Charles Herbert Lightoller was born on 30th March 1874 in Chorley, Lancashire, to parents Fred and Sarah Lightoller. Unfortunately, Charles didn’t have the best start in life, as his Mother tragically died shortly after giving birth to him, and his father abandoned him for New Zealand.
At the age of 13 in 1888, Charles began his seafaring career as an apprentice aboard the barque Primrose Hill. He later voyaged on the Holt Hill, which faced a storm in the South Atlantic. The arduous weather conditions and an outbreak of smallpox forced the ship to pull in at Rio de Janeiro. The ship would later face another storm in 1889 in the Indian Ocean, as it was run aground on an uninhabited island that’s now known as lle Saint-Paul. Unfortunately, the chief mate was killed in the shipwreck, whilst the crew had to wait 8 days to be rescued by the Coorong and were taken to Adelaide, Australia.
Upon his return to England, Lightoller joined the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn, but he would soon return to Primrose Hill on his third voyage, where he would travel to Calcutta, India. It was on this ship that Lightoller received his Second Mate Certificate. When serving as Third Mate on Knight of St. Michael, he successfully fought a fire, saving the ship, which resulted in his promotion to Second Mate.
At just 21 years old, Lightoller had already had an eventful career at sea, but the obstacles were only just beginning for the seaman. In 1895, he joined the steamship African Royal Mail Service, but nearly died of malaria during his third year of service.
By 1898, Charles Lightoller decided to leave sea life behind him for a while and went to the Yukon to search for gold due to the Klondike Gold Rush. However, his trip was unsuccessful and he temporarily became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. With no money, he was forced to become a hobo, and later travelled back to England as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat. His next sea adventure would begin when he obtained his Master’s Certificate and joined Greenshields, Cowie & Co, which led to another voyage on a cattle boat Knight Companion.
The White Star Line
It was in January 1900 that his career began on the White Star Line. He was appointed First Officer of the Medic, his first passenger liner that ran from Britain to South Africa to Australia. It was aboard this ship that Lightoller met Sylvia Hawley-Wilson, who was returning home to Sydney following a short stay in England. She travelled to England on the return passage as his wife.
Many of Lightoller’s early years at the White Star Line were spent aboard the Majestic, under the command of Captain Edward Smith – who would significantly influence is seafaring career. He the left the Majestic for the pride and joy of the White Star Line, Oceanic. Following the announcement in 1907 that the Oceanic‘s port would change from Liverpool to Southampton, Charles Lightoller became First Officer on the Majestic, and soon returned to the Oceanic as First Officer.
The RMS Titanic
Charles Lightoller joined the RMS Titanic two weeks before her maiden voyage in 1912. Despite sailing as First Officer during the sea trials, but he was dropped to Second Officer, as Henry T. Wilde from RMS Olympic was made Chief Officer, resulting in the current Chief Officer dropping to First Officer.
The maiden voyage was as smooth as expected for the first four days of the trip. On 14th April 1912, Lightoller came on duty at 6pm to take watch until 10pm. Aware of the drop in temperature, he instructed other officers to keep a lookout for small ice and to pass word to subsequent watchmen. Despite receiving ice warnings from a number of ships that afternoon, RMS Titanic were only aware of the Caronia‘s warning. Whilst attempting to sleep in his cabin, Charles was awoken by a grinding vibration and so headed on deck to identify the cause. He and Third Officer Herbert Pitman arrived at the conclusion that the ship had collided with an object, despite no visible signs of impact. Just 10 minutes later, he was informed that the water had reached the F deck, resulting in the sinking of the ship.
Lightoller took control of lifeboats on the port side of the sinking vessel, guiding women and children into the boats. While one officer was wary of lowering the boats, Lightoller knew better and received permission from Captain Edward Smith to lower them. He placed 25 people into Lifeboat 6 and began lowering it into the water; however, he soon realised there was only one seaman in the boat, which led Major Arthur Peuchen to volunteer to fall and slide into the lifeboat.
