Robert Hichens: The man who sank RMS Titanic

For Robert Hichens, helming White Star Line’s RMS Titanic felt like a dream come true. However – the Titanic disaster would effectively turn that dream into a nightmare, overshadowing the rest of Hichens’ life and hounding him to an early grave. Defamed by the media, is he really the villain of the story?

As rum-fuelled Robert Hichens pulled the trigger, he transcended towards violent desperation. Once highly regarded as Quartermaster aboard RMS Titanic with a bright future ahead, Mr Hichens was instead set for Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. A pauper’s burial awaited him in a lonely Aberdonian plot, hundreds of miles from home and devoid of loved ones, following years of despair and abject poverty.

Fate juddered towards Robert’s friendless demise when his target – Harry Henley – ultimately survived being shot in the head with only superficial wounds. Set upon by the police, it didn’t take much for officers to establish the crime and its' perpetrator.

“Is he dead?", Robert slurred among other phrases in a semi-conscious state. “I hope he is”.

He was a broken man by this point, amplified by anguished efforts to commit suicide before presentation to the court for sentencing. Slashing his radial artery while residing in a cold prison cell remained a far cry from the glory of RMS Titanic’s mahogany and brass; cream tea replaced by stale food and slop outs.

Previously recognised by society as a talented navigator for White Star Line, present at the helm when RMS Titanic struck an iceberg, Hichens was now regarded as a violent criminal. Tainted by behavioural notoriety, most of which stemmed from his conduct in Lifeboat No.6 – sparring with the legendary Molly Brown – Robert quickly gained infamy as an out-and-out villain. The media had a field day.

Even today, Hichens receives hefty dollops of blame for RMS Titanic’s early death. Historians claim that Robert remains answerable for all 1,517 perished souls, but the tale is not that clear-cut or simple upon examining testimony and timeline.

James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, and the superior A Night To Remember of 1958, may have showcased Robert Hichens as a cowardly and aggressive cad, yet modern re-evaluation shines a different light on the story. Hichens was ultimately a victim of circumstance, rather than the pantomime miscreant portrayed in loosely-based fiction. And here's the evidence.

As was common at the time for young men, Robert Hichens joined the Royal Navy Reserves. Credit: Reddit/RRM

Robert Hichens: Making history before Titanic

Born on September 16, 1882, in St Peter’s Square, Newlyn, Cornwall, Robert Hichens was the second son of fisherman Philip Hichens and Rebecca Hichens (née Wood) of Whitby, North Yorkshire. As was common for the time, the Hichens family were sizeable in number; Phillip and Rebecca had nine children together.

Robert's childhood was difficult, with scarce sight of food and money. At the turn of the century, young men were encouraged to find work within safe-bet industries, and Hichens joined the Royal Naval Reserve to partake in government training programmes. The decision proved to be a fruitful one, resulting in employment with the merchant service.

Robert was the first of his siblings to wed, marrying Florence Mortimore at the parish church of Manaton, Devon on October 23, 1906. The marriage certificate states that Hichens held employment as a ‘master mariner’, later serving as Quartermaster on various vessels. While working onboard mail ships and liners belonging to British India and Union Castle lines, Hichens boasted a sterling reputation – a moniker that caught the attention of White Star Line.

Strikes, such as the 1912 coal miners strike, starved sailors of work. Credit: Wikicommons

That didn't mean that times were easy, with coal strikes starving sailors of work, and few positions to go round. Hichen's unblemished record gained berth on Titanic where others failed, granting him boasting rights as the second member of deck crew to be selected, but the only work he could acquire in the foregoing months occurred onboard troop ships.

Enjoying an elevated change of surroundings, Robert would spend four days on deck prior to the ship's departure; gaining intimate knowledge of White Star Line's celebrated new vessel.

In fact, Hichens was one of six Quartermasters employed by White Star Line for RMS Titanic’s glorified maiden voyage, attracting society's high-spending crème-de-la-crème. Signed to the job on April 6, 1912, Robert gave his address as 43 St James Street, Southampton, where he lived with his wife and two children. It would prove to be the final dose of normality for a man undeserving of subsequent punishment.

Having tended to his daily duties with aplomb throughout those days prior to the Titanic disaster, Hichens passed the ship’s wheel between his hands on the infamous night of April 14, 1912. He had relieved a preceding Quartermaster at 10pm, calmly residing at the helm under steady instructions from White Star Line officers.

When panicked bellows erupted from the crows' nest, instigated by the lookout having clocked an iceberg ahead of the ship, the order was given to “come hard a'starboard”. Hichens immediately swung the wheel as far as it would turn, yet fate ensured that his actions were inconsequential.

