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The sinking of the Lusitania: A survivor's story
On her way home to Liverpool on the Lusitania
Fannie Jane Morecroft left New York on RMS Lusitania on the 1st May 1915, bound for Liverpool. The Lusitania was one of the great Atlantic liners, which rushed to and fro across the Atlantic conveying people at speed and in luxury.
Fannie was eager to get home. Her only daughter, and elder child, Caroline Mary Warwick, was 8 months pregnant with her first child and only 21 years old.
She wasn't a passenger on the Lusitania, but rather a Cunard employee, who worked as a stewardess in charge of a group of second-class passengers.
Fannie had been on the Lucy for some years, since just after her Maiden voyage, and she loved the work and needed the employment.
But it was hard to be away from her two children. She had arranged to have several weeks off work, in order to be with her daughter through the birth and first few weeks of the baby's life.
The Lusitania, and her sister, the Mauretania were built during a time when the Atlantic liners were racing in order to win the so-called Blue Riband record for the fastest crossing.
In the early 1900s, the fastest Atlantic ships were German, and the British sought to win back the title. Lusitania’s maiden voyage from Britain to New York in September 1907 won the Blue Riband for a west bound crossing.
The Lusitania was a large ship. She had a tonnage of 31,550, and displaced over 44,000 tons. She was 790 feet long, and almost 90 feet wide. She carried nearly 2,000 passengers, and 850 crew members, including Fannie Morecroft.
Lusitania, like a number of other liners of the time, was part of a scheme whereby the British Government subsidised the building and running of the ships, and in return they could be requisitioned if needed by the Navy.
In 1913, the Lusitania was fitted with gun mounts on both sides. However, once the First World War started, the Admiralty decided not to requisition Lusitania as she was too big, needed too big a crew, and used too much coal to be efficient.
The Lusitania’s sister ship Mauretania became a troop transport, but Lusitania continued as an Atlantic liner, going mostly between Liverpool and New York.
Fannie's life until 1915
Fannie Jane Chamberlain was born in 1872 in London. She came from a respectable upper working-class family; her father was a compositor, a print setter, on a newspaper in Fleet Street.
Fannie showed signs of independence early. She met her future husband, Herbert Morecroft, when she was only 17, and the pair eloped when she was 18, and married in Manchester. She lied about her age on her marriage certificate, as at that time no-one could marry under the age of 21 without the permission of his or her parents, and Fannie did not have her parents’ permission.
Her husband, Herbert Morecroft, was 15 years older than her, and a widower. He came from an achingly respectable family in Liverpool. Following in the family tradition, Herbert trained as a solicitor and joined the family firm. He also married at the age of 24. 18 months later, his wife and newborn child were both dead, and Herbert Morecroft chucked in the law and became, to the absolute horror of his family, a travelling actor. In Victorian times, travelling actors were really as far from respectable as you could get. The marriage was therefore ignored by his family and opposed by hers.
The couple had two children, Caroline born in 1893, and Tom born in 1895. When the children were only 8 and 6, their father died. Forced to support her small family, in an age where it was hard for women to get properly paid employment, Fannie Morecroft became a stewardess onboard the Atlantic liners. Her children were looked after in a type of informal foster-care in and around Liverpool.
Fannie worked for the prestigious Cunard Line, on several different boats. By 1912, she was a stewardess on the Lusitania.
In 1913, at the age of 19, Caroline Morecroft married a much older man, older than her mother, Dr. William Warwick. A year later, she became pregnant with her first child.
The First World War
By the time the Lusitania set off on her last voyage on May 1st 1915, the First World War was 9 months old.
German ‘unterseeboots’ (submarines) were trying to sink British ships, including merchant and passenger vessels, as part of the policy of "unrestricted warfare".
Ships headed to the United Kingdom were instructed to look out for the U-boats and take precautionary measures such as travelling fast and making zig-zag movements if possible.
At her top speed, the Lucy was several knots (nautical miles per hour) faster than the u-boats.
In February 1915, the German Government declared that they would attempt to sink without warning any ships in the seas around the British Isles. They announced that they would attempt to avoid sinking neutral ships, but guaranteed nothing.
On the 22nd April, an advertisement was published in the New York newspapers which sought to remind potential travellers that British ships were at risk of being sunk in the waters around the British Isles.
The last voyage
The Lusitania left New York at midday on her last, and 202nd, voyage, carrying 1,257 passengers and 702 crew. The passengers were an illustrious lot, and contained many well-known people.
