William McMaster Murdoch was born in Dalbeattie (Scotland) on 28 February 1873. He was the fourth of seven children of Captain Samuel Murdoch and his wife Jeanie. The Murdochs had been a seafaring family for several generations and together with their related families (e. g. Rae, Black, Cumming) they formed one of Britain’s larger families of masters in sail. Of Captain Samuel Murdoch’s sons, however, it was only William who chose the sea for a career.
Dalbeattie (Scotland) – Murdoch’s home town.
In 1888, Murdoch left Dalbeattie High School and signed the indentures. He served his apprenticeship aboard the barque Charles Cotesworth. His father and many other seafaring relatives had started their career at sea as a boy on a ship commanded by a relative. Master of the Charles Cotesworth was Captain James Kitchen and like him none of the other crew members were related to Murdoch thus he had to find – and fight – his own way. Anybody not ready with his fists aboard a sailing ship in those days had a terrible time aboard and was most probably cured from the sea for good – if he completed the first voyage at all.
Charles Cotesworth‘s destination was San Francisco which meant that they had to go round Cape Horn – or Cape Stiff as it was called. On the return leg of the voyage which terminated in Dublin they rounded Cape Horn once again. After that, seafaring family members must have regarded Murdoch as a real sailor because in that family with this strong seafaring tradition only somebody who had rounded Cape Horn from East to West (which was the harder way) was deemed a real sailor.
The Golden Gate still without bridge – San Francisco was Murdoch’s first port of call as a sailor.
The next voyages saw the Charles Cotesworth sailing to Portland/Oregon (1889/90), Valparaiso (1890/91) and Iquique (1891/92). In 1892, Murdoch left the barque and successfully passed the examination for the 2nd mate’s certificate. Only in August 1893, he signed a crew list again – he became 2nd mate on the full-rigger Iquique. Master of this ship was Captain Samuel Murdoch, his father. The Iquique had a few men from the Dalbeattie area amongst her crew, one of them was the 1st mate George Meldrum who had already made his first experiences in deep sea sailing under the command of Captain Samuel Murdoch.
The Iquique sailed from Rotterdam to Frederikstad (Sweden) and from there to Cape Town which was followed by the destinations Newcastle (NSW), Antofagasta and Iquique. The port of discharge was London thus the Iquique – and with her Will Murdoch – had completed a trip around the world. The voyage took roughly 18 months, and it was the first and the last time that Murdoch sailed on a ship which was commanded by his father.
In March 1895 Murdoch passed the examination for the 1st mate’s certificate, and in May 1895 he joined the barque St. Cuthbert as 1st mate. St. Cuthbert was a ship in the fleet of J. & J. Rae who were related to the Murdoch family. St. Cuthbert sailed from Ipswich to Mauritius, and from there to Newport (Wales) via Newcastle (NSW), Callao and Hamburg (Germany).
At the end of the 19th century, ports were like a forest made of masts – this postcard shows a part of the port of Hamburg (Germany)
In September 1896, Murdoch took the examination for the Extra Master’s Certificate and passed in the first attempt. The Extra Master’s Certificate was the highest qualification for a nautical officer at that time. It is known that Edward John Smith (who later became master of the Titanic) and Henry Tingle Wilde (who later became chief officer of the Titanic) both failed in the first attempt – it was “Navigation” which caused problems in their cases.
It has to be pointed out that Murdoch had his Extra Master’s ticket only eight years and two months after signing his indentures which is about the minimum time to obtain this ticket as the examination for each certificate required a certain amount of practical experience.
Only in April 1897 Murdoch signed a crew agreement again – he joined the four-mast barque Lydgate as first mate. She had a gross tonnage of 2534 tons thus being much bigger than the ships he had served on before. The Lydgate sailed from New York to Shanghai, then to Portland/Oregon, afterwards to Tsientin (China), from there to Portland/Oregon again and finally to Antwerp (Belgium) where Murdoch signed off on 2 May 1899. It is said that in 1898 the Lydgate was listed as overdue – unlike many other ships which have not turned up until today the Lydgate finally reached her destination.
