The Confusing Accounts of Quartermaster Rowe

By Bill Wormstedt
  © 2018 by Bill Wormstedt

Quartermaster George Rowe testified at both the American Inquiry, and the subsequent British Inquiry, and added to his accounts in the 1950s and 1960s. As he described his movements on that night, he was present for many key events during the sinking; but what he does say, and does not say, brings up many questions.

The Inquiry Testimonies, April 25th, 1912 and May 24th, 1912:

QM George Rowe,
about 1912

The night of April 14th, QM Rowe had been on duty out on the stern of the ship since change of watch at 8 p.m. He was on the Poop Deck, just underneath the Stern Docking Bridge, when he felt a slight jar and looked at his watch – 11:40 p.m. This time agrees closely with almost all other testimonies of other witnesses. He saw the iceberg slip by, less than 10 or 20 feet from the ship, and he was afraid it was going to strike the Docking Bridge, but it just cleared it. He did not hear any rubbing of the iceberg against the ship, so apparently the stern had been swung clear of it. He then went up on the Docking Bridge, “to stand by the telephone.”

Rowe was asked by Senator Burton if the helm was hard astarboard, the stern would have been up against the berg, and Rowe replied "It stands to reason it would be, if the helm was hard astarboard". The implication from this is that the hard astarboard order had to have been followed by a hard aport order (as reported by QM Olliver on the bridge, and in a account given by Hichens to Carpathia passenger Howard Chapin, printed in George Behe's book The Carpathia and the Titanic), to swing the stern clear.

After the berg passed on into the night, the quartermaster read the taffrail log, and found the ship had steamed 260 miles since it was reset at noon.

After the collision, he remained on the Docking Bridge, awaiting orders. Though the end of his watch was at 12:23 a.m. (the same time as QM Hichens went off watch), Rowe remained on duty until he saw an unidentified boat in the water off the starboard beam, at 12:25 a.m. He telephoned up to the Fore Bridge, where he asked if they were aware a lifeboat had been lowered. He was asked if he was the Third Officer, to which he replied no, and he was told to bring the detonators (rockets) stored in a locker under the Poop Deck, forward, which he did.

Once he had delivered the rockets to the Fourth Officer on the Fore Bridge, Rowe mentioned helping with firing the rockets on the starboard side, and also using the Morse Lamp on the port side of the Bridge. While on the Bridge, he had seen the lights of what he thought was a sailing ship, forward off the port bow. We do not know if he saw the lights on his own, or if his attention was directed to them by one of the officers, regardless, he attempted to Morse this other ship, in an attempt to get their attention. This attempt was fruitless, and the other ship apparently did not respond.

Though his American Inquiry testimony states he saw an unknown lifeboat, in his British testimony he modified this. When asked whether he knew which boat it was, he replied “No. I should think it was either 13 or 15.” This must have been a guess on his part, as we know that both of these lifeboats left the ship far later than this, probably around 1:40 a.m.

Rowe's duty station, aft
at the Stern Docking Bridge

At the British Inquiry, Rowe was asked if the Titanic’s head was altering in any way. He replied that “her head was facing north. She was coming round to starboard” and the stern was pointing to the south. This direction agrees with the hard-a-port order that had to have been executed after hard-a-starboard, and also agrees with the orientation of the wreck on the sea bottom.

Rowe continued to fire rockets and Morse, until 1:25 a.m., when Captain Smith ordered him to assist in loading and lowering Collapsible C. After assisting “six, three women and three children” into the boat, Rowe said he didn’t see any women or men passengers on deck when they left, just firemen and stokers. He did see Mr. Ismay and another man passenger enter the boat. In his British testimony, he said he had discovered the other man was Mr. (William) Carter. Rowe was at the afterfall, under command of Chief Officer Wilde, at this point.

Rowe was asked if he heard any revolver shots, as there had been newspaper reports of shooting at the last boats. He replied he heard no shots. He also said he saw no panic in these final minutes.

Though Rowe did mention hearing the sound of escaping steam from the funnels, he was not specific as to when he heard this.

He could tell the Titanic was listing to port as Collapsible C was lowered, “five to six degrees”, by his estimation. As the lifeboat went down the side of the ship, it had to be pushed away from the hull, due to this list.

As Collapsible C was lowered, Rowe noticed that the Fore Well Deck was awash. When they reached the water, the Well Deck had submerged. He also said that the Titanic sank about twenty minutes after his boat left the side of the ship.

Upon lowering, Rowe claimed he had 39 people aboard, but later found 4 stowaways who “came up between the seats.” He piloted the lifeboat toward the light he could see about 4 or 5 miles away, and they were about three quarters of a mile from the Titanic when she disappeared beneath the waves. Rowe said he did see the Titanic as she disappeared from view, and heard a rumbling, but gave no more details.

