Charles Lightoller

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Charles Herbert Lightoller
Born March 30, 1874(1874-03-30)
Chorley, Lancashire
Died December 8, 1952 (aged 78)
Richmond, London, England

Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller DSC & Bar, RD, RNR (March 30, 1874 – December 8, 1952) was the second mate (second officer) on board the Titanic, and the most senior officer to survive the disaster. Lightoller was decorated for gallantry as a naval officer in World War I and later, in retirement, further distinguished himself in World War II by providing and sailing one of the "little ships" during the perilous Dunkirk evacuation.

Early maritime career

Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire, on 30 March 1874. His mother, Sarah Lightoller, died shortly after giving birth to him. He was born into a cotton family who owned the Lightoller mill in Chorley. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand. Not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, at the age of 13 young Charles began a four-year seafaring apprenticeship on board the Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill. During a storm in the South Atlantic, the ship was forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro—in the midst of a small pox epidemic and revolution—where repairs were made. Another storm on 13 November 1889 in the Indian Ocean caused the ship to run aground on an uninhabited, four- and-a-half-square-mile island now called Île Saint-Paul. They were rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide, Australia. Lightoller joined the crew of the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn for his return to England.

Charles returned to the Primrose Hill for his third voyage. They arrived in Calcutta, India, where he passed his second mate's certificate. The cargo of coal caught fire while he was serving as third mate on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire and saving the ship, Lightoller was promoted to second mate.

In 1895, at the age of 21 and a veteran of the dangers at sea, he obtained his mate’s ticket and left sailing ships for steamships. After three years of service in Elder Dempster's African Royal Mail Service on the West African coast, he nearly died from a heavy bout of malaria.

Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898, abandoning the sea, to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Failing at this endeavour, he then became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. He became a hobo in order to return home, riding the rails back across Canada. He worked as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat for his passage back to England. In 1899, he arrived home penniless. He obtained his master's certificate and joined Greenshields and Cowie for whom he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as third mate of the Knight Companion. In January of the following year (1900), he began his career with the White Star Line as fourth officer of the Medic.

Fort Denison incident

Whilst on the Medic, on a voyage from Britain to South Africa and Australia, Lightoller was reprimanded for a prank he and some shipmates played on the citizens of Sydney at Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour. In 1900 the Boer War was raging in full fury in distant South Africa where Australian troops fought alongside British, the first war the newly federated country had taken part in. As a result passions were high when the White Star Line's Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. Spending time ashore with shipmates the young sailor was amazed by the depth of concern expressed by locals concerning the South African conflict, so he decided to have some fun at their expense. In the early hours of the morning Lightoller, accompanied by four midshipmen, quietly rowed in pre-dawn darkness to the fortress and climbed its tower. They hoisted a makeshift Boer flag from its lightning conductor before loading a cannon with 14 pounds of blasting powder, added white cotton waste, and poured in some fine-grain powder before lighting a 50-foot fuse and quickly making their escape back to the Medic to watch the spectacle from its decks.

Lightoller's plan was to fool locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney and had captured Fort Denison. When the heavy gun went off, the resounding bang blew out windows and woke people living around the harbour who leapt from beds to windows to see what was happening, finding a Boer flag fluttering in the dawn breeze and panicking. Unfortunately for Lightoller, passengers on the Medic had seen him and his party sneaking off the ship and back on board prior to the incident, as had night-watch sailors aboard other vessels anchored in the vicinity. Police and port authorities were soon on deck questioning the crew. Sydney at the turn of the century was a conservative city and its citizenry was extremely hostile to the prank carried out by the visiting sailors.

The White Star Line was forced to pay damages and apologize to the city as the local press bayed for the blood of those responsible. Officers and crew of the Medic thought Lightoller's career was over, that he would be dismissed, but the fact that he took the blame and would not divulge the names of others who had taken part in the prank went in his favour. His superiors also tacitly appreciated the humour in his escapade—he was reprimanded and passed over for promotion before the Medic quietly left Sydney Harbour and the controversy behind it.

