Charles Herbert Lightoller had an extraordinary life and his story is part of my composition“Ryan v The White Star Line” . Although Thomas Ryan is the central character in the composition, I also reference Charles Herbert Lightoller. His life mirrored many of the world’s most notable historical events from the late 19th century through to the 20th century.
His mother Sarah Lightoller died shortly after giving birth to him. He was born into a family that had operated cotton-spinning mills in Lancashire since the late 18th century. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand.
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born on May 30, 1874 in Chorley, Lancashire. He began his career at sea young, taking on an apprenticeship at 13 aboard the Primrose Hill. He next served aboard the Holt Hill and that ship was destroyed in the South Atlantic. It was forced to dock in Rio de Janeiro, at a time when Brazil was struggling through a military coup and a smallpox epidemic. After makeshift repairs, the ship faced a similar fate in the Indian Ocean and on November 13 1889 ran aground on St. Paul, a tiny uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean. The Chief Mate was killed in the shipwreck and the survivors were rescued eight days later and taken to Adelaide, Australia.
You would think at this stage someone less adventurous, would think maybe life on the ocean was not for them, but Lightoller continued on. He returned to the Primrose Hill for his third voyage and sailed to Calcutta India, where he passed his second mate’s certificate. Lightoller was later promoted to second mate while he was on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, after a cargo of coal caught fire and he saved the ship by putting out the fire.
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.
Abandoning the sea at this point, Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898 to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Prospecting didn’t work out either, so he became a cowboy in Alberta Canada. However this career move failed and in order to return home, resorted to becoming a hobo, riding the rails back across Canada. He earned his passage back to England by working as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat, arriving home penniless in 1899.
The sea beckoned again and he duly obtained his master’s certificate and joined Greenshields, Cowie & Co, for whom he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as third mate of the Knight Companion. In January 1900, he began his career with the White Star Line as fourth officer of the SS Medic.
While 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, while the Boer War was raging in distant South Africa, the White Star Line’s Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay.
After midnight on Saturday 6 October 1901, Lightoller, accompanied by two shipmates, quietly rowed to the fortress and climbed its tower. They loaded a cannon with blasting powder and a similar amount of fine-grain powder and rammed in a harmless wad of white cotton waste. They lit the fuse and while escaping, their small rowboat was holed by rocks. The three managed to row to shore, run through Government House grounds, and reach Circular Quay Sydney by the time the cannon went off.
Lightoller’s plan was to fool the 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 residents, who leapt from their beds to see what was happening. When a Boer flag was found fluttering in the dawn breeze there was panic. The local press dismissed the episode as “a foolish and mad brained business”, for which the culprits were never found.
Lightoller returned to the White Star Line initially as a mate on the RMS Oceanic. He served on this ship until it ran aground and was wrecked on the notorious coastline of Foula on 8 September 1914. Then he began his next post, as second officer on board the RMS Titanic. 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. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision. Once the fate of the ship became clear, Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats.
During the evacuation, Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the Titanic. He helped to fill several lifeboats with passengers and launched them. He interpreted Captain Smith’s order for “the evacuation of women and children” as essentially “women and children only”. As a result, Lightoller lowered lifeboats with empty seats, if there were no women and children waiting to board.
As the ship began its final plunge, the water came up on to the boat deck and washed over the bridge. Lightoller attempted to launch Collapsible B on the port side. The collapsible boat floated off the deck upside down. He then crossed over to the starboard side of the roof, to see if there was anything further to be done there. He finally decided that he could do no more and dived into the water from the roof of the officers’ quarters.
Lightoller climbed on the boat and took charge, calming and organising the survivors around thirty on the overturned lifeboat. 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. If not for this, they likely 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. Lightoller was the last survivor taken on board the rescue ship RMS Carpathia.
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 crew members 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 speculator, at which he and his wife had some success.
During the early 1930s he wrote his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, which he dedicated to his wife. This book after a few problems became quite popular and began to sell well. However it was then withdrawn, when the Marconi Company threatened a lawsuit, owing to a comment by Lightoller regarding the Titanic disaster and the role of the Marconi operators. In his retirement, Lightoller did not turn his back on sailing altogether, as he eventually purchased his own private motor yacht, Sundowner, which he later used to help rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation. He received a mention in despatches in 1944 and the boat was preserved by Ramsgate Maritime Museum.
Charles Lightoller died on 8 December 1952, aged 78, of chronic heart disease in London, having had, by any standards a hugely interesting and very adventurous life.