Official narrative states that Hichens was relieved by a fellow Quartermaster at 12.23am, by which point RMS Titanic had become stationary and was sinking by the bow. The ship's permanent dock upon the seafloor awaited, soon to drag scores of passengers into the abyss.

As the next Quartermaster took over, officers had already stated: “That will do with the wheel, get the [life]boats out”. Second officer Charles Lightoller placed Robert Hichens in charge of Lifeboat No.6 – designed to take a capacity of 65 people – and was ordered to make towards lights seen in the distance, believed to be another ship.

As history famously recorded, Hichen’s lifeboat departed at 12.55am less than half full, with only 28 persons onboard; one of which was 'new money' socialite Molly Brown. Those lights upon the dense horizon were never identified, and it wasn’t until RMS Carpathia arrived some hours after Titanic had perished that survivors were rescued. By that point, Hichen’s reputation as a villain had already been sealed.

Hichens behaviour was put under intense scrutiny during the Titanic investigations. Credit: RRM/Shutterstock/TitanicInc

Hichens: A reputation destroyed

Courtesy of his conduct while in command of Lifeboat No.6, Hichens gained levels of infamy that real criminals would kill for. Those present in the lifeboat accused the Quartermaster of profanity and lack of compassion for others, alongside drunken handiwork and deliberate attempts to strike fear into survivors.

During a situation immediately recognised for gentlemanly conduct in the face of catastrophe, showcasing a sophisticated and polished British mantra that brought dignity to an otherwise tragic event, Hichen’s uncouth etiquette struck a chord that contemporary media used to emphasise the drama of events.

Statements throughout the Titanic enquiry revolved around Hichen’s refusal to liberate people from the water, referring to those lost amid the cold freezing North Atlantic as “stiffs”, and oppressively criticising anyone rowing the lifeboat following RMS Titanic's disappearance beneath the surface.

Naturally, Hichens testified against this characterisation throughout the United States Senate Inquiry, claiming that he never used the word 'stiffs' to describe bodies, and had been given direct orders from second mate Charles Lightoller and Captain Edward Smith to row towards a suspected steamship on the horizon, before then returning for more Titanic passengers.

Further allegations bled through the court from public accusations that two lifeboat occupants – Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen and Mrs Lucian Philip Smith – put forward, basically indicting Hichens of being drunk during his time at the tiller of Lifeboat No.6, along with imputations of repeatedly telling passengers they 'would be adrift for days before any rescue came', and everyone was doomed.

Even when RMS Carpathia cut through the morning hue, Hichens pushed a notion that nobody would be saved – broadcasting that Cunard’s RMS Carpathia was instead present to collect the dead. By this time, the inhabitants of Lifeboat No.6 had lost their patience with Hichens, leading to the famous confrontation between Robert and Denver millionaire Margaret “Molly” Brown.

Despite Hichen’s blaring protest, the Unsinkable Molly Brown told others to start rowing in a bid to keep warm, and also to head towards those who needed help. A supposedly intoxicated Hichens attempted some last-ditch manoeuvres to keep control of the lifeboat, to which Brown threatened to throw him overboard – a moment that has transcended legend to become a cultural staple of any Titanic story.

Naturally, the shamed Quartermaster denied all of these accounts, and when you listen to his counterclaims, a different narrative emerges.

Hichens never escaped the shadow of RMS Titanic, effectively ruining his life. Credit: TitanicEncyclopedia

Hichens: A man tormented

Many films depicting historical events take liberties with narrative. James Cameron’s Titanic is perhaps one of the most extreme examples, rendering Officer Murdock as a gun-slinger who then takes his own life being one of its’ largest faux pas. The film’s portrayal of Robert Hichens adds to his stereotype and enhances the heroine status of Molly Brown. But was that really what transpired?

Let’s not forget that the first-class passengers within Lifeboat No.6 were not experienced seafarers and, put simply, Robert was. He knew what he was doing to keep people safe throughout arduous circumstances. His counterclaims during the US inquiry stated the concern about suction as RMS Titanic went down, likely to drown lifeboats and persons. The lights of Titanic had gone and they were cast into total darkness, apart from the dim twinkle of hovering stars.

Throw in the circumstance that these lifeboats were soon over a mile from the wreck site, shrouded in dense blackness with no navigational equipment, alongside the emotional trauma of knowing the ship had instantly claimed the lives of many passengers and crew, and it’s the perfect powder keg for developing PTSD.

This development was undoubtedly amplified by the demands and typical expectancy of privileged first-class passengers, who then set about shredding Robert's legacy, after the laceration of being at the helm upon collision with the iceberg.

The concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) hadn’t yet been coined in 1912, and as Robert’s conduct came under intense scrutiny, his mental state would have been fragile, to say the least; especially when you consider the subsequent animosity and confusion upon reaching New York aboard RMS Carpathia.