He later joined the Majestic under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith in the Atlantic. From there, he was promoted to third officer on the Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line. He moved back to the Majestic as first mate and then back to the Oceanic as its first mate.


Two weeks before her fateful maiden voyage, Charles boarded the Titanic in Belfast and acted as first officer for the sea trials. Captain Edward J. Smith gave Henry Wilde, of the Olympic, the post of chief officer, demoting the original appointee William McMaster Murdoch to first officer and Lightoller to second officer. The original second officer, David Blair, was excluded from the voyage altogether, while the ship's roster of junior officers remained unchanged. There were no field glasses on board and Lightoller promised to purchase them when the Titanic got to New York.

On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch prior to the ship's collision with an iceberg before being relieved by Murdoch. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision occur. Wearing only his pyjamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to see what had happened but after seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. Figuring it would be better to remain where other officers knew where to find him if they needed him, he lay awake in his bunk until fourth officer Boxhall summoned him to the bridge. He pulled on trousers and a navy-blue sweater over his pyjamas and also donned (along with socks and shoes) his officer's overcoat and hat. Once the fate of the ship became clear, second officer Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats. Lightoller was notably stricter than some of the other officers in observing the rule of "women and children first", interpreting it almost to the point of "women and children only". Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the Titanic. In this connection, his last action was an attempt to launch Collapsible B, a smaller Englehardt lifeboat with canvas sides that was stowed atop the officers' quarters on the hurricane deck, on the port side. As the ship sank, seawater washed over the entire bow, producing a large wave that rolled aft along the boat deck. Seeing crowds of people run away from the rising water and the collapsible boat washing away upside down, Lightoller decided he could do no more, and dived into the water.

Returning to the surface, he spotted the ship's crow's nest, now level with the water, and started to swim towards it as a place of safety before remembering that it was safer to stay clear of the foundering vessel. Then Lightoller was sucked under as water flooded down one of the forward ventilators. He was pinned there against the grating for a few seconds. Luckily, a blast of hot air from the depths of the ship erupted out of the ventilator and blew him to the surface. Following this, he saw Collapsible B floating upside down with several swimmers hanging on to it. He swam to it and held himself to it by a rope at the front. Then one of the Titanic's massive funnels broke free and hit the water, washing the collapsible further away from the sinking ship. Second officer Lightoller took charge, calming and organizing the survivors (numbering around thirty) on the overturned lifeboat. He led them in yelling in unison "Boat ahoy!" but with no success. During the night a swell arose and Lightoller taught the men to shift their weight with the swells to prevent the craft from being swamped. But for this, they would have been thrown into the freezing water again. At his direction, the men kept this up for hours until they were finally rescued by another lifeboat. Second officer Lightoller was the last survivor taken on board the rescue ship Carpathia.

File:Lightoller and Pitman.jpg
Lightoller, right, with third officer Herbert Pitman.

Recommendations at inquiries

As the senior surviving officer, Lightoller was a key witness at both the American and British inquiries. He blamed the accident on the sea that night being the calmest he ever saw in his life; the floating icebergs gave no tell-tale early-warning signs of breaking white water at their base. He deftly defended his employer the White Star Line despite hints of excessive speed, binoculars missing from the crows' nest, and the plain recklessness of travelling through an ice field on a calm night when all other ships in the vicinity thought it wiser to heave-to and wait until morning. Lightoller was also able to help channel public outcry over the incident into positive change, as many of his recommendations for avoiding such accidents in the future were adopted by maritime nations. Basing lifeboat capacity on numbers of passengers and crew instead of ship tonnage; conducting lifeboat drills so passengers know where their lifeboats are and crew know how to operate them; instituting manned 24-hour wireless (radio) communications in all passenger ships; and mandatory transmission of ice warnings to ships were some of his recommendations made at the inquiries and acted on by the Board of Trade, its successor agencies and equivalents in other maritime nations.