As the Lusitania steamed across the Atlantic Ocean, the Admiralty was trying to track the movements of U-boats, including U-20, which was operating around the Irish coast.
On the 5th and 6th May 1915, U-20 sank three vessels off the Irish coast, and the Admiralty sent a warning to all British ships near or approaching the area that there was submarine activity.
The Captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, was an experienced Captain and took precautions.
The watertight doors inside the boat were closed, the lifeboats were prepared for necessary launching, and a black-out was imposed on the ship as a whole to try to make it harder to spot.
The Lusitania approached the Irish coast, and reduced her speed to 18 knots because of fog.
The sinking of the Lusitania
The Lusitania crossed in front of the U-20 just after 2pm. U-20 fired a torpedo at the Lusitania, which hit her under the Bridge. The torpedo hit the starboard side, and the ship began to sink fast.
Almost immediately after the torpedo hit, there was a second BANG. For many on the ship, it was a second hit, but that seems unlikely. Many theories have been suggested for the cause of this second explosion.
The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes of the torpedo being fired. Unlike, for example, the Titanic, the Lusitania carried easily enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew. The way in which the Lusitania was torpedoed, however, meant the ship listed severely very quickly. Of the 1,959 people onboard, 1,198 of them died. 128 US civilians were killed. The Captain of the U-20 noted in his log that:
The shot hit the starboard side right behind bridge. An unusually heavy detonation followed with a strong explosion cloud.
Great confusion onboard.
SOS and rescue
The Lusitania sent
up distress signals once the torpedo had hit, and they were sighted
from Queenstown, an Irish city about 12 miles away. (Queenstown, in the county of Cork, was renamed Cobh after Ireland gained its independence in 1922.)
Within six minutes of the torpedo hitting the Lusitania, her forecastle was already going under water. Of the 48 lifeboats on the ship, only 6 were properly launched, all from the starboard side. Some of the lifeboats washed off her decks as she sank and provided refuge for many of those in the water.
A number of boats were immediately launched and sailed to the site, arriving approximately two hours after the ship sank. 761 people were picked up by the Queenstown boats and taken back to the city.
A large number of bodies were also recovered, and a temporary mortuary was set up in Queenstown. Queenstown was not a big place, and the town struggled, although doing its absolute best, to look after the survivors.
Of all the people who died with the Lusitania, including 95 children, only 289 bodies were recovered. 65 of these were unidentifiable. Many of the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown.
A baby, born in 1915, is the last living survivor of the Lusitania sinking.
- Happy Birthday Sophia
A wonderful story of another intrepid, go-getting Victorian woman.
Fannie Morecroft's experience of the sinking
"Mrs Fanny Moorcroft" is listed on the crew survivors list. Her age is given as 36. Her name is certainly misspelt in both first and surnames, and she had deliberately understated her age.
It was something she made rather a habit of; the immigration records at New York port from when she entered and left the United States during her employment as a stewardess showed that she aged far more slowly than the passing of years would suggest.
Another surviving stewardess is listed as Miss Marion May Bird. This woman, known as Birdie, was a life-long friend of Fannie’s, and they shared a house together in Sussex during their retirement.
There were 21 female stewardesses on the Lusitania when she left New York; 8 of them survived. Marion Bird described her trip on the final journey of the Lusitania. Her closest friend on the ship was her fellow stewardess Fannie Morecroft. May was on the Lusitania from its maiden voyage onwards, apart from a few months in 1914 when she transferred to another Cunard liner.
Immediately after the torpedo hit the ship, Fannie ran to the cabins she was in charge of, urging all passengers to go up on deck immediately with their life-belts. Many passengers were, she later gave evidence saying, "running around like a bunch of wild mice".
Fannie Morecroft and May Bird met after the torpedo hit the boat, on the starboard deck. Archibald Donald described May Bird as being in a boat where the rope had to be cut. Fannie Morecroft remembered a man and woman leaning against the rail begging, “in God’s name” for their children to be rescued. Fannie placed the children in one of the lifeboats.
Fannie and May left the Lusitania on the last lifeboat to be launched, no. 13. Fannie later said that the list of the ship "made us slide right across on to the rail". The lifeboat got caught in wires, which had to be chopped through together with the ropes so that the boat could leave the stricken Lucy.
The suction as the ship went down was much less than might have been expected for a ship as large as the Lusitania. Had the suction been as normal for such a boat, many more would have died, including Fannie. She described it until her dying day as a miracle.
Passengers Ruth and Osmund Wordsworth
Ruth Wordsworth was travelling with her brother Osmund on the Lusitania. Ruth was on her way to visit her parents in Salisbury, England, after her first spell as a missionary in Japan.
