Encyclopedia Titanica

Whatever Happened to Big Neck Nichols?

Was Titanic's Quartermaster sent below never to return?


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Whatever Happened to Big Neck Nichols?
Alfred Nichols
Alfred Nichols

Anyone familiar with the story of Titanic, will probably be familiar with the 'accepted' demise of Titanic's boatswain Alfred Nichols. The accepted history tells us that Nichols, along with roughly 6 other crewmen1, perished below decks in an attempt to open one or several of Titanic's gangway door(s), as ordered by 2nd Officer Lightoller.

Lightoller would tell the British inquiry that this order was given while he was working on boat #6.2 Boat 6 is accepted to have been launched around 1:10am3 - this would mean that Lightoller would have ordered Nichols to go below somewhere before this time, as Lightoller said he was working 6, not launching it. But does all the evidence match up?

Before we answer this question let us first look at Nichols himself. According to his Encyclopedia Titanica biography, Nichols went by the nickname 'big neck', due to his large round neck. Along with this, Nichols was Australian, being born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1864.4 These characteristics would have made Nichols easily identifiable to any crew or passengers who knew him.

On top of this, Nichols' last ship before Titanic, was Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic; which again, would, in theory, make him familiar to other crew members that had been transferred from the Olympic to the Titanic.

Gangway Doors
Gangways doors on Titanic photographed by Kate Odell at Queenstown.

With that being said let us look at some evidence that does not tally with the generally accepted story of Nichols' demise.

George Symons
George Symons

The first piece of evidence that we will look at is the testimony of Lookout George Symons. He would testify during the British Inquiry5, in relation to the loading of lifeboat 1:

11781. Was there any person directing operations on the boat deck besides Mr. Murdoch?
– Mr. Murdoch and the boatswain.

11782. Who is the boatswain?
– Nichols.

11783. Has he been saved?
– No, Sir.

It is clear from the testimony that Symons knew who in which he was speaking of. Lifeboat 1 is believed to have been launched at 1:05am.6 This is around the time Lightoller was supposedly telling Nichols to open the gangway doors. It is possible that Nichols helped with boat 1, crossed over to the port side and encountered Lightoller, who then told him to go below, but this is a very narrow time frame.

Could Lightoller have ordered Nichols to go below before the launch of boat 1? The answer is most likely
not, as Symons also recalls Nichols helping at boat 3:

11435. Did you assist in putting passengers in any one of the boats?
– I assisted in putting passengers in No. 5 and No. 3, and also assisted to lower No. 3 with
the boatswain.

11436. Were you acting all this time under the instructions of Mr. Murdoch?
– Under the instructions of Mr. Murdoch and the boatswain.

11437. What is the boatswain's name?
– Nichols.

Boat 3 is accepted to have been launched at 12:55am7, showing us that Nichols most likely made his way from this boat forward to boat 1.

James Johnstone
James Johnstone

The next piece of evidence comes from Saloon Watchman James Johnstone.8

3511. Did you row back at all towards the wreck?
– Well, the boatswain told us to keep a star and keep looking at this star and not to lose it, and keep within the vicinity of it.

3512. Keep within the vicinity of what?
– Of the star, underneath it rather.

Johnstone would be in boat 2. Boat 2 is thought to have been launched at 1:45am.9 This is roughly 45 minutes after Lightoller had ordered Nichols to open the gangway doors. Would Nichols have suggested this navigational tip to Johnstone any earlier than around the time boat 2 was to be launched?

It should be noted that Johnstone, as far as this author has found, is the only one who gives this evidence in regards to boat 2. Fourth Officer Boxhall, who would take charge of this boat, would state nothing of this, though Boxhall, who was busy firing rockets, may not have been present when this occurred, as him being ordered into the boat seems to have been done at the last minute.

