Early life and career
Pitman was born in the village of Sutton Montis near Castle Cary, Somerset, England. He was the son of farmer Henry Pitman and his wife, Sarah Marchant Pitman. After Henry's death in 1880, Sarah remarried to Charles Candy. In 1881, a census shows the young Pitman was living on 112 acres (0.45 km2) farm on Sutton Road with his brother, sister, and widowed mother.
Pitman first went to sea in 1895 at the age of 18 by joining the merchant navy. He received the shore part of his nautical training in the navigation department of the Merchant Venturers' Technical College, under Mr E. F. White, and qualified as a master mariner in August 1906. He served a four year apprenticeship with James Nourse Ltd. followed by five years as a deck officer. From 1904, he served one year as a deck officer with the Blue Anchor Line before moving to the Shire Line, where he served for six months. He moved to the White Star Line in 1906. While with White Star, he served as Fourth, Third and second officer on the vessels Dolphin and Majestic and as Fourth Officer on the Oceanic.
Like the other junior officers, Pitman received a telegram early in 1912 directing him to report to White Star's Liverpool office at nine in the morning on 26 March of that year. There he collected his ticket for Belfast; he arrived there at noon the following day and reported to (then) Chief Officer William Murdoch. As the Titanic departed Southampton on 10 April, Pitman was assisting (now First) Officer Murdoch at the stern of the ship in supervising the casting-off of mooring ropes and taking on of tug lines. While the Titanic was at sea, Pitman's duties included working out celestial observation and compass deviation, general supervision of the decks, looking to the quartermasters, and relieving the bridge officers when necessary.
At the time of the Titanic's collision with the iceberg, Pitman was off-duty, half-sleeping in his bunk in the Officers' Quarters. He heard and felt the collision, later testifying that it felt like the ship "coming to an anchor." He was dressing for his watch when Fourth Officer Boxhall rushed in and informed him they had struck an iceberg and were taking on water. Pitman was then ordered to report to the starboard side of the ship to assist in uncovering lifeboats. After receiving the command to lower the boats, Murdoch ordered Pitman to take charge of lifeboat No. 5. Before entering the lifeboat, Officer Murdoch shook Pitman's hand saying, "Goodbye; good luck." With Murdoch's utter seriousness, Pitman thought for the first time that night that the Titanic was really going to sink. Pitman stepped into the lifeboat and it was lowered to the water. Murdoch had ordered Pitman to take the lightly loaded lifeboat to the gangway doors to take on more passengers, but finding the doors shut, Pitman moved the lifeboat away from the ship.
Up to this point, Pitman had expected the ship to remain afloat. After an hour in the lifeboat, however, he realized that Titanic was doomed. He watched her sink from about 400 yards away, and was one of the few to claim that she sank in one piece. As the stern slipped under water, he looked at his watch and announced, "It's 2.20," to his fellow lifeboat passengers. Hearing the screams of those in the water, Pitman immediately decided to row back and rescue whomever he could. However, the others in his lifeboat were fearful of being mobbed and capsized, and Pitman eventually remanded his order. It was a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Pitman was rescued by the RMS Carpathia along with the other survivors, arriving at Pier 54 in New York on 18 April. While in New York, he served as a witness in the American inquiry into the sinking. He and his fellow surviving officers were allowed to leave New York on the Adriatic on 2 May. After returning to England, he served as a witness for a second time, this time for the British inquiry.
Pitman continued to serve with the White Star Line following the Titanic disaster. He served on the liners RMS Oceanic and Titanic's older sister Olympic, later moving from deck officer to purser because of his failing eyesight. In the early 1920s, he moved from White Star to Shaw, Savill and Albion Company Ltd. and also took a wife in 1922 — Mildred "Mimi" Kalman from New Zealand. During the Seond World War, he served as purser on board the SS Mataroa, and finally retired in the spring of 1946 after over 60 years at sea. He spent his retirement living in Pitcombe, Somerset, with his niece (his wife having preceded him in death). Pitman died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage on 7 December 1961. He was 84.
In April 1998, several items relating to Pitman were sold at auction by Sotheby's.