The 1950s and 1960s Accounts:

George Rowe,
 
1956

Walter Lord was researching the sinking of the Titanic during the early 1950s, and was in contact in George Rowe in 1955. Rowe’s undated letter to Lord mentioned the contact with the iceberg, and said, based on the heights of the Boat Deck davits, the iceberg height was about 100 feet tall. He does mention the ship was “hove to” (stopped), and shortly after, saw a boat lowered and he was called forward. He repeats a lot of his Inquiry testimony regarding bringing the rockets forward, and Captain Smith ordering him to fire the rockets, and to try the Morse Lamp. He also repeats that Chief Officer Wilde was loading the starboard collapsible (Collapsible C), and Captain Smith ordered him to take charge of the boat. Rowe indicated that he saw Ismay and another gentleman he thought was Mr. Carter enter the boat. Rowe again mentions the list of Titanic to port, and the difficultly lowering the lifeboat. Once in the water, Rowe asked Ismay “What’s the best thing to do?”, and Ismay replied “You are in charge.” Rowe does say the lifeboat was rowed by Ismay on one oar, Mr. Carter on another, and 4 crewmen.

In November 27, 1956, George Rowe appeared on the BBC with a number of other survivors.  He talked about the collision with the iceberg at twenty minutes to twelve, and that the engines were run full speed astern immediately afterwards.  He noticed the blowing off of steam, and after a while, saw a lifeboat off to starboard, which he reported to the Bridge.  They asked him to find the distress rockets and bring them forward.  When he got there, Captain Smith asked him to fire them, one every five or six minutes, and also asked him if he could Morse.  Rowe replied he could, and Smith instructed him to try to contact the light seen forward, and tell them "we are the Titanic, sinking."

Shortly before March 5, 1963, at the request of Leslie Harrison, the General Secretary of the Mercantile Marine Service Association, Mr. Rowe was contacted by J. Powell, District Secretary, and was asked a series of questions in an attempt to clarify several issues. Rowe claimed that the first lifeboat launched was at 1:00 a.m., and this boat was No. 13. Rowe stated he did not think to look at his watch at this time. Also, at 1:00 a.m., the first rocket was fired, by orders of Captain Smith. Rowe mentions taking 10 minutes to get forward along the Boat Deck to the Bridge, and that Bob Hichens was at the wheel. Rowe repeats that he fired rockets every 5 or 6 minutes, and that he was Morsing at the same time. He does state that Boxhall was nearby during the first two rockets being fired, but not seen after that. Rowe says that the steam blowing off from the funnels had ceased while the rockets were being fired. Finally, Rowe states that once in his lifeboat, he asked Ismay what to do.

A second short inquiry was transmitted back to Harrison, via Powell, on May 18, 1963. In this contact, Rowe states emphatically that he did *not* adjust his watch that night. A final exchange occurred shortly before June 12, 1963, and Rowe stated that the first lifeboats were lowered at 12:30 a.m., the rockets *were* being fired while he was “still on the after poop”, and that once he brought other rockets forward, they used these rockets too.

The three communications between Rowe and Harrison/Powell, can be found here.  First, Second, Third.

From 1963 to 1968, Ed Kamuda of the Titanic Historical Society exchanged a series of letters with the then retired George Rowe. Many of these letters were reprinted in issue 156 of the THS Commutator. These letters, written by Rowe about the events of the nights of April 14 and 15, 1912, have more details of the sinking, some of which help confirm his 1912 testimony, though some of it does conflict with his earlier accounts.

In the first letter, from September 1963, Rowe gives some introductory remarks before talking about his remembrances of the sinking 51 years earlier. He describes feeling the iceberg strike, and seeing the berg move past, and that “the engines started in reverse, and the vibrations on that poop were terrible”. He does confirm the watch change at 12:23 a.m. (actually he said 12:22 a.m., a minor difference), and that his relief was expected to show up then, but was late. About 1:00 a.m., he did see “movements on the after end of the Boat Deck, and then a boat, the very boat I should have been in charge of, No. 13”. He again describes his phone call to the Bridge, and being told to bring the rockets forward. He tells that he and Mr. Boxhall fired the first one (italics mine) and then seeing a light off the port bow. Captain Smith then asked Rowe if he could use the Morse Lamp, and told him to call up the ship with the light. His account then jumps to the end of the evening, and that Chief Officer Wilde was having Collapsible C turned out. The Captain then asked Rowe to fire one final rocket, then take charge of the lifeboat. Wilde further instructed Rowe to go to the other lifeboats, and have them come back to pick up more people. Rowe again describes the list to port of 5 to 6 degrees, and the lifeboat “rubbing strake catching on the rivets all the way down the ship’s side.”

