Torquay man who ‘sank the Titanic’- and the chaos which followed

When quartermaster Robert Hichens began his shift at the helm of RMS Titantic at 10pm on April 14, 1912, there was nothing to indicate that, within a few hours, he would play a central role in one of the greatest maritime disasters in history.

Less than two hours later, the 29-year-old would find himself grappling with the wheel of the huge ocean liner as it tried in vain to avoid an iceberg in the freezing North Atlantic.

Despite the best efforts of Hichens – who lived in Torquay for much of his life – he could not prevent the collision, and within three hours, Titanic had slipped beneath the waves in a tragedy that has never been forgotten.

An exact death toll has never been established, but some go so far as to suggest that up to 1,700 people perished on that freezing April night more than a century ago.

History has not been kind on Hichens. After the sinking, he was accused of everything from steering in the wrong direction to try and avoid the iceberg, to being drunk in his lifeboat.

He also refused to return to the site of the sinking to look for survivors – despite his lifeboat only being half-full – and later spent time in prison for attempted murder.

This is his story.

Robert Hichens was at the wheel of the Titanic when it struck the iceberg
Robert Hichens was at the wheel of the Titanic when it struck the iceberg

Early life

Born in 1882, Robert was one of 10 children, the second son of Philip Hichens and Rebecca Wood, and grew up in St Peter’s Square in Newlyn. The site of his childhood home is now a car park.

Life was difficult and money and food were scarce. With the fishing industry slowly dying a death, the 19-year-old Robert was urged by Philip to join the Royal Naval Reserve, which offered a government training programme.

The move served him well, and he completed his course and joined the merchant service.

In the summer of 1906, he met Florence Mortimore, his future wife in Torquay. They bumped into each other as he was on shore leave from the private yacht he worked on, while she was visiting relatives.

After enjoying her company for just a few hours, Hichens had to return to his vessel, where he penned this surprisingly touching note: “Dearest, I now take the opportunity of writing these few lines according to my promise hoping you are none the worse for you nice little walk last night.

“I only wish I had met you at five or six o’ clock and I would have seen more of you. “I suppose you don’t know how I have taken rather a fancy to you.

“Robert Hichens, Yacht Ariano, Torquay.”

After a brief romance, they were wed in Manaton, South Devon, before settling in Torquay and having two children.

They then moved to Southampton, where Hichens worked on mail boats before securing the plumb position aboard Titanic.

Florence was pregnant with their third child when news of the disaster reached England.

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Sinking

Hichens started that evening’s shift on watch at 8pm. He was ‘stand-by man’ for two hours, before taking the wheel at 10pm.

“When I was at the stand-by it was very dark, and while it was not foggy there was a haze. I cannot say about the weather conditions after 10, for I went into the wheel house, which is enclosed,” he later told the New York Herald in an account published on April 24, 1912.

“The next order was from the second officer for the deck engineer to turn on the steam in the wheelhouse as it was getting much colder. Then the second officer, Mr Lightoller, told me to telephone the lookout in the crow’s next.

“‘Tell them,’ he said, ‘to keep a sharp and strict lookout for small ice until daylight and to pass the word along to other lookout men’.

“I took the wheel at 10 o’ clock and Mr Murdoch, the first officer, took the watch. It was 20 minutes to 12 and I was steering when there were the three gongs from the lookout, which indicated that some object was ahead.

“Almost instantly, it could not have been more than four or five seconds, when the lookout man called down the telephone: ‘Iceberg right ahead!’

“Hardly had the words come to me when there was a crash.

“I ain’t likely to forget, sir, how the crash came. There was a light grating on the port bow, then a heavy crash on the starboard side. I could hear the engines stop, and the lever closing the watertight emergency doors.

“The Titanic listed perhaps five degrees to the starboard, and then began to settle in the water.”

The Titanic sank in 1912
The Titanic sank in 1912
(Image: Daily Mirror)

In September 2010, Louise Patten, the granddaughter of the aforementioned first officer Lightoller – who was the most senior officer to survive the sinking.

In a number of interviews, she alleged that a ‘straightforward’ steering error by Hichens, brought about by his misunderstanding of a tiller order, caused the Titanic to hit the iceberg.

At the time, to go to port the officer ordered starboard and the quartermaster turned the wheel to port. That caused the tiller to go starboard and the ship turn to port.

Murdoch is generally believed to have given the order ‘hard astarboard’, which would result in the ship’s tiller being moved all the way to starboard in an attempt to turn the ship to port. Patten alleged that Murdoch wanted to go to starboard, requiring the tiller being turned to port, although this was contrary to how orders in British ships were given at the time.

Lightoller died before Patten was even born, and her allegation that Hichens caused the disaster by turning the ship’s wheel the wrong way is not supported by testimony at both the British and US enquiries.

They both established that the second watch officer, sixth officer James Moody, was stationed behind Hichens, supervising his actions, and he had confirmed to first officer Murdoch that the order had been carried out correctly.

Hichens was an experienced quartermaster, so making mistake of this magnitude is questionable.

