William McMaster Murdoch

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
William McMaster Murdoch
Picture taken before 1912, and published in accounts of the sinking of the Titanic at the end of 1913
Born (1873-02-28)28 February 1873
Dalbeattie, Scotland
Died 15 April 1912(1912-04-15) (aged 39)
RMS Titanic, Atlantic Ocean
Cause of death Unconfirmed; body never recovered; possibly suicide
Education Dalbeattie High School
Occupation Ship's First Officer
Spouse(s) Ada Florence Murdoch (née Banks) (m. 1907–12)
Parent(s) Samuel Murdoch
Jane Muirhead



William McMaster "Will" Murdoch (28 February 1873 – 15 April 1912) was a Scottish sailor and first officer of the Titanic.

Born from a family of sailors, William Murdoch was an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve; he was employed by the White Star Line in 1900 and quickly rose to the rank of officer. In 1903, his leadership became recognized when he avoided a collision with the Arabic. In April 1912, Murdoch served as First Officer aboard the RMS Titanic. He is notable as the officer in charge on the bridge the night when the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean. He was one of the 1,500 people who died in the disaster.[1]

Murdoch became an iconic Scottish hero, a status that is maintained and reflected by the memorial in his hometown of Dalbeattie. However, debate revolves around the adequacy of instructions given to avoid the iceberg.

In the aftermath of the sinking, a number of eyewitness testimonies arose of a shooting/suicide by an officer during the launching of the last lifeboat. It is possible that Murdoch was that officer. The reported incident has been portrayed in two films about the Titanic. There has been no evidence yet to prove that Murdoch was not the officer seen committing suicide.

Murdoch has become a figure of controversy, with mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death and his actions during the collision with the iceberg.

Life and career[edit]

Murdoch was born in Dalbeattie in Kirkcudbrightshire (now Dumfries and Galloway), Scotland, the fourth son of Captain Samuel Murdoch, a master mariner, and Jane Muirhead, six of whose children survived infancy. They were a long and notable line of Scottish seafarers who sailed the world's oceans as early as the 19th century; his father and grandfather were both sea captains as were four of his grandfather's brothers.

Murdoch was educated first at the old Primary School in High Street, and then at the Dalbeattie High School in Alpine Street until he gained his diploma in 1887. Finishing schooling, he followed in the family seafaring tradition and was apprenticed for five years to William Joyce & Coy, Liverpool, but after four years (and four voyages) he was so competent that he passed his second mate's Certificate on his first attempt.

He served his apprenticeship aboard the Charles Cosworth of Liverpool, trading to the west coast of South America. From May 1895, he was First Mate on the St. Cuthbert, which sank in a hurricane off Uruguay in 1897. Murdoch gained his Extra Master's Certificate at Liverpool in 1896, at age 23. From 1897 to 1899, he was First Officer aboard the J. Joyce & Co. steel four-masted 2,534-ton barque Lydgate, that traded from New York to Shanghai.

Murdoch in his 30s
From left to right: Murdoch, Chief Officer Joseph Evans, Fourth Officer David Alexander and Captain Edward J. Smith, all as seen on the Olympic

From 1900 to 1912, Murdoch gradually progressed from Second Officer to First Officer, serving on a successive number of White Star Line vessels, Medic (1900, along with Charles Lightoller, Titanic's second officer), Runic (1901–1903), Arabic (1903), Celtic (1904), Germanic (1904), Oceanic (1905), Cedric (1906), Adriatic (1907–1911) and Olympic (1911–1912).

In 1903, Murdoch met a 29-year-old New Zealand school teacher named Ada Florence Banks en route to England on either the Runic or the Medic. They began to correspond regularly and on 2 September 1907 they were wed in Southampton at St Deny's Church.

During 1903, Murdoch finally reached the stormy and glamorous North Atlantic run as Second Officer of the new liner Arabic. His cool head, quick thinking and professional judgement averted a disaster when a ship was spotted bearing down on the Arabic out of the darkness. He overrode a command from his superior, Officer Fox, to steer hard-a-port, rushing into the wheelhouse, brushing aside the quartermaster and holding the ship on course. The two ships passed within inches of one another. Any alteration in course would have actually caused a collision.

The final stage of Murdoch's career began in May 1911, when he joined the new RMS Olympic, at 45,000 long tons (46,000 t). Intended to outclass the Cunard ships in luxury and size, it needed the most experienced large-liner crew that the White Star Line could find. Captain Edward J. Smith assembled a crew that included Henry Wilde as Chief Officer, Murdoch as First Officer, and Chief Purser Herbert McElroy. On 14 June 1911 Olympic departed on her maiden voyage to New York, arriving there on the 21st.

