As of today a new story is making, literally, the rounds across the whole of the globe, of claims made by the granddaughter of the Titanic’s Second Officer, that her grandfather concealed critical information about the sinking of the Titanic to protect his employer and his fellow crew members of the Titanic from blame. Apparently his family concealed his secret till now to protect the reputation of former Titanic Second Officer Charles Lightoller from shame or harm, doubly so because Mr. Lightoller was a war hero. However his granddaughter, Ms. Louise Patten, is writing a new book and includes this information in her book.
In summary Ms. Patten testifies that her grandfather, Second Officer Lightoller, told his family members that the truth was the officer at the helm of the Titanic panicked and steered the ship the wrong way, one Robert Hitchins. Furthermore this error was due to the fact that “sailing ships had one sort of steering system while steamships used another” and one had to spin the wheel in opposite directions on the different types of ships to gain the same effect. In addition Ms. Patten testifies that her grandfather was present at a final meeting of the ships senior officers in which it was revealed/discussed that the Titanic had kept sailing forwards after the collision at the request of the White Star Line’s owner, Mr. Bruce Ismay, which lead to the Titanic sinking faster then it would have if it had remained still. Ms. Patten further claims had the Titanic remained still after its impact with the iceberg, it would have remained afloat till the rescue ships arrived.
What I find particularly frustrating about this tidbit now flying around the globe is how no one writing about it has taken the time for reasoned commentary. First and foremost is there any evidence of Mr. Lightoller’s change in testimony, perhaps another family member who recalls these statements, a written note to family, a final confession? Furthermore does Ms. Patten offer an explanation for why no other witnesses who gave testimony to the boards of inquiry on either side of the Atlantic mentioned either of these chains of events? In particular I find the first the claim that Mr. Hitchen’s panicked and caused the Titanic to strike an iceberg by steering the ship incorrectly due, possibly, to his unfamiliarity with how steam ships steered incredible. Mr. Hichen’s (his actual name, apparently though official records spell it both ways) had served on many ships prior to the Titanic, including steamships, and from his testimony Mr. Hichen’s is highly firm that he steered the ship correctly according to orders. Now, since no one else on the bridge at the time survived and I can assume safely few would boldly admit a major panic induced error that lead to the death of over a thousand people, Mr. Hichen’s testimony must be carefully considered and weighed. But any error in steering would have been due solely to panic and not some mythical “unfamiliarity” with how steamships handled.
More critically though, and far more annoying, is the additional comment about how the Titanic was kept under steam after the impact at the request of Mr. Ismay, according to Ms. Patten. This ignores completely the testimony of several other people, including critically Mr. Frederick Barrett, Mr. George Beauchamp, and Mr. Thomas Ranger, the first two men being on duty in the engine rooms the night of the collision and the last being in the electrical repair shop above the engines. The first two testified that right after the impact of the ship they personally witnessed the order transmitted to the ships engine rooms to stop the ship, an order both testified was executed immediately. Mr. Ranger testified from his position above the engine rooms he saw the ships engines halted within moments of the collision. Ms. Patten offers no explanation for how her grandfather convinced these men to lie under oath as well. Furthermore this also ignores the testimony of countless other individuals throughout the ship who testified to hearing the roar of steam being released from the boilers through the ships funnels. The Titanic was a steam powered vessel, if the steam from its boilers was being vented right after the impact that would preclude the ship from having the power to proceed.
This is an example of poor historical work on the part of journalists, doubly irritating because every resource I described here is online, easily accessible to the general public, and can be found in a matter of thirty or so minutes of light reading. I have a mild interest in Titanic lore personally and the skills of a semi-professional historian at my disposal but this only took a few moments of reading online resources to make the first revelation of Ms. Patten questionable and the second requiring a vast conspiracy of an abundant number of witnesses.
History, to some degree, requires the same diligence as any hard science, the checking of multiple sources of information, cross checking sources, and weighing various sources of evidence for validity before reporting a verdict. These journalists did none of that and it shows in their slapdash reporting style and quick urge to jump to foolish conclusions.