Titanic's Reliable Fourth Officer

At age 15, Joseph Groves Boxhall of Yorkshire couldn’t wait to begin a life at sea like his grandfather, father, and uncle before him. He became an apprentice with the William Thomas Line, and joined ships sailing for ports in Russia, the Mediterranean, North and South America, and Australia. By 1907, at the age of 23, Boxhall earned his Extra-Masters Certificate and joined the White Star Line. As Sixth Officer on the Oceanic, he met another future Titanic officer, Charles Lightoller. Then, after a year aboard WSL’s Arabic on its North Atlantic run, he signed on as Fourth Officer for RMS Titanic. Once at sea, Boxhall’s duties included regular watches, navigation, and assisting passengers and crew.


Officer Joseph Boxhall

Aboard the Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912, Officer Boxhall was having a cup of tea in his cabin near the bridge. He heard the sound of the three warning bells from the crow’s nest and went to see what happened. As he reached the bridge, Captain Smith instructed him to go below and check the forward part of the ship for damage. He didn’t find anything wrong at first, and told a third class passenger holding a chunk of ice to return to bed. Very soon, however, another crewman reported damage to the forward compartments, and the postal clerk came to report that the mail room was quickly filling with water.

Boxhall’s next orders were to determine Titanic’s exact position. As the passengers made their way to the upper decks and the lifeboats were uncovered, he and Quartermaster George Rowe fired distress rockets from the ship’s rail. They used a Morse Lamp as well, in an attempt to signal the ship they saw in the distance, but to no avail.

When Lifeboat 2 was ready for lowering at 1:45 am, Boxhall was put in charge. The following is a transcript of a radio interview as he later described his experience in the lifeboat:

The sea was perfectly smooth when we left the ship. Every star in the heavens was visible, but there was no moon. So it was dark. And then, well everything was very peaceful …  no wind … and no moon, stars, smooth water, until after about an hour then the wind got up and there was a little sea. For a long time we didn't move the boat, when we laid off on the Starboard side. You could see by the ah, by the arrangements of the lights, all the lights were burning and you could see that she was going down. You could see that her stern was, was getting pretty low in the water. She was certainly going down, there was no doubt about it then. And, ah, well we pulled, we got away clear of the ship and we just laid on the oars until eventually they … they, ah … realized that she'd gone and we heard all the screams. We couldn't do anything. And, ah, the screams went on for some considerable time. I can't remember the time when she sank, but it was in the early hours.”

Following rescue, Joseph Boxhall testified at the American and British inquiries into the disaster. He returned to England, served aboard the Adriatic, then joined the Royal Naval Reserve before serving his country during World War I. He married after the war, then continued his career aboard several ships before his retirement in 1940. He acted as technical advisor during the filming of A Night to Remember in 1958.


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He had suffered from pleurisy periodically since Titanic’s sinking, and his health deteriorated rapidly in the 1960s. He died in 1967 at age 83, and requested that his ashes be scattered over the location he had calculated the night the ship went down.


Photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica

The Last Man to Know

George Rowe, 32, had served in the Royal Navy and the merchant marine before working aboard White Star Line’s Oceanic. In April 1912, Rowe signed on to be Quartermaster of the Titanic.

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On the night of April 14, Rowe was given the task of standing watch on the auxiliary bridge at the far end of Titanic’s stern, on the poop deck. Although the temperature had dropped considerably, the absence of wind kept him from getting too cold as he paced back and forth on the open catwalk.

He noticed what sailors called “whiskers” around the deck lights—thousands of tiny ice splinters reflecting off the lights. He knew the bright colors they gave off were a sign of ice ahead.

Rowe felt a slight change in the motion of the ship. Then he noticed what at first appeared to be a “full-rigged ship, with sails set,” passing close to the starboard side and towering over the bridge where he stood. He soon realized the shape was an iceberg. It passed by and disappeared.

Titanic began venting steam shortly afterward, but Rowe remained at his watch. He had no way of knowing the iceberg had damaged the ship, and he couldn’t see the activity on the Boat Deck as the lifeboats were lowered.


The stern end of Titanic, as seen in Queenstown, Ireland on sailing day

When a lifeboat half-filled with passengers drifted by, the startled Quartermaster telephoned the bridge to ask if they knew about it. Answering the phone, Fourth Officer Boxhall asked who was calling. When Rowe explained, Boxhall realized that in the excitement no one had informed the man on watch in the back of the ship of the emergency. He told Rowe to come to the bridge immediately and bring a box of distress rockets stored in a locker.

Rowe and Boxhall spent the next hour firing rockets every five minutes in an attempt to signal a nearby vessel. They used a Morse lamp in between firing rockets. It was only when ordered by Captain Smith to take charge of Collapsible C that Rowe left his post.

George Rowe returned to work aboard the Oceanic, and joined a hospital ship during World War I. He then worked in a ship repair yard until well into his 80s. He died at the age of 91.