Second Officer Charles Herbert (Bert) Lightoller

Charles Herbert (C.H. or “Bert”) Lightoller was very much the popular image of a steamship’s officer.  Sun-bronzed, tall, handsome, with a deep, pleasant speaking voice, Lightoller was a good officer and an outstanding seaman.  He had gone to sea as a boy on a clipper on the Australian run under the legendary Old Jock Sutherland, one of the most notorious “crackers-on” Liverpool ever produced.  (A “cracker-on” was a hard driving master who would push his ship through a full gale without ever reducing sail.)  Lightoller had experienced fire at sea, been a castaway, stood as Second Officer on a three-skysail clipper and passed for a Master’s certificate, all by the age of twenty-three, and later had been involved in the Yukon gold rush.

After Lightoller joined the White Star Line in 1900 on the Australian run, an incident in Sydney Harbour  during the Boer War, in which he had contrived to fire a salute to the Colours at Fort Dennison while simultaneously hoisting the Boer flag, led to his transfer to the North Atlantic run. In addition to this mischievous streak, there was something of the romantic about Lightoller, though he tried to keep that side of his nature well-hidden.  It was on one of the outbound trips to Australia aboard the Suevic in 1903 that he met a  pert, and pretty 18-year old girl named Sylvia Hawley-Wilson.  Sylvia had a club foot, making it very difficult for her to negotiate the stairs between decks; before long, she  often found herself being gently lifted from one deck to another by Lightoller, who would “just happen” to be passing by.  When on the Suevic‘s return to Liverpool Lightoller was unable to put the young Sylvia from his mind, one of his fellow officers admonished him, “Go ahead, Lights and just marry the little girl!”  On the next trip he did just that; their marriage lasted until his death in 1952.

He had served under Captain Smith several times before and had been First Officer of the Majestic and later the Oceanic before being assigned to the same position on the new Titanic.  Understandably then, he was more than a little miffed at being bumped out of the First Officer’s slot by William Murdoch to allow room for Chief Officer Wilde:  in the narrowly confined world of a steamship line, the First Officer’s position was usually a guarantee of a command in the not too distant future, so Lightoller regarded his supercession as a sort of demotion.

Oddly enough, Lightoller had a distinctly uneasy feeling about the Titanic; he wasn’t sure why, but he felt that she was not destined to be a happy ship.  He certainly found her sheer size daunting: he would later recall that it took almost two weeks aboard before he could finally make his way from one point in the ship to another by the most direct route.   In any case, years later, in the midst of recounting some of his experiences aboard the Titanic, he would recall how sailors develop a “sense” about their ships:  “It is difficult to describe exactly where that unity of feeling lies, between a ship and her crew, but it is there, in every ship that sails on salt water.  It is not always a feeling of affection, either.  A man can hate a ship worse than a human being, although he sails on her.  Likewise a ship can hate her men, and she frequently becomes known as a ‘killer'”.

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