The Scots engineers who fought to the last to save the Titanic
ON THE stairwell wall of the Edwardian edifice that serves as Scottish Opera’s grand headquarters in Glasgow, an ornamental marble plaque lists 35 names. It is topped by two winged figures bearing a wreath, as if ready to lay it on the sea. It reads: “To keep alive the memory of the engineers of the Titanic who all died at their duty on the Fifteenth day of April 1912, when the ship was lost in mid Atlantic. This tablet was erected by the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.”
The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is being treated as entertainment rather than tragedy – from Belfast’s gleaming new multimillion Titanic Experience, to Julian Fellowes’s television miniseries, already nicknamed “Drownton Abbey”. But on Saturday, in a small ceremony, Scotland’s professional engineers will remember their own, in the building that was formerly their headquarters. With the current president of the engineers’ institution, Dr Gordon Masterston, looking on, William Banks – a former professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Strathclyde, as well as a Bible teacher – will read from Psalm 23 and 1 Corinthians. A Scottish Opera artist will sing Amazing Grace, while relatives of one of the men, Alloa-born Robert Millar, are expected among the guests.
The legend of the Titanic is chiefly remembered through the dramas of the upper decks, with the band that played on, or lovers’ partings at the lifeboats. But when the ship first struck the iceberg, the first action of the officer of the watch, William McMaster Murdoch, was to pull a lever closing the watertight doors in the engine and boiler rooms. The last signals heard from the Titanic by the liner Carpathia, rushing to the scene of the disaster early on 15 April, 1912, included the words “engine room full up to boilers”.
The Titanic’s engineers died out of sight, fighting to keep the ship’s lights, pumps, and communications alive until the very end, enabling the crew to help more than 700 passengers into the boats. The magnificently designed ship, manned by the cream of White Star’s engineers below decks, appears by all accounts to have been sunk by the hubris of her officers on the bridge. At least five of the men were Scottish-born.
Designed by sculptor Kellock Brown, the memorial was unveiled on 15 April, 1914. “Being in the engine rooms, they were probably the farthest away from the means of escape,” says Masterston. “When ships go down engineers always reflect on the likelihood, rather than possibility, of escape. A very high proportion of the engine room did lose their lives. It’s a reflection of the hazardous nature of the engineers’ work, the unsung heroes in the bowels of the ship when disaster strikes.”
The fate of the engineers is now beginning to get some of the attention paid to the rest of the Titanic’s story. The Irish TV network RTE last night broadcast Saving the Titanic, focusing on the stories of nine central players in the drama below decks – who manned the huge coal furnaces and the massive dynamos that kept the ship’s power going – including chief engineer Joseph Bell, and the Scottish-born assistant electrician, William Kelly.
The film, based on official accounts, was billed as an “epic drama of loyalty” about men who stayed at their posts in the doomed ship. Most of its 90 minutes are set in the engine and boiler rooms, with no sight of Captain Edward J Smith nor the deck officers, and only fleeting glimpses of the passengers. “This is the untold story of the dedicated engineering crew, who worked in the bowels of the ship to hold back the power of the sea,” the trailer declared. “They are fighting against time to keep the Titanic afloat and her engines running. Amid the panic and the chaos, they bravely step forward with no thought of their own safety. As the ship slowly sinks the engineering crew stay by their posts.”
The best-known life story of the Scottish engineers is that of Stirling-born William Young Moyes, the 23-year-old son of a primary school headmaster. He was known as “Billie”, and was captain of Stirling High School’s rugby team and a fast bowler in its cricket side. He was senior sixth engineer on the ship, having transferred to the Titanic from the Oceanic, and he is remembered by a plaque, which was unveiled in the city ten years ago, in front of a crowd of hundreds.
Others included Glasgow-born William Kelly.Raised in Dublin, he only joined Harland & Wolff in January 1912. Also 23, he was appointed assistant electrical engineer aboard the ship for his first sea voyage. And there was Aberdeenshire-born James Fraser, 29, who joined the White Star line as sixth engineer aboard the Adriatic in October 1907, and joined Titanic as a first-class engineer. He left a widow and two young children in Southampton.
Glasgow-born William Dickson Mackie, a junior fifth engineer, served his apprenticeship in England, and worked on the Majestic and the Olympic for the White Star line.
Robert Millar, a fifth engineer, aged 26, lived in Alloa, where he had done his first marine engineering apprenticeship, before serving on three major ships then the Titanic.
The chief engineer of the Titanic, Joseph Bell, had landed the biggest job in maritime engineering of his day. Weighing in at 46,328 tonnes, 300 metres long and 30m wide, Titanic had 29 boilers and 159 furnaces driving 50,000-horsepower engines, and its triple screws produced over 20 knots of speed. As the ship foundered, with two hours and 40 minutes from collision to sinking, he gathered his engine room crew into boiler rooms 2 and 3 to keep the boilers going to power pumps and lights. When he heard that the forward bulkheads had burst, he declared: “My God, we are lost.” The ship’s lights only finally went out as she went down.
Scottish Opera’s ornate headquarters in Elmbank Crescent was built in 1907, as the headquarters of the IESS. The grand Edwardian building was a statement of clout. “Glasgow and the Clyde at that time was far and away the dominant centre of shipbuilding in the world,” says Masterston. When the RMS Titanic sank, it was considered fitting that the building should house a memorial to the professional engineers who died.
The service was initially proposed by the Glasgow Ulster Scots Society. Most of the engineers were either English or Northern Irish, but it was in 1912 that Harland & Wolff bought two shipyards in Glasgow, underlining the ties binding the big shipping cities. The move led to thousands of Ulster Scots shipbuilding workers moving to the city with their families, says the society’s secretary, Glen Elder.
The IESS sold its building in 1968, and is now based far more modestly in the Clydeport Building in Robertson Street. It retains ownership of the plaque, and the stained glass windows in an upper room, featuring a ship thought to be the Lusitania.
Banks revisited the Titanic’s original records in his research for his memorial speech at the ceremony: “We thought as a professional institution it would be nice to commemorate the lives of those professionally involved in engineering in the Titanic, and that’s what plaque is all about.”.
His research underlined that the Titanic was sunk by hubris and bad luck, rather than any design flaws. “It was a fantastically designed ship, all of the detail design features met every requirement of the board of trade at that time,” he says. “There were no deficiencies as a result of the design found in the inquiries. I was rather staggered to find how accurate some of the calculations were. I take my hat off to the engineers who designed the ship.”
Between November 1911 and April 1912, Banks notes, 20 other ships sank off the shores of Newfoundland. There has been speculation that because of extreme high tides that winter, icebergs grounded in shallow waters off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland were lifted, drifting with currents into the Titanic’s path. But in the face of warnings about ice, Captain Smith kept up the ship’s speed. Banks says: “The fundamental observation is that with a superbly designed ship, the captain was going too fast. He ought to have slowed down in the circumstances. I personally believe that he was trying to break the record across the Atlantic.”
It was the ship’s attempt to avoid the iceberg that may have doomed it, with the 90-metre gouge along its hull flooding too many of its watertight compartments. “Had the Titanic hit the iceberg straight on, it would have been a big bump, with tremendous damage to the bow, but I rather think she would have stayed afloat,” says Banks.