First and Foremost A Sailor: Charles Herbert Lightoller

Charles Herbert Lightoller Courtesy Wikipedia

Charles Herbert Lightoller lived an anything but droll life. Where the sailor could be found, adventure lurked not far behind. Born in 1874 in Lancashire, England, Lightoller was practically an orphan. His mother had died when he was a baby and his father later remarried and left for New Zealand. Lightoller and his siblings were then cared for by an aunt and uncle.

In 1888 Lightoller had decided that his future rested with the sea. He joined the Primrose Hill as an apprentice. It was a tough voyage for the teenager. He was horribly seasick for the first few days and the ship was filled with a never ending supply of rats and cockroaches that chewed on one’s feet if they weren’t careful. Also rations were awful. Salt horse was literally green, and the young apprentice was always wanting for food. To counteract this Lightoller and other boys stole food, much to the chagrin of the cook and others. Lightoller got into trouble after he was trapped in a cabin having gone after some undefended biscuits. On his first voyage Lightoller became acquainted with icebergs, one so massive it blocked the wind. Finally the Primrose Hill reached San Francisco. There Lightoller was briefed on the shanghai trade and duly warned. Here a man treated ‘Lights’ to a meal, until the boy could eat no more.

At the age of 16 Lightoller found himself shipwrecked on St. Paul’s Island after his latest ship, the Holt Hill ran aground. All but one of the crew survived the event. St. Paul’s was a barren island with very little in the way of resources. However, there were others, now long gone, on the island before the Holt Hill crew’s arrival. They were able to take shelter in a large hut. Their meals consisted of penguins, crayfish and salmon. Eight days after the shipwreck, the crew was rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide. The Australians received the pitiful group with enthusiasm. Although Lightoller was decidedly against steam and proud of sail, he soon found himself serving on a steamer. It was, however, an easier life than sail.

After several contributing factors, Lightoller left the sea and set out to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush (1898). He didn’t get very far in the Canadian wild when he and his three companions were forced to turn back. Lightoller than became a cowboy. Later, as a hobo, he worked his way across the country and ‘rode the rods’. Wanting to get back to Liverpool, he found work on a ship carrying cattle.

In 1900 Lightoller joined the White Star Line and found himself assigned to the RMS Medic, part of the Australian run. Sometime while a 4th officer in Sydney, Lightoller and four midshipmen were rowing around when a midshipmen mentioned firing Fort Denison’s large gun. Lightoller was enthusiastic about the idea and decided to pull the stunt off. In addition, since the Boer War was still raging, the Boer flag would be raised. Everything went according as planned and the gun went off late one night. The next day Sydney was in an uproar. Meanwhile the officer and midshipmen congratulated each other. However someone informed the company of Lightoller’s shenanigans. ‘Lights’, as was his nickname, sent in his resignation rather than be fired. Much to his surprise, Lightoller received a severe scolding, but was sent back to his ship after the Marine Superintendent laughed about the incident. Lightoller was taken off the Australian run, though.

RMS Titanic Courtesy Wikipedia

In 1912 Lightoller found himself aboard the RMS Titanic as 1st Officer. But after a reshuffle he was knocked down to 2nd Officer. Late on April 14th, Lightoller handed the watch over to 1st Officer William Murdoch and headed off for an ‘inspection’ and then off to bed. He had almost fallen asleep when the collision took place. 4th Officer Joseph Boxhall informed Lightoller that they had hit an iceberg. Dressing, Lightoller headed out on deck. After getting Captain Edward Smith’s permission, Lightoller began sending women and children off in the lifeboats. When Boat No. 2 was about to be sent off, Chief Officer Henry Wilde told Lightoller to go with the boat. Lightoller insubordinately ‘declined’. As Titanic neared her end Lightoller jumped overboard. He was pulled down into a shaft but was kept from being sucked below by a grate. Eventually, a blast of air propelled him upwards. He was again sucked down and thrown up on the surface, this time near an upturned collapsible boat. Already survivors had piled onto the craft. Once up on it Lightoller took control, trying to keep it afloat for the next couple of hours. Later another boat rescued the group in it precarious situation. At 8:30 AM Lightoller became the last survivor to board the RMS Carpathia. 1,517 souls didn’t have that opportunity.

