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RMS Olympic – Mutiny over Titanic’s Boat Situation by Terry Randall

At the time of Titanic’s sinking,Olympic was on the return leg from New York of her fifth trans-Atlantic voyage, having sailed from the United States at 1500 on Saturday 13th April 1912. She did in fact pick up the distress calls sent our by her sister and started to respond, but as she was on the southerly Atlantic route and over 500 miles away from Titanic, the owners thought it best that the survivors did not see the sister of the ship that had just sunk! So the diversion was called off.

Olympic arrived at Southampton in the early hours of Sunday 21st April to find their home port in a state of mourning, but despite the all-pervading gloom, activity in the dockyard was more intense than usual. At the White Star Dock, she had to be prepared for her next scheduled departure, due three days later on 24th April. In the light of recent events, considerable modifications were to be made to the life saving apparatus on the boat-decks before departure.

Work immediately commenced to embark 40 Berthon collapsible lifeboats, to ensure there was sufficient lifeboat capacity for everyone on board. This was carried out under the watchful eye of the Board of Trade Assistant Marine Surveyor at Southampton, Captain Maurice Clarke; the man who had cleared Titanic for her sailing less than two weeks earlier. The embarking of the extra boats came under the direct supervision of White Star’s Marine Superintendent, Captain Benjamin Steele. Orders for the actual number of boats needed seemed to change hourly and at one point, after some 35 extra of these had been loaded, a message from the Liverpool office of White Star arrived stating that in fact only 24 extra boats were needed! As the surplus boats were landed ashore, rumours circulated that the reason for their landing was because Captain Clarke had failed to pass them as fit for use; two days later these rumours were to have a dramatic effect.

By breakfast time on Wednesday 24th April, the work had been completed, with the extra boats secured and covered. A number of temporary wire falls had also been installed and extra deck hands had been signed on to ensure that there were enough men to handle them. But despite the Herculean efforts of the Harland and Wolff workforce at Southampton, in the end their effort was for nothing.

Making an early start, Captain Clarke went aboard at 0700 to inspect the new arrangements and give them an even more thorough examination than he gave the davits on Titanic two weeks earlier. As the passengers continued to arrive, he put the crew through their paces, having them uncover and lower a number of different boats to make sure that everything was in working order. The operation ran smoothly and Clarke estimated that it took an average of only twelve and a half minutes to lower each boat.

AT 1150, satisfied everything was safe and on the verge of handing Captain Haddock his clearance to sail, a message was rushed to the bridge informing the captain that his stokehold crew was deserting the ship. A meeting was hastily arranged between the firemen and a number of company managers, but unconvinced by Captain Clarke’s assurances that the new boats were completely safe, the men refused to return on board unless the company replaced the collapsible boats with conventional lifeboats.

There was no alternative but to postpone the ship’s departure for New York until a replacement stokehold crew could be mustered. Olympic was then moved to a safe anchorage off Spithead in order to clear the berth, (also to make any further desertions impossible?) while 2nd Engineer Charles McKean remained onshore to muster this new crew.

By dawn the next morning little had changed; Olympic remained anchored in the Solent with steam up and ready to sail. Not being one to waste time, Captain Clarke who had remained on board in order to be able to give Olympic immediate „Clearance to Sail? the moment the new crew members arrived, he gathered a number of seaman on the boat decks to practice boat drill yet again. This time the results were not so reassuring, taking almost two hours to prepare and lower just a few boats. When some of the passengers began to appear on deck at around 0800, the exercise was stopped so that they would not be alarmed.

Later that morning the union delegation arrived to negotiate a settlement to the dispute and after discussions, six of the collapsible boats were lowered into the water and left for two hours. On examination it was found that five were totally dry inside, but the sixth did have a small amount of water in it. Closer examination revealed a tiny hole*, but two hours of seepage could be easily bailed in less than three minutes. After a quick conference in the captain’s cabin, the union delegates agreed to advise their members that the boats were safe, provided the faulty boat was replaced.

As the afternoon wore on, with passengers on the decks in an increasingly impatient mood, the management and engineers ashore continued to sign on replacements, but it was not until 2200 that night that the tender finally arrived alongside with a total of 168 replacement stoke hold crew. This number included extra men considered adequate to allow Olympic to run at a faster speed than normal, in order to make up some of the 36 hours already lost.

It was but a temporary reprieve! At midnight, as Olympic was preparing once more to put to sea; another message arrived on the bridge telling Captain Haddock that more of his crew were deserting. Now another 53 men (35 A/B’s, 5 Quartermasters, 5 Look-outs, 2 Lamp-trimmers, 4 Greasers and two other engine room personnel) were boarding the tender that had brought out the new crew members; all refusing to sail with the ship.

This time the problem was not so much a lack of faith in the boats, but a lack of faith in the new crew! The seamen regarded the new stoke hold crew as either ‘the dregs of Portsmouth’,or inexperienced firemen not experienced in the running of a large ship; many of them did not did not even have “signing on? books.

Twice they refused Haddock’s orders to return to their duties, though they acknowledged their sympathies to him. A spokesman for the deserting seamen named Lewis admitted that the actions of the firemen at Southampton had been “a dirty low down trick?, but their replacements were not fit to be aboard and that it would be unsafe to put to sea with them.

It was the last straw! Shortly after midnight Haddock signalled the commander of the Royal Naval cruiser HMS Cochrane lying half a mile away off Spithead:

“Crew deserting ship; request your assistance. Haddock, Master.”

Within half an hour Captain W E Goodenough RN had boarded Olympic to help mediate in the dispute and try to persuade the men to return to their duties.