First World War

Lightoller returned to duty with White Star Line, serving as a mate in RMS Oceanic. At the outbreak of World War I, as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he was called up for duty with the Royal Navy, first serving as a Lieutenant in Oceanic which had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser, HMS Oceanic. In 1915 he served as the first officer during the trials of another former passenger liner, RMS Campania, which had just been converted into the Navy's first aircraft carrier. In late 1915 he was given his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117. Whilst captain of HMTB 117 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for engaging Zeppelin L31. This action also resulted in him being appointed as captain of HMS Falcon, a C class Torpedo Boat Destoyer. HMS Falcon was sunk on 1st April 1918 after a collision in fog, with the trawler, John Fitzgerald, while both ships were acting as escorts to a convoy in the North Sea. Lightoller was subsequently given command of the River class destroyer HMS Garry and was awarded a bar to the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking, by ramming, the German U-Boat UB110. He eventually finished the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.[1]


After the war, despite loyal service to White Star Line and faithfully defending his employers at Titanic inquiries, Lightoller soon found opportunities for advancement within the line were no longer available. All surviving crewmembers would find that being associated with Titanic was a black mark from which they could not hope to escape. A disillusioned Lightoller resigned shortly thereafter, taking such odd jobs as an innkeeper and a chicken farmer and later property speculation, at which he and his wife had some success. During the early thirties he wrote his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships which he dedicated to his "persistent wife, who made me do it." This book, after a few problems, was quite popular and began to sell well. However, it was pulled from the shelves when the Marconi Company threatened a lawsuit, due to a comment by Lightoller regarding the Titanic disaster, and the role of the Marconi operators. The retired Lightoller did not turn his back on sailing altogether, however, as he eventually purchased his own private motor yacht, which his wife, Sylvia, named Sundowner, an Australian term meaning "wanderer", and which he later used to help rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation. The boat is now preserved by Ramsgate Maritime Museum. After World War II Lightoller managed a small boatyard called Richmond Slipways in London, which built motor launches for the river police.


Charles Lightoller's parents were Frederick James Lightoller and Sarah Jane Widdows. His siblings Richard Ashton and Caroline Mary Lightoller both died of scarlet fever in early childhood. On an Australian run on board the Suevic in 1903, Lightoller met Sylvia Hawley-Wilson on her way home to Sydney after a stay in England [2] On the return voyage, she accompanied Lightoller as his bride. There were five children of the marriage: Roger T., Richard Trevor, Mavis, Clare, and Brian. Their youngest son Brian, an RAF pilot, was killed in action in a bombing raid over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, the very first night of Britain's entry into World War II. His eldest son, Roger, serving in the RN, died in France in the final month of the war. Richard gained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, serving under General Bernard Montgomery's command for the duration of the war; Mavis served in the First Aid Nurse Yeomanry, and Clare in the Political Intelligence Unit. Lightoller was great-uncle of artist Margaret Chapman and directly also related to mosaicist Ed Chapman.


Lightoller died 8 December 1952 aged 78, of heart disease. It is possible that he may have succumbed prematurely to his illness. A life-long pipe smoker and suffering from heart disease, Lightoller was living in London in the midst of that city's Great Smog of 1952 when he died from complications of his illness. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, London, England.

In popular culture

Jonathan Phillips portrays Lightoller in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

Lightoller was portrayed in almost every movie filmed about the Titanic. In the German film, Titanic (1943), he was portrayed by Erich Stelmecke, and in the Hollywood film, Titanic (1953), by Edmund Purdom. He was played by Kenneth More in the British film, A Night to Remember (1958) and then in two made for television movies (S.O.S. Titanic in 1979 and Titanic in 1996) by Malcolm Stoddard and Kevin McNulty. He was also portrayed in Titanic (1997) by Jonathan Phillips and in James Cameron's 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss by Jesse Baker.


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