In a following inquiry held in the US, Lightoller answered numerous questions put to him by Senator William Smith, who was quite ignorant towards the sea and asked absurd questions. Lightoller did some sidestepping trying not to incriminate the White Star Line or the vilified J. Bruce Ismay. In Britain the inquiry was a complete whitewash.

Sundowner Courtesy Wikipedia

During World War I Lightoller served on four different ships, two of them sinking. He also served briefly on seaplanes or ‘White Coffins’. He managed to get in a few scrapes, once going through a minefield with another ship following him. The captain of the other ship did not know that they had gone through a minefield until Lightoller told him after the trip was done. While serving aboard the HMS Garry, Lightoller nearly got into trouble while ‘fishing’. He had taken to dropping depth charges in the water, to catch fish. When the Admiral of the East Coast heard about Lightoller’s activity (i.e. sending boats out in the water for no apparent reason. They were really hauling in the fish), he wanted to know what the officer was doing. Lightoller managed to get out of that unscathed.  By the end of the war, Lightoller had gotten what the White Star Line would never give him, his own command. He left the Navy with the rank of commander and headed back to the White Star Line. But after frustrating years of service and no gratitude coming from the company, Lightoller resigned. Age didn’t stop Lightoller from getting into the action of World War II. He and his Australian wife, Sylvia, spied on the ‘Gerries’. During Dunkirk, Lightoller and his son helped to evacuate soldiers, dangerously overloading his yacht, the Sundowner. Lightoller died on December 8, 1952.

Source: Lightoller, Charles. Titanic and Other Ships; Stenson, Patrick. The Odyssey of C. H. Lightoller.

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22 thoughts on “First and Foremost A Sailor: Charles Herbert Lightoller

    • It’s a name one is not likely to forget ;) . I’ve only run across the name ‘Lightoller’ just once and that is with ‘Lights’. He was proudly British I’ll say that much. Throughout his book he mentions run-ins with ‘Yankees’, and most of the time he doesn’t speak pleasantly of them. Then again he may be recounting his encounters with the worst of us. In any case the book is still worth a read. Thanks for reading!

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    • Yeah, I think I had Titanic on the brain and made a lucky guess ;-) It seems Lightoller led a rough and tumble type life and my guess is so did the “yank” sailors. Probably there was rivalry or he just didn’t like us in general. I enjoy how you flesh out these characters so they are much more than a name on a page. Keep up the good work!

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  1. Hey, here’s Charly! :)

    A very interesting character, who has lived many adventures. He is also mysterious, because it seems to have hidden things about a suicide that took place during the sinking, but he took his secret in the grave.

    I have the biography of Stenson, there are plenty of beautiful pictures!

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    • I kind of hope he was telling the truth about Murdoch not committing suicide (or any other of the officers!). I thought that incident with Captain Cameron and Lightoller was hilarious. Can you imagine ‘Lights’ goes sliding across the bridge and there’s the captain with a shocked look on his face!

      I understand there’s a second edition of Stenson’s book-Titanic Voyager:
      The Odyssey of C. H. Lightoller. Do you know what the difference is in it and the 1st American Edition?

      Thanks for reading!

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    • Stenson’s biography that I bought is the third edition. This is a big book! The author said he put the information up to date, but I can’t compare, because I have not to the other editions.

      Yes the story of Lightoller sliding on the deck of the Oceanic is really funny ! :) And Captain Cameron was also quite a character!

      Regarding Murdoch’s suicide, I’ll probably do an article about it. Lightoller seems to have an interesting role in this story, but I am among those who think that it would not be a shame for Murdoch if he had really committed suicide, and even if he did, he is a hero. But this is a very sensitive and complex subject.

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    • Yes it is and I look forward to the article!

      The third edition sounds like it would be very informative since it’s updated. I’ll have to recommend it to my library.

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  2. Excellent! Thank you for a well written article on this courageous officer. I’ve always felt that ‘Lights’ (as his shipmates fondly called him) never got the credit or attention he deserved.

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    • Through my dads side of the family, i will have to update on that too, the only info i have is the fact that he was my grate grate grate uncle, i will find out as soon as i can for you

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    • Great! Have you also tried the forums at Encyclopedia Titanica? They have tons of info there and you can always ask additonal questions. Lights seems to be a very well-documented person of the deck officers.

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