It is not known to me whether Murdoch served on any ship between May and July 1899, and I also have no clue beyond doubt why he decided to quit with tradition and join the White Star Line with her steamers. It is fact, however, that Murdoch joined the White Star Line 30 June 1899 and was 4th officer aboard White Star’s steamer Medic when she left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Australia on 3 August 1899. Medic opened the company’s new service to Down Under – and it was the first maiden voyage Murdoch took part in. More were to follow.
White Star’s Medic - this is the first White Star ship on which Murdoch’s presence aboard can be proven.
Medic‘s second voyage saw Murdoch serving as 3rd officer. 3rd and 4th officers aboard White Star Liners were junior officers. These officers had to do watch by watch and when on duty they acted under the orders of the respective senior officer.
The time period June 1900 – June 1901 is scarcely documented. There is one guestbook entry which shows that Murdoch was in Melbourne on 26 March 1901 thus indicating that he might have been 3rd officer aboard Medic still. In June 1901, Murdoch was promoted to 2nd officer of the White Star liner Runic, another ship in the Australian service. Runic departed on her maiden voyage 3 January 1901. This promotion made Murdoch to the lowest ranking senior officer, nevertheless, during his watch he was responsible for the ship when the master was not on the bridge.
White Star’s Runic - it was on this ship that Murdoch served as senior officer for the first time
The voyage that commenced 12 February 1903 from Liverpool must have turned into a voyage to remember for Murdoch. On the return leg from Australia to Europe, a certain Ada Florence Banks was amongst the passengers. She was a New Zealander teacher. How Mr. Murdoch and Miss Banks came in touch is not known to me, but a relationship started that was to affect both their lives.
Miss Banks left Runic at the end of the voyage and Murdoch’s time aboard the ship ended as well. He was transferred to the Arabic and joined her as 2nd mate. Arabic left Liverpool on her maiden voyage 26 June 1903. Her destination was New York which meant that Murdoch had arrived on the so-called Atlantic Run thus serving in the premium service of the company and being in the mainstream. It was a kind of double promotion: Into a higher regarded service by keeping his rank.
White Star’s Arabic – Murdoch was introduced to the Atlantic Run on this liner.
It was during Murdoch’s time on the Arabic that an incident happened which has become legendary by now. As far as I know, this story was first made public in Alain Villiers’ book “Of Ships and Men”. Geoffrey Marcus repeated it in his “The Maiden Voyage”, and it was also mentioned in Lightoller’s biography by Patrick Stenson. Villiers names Captain Edwin Jones as reference. Jones was 3rd officer aboard Arabic for at least two voyages in 1903 thus serving together with Murdoch who ranked as 2nd officer. Jones remembered an (undated) voyage when Murdoch came on duty one evening. Visibility was poor, and in the moment Murdoch and Jones entered the bridge together, the lookout reported a ship ahead. While everybody else still tried to figure the light out, Murdoch reacted at once: He shoved the quartermaster aside and grabbed to the helm himself, keeping the Arabic on course. 1st officer Fox, who still was in charge of the bridge, ordered: “hard-a-port”, but Murdoch did not react. When the 1st officer noticed his mistake and ordered: “Midships the helm! Steady! Steady as she goes!” he was simply confirming Murdoch’s first decision on which he had acted on his own initiative. Murdoch, unperturbed as always, had not moved the wheel an inch thus avoiding a collision with a sailing ship in which a change of course into any direction would have inevitably resulted, according to Captain Jones judgement. Jones seemed to be still very impressed by Murdoch’s action when he (Jones) recalled it to Captain Villiers, and Jones pointed out that Murdoch reacted before he had adjusted his eyes to the light on the bridge and before anybody else had seen the other ship at all. Jones final judgement on Murdoch was: “There never was a better officer. Cool, capable, on his toes always – and smart toes they were.” [Alan Villiers, Of Ships and Men, London, 1962, page 124]
From January 1904 onwards, Murdoch served on the Celtic – according to Lloyd’s Register of Captains he ranked as 2nd officer, however, two ship’s logs list his as 1st officer for the roundtrips 24 June – 17 July and 22 July – 14 August which in my opinion means that Murdoch started as 2nd officer and later was promoted to 1st officer.
