sail. Of Captain Samuel Murdoch's three sons, however, it was only William who chose the sea for a career. His older brother James became a chemist (1867-1906), his younger brother Samuel (1880-1950) became a merchant trading from Chile, where he also became acting British consul. He also had four sisters, Mary, died aged 4 in 1869, Agnes (1870-1916), Jane (or Jeannie, 1877-1921) and Margaret (1882-1973).
Left: Captain Samuel Murdoch (William's father); right: Captain James Murdoch (Murdoch's grandfather)
(With kind permission of S. Scott Murdoch)
Unlike his father and many other seafaring relatives, who had started their seafaring careers as so-called boys and worked their way up before the mast, William served an apprenticeship in sail. Going to sea in those days meant working on a sailing ship. Sailors working on steamships were regarded as “feather bed mariners”.
Although his father was a captain, Murdoch first went to sea on the barque Charles Cotesworth, commanded by Captain James Kitchen. William joined the ship after signing the indentures for a five years apprenticeship on 1 August 1888. Murdoch’s first voyage on the Charles Cotesworth was to San Francisco via Cape Horn (or Cape Stiff as it was called). On the return leg of the voyage which terminated in Dublin, they rounded Cape Horn once again. Within the Murdoch family, only a sailor who had been round Cape Horn could call himself a sailor – especially when it was rounded from East to West, which was harder due to the prevailing winds.
The next voyages saw the Charles Cotesworth sailing to Portland, Oregon (1889/90), Valparaiso (1890/91) and Iquique (1891/92).
In 1892, Murdoch left the Charles Cotesworth and on 6 October 1892 successfully passed the examination for the 2nd mate's certificate; his apprenticeship having terminated on 30 September 1892.
Murdoch did not sign a crew list again until August 1893, when became 2nd mate on the full-rigger Iquique. The Master of this ship was none other than Captain Samuel Murdoch, his father. Unsurprisingly the Iquique had a few men from the Dalbeattie area amongst her crew, one of them was the 1st mate George Meldrum, who had already made his first experiences in deep-sea sailing under the command of Captain Samuel Murdoch.
The Iquique sailed from Rotterdam to Frederikstad (Sweden) and from there to Cape Town; followed by stops at Newcastle (New South Wales, Australia), and Antofagasta and Iquique both in Northern Chile. The port of discharge was London thus the Iquique - and with her Will Murdoch - had completed a trip around the world. The voyage took roughly 18 months, and it was the first and the last time that Murdoch sailed on a ship commanded by his father.
On 23 March 1895 Murdoch passed the examination for the 1st mate's certificate, and on 12 May 1895 he joined the barque St. Cuthbert as 1st mate. St. Cuthbert was in the fleet of J. & J. Rae who were related to the Murdoch family. St. Cuthbert sailed from Ipswich to Mauritius, and from there to Newport (Wales) via Newcastle (NSW), Callao and Hamburg (Germany).
On 28 September 1896, Murdoch progressed further in his career by passing the examination for the Extra Master's Certificate at the first attempt. The Extra Master's Certificate was the highest qualification for a nautical officer at that time.
With his Extra Master's Certificate under his belt, on 3 April 1897 Murdoch signed a crew agreement again - he joined the four-mast barque Lydgate as first mate. She had a gross tonnage of 2534 tons thus being much bigger than the ships he had served on before. The Lydgate sailed from New York to Shanghai, then to Portland, Oregon, afterwards to Tsientin (China), from there to Portland, Oregon again and finally to Antwerp (Belgium) where Murdoch signed off on 2 May 1899. It is said that in 1898 the Lydgate was listed as overdue - but fortunately, unlike many other ships so listed, the Lydgate did finally reach her destination.
On 30 June 1899, Murdoch stopped “going the sea” – as it was called in those days when a sailor transferred to steamships. He joined the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, better known as White Star Line. And when the brand-new White Star steamer Medic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Australia on 3 August 1899, inaugurating White Star’s new service Australia, Murdoch was aboard, serving as its 4th officer. This was the first maiden voyage, Murdoch would sail on, but it was not to be the last!
3rd and 4th officers aboard White Star Liners were junior officers. These officers had to do watch by watch and when on duty they acted under the orders of the respective senior officer. Medic's second voyage saw Murdoch serving as 3rd officer, while newly appointed as 4th officer of the Medic was Charles Herbert Lightoller.
Murdoch kept this rank until he was promoted to 2nd officer aboard the Runic, another ship of the so-called “Jubilee” class, in June 1901.
Being 2nd officer made Murdoch one of the senior officers of the vessel and placed him in command of the ship during his watch, under the authority of the captain. Murdoch remained in White Star’s Australian Service as 2nd officer aboard Runic until June 1903. The voyage that commenced 12 February 1903 from Liverpool must have turned into a voyage to remember for Murdoch.
