Simon Medhurst, congratulations on the new book, which I think is your first. There’s an interesting story behind it, can you tell us about your grandfather Robert Hichens?
First thank you for the kind words, yes my first book. It has been 6 years in the making. I felt as a direct descendant of a Titanic survivor it was for me to leave behind a legacy and to be able to tell the story through the very eyes of the survivors. Robert Hichens was my great grandfather. Who then was Robert Hichens? Robert was born on 16 September 1882 into a fishing family inCornwall. His father Philip would take Robert out mackerel fishing when he was old enough. Thus Robert’s love of the sea began early. When he had come of age he soon found himself in the Royal Navy Reserves. He steadily climbed the ladder, serving on ships such as the Royal Naval Ship, H.M.S Revenge, in 1902. On the 23rd October 1906 Robert married the love of his life, Florence. In 1911 he served on the Dongola.
In April 1912 he joined RMS Titanic as one of the Quartermasters. It was the height of his career to now be the helmsman at the wheel of the biggest ship in the world and he was to be at the wheel that fateful night when Titanic hit the iceberg. He was in charge of lifeboat 6 which left Titanic at around 1am and was rescued with all who he was responsible for by the Carpathia at around 8am. Robert wasn’t perfect by any means but he was professional from start to finish and in my eyes a hero, as many were that dark night in history.
Just how significant a news event was the Titanic sinking in 1912?
This was the biggest ship in the world, the most opulent. The tragedy, it just couldn’t be true! It rocked the very heart of society, whether rich or poor the struggle for survival was the same, they met the same fate together, the same result, the same sorrow or relief together. It was all over the newspapers headlined around the world.
Do we know what the reaction of the crew on the bridge, along with your grandfather, to when the iceberg hit – panic or calm?
One thing we must always remember when we think of the crew of Titanic, they were professional and the orders on that day were followed to the letter. They were extremely disciplined and the discipline of their training and following orders would have come second nature to them. I don’t think we read of any panic amongst the crew, but more with the passengers as the lifeboats became less.
Could anything have been done to avoid the iceberg, or was a collision inevitable?
According to the United States Senate and British Wreck Commissioners Inquiries, all that could have been done was done. There were merely seconds to react and the inevitable happened. Could something different have been done? Well we may never know!
The lack of lifeboats has been one given as the main reason for the loss of life. Is that correct?
A lack of lifeboats was certainly the main factor in the loss of life and the lack of interest in getting into those lifeboats early on, as many did not want to get in a small boat in the cold in the dark on the sea and then in a few hours thinking they would get back on the ship. No! A warm ship and a soft bed, that was the place to be. So many lifeboats early on in the sinking left a third filled. How many more could have been saved? Possibly a few hundred more passengers.
The two most well-known movies are A Night to Remember starring Kenneth More, and Titanic starring Leo and Kate. Do you have a favourite?
Out of the two films mentioned, definitely A Night to Remember which in my mind is a classic and often called “the definitive cinematic telling of the story”. Though not perfect by any means, it has in my mind kept as faithfully as possible to the Titanic story with Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall as a technical advisor for the film. It is based on the book written in 1955 with the same title by Walter Lord who interviewed 63 survivors in writing his book.
So much of our knowledge is derived from the latter film – is it accurate?
The Titanic film from 1997 was a blockbuster and the CG effects were incredible especially for the time. I have from the outset to say that Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) were not actual passengers on the Titanic and were in fact fictional characters. There was no love affair no love triangle etc. Having said that a lot of the characters that appear were historically accurate and the Titanic set and the interior were amazing to behold and this film has brought in a whole new generation into the story of Titanic and hopefully as they learn more they will delve deeper into a greater knowledge of the story. There was no real Heart of the Ocean, sorry to break the news!
Your great-grandfather is depicted by the actor Paul Brightwell, but the depiction of him is not favourable. Is Titanic fair to your ancestor?
The film Titanic (1997) sadly does put great grandfather Robert Hichens in rather a bad light showing him to be aggressive and belligerent. Words that were shown to be said in lifeboat 6 for example “Shut that hole in your face” in reality was said by someone in lifeboat No. 8. According to Mrs White in that lifeboat this was said by Able Bodied Seaman Jones who was in charge of the boat. Sadly misrepresented in the Titanic movie to Robert Hichens.
Robert in charge of the lifeboat tiller was responsible to row towards the “light” in the distance which turned into a nightlong vigil until the Carpathia arrived early morning and he delivered his passengers safely.
Not all the women spoke badly about Robert, Mrs. Stone mentioned how he was giving orders to row and Mrs. Brown even defended him regarding the blanket as he was sitting much higher and exposed to the cold. It seems Hichens was a little nervous (as had been at the wheel during the collision) and now in command over a lifeboat with several women (some of them stating their opinion what to do) and had to look to survive the night.
Helen Benziger a good friend of mine stated “As Molly Brown’s great granddaughter I have defended Robert Hichens against many accusations. He was in charge of lifeboat 6 and above all, his duty was to save the lives of those under his charge. Who knows what their fate would have been if they had turned around. I would have definitely been a vigorous advocate of going back for survivors but Hichens was doing what he felt necessary to save the passengers in his boat.
I for one certainly know how a story can be blown in many a directions over the years. Remember, my Great Grandmother was an ignorant hillbilly who survived the Rapids of the Colorado River when she was just a few months old! So……let’s all Belly Up To The Bar and salute the courage of all the crew and passengers that night.”
It’s a tragic event with many souls having lost their lives – are there any stories among these that we can read more about in your book?
There are a myriad of different stories that played out that night and each one of them is a different drama. Every of them has been interesting to me and it’s those stories that I think keep most people interested in what happened that night. It’s not so much what kind of engines that the boat had, it’s not so much how many rivets were used, it’s not the fact that it was the largest thing on the water in those days, it’s what happened to the people on that particular night. I have tried in this book to capture those stories. I have allowed the survivors to tell the story in their own words. That night was a night to remember in more ways than one, and lives in the hearts of relatives and friends of the Titanic.
“The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea.” Ovid.