Titanic: the curious story of the 'Money Boat'

Greg Ward investigates one of the most controversial events surrounding the sinking of the world's largest passenger liner on 15 April 1912.

The promenade deck of the TitanicRex Features

The Titanic embarked on her maiden voyage with too few lifeboats to rescue all her 2,206 passengers and crew.

Even though the 20 she had were capable of carrying only 1,178 people, whereas at full capacity the new liner could hold 3339, her designers considered themselves generous.

By the abstruse laws of the era, she was only required to have enough lifeboats for 962 people. Her owners, the White Star Line, were expecting those laws to change, and had built the Titanic to hold up to 64 lifeboats.

For the moment, however, they preferred to leave her spacious decks clear of such unnecessary obstructions, to allow her wealthy passengers to promenade in peace (as pictured above).

When exposed by her fatal collision with the iceberg, the Titanic's inadequate provision of lifeboats shocked the world.

An even greater scandal, however, was that her crew turned out not to have loaded the lifeboats to anything like their maximum capacity. Most left the sinking ship half empty, and with almost 500 lifeboat seats unoccupied, only 711 of those aboard survived.

As the survivors told their stories, suspicions began to swirl around the night's more mysterious events.

Lurid gossip

None seemed stranger than the saga of the so-called "Money Boat": Boat 1, which left the Titanic carrying just 12 people.

Despite the much-trumpeted policy of "women and children first", all of those 12 were adults, and 10 of them were men, including seven crew members.

Prominent among the five first-class passengers aboard was a small family group: Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, a Scottish baronet who was also an Olympic fencer; his wife Lady Lucy, a celebrated fashion designer who was known as Madame Lucile, and is credited with inventing the catwalk show; and her maid, Laura Francatelli.

Lurid gossip suggested that Sir Cosmo had not only bribed his way on to the lifeboat, but paid its crewmen to row away from the sinking ship, rather than return to pick up the passengers thrown into the icy ocean.

Official inquiries in Britain and the US pored over the incident. Unlikely as it may sound, witnesses agreed that when Boat 1 was lowered, an hour before the Titanic sank, no one seemed to be around on deck.

First Officer William Murdoch, who did not himself survive, ordered two sailors and five firemen to climb in, allowed the five passengers to follow them, and then gave the order to "lower away".

One of the sailors, Lookout George Symons, was mystified:

"I could not tell why he gave the order. I could not criticise an officer... I had to obey orders."

As for how the Duff Gordons came to be aboard, Lady Lucy later described an implausibly civilised exchange with Murdoch: "My husband went forward and said, 'Might we get into this boat?', and the officer said in a very polite way indeed, 'Oh certainly, do; I will be very pleased'".

Lucy, who had no intention of leaving Sir Cosmo behind, had already refused to board three previous lifeboats without him.

As she put it: "Even in that terrible moment I was filled with wonder at the American wives who were leaving their husbands without a word of protest or regret, scarcely a farewell. They have brought the cult of chivalry to such a pitch in the States that it comes as second nature to men to sacrifice themselves and to women to let them to do it."

'There goes your nightdress'

When the Titanic finally went down, Boat 1 was stationary in the water, either 200 yards away (according to the sailors and firemen), or half a mile distant (as Sir Cosmo would have it).

Shortly afterwards, Lady Duff Gordon consoled her maid for the loss of her possessions, saying: "there goes your beautiful nightdress". A fireman retorted:

"Never mind about your nightdress madam, as long as you have got your life".

According to Sir Cosmo, another fireman then added: "we have lost all our kit and the company won't give us any more, and what is more our pay stops from tonight." Sir Cosmo replied: "You fellows need not worry about that; I will give you a fiver each to start a new kit." When they were safely aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, he wrote each man a cheque for £5, and they all posed together for a photograph.

