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Mr. John Davies, Boatswain

John Davies (1852 – 1926), 62, was the boatswain on board the last voyage of the Lusitania, a member of the ship’s deck crew. He was a British subject from Wales. Survivors have noted that during the Lusitania sinking, Davies calmly smoked a pipe and calmed down passengers as he helped load five lifeboats and sent them away. His heroism was reported and commented on in the news media of the day. Davies survived the Lusitania disaster.

This biography is made possible by a collaboration with Peter Kelly and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool.

Early life and employment


John Davies was born in Cardigan, Cardiganshire, South Wales, in 1853. His father was a coachman and his uncle was in H.M. Coastguard Service. The family home was at St. Dogmaels, Cardiganshire, but when quite young, John Davies ran away to sea and while still a boy, joined The Cunard Steam Ship Company.

This brought him to the Liverpool area and eventually, in 1882, he married Bessie Jane Broomfield and they had nine children, Steve, Bessie, John Wornell, Ethel, Eva, Caleb, Florence, David and Eleanor. The family home in later years was at 28 Grove Street, Bootle, Lancashire, England.

He engaged as Bosun in the Deck Department on the Lusitania for what would be her final transatlantic voyage, on 12 April 1915 at Liverpool.  His monthly rate of pay was £8-10s-0d (£8.50) and he was advanced £2-0s-0d of this, at the time he engaged.

Heroism


According to Able Seaman Frederick Hugh O’Neill, O’Neill and Davies were in the baggage room  when the torpedo hit, and they were able to take the elevator out of the room before the electricity failed, trapping the others in the baggage room.

One of Davies’ daughters worked for Johnson Brothers, (Dyers) Ltd., of Bootle, and the company magazine The J.B. Journal for June 1915, reported:

“Bosun Davies, whose daughter is in the Upholstering Department at the Works, has been a servant of the Cunard Company since boyhood, and when the vessel was torpedoed, he, according to one of the survivors amongst the passengers, set a great example by his undaunted heroism, as, calmly smoking, he walked along the deck, releasing lifeboats.

We understand that Bosun Davies was still on board the vessel when she sank, and although he had no lifebelt and could not swim, he was providentially thrown near an upturned collapsible boat, which he managed to right, and in which he was eventually the means of saving 42 lives.”

Fellow survivor second cabin passenger Ernest S. Cowper, wrote about the disaster a year after, in ‘The New York Times Magazine’, published on 7 May 1916. He especially praised Bosun Davies and his efforts:

“But the bravest of all that brave assembly was rugged old John Davies, the boatswain.  Many there are on both sides of the Atlantic today who owe their lives to him.  He stuck to his job until the ocean took him off his feet.

He worked the forward falls on the lifeboats which got away from the starboard side, and smoked as he did it.  He was assisted by two boyish-looking well groomed wireless operators, who, catching John Davies’ spirit perhaps, pulled out their cigarettes and smoked as they worked the after falls with him.  They were drowned.

I will never be able fully to understand how John Davies was saved, but he was. I saw him disappear as the vessel sank beneath him, yet he was walking around Queenstown a few hours later, still smoking his pipe.  I implored him the next day to pose for some newspaper photographers to whom I was anxious to give the story of his bravery, but he was too modest.

’Och, man, they don’t want this damned ould face of mine in a dacent newspaper!’ was all the satisfaction I could get from him.”

Cowper’s memory of John Davies’ accent might be a little suspect in view of the latter’s Welsh origins. Similarly, the ‘boyish-looking well groomed wireless operators’ ought to have been Robert Leith, unlikely to have been ‘boyish-looking’ at the age of 29, and David McCormick then aged 20, but Cowper was wrong about their respective fates, as both survived. Furthermore, the story does not fit with the way in which either Leith or McCormick escaped from the sinking vessel. Both of them were working the wireless until virtually the last moment before the liner went down and then Leith got away in a sinking boat, in which there was only one other occupant and McCormick was taken down in the vortex when the Lusitania sank and was picked out of the water some time afterwards.

These facts notwithstanding, John Davies’ heroism was also recognized in America. From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tuesday, 11 May 1915, page 2:

There are many people who to the end of their days will keep in their minds the picture and revere the memory of Bo’sun Joe Davis [sic].

Of all the Lusitania’s crew, Bo’sun Joe was the one man who realized the instant that the ship was struck what was about to happen, and he acted with the object of saving all the lives he possibly could.  And Bo’sun Joe knew about the lifeboats when what knot untied and what [block] knocked out would release the boats and send her away.

Within fifteen minutes Bo’sun Joe sent five of the boats away.  Puffing at a stub pipe, he went about his work as if he had been practicing.  Passengers, many passengers who were sufficiently calmed by his behavior to watch his efforts, now owe their lives to him.

The lifeboats ready, Bo’sun Joe then began chucking the now willing passengers into them, women first and a few men in each boat to help them.  The craft dropped into the water with amazing rapidity.

“Good luck, lads, and take care of the ladies,” was Joe’s farewell, as he went on to the next boat.

For Bo’sun Joe there was a providential rescue.  He went down, as did his captain, but was picked up in the water.

The book The Tragedy of the Lusitania, published privately in America not long after the sinking, uses much of the same words as in the Plain Dealer article, but also adds that Davies was picked out of the water by one of the lifeboats he loaded and sent away.

Modesty


Despite his obvious and well noticed heroism, Bosun Davies never received any recognition from his company or his country. Perhaps this is because of the modesty already remarked upon by Ernest Cowper.

Having been landed at Queenstown, he made his way back to Liverpool and without any footwear; he walked all the way from the Pierhead to Bootle, a distance of some five miles, without complaint, rather than make any fuss! Like all crew member survivors, he was officially paid the balance of wages owing to him from 17 April until 8 May 1915; 24 hours after the great liner had gone down. He received his payment at Liverpool on 10 May, when he was also officially discharged from her final voyage, so he had obviously returned from southern Ireland by then.  The balance of wages owing to him was £5-18s-0d (£5.90).

He was aged 62 years at the time of the disaster and for the rest of his life, he always maintained that the cargo never contained munitions capable of causing such a damaging explosion.

John Davies died, aged 73 years, in October 1926 and was buried in Bootle Cemetery, Lancashire, in Section 3, Plot 44.  28 Grove Street, Bootle, continued to be the family home until destroyed in another war, during the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign of May 1941.

Links of interest


John Davies at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Contributors
Peter Kelly, Ireland
Ellie Moffat, UK
Bill Redman

References:
“Snatch Up Babes, Leap Into Boats as Liner Plunges.”  Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tuesday, 11 May 1915, page 2.

Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths

1871 Census of England and Wales

1891 Census of England and Wales

1901 Census of England and Wales

1911 Census of England and Wales

Cork Examiner

Cunard Records

J.B. Journal

New York Times Magazine

PRO BT 100/345

Tragedy of the Lusitania

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