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“Every Star in the Heavens Was Visible”: Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall

"Every Star in the Heavens Was Visible": Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall

Joseph Groves Boxhall was the son of a seafaring family, and he carried the tradition on. When he boarded Titanic on March 27, 1912, he had already spent 13 years at sea. 

He was 28 years old.

Joseph signed onto Titanic as Fourth Officer. Despite his extensive career up until that point, his path had only intersected with one Titanic colleague, Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

Fourth Officer Boxhall was on duty when Titanic collided with the iceberg on April 14, 1912.

Joseph Boxhall, photographed before 1919.


Per his testimony to both the American and British Inquiries following the tragedy, Joseph said that he was on the bridge when the collision occurred. 

But in 1962, he gave an interview to the BBC in which he stated that he was in his cabin, making a cup of tea.

He heard a trio a warning bells and immediately returned to the bridge, where he overheard First Officer William Murdoch shouting to Quartermaster Hitchens to pull the wheel hard over, as well as the telegraphs ordering the engine room to reverse.

Joseph was subsequently present for First Officer Murdoch’s discussion with Captain Smith about the strike, which he detailed at the British Inquiry.

Commissioner: And did the Captain then come out on to the bridge?

Boxhall: The Captain was alongside of me when I turned round.

Commissioner: Did you hear him say something to the first Officer?

Boxhall: Yes, he asked him what we had struck.

Commissioner: What conversation took place between them?

Boxhall: The First Officer said, "An iceberg, Sir. I hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines, and I was going to hard-a-port round it but she was too close. I could not do any more. I have closed the watertight doors." The Commander asked him if he had rung the warning bell, and he said "Yes."

He went on to say that Captain Smith and Murdoch went to look overboard to spy the iceberg, but that he did not see it himself. “I was not too sure of seeing it,” he said. “I had just come out of the light, and my eyes were not accustomed to the darkness.”

Joseph then went down to F Deck to assess the ship for any damage, but he found none. On his way return, as he passed through C Deck, he encountered steerage passengers playing with fragments from the iceberg that had scattered the well deck.

Yes, I took a piece of ice out of a man's hand, a small piece about as large as a small basin, I suppose; very small, anyhow; about that size (Describing.) He was going down again to the passenger accommodation, and I took it from him and walked across the deck to see where he got it. I found just a little ice in the well deck covering a space of about three or four feet from the bulwarks right along the well deck, small stuff.

Joseph returned to the bridge to report the absence of any finding, and was sent to fetch the ship’s carpenter. He met him on the way, and he told Joseph that water was coming in. Fast.

Joseph hurried to the mailroom, where he saw the worst. “It was rising rapidly up the ladder and I could hear it rushing in.”

From there, Joseph returned to the bridge to report the state of the mailroom, and was assigned to calculate Titanic’s position for Captain Smith to provide to the Marconi Room, in order to begin distress signaling.

Joseph then worked to prepare the lifeboats for launch, unlacing the covers on the port side himself. It was then, he testified, that he heard someone state that they saw the light of another ship out ahead of them.

He saw it himself: the two masthead lights of a steamship.

At Captain Smith’s behest, Joseph began firing distress rockets, one at a time at five-minute intervals. He informed the British Inquiry that these rockets were the type with which “you see a luminous tail behind them and then they explode in the air and burst into stars.”

COMMISSIONER: Could you see it distinctly with the naked eye?

BOXHALL: No, I could see the light with the naked eye, but I could not define what it was, but by the aid of a pair of glasses I found it was the two masthead lights of a vessel, probably about half a point on the port bow, and in the position she would be showing her red if it were visible, but she was too far off then.

COMMISSIONER: Could you see how far off she was?

BOXHALL: No, I could not see, but I had sent in the meantime for some rockets, and told the Captain I had sent for some rockets, and told him I would send them off, and told him when I saw this light. He said, "Yes, carry on with it." I was sending rockets off and watching this steamer. 

Joseph Boxhall testified at great length about the nature of this light: its color, its distance, and how frequently it was signaled.

The ship—which most have concluded was the SS Californian, and which had been communicating via wireless with Titanic shortly before collision—never came to Titanic’s aid.

The reasons for its negligence are manifold and contested.

The SS Californian, taken on or about April 15, 1912.


Soon thereafter, Joseph was assigned by Chief Officer Wilde to Lifeboat 2. He noted that there were no lights stocked in the boat, and had the presence of mind to bring some green flares along.

Joseph recalled that there were mostly women and children in the boat, three crewmen, and a male passenger “who did not seem to do much.”

Lifeboat 2 was launched on the port side under the supervision of Second Officer Lightoller. So Joseph, following orders, promptly rowed around Titanic’s stern to the starboard side.

I got the crew squared up and the oars out properly and the boat squared when I heard somebody singing out from the ship, I do not know who it was, with a megaphone, for some of the boats to come back again, and to the best of my recollection they said "Come round the starboard side," so I pulled round the starboard side to the stern and had a little difficulty in getting round there.

But Lifeboat 2 did not return. When the boat approached the starboard side as ordered, Joseph sensed suction from Titanic “settling down.”

