Henry Wilde was born in 1872 in Walton, Liverpool, England, the son of Henry Wilde, an Insurance Suveyor, and Elizabeth Tingle. Just as any officer in the British merchant marine did in those days, Wilde went to sea in his early teens, serving his apprenticeship with James Chambers & Co., Liverpool. After four years, he passed his watch officer examinations, and assumed his first posting, as Third Mate, aboard the sailing vessel Greystoke Castle. In July 1897, after having gained a few years’ experience in steam, he joined the White Star Line.
Over the course of the next decade, Wilde rose fairly rapidly through the ranks of the White Star Line’s officers, at the same time earning a commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. A tall, powerfully-uilt man, he was clearly a seaman of outstanding ability, passing the Special Examination for an Extra Master’s Certificate by the time he was 28 (Captain Smith was 38 when he received his Extra Master’s ticket), and he was marked by the White Star management as one of their most promising officers.
In the summer of 1911 he was assigned as Chief Officer to White Star’s newest, biggest ship, the Olympic, under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith. Typically, a posting like this was taken as a sure sign that the officer in question would soon be given his own first command. But while Wilde’s career was prospering, his personal life took a tragic turn in December 1912 when his wife and their infant twin sons died of scarlet fever, leaving Wilde to raise his four older children alone. Manfully, he carried on but his friends and family noted a new melancholia about him in the months to come.
Captain Smith valued Wilde’s skill and experience enough to ask that he be assigned to the Titanic for her maiden voyage, moving William Murdoch, who had originally been assigned as the new ship’s Chief Officer, down to First. (C. H. Lightoller, who had originally been assigned as the Titanic‘s First Officer, was now her Second, while David Blair, who had been given the post of Second Officer, was bumped from the crew roster entirely.) With his usual tact and diplomacy the captain had broken the news to Murdoch, explaining that while he didn’t doubt Murdoch’s ability, Wilde’s nearly year-long experience on the Olympic would be especially valuable in shaking down the new Titanic on her first voyage.
Wilde, on the other hand, wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and apparently hesitated to accept. He disliked the thought of bumping his friend Murdoch out of his new berth, and though she was virtually identical to the Olympic, he never felt comfortable with the Titanic herself. Eventually his friends and family persuaded him to take the appointment, arguing that with Captain Smith’s pending retirement this would put him in line to succeed him as captain of either the Titanic or the Olympic. After much soul- searching, he finally agreed to go, but, as he made clear in a letter to his sister written the day the Titanic left Southampton and posted at Queenstown, he continued to feel distinctly uneasy about his latest assignment. “I still don’t like this ship,” he told her, “I have a queer feeling about it.”