The Titanic Inquiry 1: Introduction

October 2023

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 led immediately to two major inquiries: one in America and one in the UK. The testimony in these enquiries provides a fascinating and valuable glimpse into the tragedy from the words of the people themselves who experienced it. And yet only recently have these testimonies become freely accessible online, thanks to a heroic effort by numerous volunteers working for The Titanic Enquiry Project. In four subsequent episodes we are going to bring you dramatisations of a number of witness testimonies given at the UK British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry. To set out the background of the project, in this episode Dr Sam Willis speaks with Robert Ottmers, one of the volunteers working on the project.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we are launching an exciting new project. This episode serves as an introduction to the Titanic inquiries that were held in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. One was held in America and the other in the UK. In subsequent episodes we will be releasing dramatisations of the inquiry so you can hear the testimonies of people in their own voices. We will be hearing from Lady Duff Gordon, one of only two passengers interviewed in the British inquiry, Fred Barrett an entertaining Stoker from Liverpool, Charles Lightoller, the Titanic’s highest ranking surviving officer, and Annie Robinson, a first class stewardess charged with looking after the children of some first class passengers. Each provides a fascinating and unique insight into the events that day. This has only been possible because of the work of the Titanic inquiry. You can find it at titanicinquiry.org a Herculean task to transcribe the many thousands of pages of the Titanic inquiries. To find out more about this brilliant project I spoke with one of those keen transcribers, Rob Ottmers, a man immersed in historical knowledge of the ship, and the events leading up to and in the aftermath of that terrible sinking. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the brilliant Rob.

    Sam Willis
    Rob, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.

    Rob Ottmers
    Hey, Sam. It’s a pleasure. Thanks.

    Sam Willis
    So it’s such a wonderful project, this Ttitanic transcription project. Tell me about how it got started.

    Rob Ottmers
    Oh, actually there were two different projects in the early 90s; I was heading one, I was actually doing pretty much by myself, transcribing both the British and the American inquiries. And then a gentleman in England was doing the same over there and we were introduced and merged the two projects. And that was how the Titanic Inquiry Project was born.

    Sam Willis
    Amazing. And how long has it been going on for?

    Rob Ottmers
    We uploaded in the late 90s. So it’s been going on for 20 some odd years now.

    Sam Willis
    Well, I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I’m very impressed. Let’s start by talking about the American inquiry. What was going on there?

    Rob Ottmers
    Basically, there was the shock of the tragedy, and people were wanting answers. And the government was sitting there saying, no, we’ve got to do something, you can’t just not answer a tragedy. So Senator Smith decided he wanted to use the Commerce committee to investigate, and they did. The American inquiry was more of a rough inquiry, you would say it wasn’t as refined as the British inquiry or as proper. They asked questions that people thought were just stupid.

    Sam Willis
    Give us some examples.

    Rob Ottmers
    What is ice composed of? That was a question Greg Smith asked 5th Officer Lowe They asked questions; their methodology might have been off but they got to some of the stronger answers in terms of what happened and in terms of what to do going forward.

    Sam Willis
    So it was a political inquiry. Was it run by politicians or were the questions asked by lawyers?

    Rob Ottmers
    No, actually the Senators were asking the questions.

    Sam Willis
    That’s interesting. I wonder if they had a political bent on what questions they were asking?

    Rob Ottmers
    They might have. Like with anything, there’s a lot of talk about the questions. They could have asked deeper questions and followed certain tangents a little bit further to get more information that might have helped. And some say that they bent away from asking questions that put the government in a bad spot.

    Sam Willis
    Yes. And it’s interesting as well that the Americans even had an inquiry. It was a British ship, so what was going on there?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, technically, it was a British ship and it was registered in England. However, White Star Line Oceanic Steam Navigation Company owned them, and that was owned by the International Mercantile Marine Company, which was an American company, one of JP Morgan’s.

    Sam Willis
    Interesting. Were there many Americans on board the Titanc?

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes, a large percentage of first class were American. Third Class had a lot of Europeans and such trying to emigrate, and second class was hodgepodge, but there were a number of Americans in each class.

    Sam Willis
    What were the main concerns of the American inquiry? What were they trying to find out?

    Rob Ottmers
    Basically, what caused it. I mean, just like the British inquiry they were both trying to find out what caused it. And you know even with inquiries today we’re trying to find out what caused it, not so much because we can’t do anything about what happened, but we can protect ourselves for the future.