And so he turned the lifeboat away, until it was about a half-mile out. He stated that he did not witness the final moments of Titanic's submersion.

COMMISSIONER: After she sank, did you hear cries?

BOXHALL: Yes, I heard cries. I did not know when the lights went out that the ship had sunk. I saw the lights go out, but I did not know whether she had sunk or not, and then I heard the cries. I was showing green lights in the boat then, to try and get the other boats together, trying to keep us all together.

Joseph Boxhall’s was the first lifeboat to be picked up by the rescue ship Carpathia, aided by his signaling with the green lights he had brought on during the sinking.

Once he was aboard, he was ordered to the bridge, where he informed the captain of the Carpathia that Titanic had gone under at 2:30am.

Titanic's recovered lifeboats, 1912. Courtesy of the State library of Queensland, Australia.


Joseph was called before the American Senate Inquiry, in which his insights, while valuable, were communicated with curt words. Once permitted to return home to Great Britain, Joseph also testified--with a notable surplus of patience--at the British Inquiry.

Joseph promptly returned to the sea. Having joined the Royal Navy Reserve already, he was promoted the lieutenant in 1915 during World War I. In 1919, he married, and post-war, was promoted once again to Lieutenant Commander.

Joseph Boxhall was a taciturn sort, and was always reticent to speak about Titanic, but he did agree to be a technical advisor on the 1958 film “A Night to Remember” and even attended the premier.

 In the years that followed, Joseph agreed at last to collaborate with researchers, and also took the above-cited BBC interview.

He passed away five years later, in 1967.

He was the last of Titanic’s deck officers to die.

Joseph Boxhall (far right), photographed with Titanic's other surviving officer Harold Lowe (far left), Charles Lightoller (center), and Herbert Pitman (seated.) Circa 1912.


Per his wishes, Joseph Boxhall’s ashes were scattered at sea at 41° 46’ N, 50° 14’ W: the coordinates he had calculated for Titanic as she sank.

The wreck site sits to the east, about 20 miles away.

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“Titanic Behaved Splendidly”: Titanic’s Sea Trials

"Titanic Behaved Splendidly": Titanic's Sea Trials

Titanic’s sea trials—when the ship’s many safety features were tested in real time—were scheduled to begin on Sunday, April 1, 1912, but poor weather conditions and a detrimental northwesterly wind caused the trials to be postponed to Monday morning.

Aboard were just over 40 crewmembers. They were compensated an extra five shillings for the delay.

Captain Edward J. Smith.


The roster of officers reporting to Captain Smith for sea trials were as follows.

Chief Officer William McMaster Murdoch

First Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller

Second Officer David Blair

Third Officer Herbert John Pitman

Fourth Officer Joseph Groves Boxhall

Fifth Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe

Sixth Officer James Pell Moody

The four junior officers received telegrams from the White Star marine superintendent to report to the Liverpool offices at 9am on March 26th, to pick up their trains tickets for their trip to Belfast.

They arrived around noon the next day on March 27th and reported on board to Chief Officer Murdoch. Notably, in his deposition later, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe attested to a March 29th arrival.

Fifth Officer Lowe and Sixth Officer Moody were instructed to inspect the totality of starboard-side lifeboats, including the collapsibles. Together, they conducted an inventory of life-saving materials such as oars, sail riggings, and tarp; he also recalled that he noted one empty "bread tank" in each of the lifeboats but none in the collapsible boats, nor emergency lanterns in any of the boats at all.

Captain Edward J. Smith boarded on April 1st, and with him came an officer arrangement that upended the ship's commanding hierarchy. At the last minute, he announced his intention to bring on Henry Tingle Wilde as Chief Officer.

So William Murdoch and Charles Lightoller were both demoted to First and Second Officers, respectively.David Blair was dismissed from command altogether, which safeguarded the remaining junior officers from a reshuffle themselves.

Titanic Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde in Royal Naval dress.


When Former-Second Officer Blair disembarked in Southampton, he disembarked with his keys... including the key to the locker for the Crow’s Nest. This secure cabinet is where implements were housed for the lookouts.

Including binoculars.

George Hogg, a surviving lookout on Titanic, testified to the Senate regarding David Blair's actions as he was set to depart at Southampton, having been dismissed from his duties.

Mr. Blair was in the crow's-nest and gave me his glasses, and told me to lock them up in his cabin and to return him the keys... I locked [the binoculars] up... There were none when we left Southampton.

It is sometimes implied that Blair did this nefariously as some Shakespearean act of revenge due to his dismissal, but in reality, it was industry practice to lock up the binoculars when a ship was docked.

Other accounts state that David Blair took the binoculars with him because they were his own personal pair.

Regardless, Now-Second Officer Lightoller could not provide the lookouts with binoculars. He didn’t think too much of it, as there were other glasses on board somewhere and the lookouts could spot without them, being at such a height as the lookouts were, so he promised to pick up a new pair in New York City.

And that was that.

Charles H. Lightoller, who was demoted to Second Officer on Titanic.


Titanic was the second sibling in a set of triplets; her elder sister, Olympic, underwent her sea trials beginning on May 29, 1911, and ran for two days. They were not without difficulties.