Titanic survivors on board RMS Carpathia. Credit: Picryl

Titanic’s surviving crew were to return to Great Britain aboard the Red Star Line steamer SS Lapland, with 29 crew members subpoenaed for the US Inquiry by Senator William Smith. Those kept from returning home felt incredible pressure to perform throughout the upcoming inquiry, and Robert took a sigh of relief when no notification arrived demanding his presence in court.

The SS Lapland departed New York at 10am on April 20, only to receive a telegram from the port authority ordering a halt to the voyage. A boarding party then swarmed the ship and extracted five extra members of White Star Line crew, who were taken ashore to partake in the inquiry – one of which was Robert Hichens.

His testimony was received on April 24, before returning to England onboard RMS Celtic and setting foot atop Albion soil on May 4, 1912. He then had no less than 492 questions put to him by the British Enquiry, scrutinising his every move and syllable.

During his second round of questioning, Hichens explained that he relieved one of the young ladies of her lifeboat oar when she couldn’t cope, giving her the tiller as compensation. The lady – Mrs Mayer - immediately lost her coordination and Robert had to regain control, sending a bolt of anxiety through the occupants of Lifeboat No.6.

The relationship between Mayer and Hichens became somewhat vexed after Robert spoke so directly to her. Upper-class members of self-appointed society rarely encountered such bluntness, and did not take kindly to inverted social command. Hichens was then painted in a poor light for his assertiveness, with hefty weight given to testimony from first-class passengers.

The Titanic disaster claimed the lives of over 1500 people. RMS Carpathia rescued 705 from the icy waters. Credit: Picryl

“She accused me of wrapping myself up in the blankets in the boat, using bad language and drinking all the whisky, which I deny, sir. I was standing to attention, exposed, steering the boat all night, which is a very cold billet.

"I would rather be pulling the boat than be steering, but I saw no one there to steer, so I thought, being in charge of the boat, it was the best way to steer myself, especially when I saw the ladies get very nervous”, Hichens told the court.

“I do not remember that the women urged me to go toward the 'Titanic'. I did not row toward the scene of the 'Titanic' because the suction of the ship would draw the boat, with all its occupants, under water. I did not know which way to go back to the 'Titanic'. I was looking at all the other boats. We were looking at each other's lights.

"After the lights disappeared and went out, we did hear cries of distress - a lot of crying, moaning and screaming, for two or three minutes. We made fast to another boat - that of the master-at-arms. It was No 16. I had 38 women in my boat. I counted them, sir.

"One seaman, Fleet; the Canadian Major, who testified here yesterday and the Italian boy. We got down to the 'Carpathia' and I saw every lady and everybody out of the boat, and I saw them carefully hoisted on board the 'Carpathia', and I was the last man to leave the boat.”

And that should have been that. One man’s words and actions pitted against enfranchised first-class survivors, for the sake of understanding the intricated events as thousands fought for survival. Yet, for Hichens, life had further sinister motions lined up.

The grapevine exploded with rumours that Hichens had run off to Cape Town. Credit: Wikicommons/Shutterstock/RRM

A sad end for a maligned seafarer

Gossip commonly travels faster than the truth, and as Hichens sought to regain normality with family and friends, the grapevine radiated with red-hot hearsay. Silk-gloved aristocrats and stove-grinding beggared alike spent considerable time regurgitating misinformation about Hichens' actions post-Titanic.

One of the grandest rumours revolved around Robert's time under virtual house arrest during the American and British inquiries, enticed by the offer of lifelong pay in exchange for his silence.

Some claimed that Robert ran off towards South Africa to become a harbourmaster in Cape Town, residing with his brother who had emigrated years previously. Subsequent research disproves this theory, even if one Titanic survivor (believed to be Edith Haisman) claimed to have bumped into Robert when visiting the area in 1917.

We know this can't be true, as Robert was in England for the outbreak and entirety of WWI, quartered in Portsmouth, where he served in the Royal Navy Reserve and gained an exemplary Service character. Or so they say, as relatives also claim Hichens was discharged with neurasthenia; a nervous condition similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Either way, Robert never strayed to Cape Town.

A photographer was able to capture Lifeboat No.6 as it approached RMS Carpathia, with Hichens at the tiller. Credit: Wikicommons

Prone to fatigue, headaches, anxiety attacks, depression and startlingly black moods, the neurasthenia stalked Robert like a demonic shadow. He would wake with nightmares and, although there is no printed account of his feelings about the Titanic disaster following the enquiries, we can assume the experience haunted him with petulant authority.

By 1919, the ex-Titanic Quartermaster found employment as a third officer on a small vessel known as the SS Magpie, based in Hull, even though he held no Board of Trade certifications. The stress of potentially being caught 'working illegally' would only have added to his woes.