    Sam Willis
    What were their main conclusions?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, main conclusions; the ship was travelling too fast for the conditions. I guess they said that a proper lookout was not necessarily kept, and there were a lot of changes that needed to be made. Again, this is where both inquiries protected the Governments because what they didn’t go into is why weren’t there proper lifeboats for all onboard? And there’s a lot of reasoning for that. So they did come out with a lot of changes that benefitted seafarers from that point forward.

    Sam Willis
    Tell us about some of the characters that were interviewed during the American inquiry.

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, you had Officer Lightoller. He testified at both, I mean all the officers testified at both. But he was really seen as protecting the White Star Line image. He worked away from questions that put them on the spot. And then you had Lowe at times, who was kind of combative. He didn’t necessarily think they had the right to ask the questions. And as I told you earlier Smith asked him about what ice was composed of; his answer was water, I guess, or something to that effect, but I mean he was that way. You had a number of different people, you had Stanley Lord of the California. He was really just a stickler, he was a strict disciplinarian on his ship, and some say his crew didn’t like him. And he came in thinking he was just going to testify, and all of a sudden he comes to find out, oh no, I’m not testifying, I’m not just testifying as a witness, I’m all of sudden being accused. So you had a lot of different characters and the American inquiry was in a sense looser in that they would just ask questions that really didn’t seem to matter that much, but some of them actually brought out good information.

    Sam Willis
    Did they interview a broad range of the passengers who were on board?

    Rob Ottmers
    I believe, so. They did talk to several of the passengers, and that was the one thing that the American inquiry did, whereas the British inquiry didn’t . They solicited the opinions of the passengers on what happened, so they got a slightly broader scope of what happened on the disaster from both sides, crew and passengers.

    Sam Willis
    That’s interesting. In terms of content as well is there more in the American inquiry than the British?

    Rob Ottmers
    No, not really. I think in terms of overall content the British inquiry lasted longer and more questions were asked.

    Sam Willis
    Give us an example of something that you came across whilst reading it that really caught your interest.

    Rob Ottmers
    Well for me there’s a lot of things that caught my interest; the one that pops to mind right now is Frederick Barrett, his testimony on the the bunker fire, because you’re talking about memories from the 90s. but when I was reading about the bunker fire there was also talk on the internet about it as well, just not as much. It was interesting how different people perceived his comments to be as to the extent of the damage, and now you have a book out that says that bunker fire was probably a major contributor to the disaster, and again, it’s different people’s opinions on what they’ve read and how they perceive what is truly meant by the damage

    Sam Willis
    How do you think the bunker fire played a part?

    Rob Ottmers
    Not much; I don’t believe that the bunker fire actually caused anything. Yes, it caused some bending of the steel inside the bunker, and there was talk of the bunker collapsing, but my recollection of the testimony was that the bunker collapsed, not there, but elsewhere. And by that I don’t mean the bulkhead there collapsed; I don’t believe it collapsed in that bunker, I believe it was more towards the watertight door.

    Sam Willis
    Interesting. Well, we’ve also picked out a couple of examples of female passengers who were there at the British inquiry. I’m not actually sure if they were there at the American one as well. Do you know that?

    Rob Ottmers
    No, in fact the only two passengers that were called to the British inquiry were Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon. And actually the only reason they were called was because they asked to be.

    Sam Willis
    That’s interesting. Did they have something they needed to get off their chests?

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes, well when they left Titanic they left in lifeboat 1 which was one of the emergency cutters. And they left in a boat that could carry I believe 35 or 40, and 12 people got into the boat, and they pulled away and sometime at night when they were in the water Lucile said to her attendant Francatelli look, there’s your beautiful night dress gone. And one of the crew members in the boat said what you lost, you can replace, we’ve lost our entire kits, and we have no money to replace that. Well, they get on board Carpathia and the next day, Sir Cosmo handed each one of these crew members a handcrafted cheque for five pounds for each one of them to replace their kit. And then that group gets together and has a picture taken of the survivors of that boat. And this story grew steam as they approached the States, and then you have the Press sitting there, going, hey, did you bribe them not to go back, not to go and rescue people in the water, you could have taken a lot more people. And that’s when it started being bad press for those two, and so they decided they wanted to get their names cleared. And that’s why they requested to be at the British inquiry

    Sam Willis
    Yes, that’s fascinating. What about Annie Robinson, tell us about her.