The third piece of evidence comes from an article in the Ulster Echo, dated April 30th, 1912.10
Though this article attributes it being from “Mr. H.G. Harvey”, it is clear from reading the article that it is in fact from Leading Fireman Fredrick Barrett. It reads:

Fred Barrett
Fred Barrett

How it came in I don't know, but in it came and Harvey, the engineer, said to me, “Get up on deck.” I was nearly swilled off my feet, but managed to get out, and I reached the deck beneath the boat deck. I knew then that the ship must sink, for the forecastle head was under water, but men were leaning up against the saloon walls smoking cigarettes, and no one seemed alarmed. I dared not say what I believed for fear of causing panic. When I got on deck a lifeboat was hanging from the davits, and the boatswain, who knew me, as I had sailed with him in other ships before, said to me, “You go in this boat and pull an oar.” I took his orders, and got in as she swung from the davits. When they had lowered us I had to cut the ropes, as she was so crowed I could not free her otherwise.

Barrett was saved in boat 13, which was launched at 1:40am11, just before Johnstone in boat 2. During the US inquiry12 Barrett would merely state:

Q. How did you escape?
– I got in lifeboat 13.
Q. Where was it loaded?
– At A deck. It was lowered to A deck. They were very full up when we got in.
Q. Was there an officer there at the time?
– No, sir.

During the British inquiry Barrett would state, in summary, that after the flooding of boiler room 5 he went:

Up the escape into the main alley way.13 I walked aft.14 On the saloon deck I went.15 The one underneath the boat deck.16 I took a walk along the deck. I made my way aft because it was no use going forward.17 I saw some of the stewards, and there were some third class passengers – men and women. No. 13 boat was pretty well filled when I got there.18 It was lowered to the deck below the boat deck.19 All the women were getting up in the boat at the last of it, and the women were there till there was no more. The men stood all in one line when I was getting up there, I saw them standing in one line, as if at attention waiting for an order to get into the boat, against the back of the house.20

When asked if there was an officer there, Barrett would answer, “No.”21 So, it is clear, that according the Barrett, there was no officer present at the launching of boat 13. It is also clear that in none of these testimonies does he mention anything of the boatswain, nor anything of why he entered the boat.

George Beauchamp
George Beauchamp

Fireman George Beauchamp, who was also in boat 13, does state of an officer being present.

700a. (Mr. Raymond Asquith.) And not knowing where to go to, what your boat was, what did you do? Where did you go?
– I went aft on 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, and the order was given by the Officer then, "Lower away the boat, that will do."

701. Which boat was it?
– No. 13.

702. No. 13 on the starboard side?
– Yes.

703. Who was looking after that? Was there an Officer there looking after it?
– On the deck giving orders, yes.

703a. (Mr. Raymond Asquith.) Was there an Officer looking after the loading of that boat?
– Yes.

704. Who was he, do you know?
– No, I could not say who he was.

705. Did he give you any order?
– He said, "That will do in that boat. Who can pull oars?" I said, "I can." He said, "Get into that boat. Lower away. That will do."

706. How long were you there before the order to lower away was given?
– I could not say how long it was.

707. Did you help many people to get into the boat?
– Yes. The order was given, "That will do; that is enough for that boat," and I stepped into the boat and went away with it.

It is clear that Beauchamp was speaking of an officer located on the boat deck and not on A deck where Barrett was. Barrett would also claim to hear orders from an unknown officer on the boat deck:

2156. After you got up to her did any more people get in?
– Yes, there were about three more got in after I got in, and the order was given from the boat deck, "Let no more in that boat; the falls will break."

2157. That order was given from the deck above, I suppose?
– From the deck above.

2158. Are you able to tell us who gave you that order?
– I could not exactly tell you.

2159. But you heard the order given?
– Yes.

2160. When that order was given, "Let no more in that boat," was the boat lowered?
– Only just where the people were
getting in; it was lowered to the deck below the boat deck.