As the roaring 1920s came to an end and jobs were hard to come by, Robert moved with his family to Torquay, Devon; a location where his sister-in-law had a home. There’s evidence to suggest that Mrs Hichens ran a guest house in the oh-so-fashionable Warberry area, while Robert started his own boat charter company – where he met fisherman Frederick George Henry Henley; known as Harry. Robert would soon try to shoot him.

Courtesy of arguments with other Torquay boatmen, Harry had lost his operational license and subsequently put his boat up for sale, which Robert purchased for the princely sum of £160 (roughly £8,500 by modern inflation) with an initial down payment of £100, and the remainder to be paid over two years. It should have worked perfectly, but a further loan from Mr J E Squires of Torquay complicated matters.

A poor operational season in 1931 found Robert unable to repay the balance, with the Great Depression starving him of customers. Squires took the boat from Hichens to settle the account – leaving him penniless and without a source of income.

Robert with his wife and Sister-in-Law during better times. Credit: Reddit/Facebook

By the end of the year, Robert’s wife and children had left him. The final straw came with eviction for rent arrears, and his family relocated to Southampton, leaving Hichens on his own with bleak job prospects upon the poverty line. He became a heavy drinker, fuelled by the relentless situation and the disquieting tilt of RMS Titanic's ghosts.

Homeless, alone, unemployed and crippled by PTSD-sponsored mood swings, Robert was forced to travel the country seeking work, while his drinking grew progressively worse.

The next 12 months provided no element of good fortune, igniting a burning desire to murder Harry Henley. In Robert’s eyes, Harry was the main cause of all those recent woes. Managing to acquire a silver revolver for £5 (roughly £300 today), he arrived back in Torquay on November 12, 1933, seeking paranoid vengeance.

Having spent considerable time at the bar of three public houses, and heavily intoxicated with enough rum to cloud all judgment, he took a taxi to Henley’s abode at 6 Happaway Court, and fired the revolver upon Harry's appearance outside the front door.

With Henley recuperating from Hichen’s failed attempt at murder, police found two letters in Robert’s jacket when carting him off to the cells in a semi-conscious state. One was addressed to the Editor of the Sunday Chronicle, while the other (dated November 12) simply said:

''My dear little brother – just a last note to you. You may come to identify my body as your brother. My home is gone – no dole – no pension - can't get an officer's berth – result death by my own hand.''

Convicted of attempted murder, Hichens was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The judge sympathetically gavelled a reduced sentence.

Although believed to have been buried at sea, Robert Hichens was actually laid to rest in Aberdeen. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM

No dignity in death

Following various suicide attempts and a stint behind bars, Hichens was released from prison in 1937, but he wasn’t longed for our world. Robert Hichens died on September 23, 1940, while working off the coast of Aberdeen, aboard the cargo ship SS English Trader. He was 58 years old, having suffered a heart attack while in his cabin, before the eyes of the captain and the leading steward.

Robert had previously confided in a shipmate that he didn’t want to live without his wife and would never see England again. It's why he'd taken a berth on an unprotected merchant ship as WWII raged on, hopeful of a noble death at sea. For decades, it was assumed that Robert had indeed been buried at sea, left alone in death as he had been abandoned in life.

Unable to defend his legacy and left to the mercy of fictitious filmmaking, it wasn’t until his descendants sought to clear his name that his resting place was discovered – a common grave in Aberdeen’s Trinity Cemetery. Unmarked for 72 years, a memorial headstone was erected in 2012.

However, there was a burst of light for Robert in those dark final years of his life. While in Parkhurst Prison, Robert was able to reconcile with his wife. He moved in with her and his offspring once released, but tragedy wasn't far away. His wife was quickly diagnosed with a brain tumour, and died in 1940 while housed in a Southampton nursing ward. Robert tended to his wife until she required expert care, making the most of the time they had together.

If you ask us, Robert was no villain. A poor victim of circumstance, having been damaged and tormented by the Titanic disaster, before hitting rock bottom with the loss of his family, income and status – Hichens never revelled in good fortune. Almost lampooned as the evildoer of Lifeboat No.6 by director James Cameron and those unfit to do their own research, Hichens deserves a better cultural heirloom.

Even on his birth certificate, Robert never caught a break. His illiterate mother (common for the time) signed the document with a cross, leading the Registrar to misspell Hichens as 'Hitchens'. Without bad luck, Robert seemingly wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

Hichens may not have been the definition of a hero, but despite his tempered misdeeds with a revolver, he doesn’t fit the mould of a villain. As time marches on, one hopes that his story will be retold to the mainstream public with dignity – dispelling that villainous stereotype once and for all.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.