On the return leg from Australia to Europe, a certain Ada Florence Banks was amongst the passengers. She was a teacher from New Zealand. How Mr. Murdoch and Miss Banks came in touch is not known, but a relationship began that would affect both their lives. After the voyage had ended, Murdoch sent a postcard to relatives and commented “Had a grand passage home”.
Miss Banks left Runic at the end of the voyage and Murdoch's time aboard the ship ended as well. He was transferred to Arabic and joined her as 2nd mate. Arabic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage on 26 June 1903. Her destination was New York which meant that Murdoch had arrived on the so-called Atlantic Run thus serving in the premium service of the company – and it also meant he had become an officer on one of the Western Ocean mailboats, in those days the most prestigious and glamorous ships.
It was during Murdoch's time on the Arabic that an incident occurred which has fallen into legend. The story was told by Captain Edwin Jones to Captain Alain Villiers who made it public in his book "Of Ships and Men". Geoffrey Marcus repeated it in his book "The Maiden Voyage", and it was also mentioned in Lightoller's biography by Patrick Stenson.
There never was a better officer. Cool, capable, on his toes always – and smart toes they were. I remember one night – we had just come up on the bridge to take over the watch – when the lookout struck the bell for a light on the port bow. It was that awkward moment before you have your night vision, for we had just come up to take over from the First Officer and his junior. Murdoch went at once to the wing of the bridge. I didn’t see anything, for a while. I don’t think I ever did see that light until it was almost on top of us.
But Murdoch did! And realised on the instant what it was, and precisely what sort of ship was showing it and what she was doing. I never forgot what he did. Before I knew what was happening, he rushed to the wheel, pushed the quartermaster aside, and hung on to the spokes. The First Officer was still on the bridge.
“Hard-a-port!” the First shouted, suddenly seeing the light again, very close.
Murdoch kept the ship on her course.
“Hard-a-a-! My God, we’ll be into her!” shouted the First Officer. And then: “Midships the helm! Steady! Steady as she goes!”
But Murdoch had not shifted the helm. That was why he had jumped there, fearing a confusion of orders leading inevitably to a collision. As he stood there, coolly keeping our ship on what we all then realised was the only possible collision-free course, a great four-masted barque, wind howling in her giant press of sails, came clawing down our weather side. We watched, horrified. Would she hit us? But she went free. Just, but she went free! It was a matter of yards.
If Murdoch – or the quartermaster at the wheel who of course was there to obey orders and not to question them – had put that wheel over we’d have been into that sailing-ship. We couldn’t have helped it. If he had altered to port we’d have hit with our bow: if to starboard, with our stern. Our only chance was to keep our course and speed – to go straight. She was one of the great modern steel windjammers, 3,000 tons of her. She could have cut us down.
We were only two days out of New York at the time. None of us had seen a sailing ship there before. Remember, even the biggest sailing-ships carried only dim sidelights – oil lamps, generally stuck in towers. They were hard to see. We were looking down; she had a good breeze and was making 12 knots. Under all sail the swelling arch of her foresail would have hidden the sidelight from us. But Murdoch saw – just the one glimpse. It was enough for him. In a split of second he knew what to do. We others would have been too late. Upon the instant, he had her figured out! Good thing he did, too.
That man let nobody down aboard the Titanic, I’m sure of it.
In 1904, Murdoch transferred to the Celtic and was promoted to 1st officer. He kept this rank, when he joined Germanic, which was then sailing under the flag of the American Line (another company within the IMM) and serving from Southampton to New York. The officers of Germanic, however, were all employed by the White Star Line.
Murdoch was back on a White Star ship in 1905 when he joined their flagship Oceanic as 2nd officer. He remained on this ship until February 1906, when he was transferred to Cedric for two voyages and promoted to 1st officer. In April 1906, he rejoined Oceanic as 2nd officer and was promoted to 1st officer after one roundtrip. The new 2nd officer aboard Oceanic was Charles Herbert Lightoller.
In May 1907 Murdoch became 1st officer on the brand new Adriatic; the largest ship in the company and its flagship. She was the fourth of the so-called "Big Four". Her master was Captain Edward John Smith who became the senior captain of the company when John G. Cameron retired from Oceanic's bridge.
Adriatic's maiden voyage started in Liverpool with the destination New York, but the round-trip terminated in Southampton from where White Star's premium service to the USA would thence commence. Adriatic’s was the third maiden voyage Murdoch took part in, and the second time he served as senior officer on a "maiden voyager".
After being appointed to Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) in 1902, Murdoch was promoted to Lieutenant, RNR in 1909.
It seems as if Adriatic had a steadying influence on Murdoch's life. He remained 1st officer of this ship until May 1911 – only the Charles Cotesworth, the ship on which he served his apprenticeship, saw him on her decks for a longer period of time. The crew agreements and ship's logs show that many of the crew stayed with the same ship over many voyages.
