In light of the recent claims in Louise Patten’s new book, Good as Gold , which we posted about earlier this week, we are very pleased to welcome Tim Maltin, author of 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic…But Didn’t, as guest blogger, to provide his perspective regarding the legendary and apparently, often mythical, ship.
The sinking of the Titanic is one of the best documented disasters in history. In 1912, this catastrophe was the subject of detailed public enquiries on both sides of the Atlantic. During these full hearings, more than 50,000 questions were asked of more than 100 eye-witnesses. All of their answers were recorded, in full, and published generally, as well as kept in libraries up and down the country. And yet what most of us knows about the sinking of the Titanic today is a far cry from what actually happened that night, when 1,500 people froze to death in the North Atlantic.
This is because only a few hardy souls like myself have taken the time to read all of these transcripts. Instead, most people rely for their information on the quicker fixes of newspaper reports and films. The problem here is that both of these media are more concerned with telling a good story than with telling the real story. As a result, almost everything most of us knows about Titanic today is fictional, to the extent that more myths persist about Titanic than truths.
We saw only this week a great example of how quickly the media can create new myths about the Titanic, which become immediately part of our collective consciousness, thus distorting our impressions of the real event. On Wednesday Lady Patten revealed that her grandfather, 2nd Officer Lightoller, who was the most senior surviving officer of the tragedy had confided in Lady Patten’s grandmother a secret that he had never publicly revealed.
This was – according to Lady Patten – that Titanic‘s accident had been largely caused by Quartermaster Hitchens, at Titanic’s wheel, “panicking” and turning to starboard when 1st Officer Murdoch, in charge of the bridge at the time, gave him the order “hard-a-Starboard”!
This story has been gobbled up by a media constantly hungry for Titanic stories…diagrams by science correspondents have even been used to back up Lady Patten’s claims to the effect that Hitchens was trained in rudder orders, whereas the more senior officers were used to giving tiller orders!
Given that most newspaper readers do not know their ports from their starboards, all of this amounts to an intoxicating level of detail…with the perfect provenance of having been handed down from the most senior man who was there at the time.
Thus it passes into Titanic lore and unknowledgeable fathers will tell their children who will do homework projects on the Titanic about this steering error. In fact, only a little knowledge of nautical matters, combined with more detailed knowledge of what actually happened that night, quickly reveals that – despite Lady Patten’s best intentions – her story is utter rubbish, because:
- Ships wheels have always been turned in the direction you wish to turn, like an automobile. This has not changed from the Cutty Sark to today.
- Although Titanic was an American-owned ship, her crew was entirely British, where helm orders were always given in reverse until after WW1 – more than 5 years after Titanic sank – when they were standardised to be the same as the American non-reversed helm orders used today.
- Had Hitchen’s, an experienced Quartermaster, nevertheless made this unaccountable mistake, 6th Officer Moody, standing at his side in the wheelhouse, would undoubtedly have spotted such a basic error immediately, when he confirmed to 1st Officer Murdoch “The wheel is hard over, Sir!”
- We know from 4th Officer Boxhall and Quartermaster Olliver, both of whom got up and walked to the bridge immediately they heard the three bells from the crowsnest warning of an object straight ahead, that between warning and collision was approximately 38 seconds.
- Had it been the 4 minutes Patten claims, Titanic would easily have had time to correct any error…but would not have needed to, as turning either to port or to starboard would have avoided the iceberg at that distance (1.5 miles).
Lady Patten goes on to assert that Titanic sank more rapidly because Titanic‘s owner Bruce Ismay ordered that the ship should carry on steaming after the accident. Similarly, even a cursory look at the Enquiries reveals that Ismay did not arrive on Titanic‘s bridge (direct from his bedroom) until well after Titanic‘s engines had been stopped for the last time.
And so another myth – recently born – is easily extinguished. I have done this for all the myths about the Titanic, so that everyone who is interested may learn the facts from the many fictions. My book is called 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t . I unashamedly commend you to read it, as the truth of what happened the incredible night the Titanic sank is much stranger than any fiction.