In Search of Captain Lord

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Who was Captain Stanley Lord?

He was an English sea captain told by his second officer that white rockets were being fired by a nearby ship, in the middle of the night in the midst of ice, and he did nothing about it.

In this sense he is a strange and unique historical figure: a man made famous by his inaction. I can’t think of any others.

Why did he do nothing? I visited libraries, archives and historical sites in Liverpool, London, New York and Boston to try to find the answer. I organised to take a trip on a merchant ship. I even went to the wreck site itself in mid-Atlantic.

The question turned out to be a complex one. Lord was not drunk, slovenly, uncaring or lazy. The historical record is full of commendations for diligence and sense of duty. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Leyland Line and was one of their most respected captains. Nor was he a coward: there are many documents showing him to be a courageous seaman who, among other things, landed thousands of men on the Essex coast at night during military manoeuvres and picked them up again. The archive reveals diligence and professionalism – an honourable, dutiful shipmaster. But it all came to nothing at the time it was most needed. Why?

Was Lord mistaken, then, about what the rockets meant? Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley, in his well-known recount of the Titanic disaster, evocatively describes the rockets being fired and says, ‘Anybody knows what rockets at sea mean’.

Anybody knows what rockets at sea mean.
— Lawrence Beesley, Titanic passenger

But is he right? Supporters of Lord suggest the rockets were fired for all sorts of reasons – to acknowledge the Morse lamp signals, or signal that a ship has icebergs around her, or to try to light up the sky to illuminate her way through the ice, or to say farewell. As a child I read somewhere that the rockets were thought to have been a fireworks celebration for passengers. But during my research I could find no evidence that rockets were ever used for any of these purposes. Instead, I found an international code for distress signals in 1912 that was very clear: ‘When a vessel is in distress and requires assistance ... the following shall be the signals to be used or displayed by her: AT NIGHT ... Rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, used one at a time at short intervals’. That is exactly what the Titanic was doing.  Moreover, the best maritime minds of the day must have thought that rockets meant distress: Captain Smith, Commodore of the White Star Line, ordered that rockets be fired from his sinking ship precisely to call for help from the ship he could see in the distance.

The more I tried to understand, the less I did. 

Lord’s and Stone’s evidence in the inquiry transcripts had a peculiar illogic and inscrutability. Their letters and documents gave no explanation. Why, when the Titanic called for help by firing her rockets, didn’t they go?

In the end, I did find an answer, but it did not show itself easily in the historical record. It lurked in its gaps, and revealed itself only slowly. And I only really understood when I left the documents behind.

Although I had spent many years at sea as a young man, I arranged a trip on a merchant ship to remind me what life was like at sea. How is a sextant used to determine position? What can be seen at night? How do the men on board relate to each other? 

In London, as well as reviewing the Californian documents in the British Library and National Maritime Museum archives, I visited the same docks in Woolwich from which Lord’s ship departed on Good Friday, 1912. I breathed in the damp mists, videotaped the wharves and took notes. 

 Source: VisitLondon.com

Source: VisitLondon.com

I went to Boston, where, as well as reviewing the newspaper reports of the Californian affair in the Boston Library, I took a tour of the harbour and saw the wharves where Lord’s ship arrived only days after the Titanic had sunk. I ate clam chowder and listened to the mournful tolling of the harbour buoys at sunset. 

 East Boston docks at which the  Californian  berthed on 18 April 1912

East Boston docks at which the Californian berthed on 18 April 1912

In New York and visited the pier where the Titanic had been due to arrive, and where her lifeboats had been delivered instead by the Carpathia. I walked downtown to no.9 Broadway, where the White Star Line had its offices in 1912 and from where Philip Franklin announced to the world that the Titanic had sunk. 

  Titanic 's destination: the White Star pier in New York

Titanic's destination: the White Star pier in New York

 No.9 Broadway, New York City. Home of the White Star Line in 1912.

No.9 Broadway, New York City. Home of the White Star Line in 1912.