Titanic's Boat Deck, and Quartermaster Rowe's route
from the Aft Docking Bridge to the Forward Bridge


In a second letter, dated August 16th, 1968, he reiterates that No. 13 was the lifeboat he saw in the water. He says he “went by way of the port side of the Boat Deck, crossed over the top of the main saloon, and up the starboard ladder to the Bridge” (note that Rowe's statement about a ladder is in error, in the diagram above, there is no ladder between the Boat Deck and the Bridge). Rowe repeats being told to fire rockets once “every five or six minutes”, seeing the light off the port bow, and being asked if he could Morse. He mentions Boxhall leaving the Bridge and Chief Officer Wilde superintending the turning out of Collapsible C. Captain Smith then told Rowe to take charge of the collapsible after he had fired the next rocket.

Rowe's third letter to Kamuda, written shortly afterwards, goes into the detail that once Rowe was on the Bridge, only seven rockets were fired.

Rowe’s letters to Kamuda are reprinted in the THS Commutators 153 and 156, both from 2001.

The Conflicts:

Some of Rowe’s testimony can be verified by other crew accounts.

The telephone call forward agrees with Boxhall’s account.  Boxhall testified receiving the call, and asking the caller to bring the rockets, stored in a locker at the stern, forward to the Bridge. Boxhall adds the additional detail that he *had just* fired a rocket off, when the call came in. We do know that rockets were stored both forward, and at the stern, so Boxhall could have started the rocket firing before any were brought forward. This sequence does agree with the final Harrison/Rowe contact, where Rowe said rockets were being fired before he came forward. It does *not* agree with Rowe’s 1963 statement to Kamuda that he and Boxhall fired the first rocket.

Rowe’s watch relief was QM Bright, who admitted he came to relieve Rowe at the stern late (after 12:23 a.m.), though he did not say exactly when. Bright’s testimony is a bit different from Rowe’s on this point, in that Bright does not mention seeing the lifeboat, just that they called forward to ask what to do, and were asked to bring the signals (rockets) forward. Once there (after an undetermined time for the trip forward), they helped Boxhall fire the rockets. Rowe himself does *not* mention Bright in his testimony at all. The only mention of Bright that Rowe made, in any of his accounts, was his first letter to Kamuda in September 1963, where he said his relief was late in showing up. But he did not say the relief ever did show up, or when or who that may have been.

Examining Rowe’s account, we can identify a number of missing details, or ones that disagree with other accounts.

In the September 3, 1963 letter to Kamuda, Rowe stated “I saw it was an iceberg, and then the engines started in reverse and the vibrations on that poop were something terrific.” The engine reversal and subsequent vibration is a detail that Rowe did not testify to in 1912. Even though Boxhall testified to a “Full Astern” order before the collision, none of the crewmen in the Engine and Boiler Rooms agree with this, and they only received a “Stop” order prior to the collision. Apparently the engines were reversed shortly after the collision - Trimmer Thomas Dillon said the engines went in reverse about two minutes afterward. The reversal is not immediately afterwards, as Rowe implied in 1963. Rowe also mentions the engine reversal in the 1956 BBC show, and his 1963 correspondence.

While he was on the stern, Rowe does not mention anything happening before he spotted the lifeboat in the water. He does mention the steam blowing off (though not whether he heard it when he was at the stern, or later when he was forward firing rockets), but he does not mention any commotion up on the Boat Deck, though we know that the boats were being readied for launching, and this includes the boats at the aft end of the deck. Rowe doesn’t mention seeing any passengers out on the Boat Deck or A Deck, people who would have been in easy sight from his position on the Stern Docking Bridge. He must have seen something going on, but if he did, he apparently did nothing about it. Also, the ship had stopped dead in the water, yet he did not mention this detail until his 1955 letter to Walter Lord. But even having seen this, it did not trigger any reaction on Rowe’s part, and he just stayed waiting at the stern until he saw the lifeboat in the water.

If the times Rowe testified to in 1912 were correct, rockets were being fired for over an hour, between 12:25 a.m. and 1:25 a.m. Other accounts have also estimated this period as being roughly an hour, and subsequent research agrees (see the 2012 books Loss of the SS Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal and On a Sea of Glass), though the time period therein appears to be around 12:47 a.m. to 1:50 a.m, which disagrees with Rowe’s times.