According to Tom McCluskie, a historian for Harland & Wolff, “The extensive sea trials found that there was a number of problems. Chief architect Thomas Andrews himself wrote in his design notebook that Olympic’s hull was observed to “pant.”

As McCluskie describes it, “[Panting] means the hull—instead of being rigidly straight—is going in and out. Now it’s not a vast movement, it’s not going out three, four feet and coming in; it’s a matter only of inches. But really, it shouldn’t do that on a calm sea.”

This discovery led architect Thomas Andrews to implement changes to his nearly identical work-in-progress, Titanic. Per McCluskie, Andrews “made reference to it on the shell drawing which he modified for Titanic to include extra stiffening.”

Sister ships Olympic (close to dock) and Titanic. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Despite these changes and the flaws in Olympic that incited them, Titanic only undertook a single day of sea trials.

J. Bruce Ismay, White Star’s chairman, could not attend, nor could Lord William Pirrie owing to a bout of pneumonia. So he sent his nephew, Thomas Andrews—conveniently the ship’s lead designer—in his stead.

Around 6 a.m., Harland & Wolff’s own tug boat, called Hercules because he was mighty strong, arrived and cast the first line aboard Titanic as it slept in its berth. The four tugs assisting Hercules, which were owned by the Alexandra Towing Co.—and named Huskisson, Horby, Herald, and Herculaneum—moved into their positions, and at Hercules’s whistle, the H-Team pulled Titanic to the center of the River Lagan.

Titanic on her way to sea trials accompanied by her fleet of tugs. Courtesy of U.S. N.A.R.A.


The behemoth liner eased her way down the river toward Belfast Lough, escorted by the five tugs. Around noontime, and about two miles off Carrickfergus, the herd of vessels slowed to a stop, and the tugs all dropped their ropes and pulled away.

Boilers were lit one by one, and smoke began to bloom from Titanic’s three functional funnels (the fourth was false, for aesthetical purpose).

Captain Smith ordered the blue-and-white burgee, which is more commonly recognized as a triangular mariner’s flag. This type of burgee, known as Signal Flag A, announced that its ship was undergoing sea trials.

As the water churned at her stern and her dapper burgee clapped above her, Captain Smith ordered a three-blast sounding of Titanic’s horn and her trial-run officially began. As Titanic took its first metaphorical steps, the officials and officers on-board took lunch in the First Class Dining Room to compare notes.

Rear view of Titanic being pulled toward Belfast Lough. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic was revved up to nearly 20 knots, then drifted to a stop. Isolated turn maneuvers, such as rudder-only and propeller-only, were performed. The ship’s wheel was ordered “hard over” while Titanic was traversing a straight path, creating a circular path with a diameter of approximately 3,850 yards.

More stopping tests followed, including running right toward a buoy at full speed.

She then traveled about 40 miles toward the Irish Sea, turned about to head back to Belfast Lough, and performed some twisty-turns to port and starboard along the way, and got back home in the evening time.

One more test was then advised by Francis Carruthers, the ship surveyor sent by the British Board of Trade: Anchor up, and anchor down.

Carruthers found Titanic’s performance satisfactory and issued the mandatory certificate to Thomas Andrew and his deputy, Edward Wilding. The ship was officially good for one year to the day.

With the sea trials done and dusted, the crew on board resumed their daily operations. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe set aside some time to write back to his wife, Nellie. He helped himself to a spare menu card from the day, April 2nd, and scrawled on its back along the bottom edge: "first meal ever served on board" and posted it to Nellie.

R.M.S. "Titanic."

April 2, 1912.

Hors D'Ouvre Varies


Consomme Mirrette

Cream of Chicken



Roast Chicken

Spring Lamb, Mint Sauce

Braised Ham & Spinach

Green Peas                                Cauliflower

Bovin & Boiled Potatoes

Golden Plover on Toast


Pudding Sans Souci

Peaches Imperial


Dessert                          Coffee

Later, sworn under oath before the American inquiry of Titanic's sinking, Harold Lowe testified that Titanic did not even reach her full potential for speed during the sea trials. He stated that he believed that she could "easily do 24 or 25 knots,” instead of the 20 knots achieved that day.

Furthermore, in his deposition sworn before the British Consulate General in May of 1912, Harold Lowe attested that "on the trials the Titanic behaved splendidly and manoeuvred very well."

Titanic being pulled toward Belfast Lough. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


Titanic departed Belfast for Southampton at approximately 8:00pm that evening. She encountered fog in the wee hours of April 3rd, though it dissipated by noon.

And shortly after midnight, on April 4th, another tugboat gang of classical gods and guys—this time Hercules, Neptune, Ajax, Hector, and Vulcan of the Red Funnel line—drew Titanic into Berth 44 at Southampton, where she was "docked by moonlight," per Sixth Officer James Moody.

Titanic would spend the Easter weekend there, waiting for her maiden voyage to begin. James Moody wrote to his older sister Margaret that, at 8:00am on the morning of April 4th, Titanic's crew “hoisted a huge rainbow of flags right over the ship, 220 flags [altogether and] 9 feet apart” to salute the Southampton

There was less than a week to go.

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