The hero of the Titanic

An original black and white of Second office Charles H Lightoller
An original black and white of Second office Charles H Lightoller
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When Charles Herbert Lightoller was born on March 30, 1874, in Chorley, little did he know his impact on the course of history.

‘Lights’, as he later became known aboard the Titanic, was brought up at Yarrow House, the home of the Lightoller family of mill owners, and now the site of Albany Science College.

His family had its roots in Brindle, and it was Charles’s great-great-grandfather Robert Lightoller who established the family’s first cotton mill in Chorley, in Water Street. Subsequent mills were established in the Standish Street or Lyons Lane area, and the family went on to own no less than five mills.

Today, a blue memorial plaque marks the spot of his home in Chorley, and officials from the school staged a display in his memory.

Wendy Johnstone, from the college, said: “ We did a display a few weeks ago about Lightoller, and how he was born here in a house that was on the grounds of the school.

“We looked at his role on the ship, and how he helped to save several lives by getting one of the collapsible lifeboats out.

“We are proud he lived here, especially with the plaque outside the school.”

The young Charles did not want to join the family business, which was by then in decline, and, at 13, he left home for Liverpool, where he joined a shipping line to serve as an apprentice on sailing ships.

Lightoller’s exploits would have made the front page of most newspapers – he was shipwrecked four times and stranded twice, once to the point of starvation on an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

He was almost struck off for creating alarm in Sydney, when he and several other young shipmates activated and fired the cannon guns on the lawns of the Governor General’s residence, overlooking Sydney harbour.

It was only thanks to the Governor’s wife, who thought it was an amusing prank, that they escaped severe punishment.

Having travelled the world in sailing ships, and with an interlude in which he went gold-prospecting in the Yukon – again with near disastrous consequences – he made the transition to steam ships. Again, he was in the thick of things, when he was on a ship whose coal-hold caught fire. Lightoller was instrumental in damping down the fire.

This coolness in adversity was to become most significant on the night of April 14, 1912, when Titanic hit the iceberg.

Lightoller was summoned and ordered by Captain Smith to lower the lifeboats. Having done this on the port side, he crossed over to aid those on the starboard side.

As the ship sank, Lightoller was one of the last to leave. There are reports that he cheated death himself, as one of the ship’s funnels narrowly missed him as it fell.

In the dying moments, Lightoller used a penknife to cut away the ropes of a collapsible boat, and send it down the flooded deck for people to get into.

Once in the water, he clung to a capsized lifeboat, along with many others.

As the swell began to increase, and the boat was in danger of losing its air pocket and sinking, he orchestrated the other men on the upturned hull to stand on the keel and move from side to side in time with the swell, thus maintaining the buoyancy.

In this manner, C H Lightoller became the most senior surviving officer of Titanic.

As such, when an ambitious US senator convened an inquiry into the disaster, Lightoller came in for serious questioning.

Knowing the inquiry was not legitimate according to maritime law, Lightoller gave the senator short shrift. When asked to state at what point he left the ship, he fixed the senator with a cold stare and said: “I didn’t – she left me.”

Incredibly, Lightoller returned to the sea, and was made a commander of a torpedo boat. In July 1916, he attacked the Zeppelin L31 with the ship’s Hotchkiss guns, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

As if that was not enough, he was involved in a rescue mission from Dunkirk, when he succeeded in carrying 130 men back home.

On December 8, 1952, Charles Herbert Lightoller passed away.

A display entitled Chorley’s Titanic Hero is currently in the entrance foyer of the central library in Union Street.

Working with members of Chorley Heritage Support Group and St George’s Heritage Team, four history undergraduates from UCLan created the display, which will run until April 30.

On April 17, there will be a talk by Peter Jackson and David Horsfield, of St George’s and Chorley Heritage Centre Support Group. The talk starts at 2pm, admission by ticket only. These can obtained at the library, free of charge.

NEXT WEEK: We talk to Lightoller’s relatives