Saturday, 3 September 2016

Charles Lightoller and his children

Because Sue had a relative who was a member of the crew of RMS Titanic and has done – and shared with me – a considerable amount of research into the events surrounding the ship's sinking, I already knew quite a bit about Titanic's Second Officer, Charles Lightoller.

He was in charge of filling and lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the ship’s boat deck, and interpreted Captain Smith's order for ‘the evacuation of women and children’ as meaning ‘women and children only’. As a result several lifeboats were lowered with spaces in them, and this – in part - contributed to the number of people who were unable to leave the ship before it sank and who died as a result of the tragedy. For most men this would have been enough to make them famous ... but Lightoller’s story is a lot more eventful than just being involved in one of the most famous disasters at sea.

Charles Herbert Lightoller was born on 30th March 1874, in Chorley, Lancashire. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and his father abandoned him and emigrated to New Zealand. He began a four-year seagoing apprenticeship when he was 13 and two tears later – in 1889 – the ship he was on ran aground on an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, and he and the rest of the crew were shipwrecked. They were eventually rescued by a passing ship, and Lightoller eventually made his way back to the UK.

He passed the examination for Second Mate in Calcutta, India, and was promoted not long afterwards from Third to Second Mate when he helped to save his ship when its cargo of coal caught fire. Lightoller got his Mate’s Ticket in 1895 (aged 21) and began three years of service on ships sailing to and from West Africa. It was during this time that he contracted malaria, which nearly killed him.

Lightoller gave up the sea in 1898 to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush, but when he was unsuccessful he became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. This experience proved useful when he returned home in 1899. He was able to work his passage by acting as a cattle wrangler aboard a cattle boat on its way from Canada to the UK. Soon afterwards he obtained his Master's Certificate and began working for Greenshields, Cowie & Co., for whom he worked as a Third Mate aboard one of their cattle boats.

In January 1900 he began his career with the White Star Line as Fourth Officer of the SS Medic, and two years he transferred to the SS Suevic, which sailed to and from Australia. It was whilst he was serving aboard Suevic that he met his wife – Sylvia Hawley-Wilson – a young Australian woman whom he married in Sydney.

Charles Lightoller (circa 1910).
After his marriage he joined the White Star’s SS Majestic, which was commanded by Captain Edward J. Smith. Lightoller was then promoted to be Third Officer on the RMS Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line, before returning to the Majestic as First Officer. He then transferred back to the Oceanic before joining the Titanic First Officer during pre-delivery trials. When the ship was taken into service, Captain Smith appointed Henry Wilde of the RMS Olympic to be his Chief Officer, thus demoting the original appointee William McMaster Murdoch to become First Officer and Lightoller to being Second Officer. As the senior surviving officer of the Titanic, Lightoller was a key witness at enquiries carried out by both the Americans and the British.

Charles Lightoller at the time of the British Board of Trade enquiry into the sinking of RMS Titanic.
He the returned to duty with the White Star Line and served as a Deck Officer on RMS Oceanic.

RMS Oceanic.
Like most Merchant Navy officers, Lightoller was a member of the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR), and in May 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, RNR. When the First World War broke out, he was called up for duty, and became one of the officers aboard the newly-commissioned Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Oceanic.

It was whilst aboard HMS Oceanic that he was shipwrecked for the third time in his career when she ran aground on the Shaalds of Foula on 8th September 1914. He returned to sea in early 1915 aboard the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Campania (an ex-Cunard liner that was later converted into an early aircraft carrier), ...

RMS Campania before her conversion into an Armed Merchant Cruiser.
HMS Campania after her conversion into an Aircraft Carrier.
... and in late 1915 he was given his first command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117. Whilst in command of HMTB 117 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his part in the engagement with the German Zeppelin L31.

He was rewarded with a new command, the C-class destroyer HMS Falcon.

HMS Falcon.
He remained with her until she was sunk on 1st April 1918 as a result of a collision with a trawler during a fog. This did not bring an end to his seagoing career as he was given a new command, the River or E-class destroyer HMS Garry.

A Yarrow-built River or E-class destroyer, similar to HMS Garry.
On 19th June 1918 HMS Garry depth charged, rammed and sank the German U-Boat UB-110 off the coast of Yorkshire. This earned Lieutenant Lightoller as Bar to his DSO, and soon afterwards he was promoted to the rank of Acting Lieutenant Commander. He remained in the Royal Navy until the end of the war, and on 31st March 1919 he was promoted to the rank of Commander and placed on the retired list.

After the war Lightoller found that it was impossible to get any further promotion within the shipping industry, and eventually he retired ...

Charles Lightoller at the time of his retirement from the Merchant Navy.
... and tried his hand at being an innkeeper, a chicken farmer, and a property speculator. In the early 1930s he published his autobiography, but although it sold well at first it had to be withdrawn from sale when the Marconi Company – who had employed the wireless operators aboard RMS Titanic – threatened to sue him over comments he had made in his book.

Although he was retired, Lightoller continued sail regularly, and during Operation Dymano Lightoller took his motor yacht, Sundowner, across the Channel to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation, for which act he was Mentioned in Despatches.

Sundowner, Charles Lightoller's motor yacht. She is preserved at the Ramsgate Maritime Museum.
After the Second World War he managed Richmond Slipway, a boatyard on the River Thames that specialised in building motor launches. Amongst the customers who bought launches from the yard was the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police.

Charles Herbert Lightoller DSC & Bar, RD, RNR, died of chronic heart disease on 8th December 1952, aged 78.

Charles and Sylvia Lightoller had four children, all of whom served their country during the Second Word War:
  • Lieutenant Frederic Roger Lightoller RNVR, DSC, MID: He was killed at Granville, France, on 9th March 1945 during a German raid that was mounted from the German-occupied Channel Islands. The raid was successful, and led to the capture of a small collier (which was sailed back to the Channel Islands), the capture of several US service personnel, and the liberation of 57 German Prisoners of War.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Richard Trevor Lightoller: He joined the Army just before the war, and was commissioned in June 1939.
  • Mavis Lightoller: Joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY).
  • Claire Doreen Lightoller: Served with the Political Intelligence Department. This department within the British Foreign Office was set up in 1939 to produce weekly intelligence summaries. After 1941 the Department's name was used as a cover for the Political Warfare Executive.
  • Flying Officer Herbert Brian Lightoller RAFVR: He was among the very first British casualties of the Second World War. He was killed in action on 4th September 1939 flying a Bristol Blenheim during a bombing raid against the German Fleet off Wilhelmshaven. It is thought that the primary target of the raid was the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.


  1. Replies
    1. Johntheone,

      Charles Lightoller had a remarkable life, and his children seem to have followed in his footsteps.

      All the best,