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, Annie, she’s interesting in the sense that the British inquiry only called two stewardesses. And Annie’s story was a little more in depth in terms of what she saw, or I guess, a little more rich in terms of what she saw that night. She actually talked about when she woke, she started rousing her charges, and then she turned around and at one point I gather she went forward and saw water coming up the stairs above the mailroom, which meant G Deck was basically flooded. And then she turned around and as she was doing different things, she recalls having run into Captain Smith and also Thomas Andrews. And I believe from recollections she’s the one Andrews told, put your life belt on, if you value your life, put your life belt on. And that’s what made it into some of the movies recently, where he’s talking to the stewardess, telling her let them see you with your life belt on, if you value your life put your lifebelt on.

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes, I mean they were worried so much about a lot of different things, then they worried that if people jumped into the water with that lifebelt on it would come up and snap their necks. That was a concern, and I guess that was something that had happened previously. And I mean, quite literally donning a lifebelt, what it’s going to do is just hold you above the water. They were cumbersome, they were not something you were going to easily swim in.

    Sam Willis
    Yes, it was interesting in, I think it was the Lightoller inquiry, that I was reading, and when he was talking about wearing a life belt and the difficulties that it caused with swimming. Is that something that you’ve come across?

    Sam Willis
    Did the question of looking out for ice come up in the inquiries; were people quizzed about whether there were sufficient people looking out for ice, whether they’ve taken the appropriate precautions?

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes. Many different people from not only Titanic’s crew but other ship masters that were called before the British inquiry were quizzed about that particular point. And pretty much a lot of them said the same thing that Titanic said, they believed that they had sufficient look out and even Lightoller himself said it, I believe. The conditions that night were brilliantly starry and with a calm sea we should be able to see reflections from a long distance. And other captains just mentioned that they might have put a person in the forecastle right up at the bows of the ship lower to the water, and he might have had a better vantage point. So, yes, there were a lot of questions on that.

    Sam Willis
    Yes, and what about the speed of the ship? Did it go into much detail explaining how fast they were going, when they sped up and slowed down? What does the inquiry tell us about that side of things?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, basically they weren’t going at top speed yet, they still had five single sided boilers that hadn’t been lit yet, they were planning on lighting them on Sunday. And that was when they were going to do Titanic’s speed test to see what she could do. So they they were doing right around 22 knots and they just maintained speed. And that was something that was testified again by a lot of the masters and such like that, you didn’t slow down. And I’ve heard there’s talk of two different types of liners out there, there’s the blue water liners, those are your on schedule liners, they have got to keep schedule, you can’t slow down or you’re not going to be a captain very long. So that wasn’t the main thing, but you know, these liners are maintaining speed no matter what until you sight something.

    Sam Willis
    Tell us about what happened when the ship went down and what we find out about that in the inquiry?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, I mean, there’s a decent amount of testimony about the different stages of the ship going down. Back to Barrett; some of the things that make him interesting to me is when he talked about what was happening in the bowels of the ship. And there’s not many people that were called that were to remain down there as long as he did and survived. But he talks about opening a manhole cover down on the Stokehold floor. And then I think it was Shepherd, one of the engineers, who walked over and fell and broke his leg. So you know, where Shepherd ended up, they didn’t get him out of there. So you get,to hear about how the water is progressing andhow it’s coming through the door, initially through the sides of the plate, right where he was standing, and it actually hit him as it came in. And when they went around to the next boiler room there was water coming into the Stokehold, and they were talking about it coming in like a fire hose. You really don’t have a lot of testimony forward to that, except for people looking down on it, because by then everything was flooded. You could see the mailman dragging mail sacks up from the F and G Decks. Then later on, as the ship’s progressively going down, she starts listing to one side and then to the other, and they were concerned abou tthe launching of the boats. . And as things progressed, you also had the loading of the boats. Lightoller was very hesitant to fully load a boat, because he wasn’t sure of the falls and he wasn’t sure the boat wouldn’t buckle in the middle if he filled them completely. And his thought process was we’ll fill them somewhat, and then we’ll send them down to the water and have the people fill from the V deck doors downstairs. And he had sent a crew down to open the D deck doors, but they were never heard from again, so just things like that. And as it got further and further down Lightoller would go in and he’d look down the stairwell and would see the water coming up more and more and more. And that’s when he got more risk taking, he would load more people to fill the boats and send them away. And ultimately that saved more people than if he had just kept with what he was doing. Towards the end everybody by that point knew she was going down. She probably attained 10 degrees down by the nose, and that’s when there was a sudden plunge as it was described by Lightoller. And he just basically jumped off into the water and tried to swim away from the ship, and of course he got sucked into the grating ahead of the forward funnel, and he was held there because the water was rushing down into the boiler rooms. And then also a gust of steam as he describe came up and pushed him off a bit and he was able to swim free. And then the ship just kept going down, gaining speed going down, and it attained 15, maybe 20 degrees, out of the water before the back broke.