Celtic at Liverpool Landing Stage.
Celtic was the first ship of the so-called “Big Four. When she had entered service in 1901 she had been the biggest ship afloat. With a gross tonnage of 21,035 tons she was giant in those days. Celtic was engaged in the Atlantic Run as well thus Murdoch remained within the company’s premium service. Considering this, his promotion to 1st officer by remaining on the ship and in the service was another milestone in his career.
But a set back was to follow – he was transferred to Germanic, kept his rank as 1st officer though and made two voyages on this ship.
White Star’s Germanic was a veteran on the Atlantic when Murdoch served aboard her in 1904.
Germanic had entered service in 1875. In 1902, the White Star Line had become part of the IMM, a large American shipping trust. After buying several companies, the IMM started a restructuring and subsequently ships were exchanged amongst the various labels within the IMM. Germanic was transferred to the American Line and sailed under the new flag from Southampton to New York, which then was a secondary service considered from IMM’s point of view. However, Captain Bartlett, chief officer Beadnell and 2nd officer Boase were, like Murdoch, White Star men on the American Line’s Germanic which makes me believe that this old ship was used to test a new route for the White Star Line without making this test too obvious.
Murdoch was back in the premium service in 1905 when he joined the flag ship of the White Star Line, Oceanic, as 2nd officer. After all I know about White Star’s ranking scheme, the rank of the 2nd officer aboard the company’s flag ship equalled the rank of a 1st officer aboard other ships which means that Murdoch kept his position within the company’s ranking scheme after his time on the Germanic.
White Star’s Oceanic – she was the company’s flag ship from 1899 until 1907.
This can be backed by crew agreements from 1906. A voyage of the Oceanic was cancelled for reasons not known to me and the Cedric sailed instead. A part of Cedric‘s crew remained aboard, a part of Oceanic‘s crew was transferred to Cedric – amongst them the master (John G. Cameron), who replaced Captain Haddock of the Cedric, and Murdoch who served as 1st officer on the Cedric.
Cedric at Liverpool Landing Stage
After two voyages with Cedric, Cameron, Murdoch and others were transferred back to Oceanic – and Murdoch served as 2nd officer again, but it was only for one more voyage. After that, he was promoted to 1st officer on sailing and kept this rank until the beginning of 1907.
A gap exists for the time period January 1907 – May 1907, and this seems to be the perfect place to have a short look at Murdoch’s RNR career. Like many White Star Line officers Murdoch had been commissioned to the RNR. When this happened, I have been unable to find out so far and I do not want to rely on educated guesswork. I can prove that he he was sub-lieutenant RNR in 1905 and Lieutenant RNR in 1909 and the following years. It struck me as interesting that in all crew agreements of ships in the premium service I saw the respective master of the ship held the rank Lieutenant RNR. In my opinion this seems to indicate that an officer who wanted to become master of a White Star ship in the premium service needed the rank Lieutenant RNR.
In May 1907 Murdoch became 1st officer on the brand new Adriatic. Adriatic was the then biggest ship of the company and flag ship. She was the fourth of the “Big Four”. Master was Captain Edward John Smith who had become the most senior captain of the company when John G. Cameron had retired from Oceanic‘s bridge.
Adriatic at Southampton Docks
Adriatic‘s maiden voyage started in Liverpool with the destination New York. Termination was in Southampton from where White Star’s premium service to the USA started from then on. – This maiden voyage was the third one Murdoch took part in, and it was the second time he served as senior officer on a “maiden voyager”.
