107 #99: The British inquiry into the Titanic sinking was a whitewash

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Titanic inquiry

TRUE. Much of the horrific loss of life which occurred in the Titanic disaster could have been prevented if the British Board of Trade had not allowed itself to be lulled into a false sense of security by the ship owners who advised it, through the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee. Much of the blame therefore lay at the feet of the Board of Trade; and yet it was this very same body which commissioned the Inquiry into the Titanic disaster.

Lightoller frankly admitted that the British Inquiry was a whitewash, in the following candid and poignant passage in his 1935 memoir, Titanic and other Ships:

‘In Washington it was of little consequence, but in London it was very necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush. Sharp questions that needed careful answers if one was to avoid a pitfall… How hard [the lawyers] tried to prove there were not enough seamen to launch and man the boats…, and quite truly. But it was inadvisable to admit it then and there, hence the hard fought legal duals between us.

‘A washing of dirty linen would help no one. The B.O.T. had passed that ship as in all respects fit for sea in every sense of the word. Now the B.O.T was holding an inquiry in to the loss of that ship—hence the whitewash brush. Personally, I had no desire that blame should be attributed either to the B.O.T. or the White Star Line, though in all conscience it was a difficult task…when one had known, full well, and for many years, the ever-present possibility of just such a disaster. I think in the end the B.O.T. and the White Star Line won.

‘…the utter inadequacy of the life-saving equipment then prevailing…has since been wholly, frankly, and fully admitted by the stringent rules now governing British ships, “Going Foreign”.

‘No longer is the Boat-Deck almost wholly set aside as a recreation ground for passengers, with the smallest number of boats relegated to the least possible space.

‘In fact, the pendulum has swing to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.

‘I know when it was all over I felt more like a legal doormat than a Mail Boat Officer.

‘Still, just that word of thanks which was lacking, which when the Titanic Enquiry was all over would have been very much appreciated. Yet, when after 20 years of service I came to bury my anchor, and awaited their pleasure at headquarters, for the last time, there was a brief, “Oh, you are leaving us, are you? Well, Good-bye.”

‘A curious people!’

Certainly, Lightoller gave a polished performance on the stand, which even impressed Lord Mersey with its cleverness, if not its complete honesty:

The Commissioner: ‘I suppose I am obliged to accept Lightoller’s statement about that conversation?’ [Author’s note: this refers to Lightoller’s conversation on Titanic’s bridge with Captain Smith about the weather conditions that night.]

The Attorney-General: ‘Well, I do not know.’

The Commissioner: ‘I do not like these precise memories; I doubt their existence. However, there it is.’

The Attorney-General: ‘There it is, and we have to deal with it on the evidence. The reason why I am dealing with Lightoller’s evidence is because Lightoller is the only person who makes this excuse.’ [Author’s note: this excuse was the calm sea and moonless night, making icebergs hard to detect.]

The Commissioner: ‘Yes, and it sounds to me so like an excuse.’

The Attorney-General: ‘It is right to say this is it not— your Lordship is a better judge than I am from every point of view, and I was not here during the whole of the time when Lightoller was giving his evidence— that he did give it very well.’

The Commissioner: ‘It is to be remembered that he told exactly or practically the same story in America.’

The Attorney-General: ‘Yes, from the first. I think it is right to say with regard to Lightoller, is it not, that he gave his evidence very well.’

The Commissioner: ‘He gave it remarkably well.’

The Attorney-General: ‘Too well your Lordship thinks?’

The Commissioner: ‘Well, remarkably well.’

The structural problems with the British Inquiry were even raised with Lord Mersey himself, in the following exchange, where he assures Mr Edwards, Council for the Dockers’ Union, of his own impartiality:

Mr. Edwards: ‘With this one consideration, My Lord. It is said by the Attorney-General that there is no reason why there should be any departure from the ordinary practice in relation to these Enquiries; but there is this distinction between this Enquiry and others, which I would suggest to your Lordship, and that is this, that not only is there a question here of the conduct of the owners of the Titanic, but there is also a question here as to the conduct of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade. Now, the learned Attorney-General is here, of course, in a dual capacity. HerepresentstheBoardofTrade,asherepresentsthose who are responsible for formulating the charges. Now, I do suggest if he does not begin the address to your Lordship on the general question, he at least ought to be in the position of addressing your Lordship on behalf of the Board of Trade, so that those of us who stand in a position somewhat adverse to the conduct of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade should have an opportunity of replying to whatever defense is set up.’

The Commissioner: ‘I do not think I should allow that, Mr. Edwards. I regard you and Mr. Scanlan and various others—but you two mainly—as the accusers of the Board of Trade, and I shall expect you to put forward your case against the Board of Trade, and to explain to me what it is you allege against the conduct of the Board of Trade, and the Attorney-General will deal with that, not in the spirit of an advocate for the Board of Trade, but as a man trying to assist me, and nothing else; and I think, Myself, if I may say so, that he has taken that course, so far, quite impartially.’

Nonetheless, many representatives of the Board of Trade were questioned closely during the British Inquiry and several criticisms of it were made, including in the following impassioned speech by Mr Harbinson, representing Third Class passengers:

‘…The learned Attorney-General has a big task, I think before him when he comes to vindicate the Board of Trade because, if I may say so, I think to seek to defend the Board of Trade is like defending the indefensible. Its position is serious. It wakes up in 1894, and it makes Rules with reference to vessels up to 10,000 tons, and then, my Lord, it goes to sleep and it does nothing. There is nothing done, no steps taken to extend the scale, although vessels are built between 1894 and 1910 which leap up in tonnage from 10,000 to between 40,000 and 50,000 tons… I wish to say that the Board of Trade has got many eyes and many ears, but it does not seem to have any brains. And although it gets information from all sides it does not seem to be able to digest it, to assimilate it, or to apply it; and if, as the result of this awful tragedy the Board of Trade could be modernised, and made, as it were, the reflex of the living, throbbing and palpitating life of this country, then I should think, at all events, appalling, world-wide as this calamity has been, my Lord, it will have borne some fruit.’

Despite its obvious structural failings, the British Inquiry did genuinely try and get at a number of the facts, and it came to broadly the same conclusions as the American Enquiry, which cannot be said to have been similarly compromised. Indeed, these Inquiries have given us a record of more than 2,000 pages of testimony, much of it from eye witnesses, without which we would know a great deal less about the Titanic; and Lord Mersey did make some useful recommendations, including lifeboats for all, 24-hour radio watch, more frequent boat drills and improved watertight integrity standards for ships.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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