Callous indifference

Once the Carpathia reached New York, rumours spread that the Duff Gordons had forbidden the crewmen to row back to rescue survivors. By that reckoning, the £5 was either a payment not to go back, a reward for not doing so, or a bribe to keep their mouths shut.

There were hints too that Sir Cosmo had paid Murdoch to give him a seat on the boat, and to launch it as soon as he was aboard.

When the photo taken on the Carpathia was published in the world's press, its incongruous smiling faces seemed to suggest the Duff Gordon's callous indifference to the tragedy. Lady Duff Gordon nonetheless insisted that Sir Cosmo had simply made a generous gesture to men in financial trouble, and that the real mystery was why other survivors had not done the same.

An extract from the front page of The World, published in New York on 9 May 1912Library of Congress

At the British inquiry, none of those aboard Boat 1 pretended that they had made the slightest effort to help their fellow passengers.

Their evasive testimony (see newspaper report, opposite) left the impression that as the Titanic was going down, they had simply rowed away.

Lady Duff Gordon said she was too seasick to know what was going on; Sir Cosmo, that he was too concerned about his wife to notice.

'Nobody said anything at all'

Fireman Charles Hendrickson, on the other hand, said he had wanted to go back, but the Duff Gordons had begged the crew not to do so.

Lookout Symons insisted: "I never heard anybody of any description, passengers or crew, say anything as regards going back."

In fact he claimed that he had heard nobody say anything at all, for the entire five hours they were in the boat.

Referring repeatedly to himself as the "master of the situation", he argued that "I used my own discretion", fearing that desperate swimmers might swamp the boat and drown them all.

Under cross-examination, however, Symons admitted that a "gentleman" acting on behalf of the Duff Gordons had come to his home the previous weekend.

Talking him through his impending evidence, the "gentleman" had invited him to agree with a number of statements that included the phrases "master of the situation" and "used my discretion".

'A rather serious evening'

The Attorney General summed up Symons' testimony in damning terms: "Your story is: the vessel had gone down; there were the people in the water shrieking for help; you were in the boat with plenty of room; nobody ever mentioned going back; nobody ever said a word about it; you just simply lay on your oars. Is that the story you want my Lord to believe?"

Symons replied: "Yes, that is the story."

Sir Cosmo himself, confronted on his failure to help the mass of drowning victims, blustered and flailed: "It is difficult to say what occurred to me... I was minding my wife, and we were rather in an abnormal condition, you know. There were many things to think about, but of course it quite well occurred to one that people in the water could be saved by a boat, yes."

At one point, he expostulated: "We had had rather a serious evening, you know."

Asked, "Was not this rather an exceptional time, 20 minutes after the Titanic sank, to make suggestions about giving away £5 notes?", Sir Cosmo replied, "No, I think not. I think it was a most natural time."

Another lawyer pursued the issue: "Why do you suggest that it was more natural to think of offering men £5 to replace their kit than to think of those screaming people who were drowning?" "I do not suggest anything of the sort", responded Sir Cosmo.

Public humiliation

The inquiry concluded that: "The very gross charge against Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon that, having got into No.1 boat he bribed the men in it to row away from the drowning people is unfounded ... The members of the crew... might have made some attempt to save the people in the water, and such an attempt would probably have been successful; but I do not believe that the men were deterred... by any act of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon's.

"At the same time I think that if he had encouraged to the men to return to the position where the Titanic had foundered they would probably have made an effort to do so and could have saved some lives."

While Sir Cosmo was cleared of the worst allegations, the inquiry's verdict upon his character was hardly complimentary. An extraordinary array of society figures and minor royalty, including the wife of prime minister Herbert Asquith, had queued to watch his public humiliation. Although Sir Cosmo was to live another 20 years, according to his wife "he never lived down the shame".

This is an edited extract from The Rough Guide to the Titanic, which is available from Amazon and all booksellers. A Kindle edition will be published shortly. Greg Ward's blog is Blogtanic and his website is roughguidetitanic.com.