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Second Officer Lightoller

Lightoller's Pre-White Star Line Ships'

  • 2nd Mates Certificate (5/30/92)

    Knight of St Michaels
    (Sailing ship, reg Liverpool, Greenshield, Cowe & Company)
    -Third mate 22/3/93-20/1/94
    -Third mate 12/4/94 - 25/7/94
    -Second mate 25/7/94 - 26/4/95

    (Steam ship, reg London, Elder Dempster Line)
    -Third mate - 31/5/95 - 4/7/95 (1 month, 4 days)

    (Steam ship, reg London, Elder Dempster Line)
    third mate 20/7/95 - 20/8/95
    third mate 20/8/95 - 24/9/95

    1st Mates certificate (10/21/95)

    Stuart Prince
    (Steam ship, reg Newcastle, Prince Line)
    Third mate 19/3/96 - 12/5/96

    Moorish Prince
    (Steam ship, reg Newcastle, Prince Line)
    Third mate 13/6/96 - 1/10/96
    Third mate 9/10/96 - 2/2/97

    (Steam ship, reg London, Elder Dempster Line)
    Second mate 8/5/97 - 1/8/97

    (Steam ship, reg London, Elder Dempster Line)
    Second mate 7/8/97 - 17/10/97
    Second mate 2/11/97 - 9/1/98

    *Ashore* (Canada)

    (reg London, Elder Dempster Line)
    Second mate 24/9/98 -6/12/98
    Second mate 17/12/98 - 26/2/99
    Second mate 10/3/99 - 23/5/99

Second Officer C.H.Lightoller
- Adventures in Africa and Canada

The Elder Dempster Line service
to West Africa.

Herbert Lightoller's first steamship belonged to the Elder Dempster Line, which notably ran the African Royal Mail Service. So in 1895 he found himself, according to his book, aboard the S.S. Niagara under the command of Captain William “Bully” Waters which led to another disaster. He writes that "due to his everlasting bully-ragging I succeeded in drowning three boys and a quarter-master, and incidentally nearly drowning myself.” Lightoller was washed overboard while taking a square-rigged boat ashore, with the quartermaster and three Africans drowning. He barely survived by being washed ashore. He summarised in his book:

“Three boys and a Quartermaster were drowned, and Bully Waters learned the lesson of his life—and earned a dandy dressing down when he got home. Never again did he dare an officer, just to serve his own purpose, and I gained the unsolicited honour of being the only white man to have swum through the surf at Grand Bassam.”(47.)

The only issue with this story is that the SS Niagara does not exist in any records for the Elder Dempster Line. From 1895 to 1898 he served aboard five different ships belonging to the company: Memnon, Lycia, Benin, Biafra and the Jebba. It is most likely the Biafra, as he places it as "some weeks" prior to his decision to change careers (which is listed as "ashore" in his BOT records). In 1896 he took a departure from the Elder Dempster Line and worked aboard two steam ships for the Prince line: the Stuart Prince (Third mate 19/3/96 - 12/5/96) and the Moorish Prince (Third mate 13/6/96 - 1/10/96 and 9/10/96 - 2/2/97).

The SS Benin, aboard which Lightoller served as second mate on the African Mail Service run. It weighed 2,223 gross tons and was 109.13 m in length, 12.11 m in beam, 9.20 m in depth and 7.16 m in draft capable of 9.5 knots.


Then to make matters worse, Lightoller caught malaria on the return journey from his last African Mail service tenure. He writes:

“On the passage home I had a whole-time dose of malaria. This in itself was not so bad, but unfortunately we had a doctor—thorough good scout—who said he believed in allowing patients any amount of latitude to follow their own inclinations. Whether it was because I made a particularly bad patient, I don’t know, but the fact remains that he allowed me to have iced drinks, lie in my pyjamas, and have my boy fan me; take cold baths—in fact, do everything I ought not to have done. The ultimate result of this was my temperature soared to 106.2°. Down the coast, 105° is usually fatal, and on this day in particular, one of the crew passed out at 105°.”(47.)

He survives thanks to other officers who “armed themselves with hot bottles and hot blankets, in which they rolled me like a mummy, using sheer brute force, with the result that they broke the fever on the spot, and I eventually recovered.”