The question is – were QM Rowe’s times of 12:25 a.m. and 1:25 a.m. for these events accurate? He does not specifically say he checked his watch for them, as he did for the 11:40 p.m. time for the iceberg strike. Though he stated to Harrison/Powell in 1963 he did not reset his watch that night, there is quite a bit of evidence that he must have. A full explanation of how his 1912 times cannot be correct can be found at “The Distress Rockets and Quartermaster Rowe” in the article Titanic: The Lifeboat Launching Sequence Re-Examined at http://wormstedt.com/Titanic/lifeboats/lifeboats.htm), but the main points are these:

  • If Rowe saw a lifeboat in the water at 12:25 a.m., before he came forward, then it must have actually been after 12:40 a.m., when the preponderance of the evidence shows Lifeboat #7 left the ship. If it actually was Boat #13 he saw, then it had to have been after 1:40 a.m.
  • Rowe’s statement that the Titanic sank about 20 minutes after his Collapsible C left the ship makes no sense, if his time of 1:25 a.m. is used. We know the ship sank around 2:20 a.m.  If the 20 minutes is correct, then Collapsible C had to have left around 2:00 a.m. Also, given Bright’s statement that water was engulfling the Forecastle when Collapsible D was lowered, and Rowe’s testimony that the Well Deck was underwater, then Collapsibles C and D must have left the ship at very close to the same time. All evidence shows Collapsible D left close to 2:05 a.m. – in perfect agreement of a slightly earlier time of 2:00 a.m. for Rowe’s collapsible.

What is the explanation for Rowe’s incorrect times? That his statement to Harrison/Powell is wrong, and he *did* reset his watch that night, just as he would normally do, every night of his career at sea – something he very likely did with little conscious thought about it. His reset would be 23 minutes (per QM Hichens) – and his time of 12:25 a.m. becomes 12:48 a.m., and 1:25 a.m. becomes 1:48 a.m. 12:48 a.m. is shortly after Lifeboat #7 left the ship, and 1:48 a.m. is just after Boxhall left in Boat #2 at around 1:45 a.m., and gives Rowe time to help load Collapsible C before leaving the Titanic at around 2:00 a.m. The reset of the watch makes Rowe’s times perfectly match the events that we know were occurring that night.

Though Rowe doesn’t specifically say this, he appears to have been the one to fire the very last rocket sent up. We know that Boxhall left in Lifeboat #2, and that rockets were fired *after* that, as First Class Passenger Mahala Douglas, who left the ship with Boxhall in #2, said “They were putting off rockets on the deck as we got away." Chief Steward John Hardy, who left in Collapsible D, said he had last seen Captain Smith while he was on the Bridge "superintending the rockets, calling out to the quartermaster (Rowe) about the rockets." After this last rocket was fired, Captain Smith ordered the quartermaster to assist in loading Collapsible C on the starboard Boat Deck.

Another questionable statement from Rowe is he claimed that he heard no shots the evening of the sinking. This contradicts the testimony of First Class Passenger Jack Thayer, and also of First Class Passenger Hugh Woolner. Woolner stated “There was a sort of scramble on the starboard side, and I looked around and I saw two flashes of a pistol in the air.” This would be Rowe’s lifeboat, Collapsible C, lowered immediately before Collapsible D.

Rowe also says he took 10 minutes to get to the Fore Bridge with the rockets, and ‘Bob’ Hichens was still at the wheel. But if we accept Hichens’ statement that he was at the wheel until 12:23 a.m. (and we have no reason to disbelieve him), then it also shows Rowe’s times make no sense. Rowe would have had to have left the stern no later than 12:13 a.m., long before the first boat was lowered!

Conclusion:

Obviously, many of George Rowe’s memories had faded over the 40 or 50 years since the disaster. His later statements were unreliable and contradictory. He gave times that did not agree with his Inquiry testimonies. He did give additional details to his earlier accounts, but these details did not always agree with what he, or others, have said over the years. And at times, his later accounts did not even agree with themselves!

QM Rowe is one crewmember who saw and heard many things the night of April 14 – 15, 1912. The questions that were asked in the 50s and 60s were good questions to be asked, unfortunately for all of us, it’s too bad the same questions weren’t asked at the 1912 Inquiries, when Quartermaster Rowe’s memories were fresh and unfaded by the years.


Photo Credits:
QM Rowe, about 1912            Dave Fredericks Collection
Rowe's Duty Station                courtesy Charlie Weeks
George Rowe, 1956                 BBC
Titanic Deck plan                     courtesy Cyril Codus
Harrison/Powell/Rowe accounts     courtesy George Behe

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Edits and suggestions by Celeste Laframboise - Thanks!

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