In Good as Gold, a new book by Louise Patten, the granddaughter of the most senior surviving officer on the Titanic, reveals a long hidden family secret. She claims that an error in steering on the bridge of the Titanic led to the collision with the iceberg. According to Ms. Patten, the ship had plenty of time to miss the iceberg, but the helmsman turned wheel the wrong way in a moment of confusion. She also says a subsequent order to steam slow ahead rather than stopping the ship, given by the owner Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, may have dramatically accelerated the flooding and markedly reduced the time the Titanic remained afloat.
According to Ms. Patten, her grandfather, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, lied in the official inquiry of the sinking and did not report either the error in steering or the order by Ismay in the belief that it would drive the company out business and his friends and colleagues would lose their jobs. She says that what really happened in the few moments before and just after the Titanic struck the iceberg has remained a family secret for the last ninety eight years.
Oddly, rather than a memoir or non-fiction account of the sinking, these claims appear in Ms. Patten’s latest novel, Good as Gold. It is a fascinating revision of accepted history, however it is told. Nevertheless, with no disrespect intended to Ms Patten’s family’s connection to the Titanic tragedy, as part of the plot in a thriller, one wonders where the fiction begins and ends.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Patten was let in on a secret by her beloved grandmother, which, if revealed, she was warned, would result in two things. The first was awful – it would destroy the good name of her dead grandfather, Charles Lightoller, awarded the DSC with Bar in the First World War, and a hero again for his part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. But the second would change history, overturning the authorised version of one of the world’s greatest disasters, the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1517 lives in April 1912.
‘My grandfather was the Second Officer on the Titanic,’ Patten explains. ‘He was in his cabin when it struck the iceberg. Afterwards, he refused a direct order to go in a lifeboat, but by a fluke he was saved.’
Astonishingly, he jumped into the ocean as the boat sank, was being sucked down into the depths – but was then carried back to the surface by the force of an explosion beneath the waves and was rescued by a passing lifeboat.
As the senior surviving officer, he was asked at both official inquiries into the sinking [by the US Senate and the British Board of Trade] whether he had had any conversation after the collision with the Captain or the First Officer, William Murdoch, who had been in charge at the time. In other words, did he know exactly what had happened? And both times he said no. But he was lying.’
What then did he know that he wasn’t telling? ‘After the collision,’ Patten goes on, ‘my grandfather went down with the Captain and Murdoch to Murdoch’s cabin to get the firearms in case there were riots when loading the lifeboats. That is when they told him what had happened. Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, had panicked and turned it the wrong way.’ …
‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders’ which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’
‘Titanic had hit the iceberg at her most vulnerable point,’ explains Patten, ‘but she could probably, my grandfather estimated, have gone on floating for a long time. But Ismay went up on the bridge and didn’t want his massive investment to sit in the middle of the Atlantic either sinking slowly, or being tugged in to port. Not great publicity! So he told the Captain to go Slow Ahead. Titanic was meant to be unsinkable.’ …
‘If Titanic had stood still,’ she demonstrates, ‘she would have survived at least until the rescue ship came and no one need have died, but when they drove her ‘Slow Ahead’, the pressure of the sea coming through her damaged hull forced the water over the bulkheads and flooded sequentially one watertight compartment after another – and that was why she sank so fast.’ …
This is the sort of tale that most writers would have tackled years ago, and treated as a non-fiction, best of all a memoir. So why work it in to a novel? ‘Because I write thrillers,’ Patten replies crisply, and makes me think what an effective chairman of the board she must be. ‘I started planning a thriller about a family with secrets, about a private banking dynasty involved with shipping, and then I suddenly thought I have this massive family secret myself and it is about shipping.’
Thanks to Dave Shirlaw on the Marine History list for passing the article along.