The Key
By Robert Edmonds

Mr. Frederick Fleet, the TITANIC lookout who first saw the iceberg was closely questioned at the court of enquiry about the state of his eyesight. Asserting that his eyes were as good as anyone else's he pointed out that he had not been provided with "glasses" (No not spectacles, glasses in those days was the term for what  we now  call binoculars) as he should have been on lookout duty. He forcefully told his inquisitors that had he been using binoculars he would have seen the iceberg sooner. The Chairman of the Court challenged by how much sooner and Fleet responded "Soon enough to have got out of the way".

Where were the lookout's binoculars? They were locked away in safe in the crowsnest and no one could find the key! So on that fateful night the crucial lookouts were sent on duty without the important means of carrying it out. They had to rely on their Mk 1 eyeball. How on earth could such a situation have come about? For the answer we have to go back in time a couple of weeks.

David Blair, a 37 year old Scotsman, was appointed to the newly commissioned TITANIC in Belfast as the Second Officer, amongst other things he was responsible for lookouts and boatdecks. Mr. Blair sailed with the TITANIC from Belfast to Southampton on 3rd April and expected to carry on with the voyage to the USA. But the ships owners decided that because of the importance of the vessel and the prestigious occasion a more experienced and senior officer should replace him. 

On arrival at Southampton he was told that he was to be removed from TITANIC and his place taken by a more senior and big ship experienced Chief Officer from the sister ship OLYMPIC named Henry T. Wilde, this meant a rearrangement of duties in TITANIC. Mr. Blair only had a few hours in which to complete all his responsibilities and hand over his various duties to his replacement, Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller, gather his belongings together and leave the ship. He voiced his unhappiness at being removed from the appointment (although in hindsight it probably saved his life - his successor, Wilde, perished).

It was not until sometime after the catastrophe that Mr. Blair chanced upon the fateful key in a uniform pocket. One can only imagine his thoughts at that time. When Mr. Fleet and his colleague took station in the TITANIC crowsnest on 12th April they had been told that no glasses/binoculars were available and the rest, as they say, is history. Many questions remained unanswered. If the binoculars were in a locker in the crowsnest and the key couldn't be found, why wasn't the locker forced open? Were the binoculars known to be therein?

Since binoculars are so important to lookouts why wasn't a pair made available from the bridge (where other binoculars were known to be)? Is it remotely possible that the watch officer refused to break open the locker to avoid the heinous crime of damaging company property? Did they think that Mr. Blair had taken them home with himself - Frederick Fleet told the board of enquiry that he had seen Mr. Blair with them during the voyage from Belfast to Southampton.

Afterwards Mr. Blair kept the key as a souvenier, eventually gave it to his daughter Nancy Blair who in the early 1980's donated it to the British and International Seaman's Society. They put it up for auction to raise funds in September 2007. Upon the announcement and pictures of it becoming public all sorts of theorists jumped onto the bandwagon with varieties of ideas, accusations and fanciful allegations.

The key fetched £90,000 at the auction, now being possessed by an unnamed buyer thought to be Asian. Of course, it has to be said that the absence of the binoculars was not the only factor resulting in the loss of the TITANIC. A whole raft of acts and circumstances came into play rather like the domino or jenga effect.

-Robert Edmonds
© 2009 Robert Edmonds all rights reserved


Page published Aug. 4, 2009