It seems as if Adriatic had a steadying influence on Murdoch’s life. He remained 1st officer of this ship until May 1911 – only Charles Cotesworth, the ship he served his apprenticeship on, had seen him on her decks for a longer period of time. The crew agreements and ship’s logs show that even the crew seemed to have a kind of backbone as some names are listed for most of the voyages. Perhaps they felt as a kind of “Adriatic family”.
Murdoch stepped out for one round trip in 1907. He married Ada Florence Banks, his acquaintance from Runic, in Southampton on 2 September 1907. They settled in the city.
Ada Florence Murdoch in December 1909
On sailing day 5 April 1911, Captain Edward John Smith left Adriatic and was replaced by Bertram Fox Hayes – I am under the impression that this was one of the first preparations for manning the Olympic; she was due to start on her maiden voyage in June. Murdoch remained on the Adriatic and signed on for the next voyage 3 May 1911 but was replaced on sailing day by C. H. Greame. Murdoch was sent to Belfast to join the Olympic. He met many familiar faces from the Adriatic on the latest addition to the White Star fleet – and he also met Robert Hume from Colvend, the neighbouring village to Dalbeattie. Considering the layout of that area, I think it is safe to assume that Murdoch and Hume had been acquainted in the days of their youth. It was the first time that both served aboard the same ship, and the local newspaper felt it was worth noting that Murdoch was 1st officer and Hume 2nd officer on the Olympic, the biggest ship in the world. It was just a short notice, but nevertheless it was reported.
White Star’s Olympic – the biggest ship afloat in 1911
Olympic‘s maiden voyage was the fourth maiden voyage for Murdoch – and for the third time he was one of the senior officers. If Murdoch had hoped to be promoted to chief officer on Olympic‘s second voyage, his hope was in vain. The first chief officer left alright, but he was replaced by Henry Tingle Wilde. Whether being Olympic‘s chief officer was really something Wilde liked very much is open to debate, because he had already been master of a ship before.
Olympic‘s fourth voyage saw a change in the schedule. The four-weeks-schedule was changed to a three-weeks-one which meant less time in port for the crew. Olympic‘s fifth voyage saw an unexpected incident, however: When leaving Southampton, the Olympic collided with the cruiser Hawke. The damage done to the Olympic was so bad she had to go to Belfast for repairs which meant that the round trip had to be cancelled. Master and crew of the Olympic had an unexpected time to spend ashore. This time was only interrupted by the evidence they had to give at the inquiiry into this collision. In my opinion it is remarkable that some of the main characters in this inquiry were also main characters in the drama and the subsequent inquiry that was to follow in less than a year’s time.
Only end of November saw Olympic back in service to New York, but in March 1912 she was in Belfast again – on the return leg of a roundtrip she had lost a propeller blade. The next scheduled voyage in March had to be postponed for a week due to this repair, but when that voyage commenced, Murdoch had left the ship. He travelled to Belfast once again where he signed on as chief officer on the Titanic. Master of the Titanic was Captain Haddock, but he left the vessel a few days after signing on, and on 1 April 1912 Edward John Smith took over. Since Captain Smith arrived only after Captain Haddock had left the ship, it was Murdoch as highest ranking officer who was in charge of the ship.
When Titanic‘s maiden voyage started, there was set back for Murdoch, however. Wilde was transferred to the Titanic and became chief officer, while Murdoch became 1st officer (a rank by now familiar to him) and Lightoller was demoted to 2nd officer. David Blair, who had joined the ship as 2nd officer in the first place, had to step out completely.
Nevertheless, it was Murdoch’s fifth maiden voyage (and the fourth as senior officer plus the third with Edward John Smith in command and the second of a ship of the Olympic class) and no other nautical officer of the White Star Line had served as senior officer on the flag ship from January 1905 until April 1912. If there was “the senior officer of the flag ship”, then it must have been Murdoch!
The maiden voyage of the Titanic was the fifth maiden voyage Murdoch took part in.
