Robert Hichens (RMS Titanic)
16 September 1882|
Newlyn, Cornwall, England
|Died||23 September 1940
English Trader, (off coast) of
|Cause of death||Heart Failure|
|Resting place||Trinity Cemetery, Scotland|
|Known for||Crew Member of the RMS Titanic|
|Home town||Aberdeen, Scotland|
Robert Hichens (16 September 1882 – 23 September 1940) was a British sailor who was part of the deck crew on board the RMS Titanic when she sank on her maiden voyage on 15 April 1912. He was one of six quartermasters on board the vessel and was at the ship's wheel when the Titanic struck the iceberg.
Hichens gained notability after the disaster because of his conduct in Lifeboat No. 6, of which he was in command. Passengers accused him of refusing to go back to rescue people from the water after the ship sank, that he called the people in the water "stiffs", and that he constantly criticized those at the oars while he was manning the rudder. Hichens was later to testify at the US Inquiry that he had never used the words "stiffs" and that he had other words to describe bodies. He would also testify to have been given direct orders by second mate Charles Lightoller and Captain Edward Smith to row to where a light could be seen (a steamer they thought) on the port bow, drop off the passengers and return. Later it was alleged that he complained that the lifeboat was going to drift for days before any rescue came. When the RMS Carpathia came to rescue Titanic's survivors he said that the ship was not there to rescue them, but to pick up the bodies of the dead. By this time the other people in the lifeboat had had enough of Hichens, especially Denver millionaire Margaret "Molly" Brown. Although Hichens protested, Margaret Brown told others to start rowing to keep warm. After a last attempt by Hichens to keep control of the lifeboat, Brown threatened to throw him overboard. These events would later end up being depicted in the Broadway musical and film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. During the US inquiry into the disaster, Hichens denied the accounts by the passengers and crew in lifeboat 6. He had been initially concerned about the suction from the Titanic and later by the fact that being a mile away from the wreck, with no compass and in complete darkness, they had no way of returning to the stricken vessel.
On 23 September 1940 Hichens died of heart failure aboard the English Trader which was moored off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is buried in Section 10, Lair 244 of Trinity Cemetery, Aberdeen, Scotland.
Depicted in fiction
Hichens's conduct was featured in the 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, in which he was played by Paul Brightwell. He was depicted as a tall thin man with a cockney accent, when in fact he was 5' 6", had a stocky build and spoke with a pronounced Cornish accent. He was also depicted saying "shut that hole in your face" to Molly Brown, but in fact those words were spoken by a steward in lifeboat 8.
Hichens's conduct was also depicted in the 1996 miniseries Titanic, in which he was played by Martin Evans. Hichens is shown telling the survivors in his lifeboat to "pipe down" when they get excited about spotting a flare from a ship on the horizon. He strongly protests when Molly Brown starts encouraging the other women to row towards the light, and she threatens to throw Hichens overboard. This depiction is more accurate than in the 1997 blockbuster.
Hichens's negative attitude was further depicted in Diane Hoh's 1998 romance novel Titanic: The Long Night, which recounts his conduct as well as that of Molly Brown, from the viewpoint of Elizabeth Farr, a fictional lifeboat passenger. Molly Brown urged lifeboat passengers to start rowing to keep warm, and Hichens protested, declaring that he was commanding the lifeboat, and he made a move to stop her. "I will throw you overboard if you interfere" she told him in this account.
In September 2010, Hichens's name was brought back into the limelight by Louise Patten, granddaughter of the most senior officer to have survived the Titanic disaster, second officer Charles Lightoller. In press interviews leading up to the publication of her latest novel, Good as Gold (into which she has worked the story of the catastrophe), Patten reports that a "straightforward" steering error by Hichens, brought about by his misunderstanding of a tiller order, caused the Titanic to hit an iceberg in 1912. Patten's allegation that Hichens caused the disaster by turning the ship's wheel the wrong way is not supported by testimony at both the British and U.S. enquiries, which established that the second watch officer, Sixth Officer James Moody, was stationed behind Hichens, supervising his actions, and he had confirmed to First Officer William Murdoch that the order had been carried out correctly.
The claim was also disputed by Hichens's great granddaughter on Channel 4 News. Sally Nilsson explained that Hichens was a well trained Quartermaster with years of experience steering large vessels. He had been responsible on his watch for steering the Titanic for four days before the collision and would not have made such a glaring error. As to the steering orders, in 1912 they were as follows: There was only one way of giving steering orders. The order was always given with reference to the tiller. To go to port the Officer ordered starboard. The Quartermaster turned the wheel to port, tiller went to starboard and the ship turned to port. This was a hangover from the old days when ships were steered with tillers, steering oars etc. The change in steering orders did not occur until the 1930s. Sally Nilsson's biography on the life of Robert Hichens was published in 2011.
Hichens also appears in the play Iceberg - Right Ahead! by Chris Burgess which debuted on the 22nd March 2012 at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. In this production he was played by Liam Mulvey.
- Spignesi, Stephen J (2011). "Surviving the Sinking of the Titanic". The Titanic for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. p. 113. ISBN 978-1-118-17766-2. "He died of heart failure in 1940 aboard the English Trader off the Coast of Aberdeen, Scotland at the age of 58. It was thought he was buried at sea until his grave was discovered in Aberdeen, Scotland in 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17551053."
- Mike Collett-White (reporter), Paul Casciato (editor) (22 September 2010). "Titanic sunk by steering mistake, author says". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 25 September 2010.
- "Family's Titanic secret revealed". BBC News Northern Ireland. 22 September 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010.
- Maltin, Tim; Aston, Eloise (2010). 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic...But Didn't London: Beautiful Books. ISBN 1-905636-68-7, page 89
- "Testimony of Robert Hichens (Quartermaster, SS Titanic)". British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
- United States Senate Enquiry: Testimony of Alfred Olliver
- Nillsson, Sally (2011). The Man Who Sank Titanic: The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hichens. Stroud, England: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-6071-0.