He would soon help more women and children into lifeboats. In the early hours of that fateful night, First Officer Wilde asked Lightoller where he kept the firearms for storage. After leading Wilde, Captain Smith and other officers to the locker, Wilde gave Charles a gun, informing him he may need it at a later stage in the night. By the time they arrived back to the deck, chaos had broken out on the ship. A group of men had taken over Lifeboat 2, leading to Lightoller jumping into the boat and threatening them with the gun to leave. The men left the boat, allowing the officers to load 36 women and children into the boat.
As Collapsible D boat was lifted at 2am, the crew formed a ring around the boat, only allowing women and children into the boat. When no more could be found, Lightoller instructed men inside. However, Colonel Gracie returned with more female passengers, so the men swiftly disembarked. First Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the lifeboat, to which he replied “not damn likely”.
Charles Lightoller was next responsible for loading Collapsible B, so climbed to the top of the officers quarters and cut the ropes holding the lifeboat in place with a penknife. He successfully managed to send the boat down to the floor deck, just as the Titanic plunged forward, forcing him to dive into the icy water. Despite making an effort to swim away from the boat, he was sucked against the grating of one of the ventilator shafts, pulling him down with the ship. Luckily the boilers were still hot, resulting in Charles being blasted back up, finding himself alongside the Collapsible B lifeboat. That wasn’t his last brush with death, however, as a falling forward funnel narrowly missed him.
Charles Lightoller, second on the back row (L-R), with Captain Edward Smith, third on the first row, and fellow officers.
30 men climbed into his lifeboat, including Colonel Gracie, two first class passengers and two Marconi operators, Phillips and Bride. The men paddled away from the remaining survivors, fearing they would swamp the lifeboat. Three men on the boat died that night, including Phillips, whilst Bride informed Lightoller that RMS Carpathia, Baltic and Olympic were on their way to rescue them. After many years of experience at sea, Lightoller estimated that RMS Carpathia would arrive at dawn.
Lightoller was right, RMS Carpathia arrived at dawn. At this point, Lightoller had switched lifeboats as Collapsible B had begun to sink. As rope ladders were lowered to the lifeboats, Lightoller insisted on helping all the survivors onto the ship before climbing aboard. He was therefore the last Titanic survivor to be taken aboard RMS Carpathia.
Lightoller was called to testify at both the US and British inquiries into the disaster, as he was a key witness. However, he was criticised for giving conflicting accounts, and described the American inquiry as a “farce” in his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships. While he originally blamed the maritime accident on the calm seas, he later criticised the lack of lifeboats on board the ship and was instrumental in changing many ship regulations, calling for lifeboat capacity to be based on passenger and crew numbers instead of ship tonnage, as well as many other mandatory requirements.
Life After the Titanic
RMS Titanic was not the end of Lightoller’s maritime career, as he returned to RMS Oceanic as a mate, and was promoted to Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in May 1913. He served in WWI as a lieutenant on the Oceanic, which was converted to an armed merchant cruiser. In 1915, he served as First Officer on RMS Campania, which had been converted from a passenger liner to an aircraft carrier. He was eventually given command on the torpedo boat HMTB 117, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He later captained the C-class torpedo boat destroyer Falcon and a river-class destroyer Garry. In July 1918, he was promoted to acting Lieutenant-Commander, and was placed on the retired list with the rank of Commander on 31st March 1919.
Lightoller learnt that all surviving crew members from the RMS Titanic were treated with a black mark. He therefore resigned from the White Star Line and undertook roles as an inn keeper, chicken farmer and as a successful property speculator. He also wrote his autobiography in the 1930s, after much persuasion from his wife. However, it was withdrawn from bookshelves when the Marconi Company threatened to sue, due to Lightoller’s comments in relation to Marconi’s operators and the Titanic disaster.
Lightoller continued to sail the seas, this time for pleasure, as he bought a motor yacht. His sea events didn’t stop there, as he helped to rescue soldiers at sea during the Dunkirk evacuation. He also went on to manage a small London boatyard called Richmond Slipways.
At the age of 78 years old, Charles Lightoller died on 8th December 1952 of chronic heart disease. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at Mortlake Crematorium, Surrey. He was survived by his four children, Fredrick Roger, Richard Trevor, Mavis and Claire Doreen, as his fifth child, Herbert Brian, died in action as an RAF pilot in 1939.