Alexander Littlejohn
Alexander Littlejohn

Crew member Alexander Littlejohn would state in The Daily Telegraph that, “We had a few first-class male passengers in. An officer ordered two of us to get in and help row the boat, and I happened to be one of the fortunate ones...”22 It is important to note that Littlejohn transferred from the Olympic to the Titanic, therefore he should have been familiar with Nichols. However, Littlejohn does not state from where (the boat deck or A deck) or when (at the start of the loading or during the launching) this order took place. Perhaps a clue is in the fact that he mentions 1st class passengers. According to Barrett, when he arrived at boat 13 there were and abundance of 3rd class passengers.23 This is in agreement to testimony by Trimmer George Cavell who would claim of boat 15:

4347. Perhaps you can tell us this - when you were ordered in at the boat deck you and five others, was there nobody in the boat already?
– No.

4348. It was empty?
– Yes.

4349. Then you made the first five to get into it?
– Yes.

4350. Then it was lowered to the A deck and you took in about how many?
– Five.

4351. About five more?
– Yes.

4352. That would make ten?
– Yes.

4353. And then you are lowered to the lower deck, and you take in you think about 60?
– Yes.

4354. That would make about 70?
– Yes.

4363. Were the men passengers, or stewards, or crew, or what?
– They seemed to be third class passengers.

Could Littlejohn's 1st class have gotten in on the boat deck, before the boat was lowered to A deck? If so, than this means that Littlejohn received his orders on the boat deck.

Bathroom Steward Samuel Rule, who also escaped in boat 15, which was launched very shortly (almost simultaneously) after boat 13, would state during the British inquiry:

6492. He was the Officer superintending?
– Yes.

6493. You say he called to the men to get into the boat. Will you tell us as nearly as you can what it was he said?
– He said: "Some of you get into the boat." About six went in and he said: " That will do; no more; lower away to A deck and receive any women and children there are."

6494. "Lower away to A deck"?
– Yes.

6495. Did you then go down to A deck?
– I went along down the stairs to the boat and met her at A deck.

6496. Before she was lowered to A deck had she taken any passengers at all?
– No, there were no passengers there.

6497. When you got to A deck was there an Officer there?
– There was someone in charge; I do not know who it was.

6498. Did you hear him give any orders?
– To get all the women and children into the boat that we could find.

6499. Were there any passengers standing round on A deck at this time at the place where the boat was lowered to?
– Yes, there were some.

6500. Women and children?
– There were four or five women and children; four women and about three children.

Rule's last ship was also the Olympic.24 However, just because Rule states he does not know who was in charge, does not mean Nichols was not present. It could merely be that Nichols was not in eyesight, or maybe he wasn't in charge, or was not taking charge of boat 15.
Rule does make an interesting observation though.

6507. Were there any more?
– No, they sent scouts around and shouted out for any more women and children and waited quite a while, but there were no more women and children to be found.

6508. Then when she got these four women and three children there was plenty of room still in the boat?
– Yes.

6509. Did you try to find any more women and children?
– Yes.

6510. What did you do?
– They sent scouts all round the port side and the starboard side looking for them.

6511. You say you sent scouts; have you any idea how many men went?
– Three or four.

6512. Did you yourself go?
– No, I was on the rail, passing the women and children on board.

6513. Did these men come back who had been out looking for the women and children?
– Yes.

6514. How long after?
– Three or four minutes - four or five minutes.

6515. Three or four or five minutes after they had started to look for the women and children?
– Yes. They went on the port side. There was no one to be seen on the starboard side, the side we were on.

6516. No one at all?
– No, only those who were round the boat.

6550. And then you sent out what you call three or four scouts?
– Yes.

6551. And they came back and said there were no women or children to be found?
– Yes.

6552. Then did men begin to go on board the boat?
– Not until Mr. Murdoch gave the orders from above.

6553. And what order was it he gave?
– He said, "There are no more women and children; fill your boat up and lower away."

6554. (The Attorney-General.) Could you tell whether the women who were on board were first
class or second class or third class passengers?
– I think they were third.

Could Nichols have been one of these 'scouts'? Could he have made his way to the port side in time to give Johnstone his navigational tip?

What can be gathered from the above testimony is that orders seemed to have come from an officer on the boat deck and not an officer on A deck. However, most experts put Moody as being on A deck to help load boats 13 & 15. This is based on Lookout Reginald Lee's testimony:

Reginald Lee
Reginald Lee

2526. Did you get any order about that?
– No, but I did not want to make a jump for it, and I went on to the next boat because there was scarcely anybody in that boat.