The first indications of what was to come occurred on 20 September when the Olympic had her hull badly damaged in a collision with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke. Since Murdoch was at his docking-station at the stern during this collision – a highly responsible position – he found himself giving evidence in the inquiry into an incident that turned into a financial disaster for the White Star Line, as the voyage to New York had to be abandoned and the ship taken to Belfast for repairs, which took a good six weeks. It was thus not until 11 December 1911 that Murdoch rejoined the ship. During the time that he served aboard as First Officer (until some time in March, 1912) there were two further – though lesser – incidents, striking a sunken wreck and having to have a broken propeller replaced, and nearly running aground while leaving Belfast. However, upon reaching Southampton, he learned that he had been appointed as Chief Officer of the new Titanic, the Olympic's sister ship and reputedly the largest and most luxurious one afloat. Lightoller later remarked that "three very contented chaps" headed north to Belfast, for he had been appointed First Officer, and their friend Davy Blair was to be the new second officer. Awaiting them would be an old Adriatic hand, Joseph Groves Boxhall, as Fourth Officer, and others who would be familiar colleagues, including the now aging Edward J. Smith as Captain and on the verge of retirement.


Murdoch, with an "ordinary master's certificate" and a reputation as a "canny and dependable man", had climbed through the ranks of the White Star Line to become one of its foremost senior officers. He was selected to be the Titanic's Chief Officer, with 16 years of maritime experience now behind him.

Murdoch had originally been assigned as the ship's Chief Officer, though when the Titanic's skipper, Edward J. Smith, brought Henry Wilde, his Chief from his previous command, Murdoch was temporarily reduced to First while First Officer Charles Lightoller was in turn reduced to Second. The original Second, David Blair, would sit out the voyage altogether while the rest of the ship's complement of officers remained unchanged.

Titanic's sinking[edit]

Murdoch was on the navigation bridge of the Titanic at the time of the collision with the iceberg.

Murdoch was the officer in charge at the bridge when at approximately 11.40pm on 14 April 1912 a large iceberg directly in the Titanic's path was sighted. Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was at the helm, and Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, who may or may not have been on the bridge during the collision,[2] both stated that Murdoch gave the order "Hard-a-starboard",[3][4][5] a tiller command which would turn the ship to port (left) by moving the tiller to starboard (right).

At the time steering instructions on British ships generally followed the way tillers on sailing vessels are operated, with turns in the opposite direction from the commands. As Walter Lord noted in The Night Lives On, this did not fully change to the "steering wheel" system of commands in the same directions as turns until 1924. It has been alleged that Murdoch's orders were misinterpreted by the helmsman, resulting in a turn the wrong way.[6]

Boxhall also reported that Murdoch set the ship's telegraph to "Full Astern", though his testimony was contradicted by Greaser Frederick Scott and Leading Stoker Frederick Barrett who stated that the stoking indicators went from “Full” to “Stop”.[7] During or right before the collision he may have also given an order (as heard by Quartermaster Alfred Olliver when he walked onto the bridge in the middle of the collision) of "Hard a'port"[8] (moving the tiller all the way to the port (left) side turning the ship to starboard (right)) in what may have been an attempt to swing the remainder (aft section) away from the berg in a common manoeuvre called a "port around"[9] (this could explain his comment to the captain "I intended to port around it"). The fact that such a manoeuvre was executed was supported by other crew members who testified that the stern of the ship never hit the iceberg.[10]

Despite these efforts the ship made its fatal collision at an estimated 37 seconds[11] after the iceberg had been sighted. The starboard side scraped the iceberg, buckling the hull in several places and causing rivets to pop out below the waterline, opening the first five compartments (the forward peak tank, the three forward holds and Boiler Room 6) to the sea.[12]

After the collision, Murdoch was put in charge of the starboard evacuation during which he launched ten lifeboats, containing almost 75% of the total number who survived.[13] He was last seen attempting to launch Collapsible Lifeboat A.[14] He was never seen again after the ship disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean on the morning of 15 April 1912. His body was never recovered. The effect on his family back home was obviously deeply felt, but also work mates and friends felt his loss. He has false stories about him like his alleged dog Rigel.[15]

The memorial to William Murdoch in Dalbeattie.

In Murdoch's home town of Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, there is a memorial to his heroism and a charitable prize has been established in his name. The charitable prize was given a donation by the James Cameron film for its portrayal of him after the residents of Dalbeattie complained.

On April 3 and 4, 2012, the Associated Press announced that the Premier Exhibitions recovered Murdoch's artifacts from the wreck of the Titanic. There was the toiletry kit, a spare White Star Line officer's button, a straight razor, a shoe brush, a smoking pipe, and a pair of long johns.[16][17]

Cause of death[edit]

Within days of the disaster, several crew members and passengers spoke of an officer committing suicide in the ship's final moments; in one example in a letter reprinted in the London Daily Telegraph, Third Class Passenger Eugene Daly wrote that he had seen an unknown officer shoot two men and then himself: "an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in he would shoot him on the spot. I saw the officer shot two men dead because they tried to get into the boat. Afterwards there was another shot, and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him". First class passenger George Rheims also said, "While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing else for him to do, the officer told us, 'Gentlemen, each man for himself. Good bye.' He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head. That's what I call a man!"