 The word 'Star' can be made out on the framework at the pier's entrance.

The word 'Star' can be made out on the framework at the pier's entrance.

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In Liverpool, I spent days reviewing the archive of Lord’s papers held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. I wore white gloves, made notes with a pencil and dutifully filled out an application form for each item I wanted photocopied. I reviewed letters, testimonials, Marconigrams, newspaper clippings, handwritten statements, career papers and certificates, interviews, magazine articles and hearing transcripts. I read the original letters to Captain Lord from the second officer and apprentice, written within days of the disaster, describing what they saw and did during the midnight watch on the Californian. They are red-hot, contemporaneous accounts of the Titanic sinking. Lord kept these letters secret for nearly fifty years. 

I then got the binoculars and had just got them focussed on the vessel when I observed a white flash apparently on her deck, followed by a faint streak towards the sky which then burst into white stars.
— James Gibson, apprentice, Californian
 Letter from James Gibson, apprentice, requested by Captain Lord in the days following the  Titanic  sinking.

Letter from James Gibson, apprentice, requested by Captain Lord in the days following the Titanic sinking.

When I tired of the documents I walked the streets of Liverpool to see whether some sort of answer might come to me from the air and streets and buildings. This was not a place, I thought as I strolled about these imposing buildings, for cowardice or dereliction of duty, especially from one of its own sea captains. In 1912 Liverpool was the finest port in the world – a city whose men sailed the world’s oceans and upheld the finest traditions of the sea. What must it have been like, I wondered, for Lord to walk about in such a city? How could he have met the gaze of men with whom he had once worked, laughed, and talked?

Blame for the Californian
— Liverpool Echo, 1912
Californian Captain Criticised – Truth of the Matter is Plain – Might Have Saved Many Lives’
— LIverpool Weekly Mercury, 1912

In Wallasey, across the river from Liverpool, I walked the streets that the captain walked and visited the addresses where he had lived. I found the Wallasey library where, if ever Lord picked up a book about the Titanic he would put it straight back down again. Some buildings from 1912 remained: the pretty clubhouse of the Wallasey Golf Club, of which Lord was a member ‘but only for the game, not its social side’, and the elegant Parish Church of St Nicholls, consecrated in 1911 and in which Lord may or may not have begged forgiveness for his sins. I was surrounded by pleasant people with pleasant manners; in the local area were parks and woodlands and walking trails.

 Captain Lord's golf club

Captain Lord's golf club

 Parish Church of St Nicholas, Wallasey

Parish Church of St Nicholas, Wallasey

I visited too the home of Herbert Stone, the Californian’s second officer, the man who saw the rockets. As I stood outside the house at Stone’s address in Bootle, a mile or so north of Liverpool city centre, I felt that the man himself might open the door and come out and shake my hand. It was a quiet street with neat, brick houses jostling up against each other in a friendly sort of way. But it was a gloomy place too, with no trees or flowers or children at play. 

 The street in Bootle in which Herbert Stone lived in 1912

The street in Bootle in which Herbert Stone lived in 1912

In the years just prior to the Titanic disaster there had been a series of murders in Bootle: Maggie Donoghue had been beaten to death by a fireman; six-year-old Tommy Foy had been murdered and dismembered; and most notoriously, two sailors had carried out a series of prostitute murders known as The Teapot Murders. The street where these latter killings took place came to be known as ‘the street that died of shame’. Much later, in the early 1990s, Bootle became notorious as the place where the toddler James Bulger was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys. It was a crime which horrified the nation; it was an event of indescribable sadness.

This was where, in 1912, the young Herbert Stone lived with his new wife. Stone had less of a presence in the documentary archive than Lord but I still knew much about him. I have always had great sympathy for him, even as I encountered in the transcript of his London evidence what Leslie Reade calls his ‘evasions and exasperating stupidities’.

It was here among the sad streets of Bootle and the hard buildings of Liverpool that I at last began to understand why the Californian didn’t go to the rockets that night.