Nonetheless, he has over time – perhaps harshly – become known as the ‘man who sank the Titanic’ which left well over 1,000 people dead.

One person who fortunately was not among them was an Exeter nurse by the name of Dorothy Dodd. Her paperwork had failed to come through after trying to buy a ticket on the doomed vessel.

Remarkably, she was to survive the sinking of the Lusitania – in which 1,197 people died – just three years later.

No.6 lifeboat

Hichens was placed in charge of No.6 lifeboat, where his conduct has also come under scrutiny.

Manning the rudder and refusing to join the 30 or so passengers on board in rowing, he instead refused to head back to the site of the sinking to look for survivors.

“No, we are not going back to the boat,” he said. “It’s our lives now, not theirs.”

This prompted a famous row with Denver millionaire Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown, who urged them to row back anyway and threatened to throw him overboard.

These events would later end up being depicted in the Broadway musical and film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Another female passenger said that the ‘drunken sailor’s’ condition ‘was such that he could not row the boat and therefore the women had to do the best they could in rowing about in the icy seas.”

The doomed Titanic ship
The doomed Titanic ship was being steered by Robert Hichens (inset) when it hit an iceberg

Following the disaster, Robert was kept under virtual house arrest while he participated in American and British inquiries.

Hichens told them that he was ordered to row away from Titanic to where a rescue ship was thought to be, and also claimed that the suction of the ship could pull them down.

Two of the passengers also accused him of being drunk, while others accused him of disrespectfully calling dead bodies ‘stiffs’. Hichens denied the claims.

After Titanic and prison

In the immediate aftermath, he was sent to South Africa, before returning to England in 1914, at the outbreak of World War One and was quartered on HMS Victory in Portsmouth, but invalided out with neurasthenia, a nervous condition similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prone to fatigue, anxiety attacks, headaches and black moods, the condition would have a major effect on his life over the next 20 years.

He returned to South Africa and briefly went into business with one of his brothers, before returning to Torquay as a tout selling tickets for pleasure-boat rides.

Robert Hichens' life spiralled into depression following the sinking of the Titanic
Robert Hichens’ life spiralled into depression following the sinking of the Titanic

He then purchased a motor launch called Queen Mary from its owner, businessman Harry Henley,for £160. This included a down payment of £100 and the remainder to be paid within two years.

Hichens had borrowed the initial £100 from a man named Mr Squires, who then seized the boat when he could not pay him back due to poor sales.

Hichens turned to drink, which saw Florence leave him by the end of 1931.

He purchased a revolver for £5 and visited an old friend, telling him: “There will be two less in Torquay tonight. I’ve come down to do Henley myself.”

Drunk, Hichens left before bumping into another friend who heard of his plan. “Put it away, don’t be a fool,” his friend told him. “He isn’t worth swinging for.”

“I’ll take your tip,” Hichens replied. “I shan’t give the hangman a job.”

An artist's impression of Robert Hichens
An artist’s impression of Robert Hichens

He then took a taxi to Stentiford’s Hill in Torquay to Henley’s house and knocked at the door.

“Do you remember me, Harry,” Hichens slurred.

“Why, of course I do. What do you want?” Henley replied.

Hichens demanded money: “I am on the ground and I want you to pick me up,” he said.

“Why do you expect me to pick you up when you owe me £60 already?” Henley replied.

Hichens then apologised, blaming drink for his upset state.

“I won’t lend you a penny because you have been a rogue and a scamp to me,” Henley said.

“Is that your last word?” Hichens said menacingly.

“I wouldn’t give you a penny piece if you were lying in the gutter,” he replied.

Hichens drew his pistol and, with the words ‘take that’, he shot him in the face.

One shot passed through the right side of Henley’s head near his ear – incredibly not causing any significant damage. The second shot missed.

Henley punched Hichens in the face, bloodying his nose, before collapsing while the gunman fled.

Hichens then tried to shoot himself but could not bring himself to do it, firing wide.

Upon his arrest, he said: “Is he dead? I hope he is. He is a dirty rat. I would do it again if I had a chance. I intended to kill him and myself too. He has taken my living away.”

He had two letters on him – one a suicide note to his siblings, the other to a newspaper editor describing his plans.

He asked that any money made from his story go to Florence – the ‘best wife in the world’.

He was remanded and then tried in Torquay, which was witnessed by Henley – his head swathed in bandages.

He was found guilty of attempted murder, but the 51-year-old was given lenient sentence of just five years in prison, with his ordeal on the Titanic and his subsequent troubles all taken into account.

Robert Hichens' grave
Robert Hichens’ grave

Hichens was released three years later, in 1937. While in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, he had managed to make up with Florence, moving into the family home on his release.

But his darling Florence died of a brain tumour in March 1940, and just six months later, Robert slipped in a coma aboard a cargo ship off the coast of Aberdeen.

He died from heart failure on September 23, 1940 from heart failure, an ignominious end to someone who survived the most infamous maritime tragedy ever known.

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