Having nearly lost his life twice on the African run it is perhaps unsurprising that in 1898 he chose to give up the sea for an alternative career in the Canadian goldfields. He explains:

“Some weeks after leaving the Niagara, Bully Waters and malaria, I happened on an advertisement of cheap fares to Vancouver. Here, I thought was the very chance, to get out there twelve months ahead of Dick and Matchett, and learn a bit about gold prospecting... Opinions were somewhat varied, but only to the extent of what particular degree of fool I was! However I was sufficiently pig-headed and self confident to ignore the opinions of people, who certainly knew what was good for me far better than I knew myself—at least, so it has sometimes appeared in the light of later days. But on the whole I have never regretted the decision that took me out to the Canadian North-West, nor one single experience with which the days were filled. I certainly did not make a fortune; in fact, not only made nothing but lost all I had. But I had a grand time.”(47.)

Lightoller was inspired by the Klondike Gold
Rush in Canada 1896-1899. Here, prospectors
ascend the Chilkoot Pass, 1898.

He found a cheap fare to Halifax, Canada, aboard the SS Parisian crossing the Atlantic as a passenger, but arriving after the Klondike Gold Rush was well underway.  Rumours made it clear that the prime areas had already been claimed, so Lightoller decided to take the train only as far as Edmonton, from which he would head west northwest along with another seaman named Bill whom he had met along the way. They teamed up and hatched their plan to get some horses and head off into the mountains, fording streams and searching for their fortunes. It proved to be pure folly… The gold they had found turned out to be iron pyrite – fool’s gold.

Lightoller needed to find the financial means to return to England.  He temporarily became a cow puncher, relying on his skills as a horseman.  The money was good. He writes:

“There were three or four of us cowboys with some thousands of head of cattle to look after. Here again was a new experience. A happy life; a careless life. The stars for your blanket, the prairies for your bed, and your horse still your best friend. Cook what you have with you, when you can and how you can. Plenty to eat, plenty to drink, nothing much to do so long as long as you keep your eyes open, and the cattle well under control.”(47.)

Lightoller then began his trek homeward by hopping on trains. He hid himself away along with his banjo, a sack containing bacon and bread, blankets for warmth, and a hunk of incredibly strong cheese, figuring that was all he needed to get back to Montreal.  Unfortunately, Lightoller made the mistake of trusting one of the men in charge of the water tanks to watch after his sack, and soon afterwards the only item he still had was his banjo.

Lightoller worked aboard the SS Jebba after his return
from Canada, on three voyages. The ship was later
wrecked on the coast of Devon in 1907.

He was subsequently hired to help paint a house. He wrote that “work with a paint brush, either in one hand or the other, was child’s play, and, in any case, I had served in the hardest school in which one can learn painting, and that is a British sailing ship." Three weeks later he received his pay and could now afford to purchase his ticket for the rest of the train journey to Montreal.  There he found a ship willing to hire him on as a cattleman and eventually arrived home later in 1898 penniless.

He was, according to his BOT records, able to secure work back with the Elder Dempster Line, this time aboard the SS Jebba, as second mate, on three voyages starting in September 1898 until May 1899.

Despite this dramatic although economically draining tangent in his life, he refocused on the sea in 1899, applying for his Master's certificate at the age of 25, failing on his first attempt on the 10th of July 1899 on he subject of "navigation" then passing seven days later on the 17th July 1899. He explains:

"Being Second Officer of a Royal Mail and passenger ship for a certain time, qualified me for a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve, also my Master’s Ticket... For one thing I had never lost a minute over my exams, by failing—and it’s not uncommon to fail three or four times for one ticket. I know one chap who went up seven times for his Master’s certificate. Then again, by taking the West Coast run, I got better promotion and my time counted more. Anyhow, I went up, when I got home, and, my luck still holding, passed for Master at twenty-three.(47.)

Lightoller's BOT certificate for Master, in 1899.
(Click image to enlarge)

Lightoller in his Royal Navy Reserve uniform.
(Click image to enlarge)

However the Master's Certificate did not come with immediate rewards, serving only as a third mate on a Greenshields, Cowie & Co cattle steamer called the Knight Companion. Initially it was a “glorious voyage. Out to the West Indies, and round to the Gulf of Mexico, Barbados, Portobello, Vera Cruz, Tampico, Progresso, and all those old historical places with which the West Indies teems.” But then during a storm he lost all the cattle. This resulted in another reexamination of his life, when he concluded:

“I discovered one day that I had arrived at the mature age of twenty-five, and it struck me that it was just about time that I quit this roving and settle down to something really permanent.”(47.)

That decision led him to the White Star Line in 1900.