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Was Murdoch Drunk?

Robert Hichens

  • Name: Robert Hichens
    Birth Date: August 16, 1882
    Death: September 23, 1940
    Birth place: Newlyn, Cornwall, United Kingdom
    Death: Aberdeen, Scotland

    Born September 16, 1882 in St. Peter's Square, Cornwall, England. Robert Hichens was the eldest son of a fisherman and worked on ships his entire life.

    On the 23 October 1906 he married Florence Mortimore in Devon; his marriage certificate shows him as a ‘master mariner’. On 6 April 1912 Robert signed up on Titanic as one of six quartermasters. He gave his home address as 43 St James Street, Southampton where he lived with his wife and two children.

    Hichens was at the wheel on April 14, 1912, when a warning came from the lookout that an iceberg had been spotted. He was ordered by First officer Murdoch to turn the wheel 'hard-a-starboard' to avoid the iceberg, but it was not enough to avoid the collision. He was put in charge of lifeboat 6, which departed the sinking ship with only 28 of its 65 seats filled. Hichens conduct aboard the lifeboat would later come under intense scrutiny after female passengers claimed he lay uselessly huddled in blankets, drinking whiskey and refusing to return to the Titanic to rescue others. He refuted all claims.

    During World War I, Hichens served in the Royal Naval Reserve and Labour Corps. In the 1920s, he and his family moved to Torquay, Devon, where his wife ran a guesthouse and he had an unsuccessful boat charter. In 1931, after his wife and children left him, Hichens became a heavy drinker. On December 1, 1933, he attempted to kill the man who sold him the boat for his failed business with the intention of killing himself afterward. He was released from prison in 1937 and died aboard a cargo ship three years later and was buried in Aberdeen, Scotland.

1. Asleep and Drunk

Sally Nilsson with her book: 'Murdoch was out cold from the
wine he had consumed at a celebration for his captain'
(Click image to enlarge)

Sally Nilsson is the great-granddaughter of Quartermaster Robert Hichens who was at the wheel of Titanic at the time of collision and under the command of First Officer Murdoch who was officer of the watch. According to her Amazon biography Nilsson "spent most of her career working in publishing and exhibition management, and until recently, ran her own taxi company in Surrey. She was born in Southampton then moved to Reigate, where she has lived for the past thirty years. Sally lives with her Swedish husband Paul and boys Hugo and Henry." (Amazon)

Nilsson first came to prominence in September 2010 when novelist Louise Patten, Second Officer Lightoller's granddaughter, accused Murdoch and Hichens of making a fatal steering error. She was was interviewed on British television (Channel 4 News) and responded that there “is no way on earth” that Patten's theory is correct. "Ms. Neillson [sic], who is working on her own book about her great-grandfather,'Hard-a-Starboard,' due to be published in 2012, claims to have new theories of her own to be divulged later, and said, 'Hichins [sic] had 10 years experience, seven of those as a quartermaster. He sailed the Titanic for four days before the accident, during which he did shifts of four hours on, four hours off. He would have steered the vessel during these times, so been familiar with the systems. He knew ships. These were experienced men, a very experienced crew. I completely disagree with this theory.' (Maritime Matters, Thursday, September 23, 2010 news source). (for more information on the steering error allegations see the article here)

Nilsson being interviewed on the BBC.

A year later, on 1 September 2011 she published her book now entitled The Man Who Sank Titanic: The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hichens and those "new theories of her own to be divulged later" were finally revealed. According to a Daily Express review "Nilsson seeks to reveal Hichens' true character and shines a light on a new conspiracy theory." (Daily Express, Friday April 13, 2012, book review) Nilsson explained in an interview that Robert Hichens has "been portrayed as the villain and the coward....I really believe I've been able to tell the truth in this book. I only have one person to answer to, and that's Robert Hichens... People are going to be absolutely shocked by what they read – it blows the story out of the water completely. I'm clearing his name... I believe the crew were not where they should have been and doing their duty. If they had, they would have seen the massive ice field they were heading towards." (Surrey Mirror, Friday September 23, 2011 news article)

This "truth" that "blows the story out of the water completely" and clears Hichens name turned out to involve more than simply "the crew were not where they should have been and doing their duty" -it is an accusation that First Officer was asleep and drunk at the rear of the pilot house.

