100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Lusitania

Lusitania heading

On the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Lusitania on May 7th this year, I thought our readers would be interested to hear about the resources they can consult at Guildhall Library if they wish to know more about the sad and contentious loss of this passenger ship.

This is the story as it appeared in ‘Lloyd’s List’ (part of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection at the Library) with some complementary material from the rest of the Lloyd’s Collection, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Illustrated London News’.

The story begins before the Lusitania sailed from New York for Liverpool…

‘Times’ Monday 3rd May 1915

A report from New York headed “Alarmist Telegrams” recorded that most of the ‘leading passengers’ aboard the Lusitania had received a telegram warning them to cancel their trip and not to sail because the Lusitania would be torpedoed. The report also states that these passengers were stopped as they tried to board the ship by mysterious characters with German accents warning them of the danger ahead.

‘Lloyd’s List’ Friday May 7th 1915

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A poignant advertisement appeared for the Lusitania’s next voyage leaving Liverpool for New York on Saturday 15th May, a voyage she was never to make.

‘Lloyd’s List’ Saturday May 8th 1915

The Lusitania is listed in the section headed ‘War’ as follows

._ Land’s End Wireless Station, May 7 2.20pm._Distress call made by steamer Lusitania at 2.13pm as follows: Come at once, big list, position 10 miles south Kinsale.
______Valentia Wireless Station, May 7 2.30pm._Steamer Lusitania in distress 10 miles south of Kinsale at 2.15p.m.
______Brow Head Wireless Station, May 7 3.20p.m._Wireless reports steamer Lusitania 10 miles south old head of Kinsale sending out distress signals 2.15 p.m. , asking for assistance, come at once. Weather fine, sea calm.
______Queenstown, May 7, 2.58 p.m._Reported that steamer Lusitania sank at 2.33 p.m. south-west of Kinsale

The wireless operators on board the Lusitania were Robert Leith and his Junior David McCormick but they are not named in the ‘Lloyd’s List’ report.

The same issue had a brief report on the Cunard Liner headed “’Lusitania’ Sunk by Submarine.” The report stated that she had been torpedoed and the fate of her 1250 passengers and 600 crew (numbers stated not exact) were at present unknown and that rescue attempts were being made. It was thought that Lusitania could outrun any danger from the U-boats and the report highlighted that Lusitania had broken the speed record for a steamer across the Atlantic in 1914; but on her last voyage one of her engine rooms had been shut down so her speed was reduced.

‘Times’ Saturday May 8th 1915

This editorial reflects shock at the manner of the loss of the Lusitania whilst the details of the incident were still vague and the comments reflect the rhetoric of the time. The Kaiser, the German Government and the German people are accused of “wholesale murder and nothing else” and the incident is compared with the slaughter of French and Belgian citizens at Louvain and Dinant and speaks of retribution to come. Arguments over justification for the attack, whether armaments were being carried, if she was struck by one torpedo or two, began then and still continue.

‘Lloyd’s List’ Monday May 10th 1915
The War: Destruction of the ‘Lusitania’: Vessel Struck by Two Torpedoes: Heavy Death Roll

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The report indicated that after being struck by two torpedoes Lusitania sank in 15 to 25 minutes. The estimated loss of life was 2160 although only 45 were known to have died at that time. It speaks of the attempts by the local fishing community to save survivors and retrieve bodies. The Secretary of the Admiralty denied that the Lusitania was armed in the face of statements being made from the German side.

‘Lloyd’s List’ Tuesday May 11th 1915

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This issue announced that the Board of Trade, with the concurrence of the Admiralty, had ordered an inquiry into the circumstances attending the loss of the Lusitania.

In the same edition a “German Message to America” appeared, arguing that the German people were being starved, the Lusitania had been armed and that British vessels had been ramming German submarines. It stated:

“The German government in spite of its heartfelt sympathy for the loss of American lives cannot but regret that Americans felt more inclined to trust English promises rather than pay attention to the warnings from the German side.”

‘Illustrated London News’ Saturday 15th May 1915

This publication covered the loss of the vessel in detail with dramatic illustrations of passengers clinging to the wreckage and this disturbing image of the sinking vessel.

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The Lloyd’s Marine Collection at Guildhall Library also includes the original ‘Lloyd’s War Loss Book’ for the First World War and part of the entry for the Lusitania can be seen below:

Lusitania 5

We also hold the original typed sheets from the ‘Lloyd’s Record of War Losses’ for the First World War and the sheet for the Lusitania is shown below:

Lusitania 6

The Lloyd’s Collection includes 15 research folders on vessels of note which includes a small collection of cuttings and articles on the Lusitania.

Content of the research folder includes discussion of the aftermath, theories about the second explosion and documents covering the various salvage operations eg:- ‘How I found the Lusitania: My exciting Search for the sunken liner three hundred feet below a stormy sea’ by Captain Henry Russell of the ‘Orphir’(extract from ‘Glasgow Evening News’ Nov 16th 1935) and, Hubert Collier’s ‘What Really Sank the Lusitania?’ From Lloyd’s Log, May 1975.

Lusitania 7







The research folder offers some documents relating to salvage work in the 1960s.  Three copy letters from Sub-Agent Seamas O’Neill to Lloyd’s Intelligence dated June 23rd 1967, July 12th 1967 and July 18th 1967 refer to John Light (leader of the diving team), the salvage operation, some filming by Granada TV and the movements of salvage vessel ‘Doonie Braes’.

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A copy of the Lusitania Inquiry, some published books on the loss and more recent articles eg:- Simon Wills in the May 2015 ‘Family Tree’ magazine, are also held at the Library, see the library catalogue http://capitadiscovery.co.uk/cityoflondon/

Lists of passengers and crew can be found online at http://www.rmslusitania.info/lusitania-passenger-list/ and http://www.geni.com/projects/RMS-Lusitania/14738

You are welcome to visit Guildhall Library to research the Lusitania and other vessels and stories in the collection. Most items can be ordered from our stores and brought to your table in about fifteen minutes. You can discover more about our resources on the maritime page on our website https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/guildhall-library/collections/Pages/Maritime-history.aspx

Written by: Jeanie Smith – Assistant Librarian and Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection
Photographs by: Elisabeth Dew – Library Assistant


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