Although a number of the men were still dissatisfied with the boats, the majority were more concerned at the lack of experience in the new men; many of them were not even union members. It was this last point that Captain Goodenough considered to be the root cause of the new situation, believing that the men seemed to be more afraid of their union than any possible repercussions from their actions. The threat of a charge of mutiny failed to influence the men and the use of force could not be considered as nobody had been hurt or threatened; in fact the men had shown every respect for the two officers.

With a new stalemate on board, the White Star management at Southampton wearily set about raising a new deck crew in the early hours of the morning and at 1100 the tender again arrived alongside with over thirty new men; though Captain Clarke failed to pass but a few as fit for duty! A little over an hour later, Clarke received word from his office to clear Olympic for departure as soon as he was satisfied the ship was sufficiently manned, but with the ship already two days behind schedule, this seemed less likely than ever.

At 1500, the expected news to cancel the voyage arrived from the White Star Liverpool offices and Olympicreturned to Southampton to disembark her passengers. She would remain there until her next scheduled voyage with union approved boats (and crew) on the 15th May.

The mutiny was over, but for the White Star Line, the entire incident following hard on the loss of Titanichad added insult to injury. If the company was ever to recover any of its lost credibility, then action had to be taken; this action took the form of a court case against the 53 seamen who had deserted the ship after sailing from Southampton.

The case began on Tuesday 30th April in the Portsmouth Police Court when the accused men answered to the charge that:

“…..they were guilty of wilfull disobedience to the lawful commands of Captain Haddock, Master of the steamshipOlympic, contrary to section 225 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894.”

The defence lawyers based their case on Article 458 of the same act claiming that as owners, the White Star Line was obliged to ensure the seaworthiness of their ships, but in allowing Olympicto sail with an incompetent crew ("the scallywags of Portsmouth’), it almost amounted to rendering her as  not seaworthy; as if she had a hole in her hull!

Norman Raebarn, acting for the White Star Line, called Captain Benjamin Steele the White Star Marine Superintendent at Southampton, to testify that the life-saving equipment on board was adequate and CaptainClarke was subpoenaed by the company to testify that all the boats were seaworthy and had an adequate number of seamen to handle them.

Regarding the competence of the replacements, Second Engineer Charles McKean, who had mustered the new stoke hold crew, admitted that many of the new men were inexperienced (many were Yorkshire miners), but he did not consider the job of fireman to be skilled labour, though he did admit much to the amusement of the court, that it was hard work.

The verdict announced on 5th May went in favour of the White Star Line, but in summing up the judge decided that it would be inappropriate to fine or imprison the mutineers as they had probably been „unnerved? by the recent Titanic disaster; it was probably as good a result as the White Star Line was going to get. With attention now centred on Lord Mersey’s enquiry in London into the loss of Titanic, the incident was relegated to the background, as the company’s lawyers faced the more daunting task of salvaging their employer’s reputation in a more public arena.

The one man who perhaps gained from the mutiny was Captain Clarke. As Board of Trade Surveyor he was not paid for any overtime, but his sixty hours marooned on Olympic had been above and beyond the call of duty. He was given a bonus payment of £6-16-0 (£6-80p) to compensate him for the extra work, which did a great deal to make up for the three-day backlog that had built up on his desk while he had been away. The extra cost was passed on to White Star in the form of an excess charge of £16.

The episode was over, but not quite forgotten. On the 14th May a question was tabled in Parliament by George Terrell MP ** to Prime Minister H H Asquith enquiring "what action if any, was to be taken against the officials of the British Seafarers Union, who had prevented the departure of Olympic, consequently delaying His Majesty’s Mails’. Terrell’s question was referred to the Board of Trade, who unsurprisingly decided, that as a result of the court case at Portsmouth, no prosecution was worthwhile!

Olympic meanwhile remained at Southampton until midday 15th May, when she sailed, without event, on the start of her sixth voyage to New York and back.

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*Rumour at the time (unsubstantiated) was that it was possible to be able to push one’s finger through the sides of these boats without effort.

**One cannot help but speculate that this was probably prompted by White Star, in an effort to yet exact some form of retribution against the so-called mutineers.

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George William Martell the 2nd was one of the five Quartermasters involved at the time of the incident, also he was one of the ship’s union representatives (the former British Seaman’s Union), which probably explains his involvement in this episode. He returned to sea (discharge book for that voyage, as with the other ‘mutineers’, being stamped ‘VNC’ Voyage Not Completed!) mostly with Olympic, until as a Royal Naval Reservist, he was remustered back into the Royal Navy at the outbreak of WW1. He spent the whole of that war on minesweeping duties, an onerous and extremely hazardous duty in what was in those days, still very much a new science in naval warfare.

In 1916 his ship, HMS Beryl 2 [a ‘taken-up-from-trade’ vessel adapted for minesweeping duties), in which he was “Ch/Bo “suns Mate – Coxswain”, was lost through enemy action, with his captain being awarded the DSC and he himself the DSM. He was wounded during this action and although he returned to active duty, finishing the war in the same capacity in another minesweeper, his leg wound never completely healed; indeed after the war and on his return to civilian life, it deteriorated even more so. (Today’s modern drugs doubtless would have healed him).

He died on the 28th February 1933 at the age of 53; his death considered by his widow to be directly attributable to his wounds

He was my maternal grandfather and at the time of his death I was but six weeks short of my second birthday; I wish I could have known him

A little story I remember my father relating, which really goes to show the attitudes of people in those days, was that as George Martell got older, he walked more and more with a pronounced limp and was thus a figure of fun, often referred to behind his back as ["bumble-foot George?! To me he was a hero

T H Randall (Terry) 15th April 1931 - North Baddesley.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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