Jack Houlihan is a 15 year old work experience student at Leigh Local Studies. He has researched links between Leigh and Tyldesley and the tragic sinking of the Lusitania.
He tells a fascinating story of a local family tragedy and vivid eye witness accounts.
Photo from Library of Congress collection
A famous cruise ship, The Lusitania, was sunk by a German submarine torpedo in 1915, over 1000 passengers lost their lives including Fred Isherwood, a young man from Tyldesley.
Launched in 1907, the Lusitania was at that time the world’s largest ship. She was also one of the most luxurious and a favourite on the transatlantic passenger route. Since the outbreak of war, ocean travel had become more dangerous and German U-boats searched British Waters to prevent war resources from getting through.
On 1 May 1915, the Lusitania set sail from New York with 1,962 passengers and crew on board. A week later, near the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was spotted by a German submarine U20. The Germans torpedoed the liner; she took only 18 minutes to sink. The Germans believed the Lusitania was an armed merchant cruiser carrying Canadian troops and munitions.
One of the survivors, Thomas Sumner from Atherton, did not see the first torpedo hit but he did see the line of the second. The first torpedo caused the ship to list very badly but the second torpedo completed the destruction. Thomas slid down into the water and swam until he found some wreckage to cling to. He later found, along with 30 or 40 others, an upturned lifeboat to scramble onto. They waited five hours before being rescued by the S.S. “Indian Empress”, which took them into Queenstown.
Another survivor, Henry Birchall, had been at lunch in the second-class saloon when the disaster occurred. He heard a noise as though a big window had been shattered. As the vessel began to list and the crockery slid off the table, the passengers made for the deck stairway. Henry went onto the deck were he reported women were crying for their children to be brought to them and men were busy fitting them with life-belts. Henry stood with a mother and her two children on the deck until the boat sank under them. Henry felt as though it seemed a long time before he returned to the surface. He climbed onto a damaged, overturned lifeboat, the boat righted and Henry helped others to clamber in. They rowed towards a sailing vessel 5 miles away and after rowing for 4 1/2 hours were taken onboard another lifeboat, as their own boat was almost submerged. Women were transferred to a Hull steamer, and Henry went back with the crew of the lifeboat and helped to save several passengers. Henry made it back to his home town of Tyldesley on the 9th May in a miserable condition.
Another Tyldesley inhabitant, Fred Isherwood, had gone to live in South America for six years, part of which time he had been working in the electrical engineering department of the Chilean copper mines. Due to the outbreak of the war, Fred had decided to return home and join the British forces.
Fred travelled from Peru to New York. He sent word to his parents from New York that he expected to sail to England onboard the Lusitania. Another cable-gram informed his parents that he was homeward bound on the ship. Fred travelled as a third-class passenger. After the ship sank the Cunard Steamship Company sent word to Fred’s family that nothing was known of his fate.
Fred is remembered on his parent’s memorial stone in Tyldesley Cemetery.
By Jack Houlihan, age 15, work experience student, Leigh Local Studies
Leigh Journal,21 May 1915
“First World War” by H. P. Willmott (2003)
Tyldesley burial records
Thank you to Jack Houlihan, Leigh Local Studies and the Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust for this post.