Swansea and the Lusitania

This piece is taken from my book, A – Z of Swansea which was published in 2016

I found a quotation in an old newspaper which said that “Swansea men are sure to be in any event that causes a universal or general attention.” The quotation  does seem to contain a grain of truth.  Swansea was there when the Titanic went down, amongst both passengers and crew. It was there when the Twin Towers went down in clouds of dust in New York in 2001. And it was there too, perhaps even more importantly, when the Lusitania went down off the coast of Ireland. If anyone should ever tell you that Swansea is merely a little backwater then remind them that it played an essential part in the entry of America into the First World War and therefore changed world history forever.

The RMS Lusitania was for a while the largest passenger ship in the world and was noted for its speed and luxurious fittings. Her maiden voyage was in 1907, when one of the officers at that time  was Mr A Dann from  Swansea.

But there were secrets about the Lusitania. The British Admiralty had covertly subsidized her construction so when the ship left New York for Liverpool in May 1915, the ship was carrying munitions. The Germans knew about it. They had placed an advertisement in the American press warning passengers of the dangers of travelling in a ship which they now regarded as a legitimate target.

On 7 May 1915 as the ship neared the coast of Ireland it was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine. A second explosion then ripped the liner apart when a hidden cargo was ignited. The ship sank within eighteen minutes and 1,119 people of the original 1,924 perished. Significantly 114 of the dead were Americans and this event – “The Lusitania Murders” -began to turn public opinion there in favour of entry into the war – and the key figure in this was seven year old Helen Smith who was born in Swansea in October 1908.

Her parents Alfred and Elizabeth moved to the United States in 1909 initially living in New York and later near Pittsburgh where Alfred worked as an electrician.  They were joined by Alfred’s sister Cecelia and her husband Hubert Owens, and their children, Ronald and Reginald.

However the Smith family eventually decided to return to Wales. Elizabeth could not settle and Alfred wished to make a contribution to the war effort. His sister Cecelia and her came along to visit their grandparents.

They deliberately chose to sail on the Lusitania probably because Mr A Dann (See above) had once arranged a tour of the ship for Alfred’s father, Captain Smith of Bryn Road, a well-known Swansea seaman.

Helen was playing on deck when the torpedo struck at 2.10pm. The ship immediately began to list to starboard. Unable to find her parents, Helen ran down the deck and into Canadian journalist Ernest Cowper. He picked her up and unsuccessfully searched for her parents.  At the same time, Cecilia saw Alfred and Elizabeth searching frantically for Helen with her baby brother Hubert in their arms.  Alfred persuaded his sister to dive into the water and swim away from the ship. When she looked back she watched the liner slide beneath the surface with the Smith family at the rail. Cecelia was pulled into a lifeboat but along with Alfred and Elizabeth, her sons were lost. Their bodies were never identified.

Cowper and Helen had climbed into lifeboat 13, were rescued and taken to Queenstown in Ireland where they met Cecelia who was still searching for her two boys. Helen was quite untroubled, convinced that her parents would turn up very soon.

Helen’s story grabbed the attention of the world’s media and her photograph in the arms of Cowper flashed round the world – an innocent Swansea-born girl becoming a powerful propaganda tool, a symbol of German barbarism and a focus for popular opinion that the Kaiser could not deflect.  As the Flintshire Observer so eloquently put it “The ruthless sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine marks the climax of a series of ferocious atrocities unequalled in the darkest annals of barbarism.” The wife of the ship’s captain offered a reward to the captain of “any British craft who proves that they have sunk German submarines. The Lusitania must be avenged.” It was an issue which endured.  It was reported in July 1918 that “Lusitania!” was the “stirring battle cry of American soldiers…it is a call for vengeance.”

Helen’s uncles went to Ireland to collect her and “The Cambrian Daily Leader” reporter was touched when Helen and Cecelia arrived at Victoria Station in Swansea  platform in “one of those little scenes that are too deep for words,  that make anyone within several yards feel an intruder…Mrs. Owens was almost in a state of collapse, and indeed upon her arrival at Manselton, the doctor who visited her gave peremptory commands that she was to be seen by no one until she had recovered from her state of distraction.”

Survival made Helen famous. She received many letters including one from Queen Mary. Cowper wanted to adopt her, as did many others, including apparently an American millionaire and an French heiress but she was brought up in Swansea by her mother’s family. Initially she was a small American girl with short hair in a foreign land who spoke only English, while her grandmother spoke only Welsh.  It didn’t matter. She was soon absorbed into a large and supportive family in Manselton which already contained twelve children.

Helen acted as a mascot for the Manselton Girl Guides and sang a solo at the Manselton Congregational Church at a service for the dedication of their colours. As a result she became, according to the newspapers anyway, much in demand as a local concert artiste.

She remained in touch with Ernest Cowper who had saved her life. He wrote to her frequently and sent her presents at Easter and Christmas but, thankfully perhaps, Helen’s celebrity status in Swansea soon faded. She worked in a shoe shop and married John Thomas in 1931.  Together, they had two children, including a daughter named Elizabeth after the mother she lost. Helen died in Swansea in 1993.  Elizabeth, interviewed on her mother’s death, said “She rarely talked about the disaster and I know she hated the notoriety it gave her as a child. She retained a morbid fear of water and rarely travelled outside Wales. But she lived a full life until she was 84.”

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