Charles Lightoller – Second Officer on the Titanic

Charles Lightoller served as the Second Officer on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, which sunk, having struck an iceberg, on 15 April 1912. Lightoller survived.

Born on 30 March 1874, Charles Lightoller began life in the Lancashire town of Chorley.

The young Lightoller was initially brought up by his father, his mother having died not long after his birth.  But, by the age of 13, his father had abandoned him, and the boy was forced to fend for himself.  In 1888, he began a four year nautical apprenticeship on board the Primrose Hill.

Lightoller’s early nautical career was adventurous, to say the least.  On various voyages, he survived a shipwreck, a cyclone, a severe bout of malaria and a fire which had ignited a cargo of coal.  After a brief stint prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory of Canada, Lightoller joined the White Star Line in 1900, by which time he was well acquainted with the drama of the high seas.

In 1903, on a voyage to Australia, Lightoller met his future wife, Sylvia Hawley-Wilson, who was returning to Sydney after a visit to England.  The pair married quickly, and Sarah accompanied her new husband home on the return voyage.  The pair would go on to have five children.

The Titanic

Charles Lightoller served as Second Officer on Titanics maiden voyage in April 1912. Lightoller was one of those who was forced into the sub-zero waters, and survived by clinging onto an upturned collapsible life raft (which had been swept off the sinking ship before it could be launched). Afterwards, he said that, striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body.”

On the morning of 15 April, he was the last person to board the Carpathia, having first ensured that every other survivor reached the rescue ship safely.

Testifying at both the American and British Inquiries in the disaster, Lightoller tried to protect his employers and the memory of the captain, Edward Smith, by steadfastly refusing to lay blame on either party.

In 1913, Lightoller resumed his seafaring career, serving as First Officer on board another White Star Liner, the Oceanic, a situation which continued after the outbreak of World War I, when the ship was commandeered by the Royal Navy.

Distinguished Service Cross

By the end of 1915, Lieutenant Lightoller, as he was then known, had taken command of the torpedo boat HMTB 117.  On 31 July 1916, Lightoller launched a gun attack on the German airship, Zeppelin L31, for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross.

By 1918, he had served at the helm of torpedo-boat-destroyers the Falcon and the Garry, and when he left the Navy at the end of the year, he had attained the rank of Commander.

However, despite his distinguished war service, Charles Lightoller discovered that his peacetime career opportunities were limited with the White Star Line.  Treated as an unwanted reminder of the Titanic disaster, it soon became clear that his employers would never allow him to take command of a ship.  So, after more than twenty years loyal service, Lightoller resigned.

In retirement, Lightoller set about writing his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, which became a bestseller despite being the subject of a lawsuit by the Marconi Company.

Latter Years

In 1929, the retired seaman purchased an old steam yacht, and after re-fitting it with a new steam engine, renamed it the Sundowner. 

Despite his retirement from active service, Lightoller was destined to have one last wartime adventure – the Sundowner was one of the flotilla of small ships which took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

In the latter years of his life, Charles Lightoller suffered from chronic heart disease.  He died on 8 December 1952, aged 78.  He was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, Surrey.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Read more about the Titanic in Titanic: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

See also articles on Captain Edward Smith, the ship’s captain, and J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line.