The officer was variously reported to be Captain Smith and Chief Officer Wilde.[citation needed] Before long, however, rumour of suicide had a recurring name: Murdoch. Second Officer Charles Lightoller said that he saw Murdoch hard at work attempting to free Collapsible A from the falls on the boat deck when a huge wave washed him overboard into the sea, and that "other reports as to the ending are absolutely false".[citation needed][18][19]

However, it seems that Lightoller may have jumped into the sea and so may have been unaware of Murdoch's fate. It is also possible that Lightoller may have wanted to conceal the suicide, if it occurred, from Murdoch's widow. Later in life, Lightoller is said to have admitted that he "knew someone who committed suicide that night" but never said who.[20][21]

Responsibility for sinking[edit]

The orders that Murdoch gave to avoid the iceberg are debated. According to nearby Quartermaster Alfred Oliver, he immediately ordered the helm "hard to port" to ward off the stern of the iceberg. Hichens and the Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall made no mention of the order. However, since the stern avoided the iceberg, it is likely that the order was given and carried out.[22][23]


In the 1996 miniseries and the 1997 film, Murdoch committed suicide. The latter depicted him accepting (and later refusing) a bribe from Caledon Hockley; and shooting two passengers (Tommy Ryan and an unnamed passenger) in a mob on the deck after he presumes they intend to storm one of the remaining lifeboats. After realizing what he had done, he then salutes Chief Officer Henry Wilde and commits suicide by firing the pistol into his temple, his body crumpling backwards into the sea. When Murdoch's nephew Scott saw the film, he objected to his uncle's portrayal as destroying Murdoch's heroic reputation,[24] and studio executives later flew to Murdoch's hometown to issue an apology for this depiction.[25]


  1. ^ Walter Lord (1955), A Night To Remember, Penguin Books 
  2. ^ "Appendix II: STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver". marconigraph.com. Retrieved 23 August 2016. Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall reported during the Enquiry that upon arriving on the bridge after the fact, he saw both telegraph handles pointing to FULL ASTERN, and heard Murdoch report that the engines had been reversed to Captain Smith. This, in effect, has led historians to believe that Murdoch rang down a 'crash stop.' 
  3. ^ Nathan Robison (12 February 2002). "Hard a-starboard". Encyclopedia Titanica. 
  4. ^ "Titanic Inquiry Project – United States Senate Inquiry". titanicinquiry.org. 
  5. ^ "Testimony of Robert Hichens (Quartermaster, SS Titanic)". Titanic Inquiry Project - United States Senate Inquiry. 
  6. ^ Titanic sunk by steering blunder, new book claims
  7. ^ "STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver". marconigraph.com. 
  8. ^ "STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver". marconigraph.com. 
  9. ^ ""Last Log of the Titanic" -Four Revisionist Theories – a "port around" or S-curve manoeuvre in which "the bow is first turned away from the object, then the helm is shifted (turned the other way) to clear the stern"". Archived from the original on 28 October 2003. Retrieved 12 March 2009. 
  10. ^ "STOP Command / "Porting Around" Maneuver". marconigraph.com. SENATOR BURTON: Do you not think that if the helm had been hard astarboard the bow would have been up against the berg? QUARTERMASTER GEORGE ROWE: It stands to reason it would, sir, if the helm were hard astarboard. 
  11. ^ "titanic-model.com, '''Titanic and the Iceberg''' – By Roy Mengot". Titanic-model.com. 1912-04-14. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  12. ^ "The whole impact had lasted only 10 seconds". Pbs.org. 1912-04-10. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  13. ^ Charles Pellegrino. "William McMaster Murdoch, Titanic hero unstuck in time". 
  14. ^ Winocour 1960, p. 316.
  15. ^ "Hero dog". Titanic-titanic.com. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  16. ^ "Artifacts linked to Murdoch recovered from Titanic wreck". The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch. Retrieved January 28, 2017. 
  17. ^ "AP Exclusive: Titanic Artifacts Link to Officer". YouTube. Retrieved January 28, 2017. 
  18. ^ "Charles Herbert Lightoller- William Murdoch". 
  19. ^ 101 Things You Thought You Knew about the Titanic - But Didn't! at Google Books.co.uk
  20. ^ "Charles Herbert Lightoller- William Murdoch". 
  21. ^ 101 Things You Thought You Knew about the Titanic - But Didn't! at Google Books.co.uk
  22. ^ (Mark Chirnside 2004, p. 155)
  23. ^ (Gérard Piouffre 2009, p. 140)
  24. ^ "Nephew angered by tarnishing of Titanic hero". BBC News. 24 January 1998. Retrieved 19 September 2013. 
  25. ^ "Titanic makers say sorry". BBC News. 15 April 1998. 


  • Bruce Beveridge (2009). Titanic, the ship magnificent. Volume two: interior design & fitting out. The History Press. p. 509. ISBN 9780752446264. 
  • Daniel Allen Butler (2009). The other side of the night: The Carpathia, the Californian and the night the Titanic was lost. Casemate Publishers. p. 254. ISBN 1935149024. 
  • Mark Chirnside (2004). The Olympic-class ships : Olympic, Titanic, Britannic. Tempus. p. 349. ISBN 0-7524-2868-3. 
  • Gérard Piouffre (2009). Le « Titanic » ne répond plus (in French). Larousse. p. 317. ISBN 9782035841964. 

External links[edit]