First published on 5 Apr 2012. Updated on 5 Apr 2012.
Harold Godfrey Lowe retired to his cabin at 8pm. It had been a normal shift. Navigation, speed, position - they had all been checked; it was time for this shipmate to sleep. Then, just before midnight, Lowe awoke to a commotion. Emerging from his cabin, he immediately knew something was wrong: the deck was tilting 10-15 degrees towards the head. That’s when he noticed that people were wearing lifejackets. Lowe grabbed his duffle coat and his revolver.
It was 14 April, 1912 and Harold G Lowe was the Fifth Officer on the RMS Titanic.
“He slept through the impact,” says Godfrey Lowe, the grandson of Harold Lowe. “It wasn’t until shortly before midnight, about an hour and a half after the ship struck the iceberg, that he awoke.”
Lowe went straight to work helping fill the lifeboats. He was ushering passengers into lifeboat number five when a gentleman began urging him to “lower away! Lower away!” Angrily he yelled back to the man: “If you get the hell out of it, I’ll be able to do something.” Lowe didn’t know it then but he had just reprimanded the chairman of the White Star Line, his boss, Bruce Ismay.
“I think it’s just an incredible indication of his presence of mind and strength of character,” says Godfrey. “He didn’t suffer authority well.”
Perth-based Godfrey Lowe, 65, is a former civil engineer who now works as a researcher for politician Mike Nahan. He is visiting Sydney for on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. He has a ticket to a special viewing of James Cameron’s 3D re-release of Titanic, now in cinemas (Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd plays his grandfather in the film). He has an appearance to make at the opening of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s latest exhibit, Remembering Titanic – 100 Years, which features Titanic memorabilia plus nine original costumes from the film. Most importantly, he’s here to tell his grandparent's story.
Born in Wales, Godfrey Lowe grew up in Perth playing with a pair of binoculars that belonged to his father. It was not until his early twenties that he noticed they were engraved to a “Harold G Lowe, 5th Officer of the Titanic.” He asked his father about the binoculars and learned his own family history.
“At the time he was on the Titanic he used to sign his photographs ‘Godfrey Lowe’ because he preferred the name ‘Godfrey’ himself. I’m named after him, and I’m very proud of that.”
Harold G Lowe had 14 years of sailing behind him by the time he boarded the Titanic. He had been to Chile, to China, had seen North Africa and Russia in the toughest of times. So when disaster struck on night of the 14th, he was able to keep a cool head, working the boats with the help of the junior and Sixth Officer, James Paul Moody.
By 2.30am the last of the lifeboats were leaving the sinking vessel. Lowe’s boat began to descend the 18 metres to the water. “Going past the decks, there are people that are starting to get really worried and think, ‘oh there’s not many boats left. I’m going to have to get on a boat.’ A few of them were about to take a running jump.”
But Lowe was having none of that. He knew how precarious a boat only supported by the rims could be, so with each deck, Lowe fired a round as a warning to would-be jumpers. At about 1.5m from the water, the boat got stuck. Lowe hit a lever and dropped the rest of the way down, ending with a splash.
They rowed away some 150m and watched as the “unsinkable” liner disappeared beneath the frigid Atlantic.
From a distance, Lowe and the other survivors could hear the panicked screams as people drowned and froze to death. He made the decision not to go back. More than 1,000 people were in the water. They would swarm the boat, which could only hold 65 people. “It was a case of save the lives that he could rather than the lives that he couldn’t. He regretted holding off for as long as he did because when he went back, there were very few people alive.”
At 3am, with only starlight to see by, Lowe ordered survivors from his boat to, in an orderly fashion, move to the other boats. He had made the decision to go back. When it was only he and the crew left, they rowed back to the site and were able to rescue five more people from the water.
Lowe also found an upside-down boat upon which 20 souls were precariously balanced. “They’re about to panic, jump on board. [Lowe] pulls out his revolver and he says down to the gentleman at the front, ‘I’ll shoot the first man that jumps.’” An orderly transfer was arranged and off they went, to the other lifeboats, to await rescue.
It would be a few hours before the Carpathia picked up the survivors; by the time it did, Lowe had become a hero. Once they were in New York, Mrs Henry B. Harris, who had been on the lifeboat with Lowe, presented him with three marine instruments: a sexton, a telescope, and a set of binoculars. The binoculars engraved with the words, “To Harold G Lowe, 5th Officer RMS Titanic, ‘the real hero of the Titanic.’" These are very words would, more than 40 years later, drive Lowe’s grandson to find out his family legacy and ensure its future.
“We’ve got a fair collection already of notes and things like that,” says Godfrey. “We’ll bundle it all up and keep it in the family archives. I’ll pass it on to my son and I’m sure he’ll pass it on to his kids, and so forth.”