He was born into a cotton family who owned the Lightoller mill in Chorley. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand. Not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, at the age of 13 young Charles began a four-year seafaring apprenticeship on board the Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill.
During a storm in the South Atlantic the ship was forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro — in the midst of a small pox epidemic and revolution — where repairs were made. Another storm on 13 November 1889 in the Indian Ocean caused the ship to run aground on an uninhabited, four- and-a-half-square-mile island now called Île Saint-Paul. They were rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide, Australia. Lightoller joined the crew of the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn for his return to England.
Lightoller returned to the Primrose Hill for his third voyage. They arrived in Calcutta, India, where he passed his second mate's certificate. The cargo of coal caught fire while he was serving as third mate on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire and saving the ship, Lightoller was promoted to second mate.
In 1895, at the age of 21 and a veteran of the dangers at sea, he obtained his mate's ticket and left sailing ships for steamships. After three years of service in Elder Dempster's African Royal Mail Service on the West African coast, he nearly died from a heavy bout of malaria.
Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898, abandoning the sea, to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Failing at this endeavour, he then became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. He became a hobo in order to return home, riding the rails back across Canada. He worked as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat for his passage back to England. In 1899, he arrived home penniless. He obtained his master's certificate and joined Greenshields and Cowie for whom he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as third mate of the Knight Companion. In January 1900, he began his career with the White Star Line as fourth officer of the Medic.
Fort Denison incidentEdit
Whilst on the Medic, on a voyage from Britain to South Africa and Australia, Lightoller was reprimanded for a prank he and some shipmates played on the citizens of Sydney at Fort Denison, New South Wales in Sydney Harbour. In 1900, the Boer War was raging in full fury in distant South Africa where Australian troops fought alongside British, the first war the newly federated country had taken part in.
As a result passions were high when the White Star Line's Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. Spending time ashore with shipmates the young sailor was amazed by the depth of concern expressed by locals concerning the South African conflict, so he decided to have some fun at their expense.
In the early hours of the morning, Lightoller — accompanied by four midshipmen — quietly rowed in pre-dawn darkness to the fortress and climbed its tower. They hoisted a makeshift Boer flag from its lightning conductor before loading a cannon with 14 lb (6.4 kg) of blasting powder, added white cotton waste, and poured in some fine-grain powder before lighting a 50 ft (15 m) fuse and quickly making their escape back to the Medic to watch the spectacle from its decks.
Lightoller's plan was to fool locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney and had captured Fort Denison. When the heavy gun went off, the resounding bang blew out windows and woke people living around the harbour who leapt from beds to windows to see what was happening, finding a Boer flag fluttering in the dawn breeze and panicking.
Unfortunately for Lightoller, passengers on the Medic had seen him and his party sneaking off the ship and back on board prior to the incident, as had night-watch sailors aboard other vessels anchored in the vicinity. Police and port authorities were soon on deck questioning the crew. Sydney at the turn of the century was a conservative city and its citizenry was extremely hostile to the prank carried out by the visiting sailors.
The White Star Line was forced to pay damages and apologize to the city as the local press bayed for the blood of those responsible. Officers and crew of the Medic thought Lightoller's career was over, that he would be dismissed, but the fact that he took the blame and would not divulge the names of others who had taken part in the prank went in his favour. His superiors also tacitly appreciated the humour in his escapade — he was reprimanded and passed over for promotion before the Medic quietly left Sydney Harbour and the controversy behind it.
He later joined the Majestic under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith in the Atlantic. From there, he was promoted to third officer on the RMS Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line. He moved back to the Majestic as first mate and then back to the Oceanic as its first mate.
RMS TitanicEditTwo weeks before her fateful maiden voyage, Lightoller boarded the RMS Titanic in Belfast and acted as first officer for the sea trials. Captain Edward J. Smith gave Henry Wilde, of the Olympic, the post of chief officer, demoting the original appointee William McMaster Murdoch to first officer and Lightoller to second officer.
The original second officer, David Blair, was excluded from the voyage altogether, while the ship's roster of junior officers remained unchanged. Blair's departure from the crew caused a problem as he had the key to the ship's binoculars. Because the crew lacked access to binoculars, Lightoller promised to purchase them when the Titanic got to New York.
On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch prior to the ship's collision with an iceberg before being relieved by Murdoch. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision occur.
Wearing only his pajamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to see what had happened but after seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. Figuring it would be better to remain where other officers knew where to find him if they needed him, he lay awake in his bunk until fourth officer Boxhall summoned him to the bridge. He pulled on trousers and a navy-blue sweater over his pajamas and also donned (along with socks and shoes) his officer's overcoat and hat. Once the fate of the ship became clear, second officer Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats.
Lightoller was notably stricter than some of the other officers in observing the rule of "women and children first", interpreting it almost to the point of "women and children only". Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the Titanic.
As the water came up onto the boat deck, his last action was an attempt to launch Collapsible B, a smaller Englehardt lifeboat with canvas sides that was stowed atop the officers' quarters on the hurricane deck, on the port side. The collapsible boat fell onto the deck upside down. Lightoller then crossed over to the starboard side of the roof, to see if he could help with Collapsible A and saw Murdoch working on the falls when a huge wave washed him overboard into the sea. That was the last time Lightoller saw the First Officer.
As the ship sank, seawater washed over the entire bow, producing a large wave that rolled aft along the boat deck. Seeing crowds of people run away from the rising water and Collapsible A washing away, Lightoller decided he could do no more, and dived into the water from the roof of the officers' quarters.
Surfacing, he spotted the ship's crow's nest, now level with the water, and started to swim towards it as a place of safety before remembering that it was safer to stay away from the foundering vessel. Then Lightoller was sucked under by water being sucked into the ship through the ventilation turret behind the bridge and down into the boiler rooms, and held against the flimsy grating for a couple of seconds and as he was letting go of life, the suction gave way and he was released. He came to the surface and was pulled down again against another grating.
He never knew how he got away but he did. He came to the surface again and realized he couldn't swim properly because of the coat he was wearing. He was freezing and the water seemed like a thousand sharp knives sticking into him. He realized he was going to die. So he swam for the overturned Collapsible lifeboat that he was helping get down off the roof of the officers' quarters. He reached it and held himself to it by a rope at the front.Then the Titanics First Smokestack broke free and hit the water, washing the collapsible further away from the sinking ship.Second officer Lightoller climbed on the boat and took charge, calming and organizing the survivors (numbering around thirty) on the overturned lifeboat. He led them in yelling in unison "Boat ahoy!" but with no success. During the night a swell arose and Lightoller taught the men to shift their weight with the swells to prevent the craft from being swamped. If not for this, they would have been thrown into the freezing water again. At his direction, the men kept this up for hours until they were finally rescued by another lifeboat. Second officer Lightoller was the last survivor taken on board the rescue ship RMS Carpathia.