When Titanic left Southampton 10 April 1912, she sailed into history. During Murdoch’s evening watch on 14 April 1912 she struck an iceberg and sank on 15 April 1912 2:20 am ship’s time. When the Titanic was evacuated, Murdoch was in charge of the boats on the starboard side. According to survivors’ evidence, Murdoch loaded the boats which were lowered under his orders with more people than his fellow officers. In my opinion the reason for this “risk taking” is the fact that Murdoch had served on the Olympic thus being familiar with the davits and the boats.
However, there is also boat 1 which is said to be loaded under Murdoch’s order and lowered with only 12 people in it although 40 could have been accommodated. However, it was 5th officer Lowe who stated in front of the British Titanic Inquiry that he had been the one who had given the order to lower away boat 1 with only 12 people in it – according to the rules of seniority, Lowe can only have been in charge when no higher ranking officer was around. Apart from that, the identification as Murdoch being the officer in charge at boat 1 relies on the evidence of the sailors Horswill and Symons. Both had two things in common: They only joined Titanic on sailing day and had never served with Murdoch before, and both had a gentleman visiting them before they gave their evidence. I am under the impression that any Titanic officer unknown to Symons was labelled as “Murdoch” by Symons – which is an indication for Murdoch’s strong personality but does not help matters in the case of boat 1.
Apart from Symons, Horswill and Lowe there is also the evidence of leading stoker Charles Hendrickson who also left Titanic in boat 1. He stated that he did not know the name of the officer who had been in charge of loading and lowering the boat, but according to him this officer also fired distress rockets when not attending to boat 1. The only officer who was in charge of firing distress rockets was 4th officer Boxhall (at least none of the other surviving officers stated that they also fired distress rockets and Boxhall never stated that one of his fellow officers joined him on this task). In my opinion, it had not been Murdoch who had been in charge of the loading and lowering of boat 1. When taking boat 1 off the list of boats Murdoch had been in charge of, the whole list seems to be more in line.
When loading the boats, Murdoch acted on: “Women and children first and if there is still space then men can fill it up.” It is generally accepted that only Murdoch allowed men into the boats, however, I think chief officer Wilde must have acted on the same policy while only 2nd officer Lightoller kept to the strict: “Women and children only!”. Considering that Murdoch and Wilde had been on the Olympic before (Lightoller came from the Oceanic) and considering that the personality of the master has an influence on the crew and the culture aboard the ship (according to the books on seafaring), I arrive at the conclusion that Wilde and Murdoch followed the Olympic culture which seems to have been far more progressive than the one on the Oceanic.
Murdoch did not survive the disaster. He would have been become a very important witness to the subsequent inquiries, instead he became subject to rumours, speculation and accusation.
In Dalbeattie it was decided to officially condole to Murdoch’s parents and wife after the British Titanic Inquiry decided that Murdoch was not to blame for the disaster. A memorial plaque was erected at Dalbeattie Town Hall and at Dalbeattie High School the Murdoch Memorial Prize was invented which is competed for annually until today.
The Murdoch Memorial at Dalbeattie Town Hall.
Dalbeattie Cemetry included the headstone of Captain Samuel Murdoch’s family and Murdoch’s name is mentioned – his body was never recovered.
The Headstone of Captain Samuel Murdoch’s family grave on Dalbeattie Cemetry.
© Susanne Störmer, 2006. Updated: 2012.
Dalbeattie - Collection Susanne Störmer
Golden Gate – Collection Susanne Störmer
Hamburg – Collection Susanne Störmer
Medic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Runic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Arabic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Celtic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Germanic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Oceanic – Collection Susanne Störmerrmer
Cedric – Collection Susanne Störmer
Adriatic – Sammlung Susanne Störmer
Ada Florence Banks – With kind permission of Derek Webley
Olympic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Titanic – Collection Susanne Störmer
Murdoch Memorial – Susanne Störmer
Murdoch Headstone – Susanne Störmer