2527. You mean there was scarcely anybody in No. 13 boat?
– Yes. Mr. ---- , I cannot tell you what his name is - a tall Officer, about 6 feet in height, fresh complexion - I forget his name; I could not remember his name - he was there attending to passing the passengers into the boats.

2528. Was it Mr. Wilde, the Chief Officer?
– No, He is about the Sixth Officer, or the Fifth Officer.

2529. At any rate, he was a very tall man, according to you?
– Yes, tall and spare. I think he was drowned.

2530. Then what did you do?
– We put some women and children into the boat, and then there were some passengers got in, and I was ordered by him to get in the boat and we lowered away; and then No. 15 very nearly came on top of us.

If Lee is correct in his observations, the description he gives matches that of Moody. This, along with the fact that 5th Officer Lowe, had already left the ship in boat 14, leaves very little room for debate. Whether Moody was there or not, does not mean that Nichols was not present. The only question is, is if Moody was present, and in charge of loading the boats, would Nichols have had the authority to tell Barrett to enter? If Symons' answer to question 11436 is any hint, than the answer would be yes.

With the above statements, a time line for the boatswain can be surmised:

Time Boat Port or Starboard Officer(s) In Charge of Loading25 Eyewitness Event Involving Nichols
12:55:00 AM 3 Starboard Murdoch, Lowe Symons Lowered boat
01:05:00 AM 1 Starboard Murdoch, Lowe Symons Loaded boat
1:05 - 1:10 AM 6 Port Lightoller Lightoller Lightoller orders Nichols to open gangway door(s)
01:40:00 AM 13 Starboard Murdoch, Moody Barrett Orders Barrett into boat on A deck
01:45:00 AM 2 Port Wilde, Smith Johnstone Gives navigational advice

As can be seen from the chart above, there is no mention of Nichols for roughly 30 minutes after being ordered below by Lightoller. Could Nichols have actually gone to carry out the order? There is no evidence that any gangway doors were ever opened, other than in Boxhall's 1962 radio interview.26

How much weight can be given to this later retelling is debatable. Either way, no flooding scenario seems to allow for the death of all 7 men simultaneously, by any gangway door. This is not to say all 7 had to die simultaneously, as some could have survived that event but not surviving the sinking, to tell of their efforts.

Overall, there are at least two accounts of Nichols being seen after Lightoller supposedly sent him to his death. Both of these later sightings place Nichols away from Lightoller, who claims never to have seen him again. Perhaps the accepted history of Nichols' death, just as in the case of Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews, needs to be re-evaluated.

  1. BI 13890
  2. BI 13906
  3. Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined; Bill Wormstedt, Tad Fitch and George Behe, with contributions by Sam Halpern and J. Kent Layton
  4. www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/alfred-nichols.html
  5. All testimonies have been made available by titanicinquiry.org and paperlessarchives.com
  6. Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined
  7. Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined
  8. The British Inquiry would spell his name James Johnson, though according to research, his signature clearly shows his name being spelled Johnstone. More detail can be found on page 70 of the book 'Report into the Loss of the SS Titanic: A centennial Reappraisal' by Sam Halpern & others.
  9. Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined
  10. Page 352: The Mammoth Book of the Titanic; Edited by Geoff Tibballs 2002
  11. Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-examined
  12. Day 18
  13. BI 2113
  14. BI 2114
  15. BI 2115
  16. BI 2117
  17. BI 2143
  18. BI 2118
  19. BI 2160
  20. BI 2187
  21. BI 2190
  22. www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/alexander-james-littlejohn.html
  23. BI 2118
  24. www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/samuel-james-rule.html
  25. Report into the Loss of the SS Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal
  26. Page 416; On A Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic; Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton & Bill Wormstedt, 2012

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2015) Whatever Happened to Big Neck Nichols? (Titanica!, ref: #20146, published 10 July 2015, generated 17th November 2022 11:41:22 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/whatever-happened-to-big-neck-nichols.html