Nilsson: Murdoch's behaviour a
'gross dereliction of duty'

Stanley C. Jenkins' review on Encyclopedia Titanica (Wednesday 2 November 2011) calls Nilsson's book a "non-academic approach" in which "readers may wonder how much of the material is factual, and how much is an imaginative reconstruction – the difficulties being compounded by the absence of footnotes" and also that "the book is not without errors, some of them trivial but others of greater significance." Regarding the Murdoch allegations, Jenkins summarises: "We are encouraged to believe that, on the fateful night of 14th April 1912, Robert Hichens was alone at the wheel when urgent warnings came from Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee in the crow's nest that icebergs had been spotted ahead of the ship. There was, however, no response from the officer of the watch, who was asleep and quite possibly drunk ‘at the rear of the pilothouse’. As a result of this gross dereliction of duty, the vital order ‘hard-a-starboard’ was not given in sufficient time, the ship struck the iceberg, and over 1,500 -people died unnecessarily in the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic." (Encyclopedia Titanica book review)

During the introduction to her book we are given the background on how she came across this evidence, after contacting Don Lynch who had made a reference to Hichens in his book Titanic, An Illustrated History:

"In this book Don raised an interesting possibility: that Robert could have been ‘spirited away’ to South Africa by the ‘White Star Line, who owned Titanic, in a bid to keep him silent about what he had witnessed that night at the wheel. I wrote to Don to ask him about what he had written and not only did he reply and go on to help me a great deal, but he sent me the astonishing letter shown overleaf which provided him with this information. The letter was written by a man called Thomas Garvey and was given to Don by Garvey’s daughter, after his death in 1982. Too much time has passed for anyone to know whether Thomas Garvey tried to get this information to other people during his lifetime, and it appears that, to date, only three people have seen it." (51.)

Nilsson: 'There was no response from the officer of the
watch, who was asleep and quite possibly drunk at the
rear of the pilothouse.'

Stanley C. Jenkins explains that "it is claimed that Hichens was ‘spirited away’ to South Africa after the Titanic disaster in an attempt to keep him silent about what he had witnessed while on duty as quartermaster at the time of the sinking - the source for this story purportedly being a man named Henry Blum, a quartermaster on a British vessel that docked in Cape Town in 1914. According to Blum, the ‘harbour master’ who came out to meet his ship was Robert Hichens (although research has shown that he could never have held such a senior position). The story was told to a man called Thomas Garvey who, in turn, wrote a letter which was eventually acquired by Don Lynch." (Encyclopedia Titanica book review)

The most relevant part of the Garvey letter reads (the full version can be read in the enlarged image below):

"‘While serving as quartermaster on a British ship, they called at Capetown in 1914. The Harbormaster came aboard and after pledging Henry to secrecy for 10 years, related the following account saying he wanted to tell someone to relieve his conscience. He had been, he said, the quartermaster on the Titanic doing his 2 hour trick at the wheel the night of the disaster. He heard the Look-out in the crows nest call out, "Iceberg dead ahead". Seconds later the Bow Look-out called out "Iceberg dead ahead'. The First Officer was lying on the lounge at the rear of the pilot house. The Quartermaster said he then shouted the warning in the First Officer's ear but could not awaken him. He then returned to the wheel and held her steady on her course as he should’. When the survivors were rounded up he was placed under house arrest and spirited away to Capetown. He was given a life long job with good pay for as long as he remained silent’." (51.)

The Garvey letter in full.
Image: Don Lynch/Sally Nilsson
(Click image to enlarge)

As Jenkins notes, "While acknowledging that the Garvey letter is a dubious source, Sally Nilsson has chosen to use it as the primary source of evidence for her version of the chain of events that led to the sinking." There does not appear to be any supporting evidence. Nilsson's analysis of the letter is that the finger points directly at Murdoch, without ever doubting the accuracy of the letter. She writes:

‘If the first officer, William Murdoch, had been at his post, on watch and meticulously scanning the horizon for the known dangers ahead, Titanic would perhaps not have steamed into an iceberg.....According to the Thomas Garvey letter, Robert had shouted in Murdoch's ear but couldn't wake him - why? Because Murdoch was out cold from the wine he had consumed at a celebration for his captain? It had been freezing on the outer bridge, maybe he had just sat down out of the cold for a minute and with the heaters fired up, he had fallen asleep."(Encyclopedia Titanica book review)

Nilsson at Hichens' grave in Aberdeen:
'If Murdoch had been at his post Titanic
would not have steamed into an iceberg'

In discussing her theory on the Titanic-Titanic message board Nilsson describes the possibility that an officer is intoxicated as "horrible and almost beyond belief " but also argues that it was possible since the maiden voyage was "exceptional circumstances" and "the temptation 'was' there." She also argues that since the officers were irresponsible in other vital matters -such as speed and an alleged lack of lookouts- "then they could have picked up a glass. If one of those men happened to be the first officer and he 'had' made such a catastrophic error of judgement then perhaps it would be not so much of a surprise for it to be he who should take his own life hours later." (Wed Feb 22, 2012 7:59 am Message Board)