The Clarke Papers-More Grist For Conspiracy Theories

Ever so often there is a new Titanic controversy to stir things up. There have been a lot of them over the years from brittle steel to allegations the salvagers damaged Titanic. One fact about Titanic has never been in doubt–there were not enough lifeboats. The reason was (then) regulations that determined the number not on passenger capacity but on ship size. Government set those rules for the shipbuilders to follow and the British enquiry absolved it of responsibility. Titanic met all the legal requirements (and a bit more). And it was still inadequate for the catastrophe that occurred that cold night in April 1912.

Recent documents up for auction add more fuel to the lifeboat controversy.  Captain Maurice Clarke, a trade safety and emigration official with British Board of Trade, was assigned the task of inspecting Titanic as Safety Officer. He inspected the ship prior to its maiden voyage. He wrote Titanic did not have enough lifeboats but noted “….it was not possible to double the number of lifeboats from 20 to 40 to cover ‘all hands’ due to cost and extra manning.” He did think increasing the lifeboat number by fifty percent was advisable. His notes cover inspections on Thursday 4th, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th April. And they detail lifeboat drills, tests and inventory checks along with the sad fact Titanic only had six life buoys. His advice for more lifeboats was ignored by White Star (they did the same, it ought to be noted, when Harland & Wolfe also suggested more lifeboats). White Star, he believes, put pressure on Board of Trade to prevent anything done on this matter.

Clarke testified at the British enquiry on 17 June 1912 and said nothing about this on the official record. Henry Aldrige, who is auctioning off these notes and no doubt wants to increase their value states:

“These documents effectively rewrite an important element of the Titanic story proving that even after 100 years, new facts are coming to light about the sinking.”

It does raise certain questions as to why the issue was never brought up. However the simplest answer is circle the wagons mentality at play. No doubt the Board of Trade, under fire for poor lifeboat regulations, wanted nothing of this to come out. Government lawyers probably looked at it carefully concluding saying nothing was the better posture. Putting it on the record that Clarke had recommended more lifeboats means more questions asked of Board of Trade and possibly of White Star itself. Clarke was likely told to keep quiet unless specifically asked. And he was likely told he would be fired if he said anything or anything got out to the press about his recommendation. Also the lawyers pointed out Titanic met all regulations when it launched. If White Star did not want more lifeboats, that was their problem and not the Board of Trade’s.

The Clarke notes add some interesting information but Aldridge is off. It does not rewrite the story. The fact that White Star did not want more lifeboats is already well known. We also know Board of Trade regulations were inadequate and many ship owners also concurred with not putting more lifeboats on ships. Of course after Titanic they quickly did so. Did White Star pressure Board of Trade? The real question is whether they needed to. Was anyone other than Clarke raising concerns within this regulatory body? I rather doubt it but one would have to look at the internal records to see what was going on (assuming such records exist). It would be easy to run off and wave the notes as proof White Star controlled the Board of Trade. More likely a very cozy relationship at times between government and private sector. Which is why White Star did not have to lift a finger to stop Clarke. And no one from the Board of Trade was held accountable for those inadequate regulations.

I can guess, with great certainty, that in due course opinions and books will be written proving this or that conspiracy theory about Titanic’s sinking. Most of it will be gibberish based upon shreds of some truth to sell their point of view. Heck it might even generate a miniseries. However there is less here than it seems, so be very careful in hanging your hat on proving a White Star-Titanic-Board of Trade corruption case unless you plan to write fiction.

1. The Independent, Man Responsible For Making Titanic Seaworthy Had Request For 50% More Lifeboats Knocked Back, New Documents Reveal, 2 Nov 2012

2. The Telegraph, Titanic Safety Officer Warned Ship Needed ’50 Per Cent More Lifeboats’, 31 Oct 2012