20 March 2012
British TV actor, screenwriter and producer Valentine Palmer is now also the author of Titanic... and the Strange Case of Great U
From earliest memory I’d been aware that my great uncle, Charles Herbert Lightoller, was a famous hero. He was the only senior officer on the Titanic to survive the sinking and was therefore the most important witness in the official inquiries that followed the disaster. This much is known by all the thousands of Titanic fanatics around the world. However, when I was asked to write a book about Great Uncle ‘Bertie’ as my grandmother, his sister, always called him, I decided to undertake some in-depth researching into the man who died when I was only 12, and his role in the most famous of maritime disasters. I’d met the ‘Great Man’ several times and been somewhat over awed by his claxon of a voice, craggy weather-beaten features and a reputation as a much decorated hero.
My recent researches have led me to believe that Great Uncle Bertie, Second Officer Lightoller of Titanic fame, may have misled many people, including officials and family about what really happened on the fateful night of 15 April 1912. As the terrible events of that disaster have been well documented over the past 100 years, I decided to focus my book on the leading player in the drama – my great uncle Bertie.
Using early 20th century records and my great uncle’s autobiography, published in 1935, I discovered that Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in 1874. His childhood was marred by one tragedy after another but he was especially devoted to his youngest sister, Gertrude, my grandmother. Despite this he ran off to sea at the age of 13. His adventures under sail in the giant ships of the time included more than one shipwreck and several weeks marooned on a deserted island. It was a tough life and, by the time Great Uncle Bertie joined the famous White Star Line, he had already been sailing the seven seas for 25 years.
More than two thirds of Titanic’s 2,340 passengers and crew were lost in the sinking and, when the bedraggled survivors arrived at Pier 34 on New York’s harbour on the evening of 18 April 1912, they were immediately issued with subpoenas to appear before a hastily convened Senate Committee in the city’s grandiose Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Transcripts of the official US investigation reveal my great uncle to have been at best unhelpful to the enquiring senators and at worst downright rude. This was not a court of law for, had this been the case, I think it likely that Second Officer Lightoller would have been held to be in Contempt of Court and possibly received a custodial sentence. In his autobiography, Titanic and other ships Great Uncle Bertie admits that he was part of a giant ‘whitewash’ regarding the details of the sinking and my second cousin, Lady Louise Patton, in her book Good as Gold, reveals more incriminating evidence about the great ‘cover up’ that her grandfather was involved in. However, I have now discovered that he may have been privy to, but was unable to disclose, a giant conspiracy that, if discovered, would have bankrupted the White Star Line. For Second Officer Ligholler this would have meant the loss of a very considerable salary, his ten bedroom house, servants and all that went with this. My researches conclude that Great Uncle Bertie, although he went on to fame and fortune as a much revered hero in both world wars, had, immediately after the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, been made ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse'.