    Sam Willis
    That’s an interesting point, isn’t it because Lightoller is very specific that when he was in the water or looking at it, he said that it didn’t break.

    Rob Ottmers
    Right, Yes. And that’s the thing in the whole sense of the story, it’s just fascinating, the differences of perspective based on where you were, because there are people like Jack Thayer, a young kid there, and he actually drew a couple of drawings of it later showing the ship breaking in half, and he was adamant that it broke in half; some others were as well. And they actually to me had a better perspective; Lightoller of course was in the water fighting for his life. He’s freezing in 29 degree water and trying to stay away from this ship that’s going down right beside him. So I don’t know that he necessarily had the best vantage point; I certainly don’t take anything away from what he said but I think his vantage point was just not ideal to see how the ship went down.

    Sam Willis
    So taxing physically as well. Frederick Barrett, who said he just passes out, he gets into a lifeboat and he’s rowing, he takes charge of it I think and then he just says he had no more recollection.

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes, he actually testified that he had taken charge of the boat, and then he had somebody else take over for him and he just went to sleep.

    Sam Willis
    Yes. It’s all very shocking stuff. It does raise this idea about the accuracy of what people were saying. What are your views on that?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well I mean, it’s the age old thing about testifying later from memory, you’ve got time to think about it. And so you also have time to write something else into the story that maybe wasn’t there. And it’s not saying anything against anybody, it’s just you recollect differently. The funny thing is that a lot of lawyers and such say that the best witness is a kid, because they don’t tend to try to think things through, they just answer a question.

    Sam Willis
    Yes, that’s not something I’ve heard before, but I really like it. I certainly encourage you all to get some oral history of children to find out what’s been going on in the world over the last however many years. There’s another interesting bit as well about the incident with the lifeboats isn’t there, where one almost lands on top of another one? Tell us about that.

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, that was lifeboat 13 and 15 and Barrett left in 13 And as they were lowering they came basically beside one of the discharges that was pumping the water out of the ship. And that discharge actually forced that lifeboat backwards, then basically pushed it under the now lowering lifeboat 15. And quite literally they had to cut the falls off that 13 boat and push it away from the ship. And some of the testimony is that they got it away from the boat just in time because 15 sat down right beside it.

    Sam Willis
    But do we get a sense of how the whole women and children first thing actually worked out in practice?

    Rob Ottmers
    Well, it depended on what side of the boat you’re on. If you were on the port side, Lightoller was in charge of it, and he had a very strict enforcement of women and children. In fact, while he oversaw the loading of the boats only one male passenger was allowed to get in it. I mean of course he put crew in but no male passengers, that was strictly enforced by him. One male he did allow in; he had actually been asking for crew members to come up and man the boat, and Major Arthur Peuchen had said I’m not a sailor but I’m a yachtsman. And Lightoller said well, if you’re good enough to get down those falls get in the boat. So that was the lone male on the port side. On the starboard side, Murdoch was a lot different, he would look for the women and children and they were first. But going back to testimony, if there were no more women or children he would allow men in; on the starboard side if you’re a male, you had a much better chance.

    Sam Willis
    So Lightoller, it was women and children to the exclusion of anyone else?

    Rob Ottmers
    Pretty much. Yes, he was more women and children only.

    Sam Willis
    Does the testimony give us any sense of how well order was maintained while all of this was going on?

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes.The officers testimony pretty much gives you an idea that, for the most part, people remained calm. I would say probably for the first hour or so they really didn’t think the ship was going to sink. And that’s why there was a hesitancy for even the women to get into lifeboats because it was why would I leave this grand ship and get in that little boat and go and sit in the cold sea, and there was even joking going on about it. After that towards the end of the sinking, you had loss of control at certain points. Lightoller at one point, had to brandish his gun and tell the men get back, because they were trying to rush. And they actually had a group of men get into one of the boats from which he ordered them out, and that I believe is when he actually brandished the gun to show them. On the other side of the boat you had Lowe who actually had to discharge his weapon off dock down the side of the ship, because he had men starting to be aggressive in getting towards the boat. And that’s his way of backing them up. And then there’s I guess a second or third person talking about Murdoch actually having to do somewhat the same with the boats he was overseeing there towards the end. So at the end you were seeing panic and such like that.