Murdoch stepped out for one round trip in 1907 when he married Ada Florence Banks, his acquaintance from Runic, in Southampton on 2 September 1907. They settled in the city.
On sailing day 5 April 1911, Captain Edward John Smith left Adriatic and was replaced by Bertram Fox Hayes. Murdoch remained on the Adriatic and signed on for the next voyage 3 May 1911 but was replaced on sailing day by C. H. Greame. Murdoch was then sent to Belfast to join the Olympic. He met many familiar faces from the Adriatic on the latest addition to the White Star fleet - and he also met Robert Hume from Colvend, the neighbouring village to Dalbeattie, and quite close to where Murdoch’s grandparents and other relatives lived. It is very likely that Murdoch and Hume had known each other since childhood. A local newspaper observed that Murdoch was 1st officer and Hume 2nd officer on the Olympic, the biggest ship in the world.
Olympic's maiden voyage was the fourth maiden voyage for Murdoch - and for the third time he was one of the senior officers. If Murdoch had hoped to be promoted to chief officer on Olympic's second voyage, his hope was in vain. The first chief officer did leave, but he was replaced by Henry Tingle Wilde.
Olympic's fourth voyage saw a change in the schedule. The four-weeks-schedule was changed to a three-weeks-one which meant less time in port for the crew. Olympic's fifth voyage saw an unexpected incident, however: When leaving Southampton, the Olympic collided with the cruiser Hawke. The damage done to the Olympic was so severe she had to return to Belfast for repairs which meant that the round trip had to be cancelled. The Captain and officers of the Olympic were called upon to give evidence before an inquiry into the collision. Murdoch gave evidence – the station assigned to him as 1st officer had been on the aft bridge on the poop deck, however,
“I had occasion to go on to the aft end of the boat deck, and when I thought that our ship was steady on her course I proceeded up there.” When the Hawke collided with the Olympic, Murdoch was back on the poop, but he did not see the collision. But he described the duties he had to attend to when in charge of the aft bridge when leaving port: „Well, I have to see that everything is secured ready for sea after the ship is undocked and see that everything is below that is intended to go below, also to attend to the after telephone and telegraph.“
The end of November saw Olympic back in service to New York, but in March 1912 she was in Belfast again - on the return leg of a roundtrip she had lost a propeller blade (on 24 February). The next scheduled voyage in March had to be postponed for a week due to this repair, but when that voyage commenced, Murdoch had left the ship. He travelled to Belfast once again where he signed on as chief officer on the Titanic. The first Master of the Titanic was Captain Haddock, but he left the vessel a few days after signing on, and on 1 April 1912 Edward John Smith took over. Since Captain Smith arrived only after Captain Haddock had left the ship, it was Murdoch as the highest-ranking officer who was in charge of the ship.
When Titanic's maiden voyage started, there was a setback for Murdoch, however. Wilde was transferred to the Titanic to became chief officer, while Murdoch became 1st officer (a rank familiar to him by now) and Lightoller was demoted to 2nd officer. David Blair, who had joined the ship as 2nd officer in the first place, had to step out completely. – When writing a letter to his youngest sister on April 8th, 1912, Murdoch mentioned a possible demotion, “as much as promised that when Wilde goes I am to go up again ”, however, the letter to his parents written on April 11th, 1912, before the Titanic arrived in Queenstown, does not mention a change in rank.
Titanic’s maiden voyage was the fifth maiden voyage Murdoch served as an officer. It was the fourth maiden voyage in which Murdoch took part in as a senior officer. And it was the third maiden voyage Murdoch took part in with Edward John Smith in command. Apart from that, it is also remarkable that no other nautical officer of the White Star Line had served as senior officer on the respective company’s flagship from January 1905 until April 1912.
When Titanic left Southampton 10 April 1912, she sailed into history. During Murdoch's evening watch on 14 April 1912 she struck an iceberg and sank on 15 April 1912 2:20 am ship's time.
When the Titanic was evacuated, Murdoch was in charge of the boats on the starboard side. He followed the rule “Women and children first”, but when there was still space in the boat, men were allowed to fill it up.
Murdoch died in the sinking, his body was never recovered.
The British Titanic Inquiry concluded that Murdoch was not to blame for the disaster.
His estate was valued at £1141 9s 4d.
In Dalbeattie, a memorial plaque was erected at the Town Hall and at Dalbeattie High School the Murdoch Memorial Prize was initiated and is competed for annually until today.
Murdoch's name is mentioned on the family gravestone at Dalbeattie Cemetery.
Ada, his widow returned to New Zealand in 1913. After the Titanic disaster, a fund had been raised to support those who had been dependant on one of the victims. This fund also supported Mrs. Murdoch; payments only ceased in 1929.
Ada Florence Murdoch died in a nursing home in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 21 April 1941. She was 67 years of age. Her final resting place is in the family grave of her parents where her unmarried sisters are also buried.