On this day in history : 28th February 1873 – The birth of William McMaster Murdoch – the officer in charge of RMS Titanic at the time it struck an iceberg – and who’s death remains a mystery….
Murdoch was born at ‘Sunnyside’ in Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland into a seafaring family…. His father was Captain Samuel Murdoch, a master mariner and his mother was Jeannie Muirhead….
After attending school in Dalbeattie Murdoch became an apprentice mariner with Liverpool’s William Joyce & Co – onboard the ‘Charles Cosworth’….
He went on to serve as First Mate on the ‘Saint Cuthbert’ from May 1895 – but it was later to sink off of Uruguay during a hurricane in 1897…. Between the remainder of 1887 until the end of 1889 he served as First Officer on board ships belonging to Joyce & Co, trading between New York and Shanghai….
Murdoch, who had a reputation for being shrewd and a man of good judgement, began working for the White Star Line in 1900…. He served on several of the company’s ships, including the cross Atlantic steamers ‘Arabic’, ‘Adriatic’ and ‘Oceanic’…. It was on an Atlantic crossing in 1903 that he was to meet his future wife – Ada Florence Banks – a 29-year-old school teacher from New Zealand…. They were married in Southampton in the September of 1907….
In May 1911 Murdoch was made First Officer on Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic….and then posted to RMS Titanic itself for the maiden voyage in April 1912….
First Officer Murdoch was on the bridge as the officer in charge on the 14th of April, when an iceberg was seen at 11.39pm…. Murdoch was reported as giving the order “Hard astarboard” (meaning rudder hard-a-port) – whilst also ordering the engines full astern…. This was the last manoeuvre the Titanic was to make – but it was too late….37 seconds after the sighting of the iceberg Titanic was to strike it….
When the order came from Captain Smith to abandon ship Murdoch was responsible for the starboard evacuation…. He was to oversee the launching of approximately ten lifeboats – the last official sighting of him was as he was trying to launch one of the collapsible lifeboats…. At around 1.15am the officers had met in Murdoch’s cabin and handguns had been issued to them…. Around 2am shots were heard and at 2.15am collapsible ‘Lifeboat A’ floated free…. Murdoch had disappeared, assumed drowned….
However, there were conflicting accounts as to what happened to Murdoch…. Several passengers, including first class passenger George Rheims and third class passenger Eugene Daly, claimed to have seen an officer shoot himself with a revolver at the forward lifeboat station on the starboard side, just before the Titanic went down…. These were statements strongly denied by Second Officer Lightoller, who testified at the later inquiry that he had seen Murdoch being swept into the sea…. However, the inquiry suggested that Lightoller was not in a position onboard at the time to be able to see where Murdoch was…. Perhaps the Second Officer was trying to protect Murdoch’s wife from the reality of her husband’s death ~ if he had indeed taken his own life…. One could hardly blame Murdoch for preferring a quick death as opposed to the unknown alternative…. He had already helped many to take their own chance at survival – and yet there was little hope for his own….
Years later Lightoller apparently admitted he knew of someone who had died by suicide on that night – but he never gave a name…. Was it Murdoch?