    Rob Ottmers
    Was there much publicity around these inquiries? Did the general public know about what was going on?

    Rob Ottmers
    Sure. The primary thing that came out of the inquiries was what do we need to do going forward to prevent this? And so they decided, never again are we going to send a ship to sea without lifeboats for everybody. So when Titanic and Olympi were built the regulations called for lifeboats for a ship of the size of 10,000 tons; Titanic was 46,000. So four times that size, and they didn’t change lifeboat regulations. And looking at it with the regulations that existed they were technically above what was necessary, they exceeded the regulations. But it was not enough. So it came down to never again is a ship going to sea without lifeboats for everybody. So if you can take 3000 bodies you’re going to have lifeboat capacity for 3000. Then you have of course the wireless or radio. Most ships at the time had one wireless operator who went to bed in the evening, so in the overnight hours when this happened a lot of ships weren’t even listening, California being one of them. So it became necessary to have wireless 24 hours a day; you had 24 hour vigils on the radio for just these situations. Safety of life at sea, that’s when they started saying, OK let’s look at the everything from the design of the ships to the running of the ships. These rules are what you do, and they started changing; you no longer ran into icefields or ran into unsafe conditions or unsure conditions at full speed. Beforehand. it had been that that was what you did. Then you had the International Ice Patrol, which was a direct result of the Titanic. Every year they send out cutters, and they locate and identify the icebergs coming off the northern areas into the Atlantic. And to this day the US Coast Guard goes out there and flies to Titanic co-ordinates and drops a wreath. And that’s every year because International ice patrols came about because of the Titanic.

    Rob Ottmers
    Yes, the newspapers made sure on both sides of the pond that this was the biggest story of that time. And I mean, even here in Kansas City, the newspapers lived off these inquiries for a couple of months.

    Rob Ottmers
    Right. And what was the impact of all of this inquiry? I think it’s fascinating, because it’s a little exercise in contemporary history for the survivors of the Titanic trying to work out what had happened and what had gone wrong. Were there many changes made to do with safety at sea in the aftermath of the disaster?

    Rob Ottmers

    Sam Willis
    Well, there’s a bit of good news at the end, it’s fascinating. Do please tell us how to find the Titanic inquiry online. And also let us know, for there’s a lot of material there, if you had a little bit of advice for a beginner about how to get into it.

    Rob Ottmers
    Sure, the Titanic inquiry project is located at www. titanicinquiry.org and anybody can get into it, it’s fairly simple. The main page has links to all of the day’s testimony, the witness lists, and different things in final reports. So I would suggest anybody that has not been there, just jump into finding a place where you know you’re interested, you can look for a particular person that you’d like to know what they had to say, and just jump in and start reading.

    Sam Willis
    Yes,well I wish everyone the best of luck with finding out some fascinating facts about the Titanic. Thank you very much indeed Rob for talking to us today.

    Rob Ottmers
    Thank you so much for having me, Sam. Appreciate it.

    Sam Willis
    Thank you all very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’re very much looking forward to the dramatic recreations of that witness testimony. Now, I’d like particularly to say a big thank you here to those who have helped in this transcription process, to Bob Bonnell, Earl Chapman, Mike Disabato, Vera and John Gillespie, Linda Greaves, Jane Hilbert, Robert Ottmers, Stewart Partridge, Marilyn Powell, Susie Powell, Parks Stephenson, Bruce Trinque, and Bill Wormstedt, without all of your hard work none of this would have been possible at all, so thank you very much indeed. Please remember that the podcast comes from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. You can check out the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s latest project Maritime Innovation In Miniature on their website; the best way to find it is to Google Maritime Innovation In Miniature. They’re filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment and the results are absolutely extraordinary. This year we have filmed in the Swedish Maritime Museum, at the Science Museum, the International Maritime Organisation and at the fabulous Discovery Museum in Newcastle, and you really won’t believe just how high quality this footage is. The podcast also comes from the Society for Nautical Research so please visit them@snr.org.uk And please, please please join up, they bring you the podcast, in return please join the Society, it’s a fabulous way not only of finding out all about the world’s maritime past from the very best in the business, but also meeting people and having a very nice time.

Category: | |