She met her brother in Canada, and they both booked a second class crossing on the Lusitania. Ruth gave an account of her trip on the ship, saying that she found all the crew to be friendly, especially the stewardess Fannie Morecroft.
Both siblings survived the explosion, although Ruth was not aware exactly how she had survived as she was knocked out by an explosion and regained consciousness in the water. She did not know whether her brother had survived until they met in Queenstown.
Ruth was injured and had to stay in hospital for some time, her brother joined the army and was killed in action in 1917.
The sinking of the Lusitania caused an immediate and passionate outrage against Germany on both sides of the Atlantic. The Germans tried to justify the sinking by claiming that there were Canadian soldiers aboard the Lusitania, and that the Lucy was carrying weapons or ammunition. There were 360 Canadians onboard, none of them soldiers. At least one was intending to enlist once he reached the United Kingdom, but was still a civilian.
The Germans also claimed that the Lusitania was carrying munitions. It remains a matter of some debate whether she was or was not carrying munitions. She did not have a large cargo hold, being a passenger liner, and was certainly carrying other goods. If it was carrying bullets, the most likely, that was a violation of merchant shipping, but was not a significant number of bullets. The British authorities said at the time, and after the investigation into the sinking, that the second explosion on the Lusitania was caused by coal dust exploding in the ship’s empty bunkers near the boiler room.
The sinking of the Lusitania was a turning point in American attitudes towards the First World War. In the weeks following the sinking, many articles were run in American newspapers including photographs of the prominent American victims. For example, in the 16th May edition, the New York Times had a two page article entitled, “Prominent Americans Who Lost Their Lives on the SS Lusitania” and another article on May 30th entitled, “Burying the Lusitania’s Dead – and Succouring Her Survivors.”
The sinking was used for recruitment purposes by the Royal Navy, including a series of posters. Postcards were printed, films made, plays and books written.
After the sinking - Fannie's life from 1915 to 1958
Fannie Morecroft made her way as quickly as possible from Queenstown back to the United Kingdom. The ship in which she was taken from Ireland docked at Liverpool, where her home and her daughter’s home were. It was 24 hours after the sinking of the Lusitania before Caroline Warwick knew that her mother had survived. Fannie Morecroft arrived back in Liverpool three days after the sinking, still wearing her stewardess’ uniform, and covered in smuts. Three weeks later, her first grandchild, Margaret Morecroft Warwick was born.
After the sinking of the Lusitania, Cunard banned women from serving on any of their ships for the duration of the war. Fannie Morecroft was extremely irritated about this, as she had been working for the company since her husband had died, and was worried about another way of making a living.
However, with the shortage of men, who had been drafted to the fighting in France, she was able to find various forms of employment, including as a tram conductor, until the end of the war. In early 1919, she resumed her career with Cunard, and eventually became Chief Stewardess on the Lancastria, with a grand stateroom of her own. She continued to cross back and forwards to New York until her retirement in the 1930s.
She never re-married, but saw her daughter's two daughters, Margaret and Patricia (born 1917) grow up. Both married, and her great-grandchildren knew her well.
The Lusitania tragedy was a significant event in Fannie's life. She lost many friends, saw the bodies of too many dead children and adult passengers to count, and went through the terror of the ship sinking under her.
Her first grandchild, Margaret Warwick, born just after the disaster, was my maternal grandmother. My Granny, mother and uncle all heard about the disaster from Fannie, and my great-great-grandmother's cool head and ability to survive everything that life through at her is admirable to this day.
In his eulogy after my grandmother's death in 2002, my father said:
Fannie Chamberlain (Margaret’s grandmother) also became an actress after her marriage, which seems to have been opposed by both families.
Margaret, Anthony and Elizabeth loved her, and her great-grandchildren still remember her as a redoubtable figure with a great sense of humour, who died in in her nineties.
Anthony says that Fanny Chamberlain was the one relative whom Margaret resembled closely, in appearance and personality. She had to struggle after her husband’s death. She became a stewardess in the Cunard Line to support her family. It was then an unusual but successful career, and she notably and glamorously survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. We also have a photograph of her, imposing and confident in a large private state-room on the “Lancastria”, where she was chief stewardess. Margaret used to recall her bringing exotic presents home from New York. Not many people have had a granny like that.
Fannie Morecroft died on July 9th 1958. She was a widow for more than 50 years, and was survived by her daughter, son, three granddaughters, one grandson, and 8 great-grandchildren.