The Lusitania Resource > People > Engineering Crew List > Mr. John O’Connell, Fireman

Mr. John O’Connell, Fireman

John O’Connell
Fireman
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John O'Connell
A young John O’Connell serving on the HMS Andes.  Image courtesy Jimmy O’Connell.
Born John O’Connell
23 December 1895
Bootle, Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
Died 2 June 1988 (aged 92)
Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
Age on Lusitania 19
Lifeboat Overturned lifeboat
Rescued by Westborough (Katrina)
Citizenship British (England)
Residence Bootle, Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
Spouse(s) Norah Hannaway (1917 – 1974, her death)

John O’Connell (1895 – 1988), 19, was the youngest surviving fireman on the Lusitania‘s last voyage.  He was on deck when the torpedo struck and saw the explosion column of water.  When the ship started listing, he moved to the port side boat deck of Lusitania until he jumped over the side of the ship.  John O’Connell survived and married Norah Hannaway in 1917.

Contents

  1. Early years in poverty
  2. Out to sea
  3. Attack on the Lusitania
  4. Struggle in the water
  5. Ashore
  6. Service in World War II
  7. Reflections on Lusitania
  8. Personal life
John O'Connell in his later years.
John O’Connell in his later years.  Image courtesy Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

Early years in poverty


John O’Connell was born on 23 December 1895 at 14 Clifford Street, Bootle, Liverpool as one of four children in the family.  His birth was registered on 8 February 1896.  John’s father was a a dock laborer.  His mother died when John was seven, so John lived with his father.  His father went to Manchester looking for work and was killed building the Manchester docks when John was ten.  John’s grandmother could not afford to feed and clothe her son’s children, and so she sent John and his two older sisters to the poor house where they were kept behind a ten-foot wall.

John came out of the poor house when he was 14, and he walked back to Liverpool and lived with his father’s sister.  In their small, two storey house on Elm Street in Bootle lived John, his three sisters, two aunts, an uncle, and a grandmother, for a total of eight people.  While living in this house, John did not remember sleeping in a bed.

Starting at age 13, John left school and worked as a baker’s delivery boy where he earned a dollar and a quarter a week.  He only kept three pence of each week’s earnings, the rest was handed over to the family to pay for the weekly rent of one dollar and six pence.  John was fired from the bakery after he intentionally locked up the manager in the bread shop, and he found his next job in a tobacco factory.  There, John extracted nicotine from tobacco plants for 4.25 a week.

John O'Connell's certificate of discharge
John O'Connell's certificate of discharge 2

John O’Connell’s certficates of discharge. Image credit: Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

Out to sea


John’s first job at sea was as a trimmer on White Star Line’s Celtic, a passenger ship on the Liverpool to New York run.  He was paid twenty-four dollars a month, wheeling barrels of coal to the furnaces in the stokehold.

When the war began, John approached Lusitania‘s second engineer for a job just as the ship was about to sail.

“Come on then,” the engineer said, “you almost left it too late.”

Like the other crewmen, he brought his own blankets, clothes, eating and utensils.  He found the job filthy, exhausting, and dangerous.  People of their profession were called the “dirty gang” for a reason.  Forgetting to pull the draught lever would cause a flame to shoot across the stokehold.

The men of the stokehold were a rough crowd, many drank or smoked and engaged in coarse talk, and John did not and did not hang around the people who did.  Fights would break out between men in the dirty gang and violence was a commonplace.  He had also been warned about sexual advances from other trimmers, firemen, and engineers.  The men of the stokehold worked day and night, many never seeing the sun and open air during their crossings.  In their spare time they would play cards, fight, and argue about women, sports, and pubs.  John was scared of many of the men also in the dirty gang and had to pretend that he was as tough was the rest of them.  He accepted this job because he was lucky enough to have one.  He was paid £5, and he was supposed to be paid an extra 10 shillings in danger money, which he never received because the ship sank only 24 days into the pay period.

Just before Lusitania‘s final crossing, he had been mixing with the crowds of New York City and walking down the brilliantly-lit streets Broadway, a world removed from the coal and grime of the stokehold.  On Friday, 30 April 1915, he had bought a present for his girlfriend, Norah Hannaway, who was still in Liverpool, before returning to his accommodations on Lusitania.  The next morning, 1 May, he returned to the engine room, stoking the furnaces of the boiler rooms, and the ship left New York for the last time.

On Sunday, 2 May, John was coming off his watch when he saw two men brawling on the floor of the next boiler room.  He sat by himself in the mess room and listened to the men talk about the war.  Living and working on the lowest decks of the ship, the engineering crew was the least likely to survive in case of a submarine attack.

On Thursday, 6 May, John spent the morning in the boiler rooms, washed after he came off his watch, ate in the mess hall and listened to the literate men of the engineering crew reading the Cunard Daily Bulletin aloud to the rest of the men.

Attack on the Lusitania


John O'Connell's report of character

John O’Connell’s report of character. Image credit: Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

On Friday, 7 May, John was about to sit down to lunch and found, as usual, that there was no jam in the mess hall.  There was marmalade, however.  Another man offered John a tin of jam in exchange that John read the Cunard Daily Bulletin for him.  A crowd of people gathered around John, waiting for the young man to read the newspaper, as many of them were mostly in their forties and didn’t know how to read.  John didn’t feel like asking for the jam again and left.  He later recalled that if he had gotten it and later put it away, “I wouldn’t have been here.”

John walked out on deck where he noticed that Lusitania was steaming in a straight line.  The flag was flying “dead straight out” and the wake showed no signs of zigzagging, which was strange to John as he had gotten used to the wartime practice.  He was going to let that thought go when he heard a thud.  At the time, he didn’t realize it was a torpedo.  The next thing he knew, a column of water blasted into the air.  John went for cover; he didn’t want to get wet.  Even then it still didn’t register to him that Lusitania had been torpedoed.   At the time, John noticed that there were only 20 or so people on deck with him, wrapped up and sitting in deck chairs.

Lusitania continued on her way, and the ship started to list.  Everyone then realized that something was wrong.  The people on deck all scrambled to the ladder and climbed up to the next deck.  He couldn’t remember exactly what happened until he got up to the boat deck, and lost track of the people that had left with him from below.  When he reached the boat deck, he ran a few paces onto the port side, the high side, and then realized that “there was no point in goin[g] anywhere,” so he just stood on deck.  He looked at the lifeboats.  They were still in the davits and fully loaded with passengers.  Furthermore, they were swung inboard, over the deck, and no one was around to lower the boats.  John knew that they would never get off.

John did not understand how the lifeboats filled so quickly, and why there was no movement around him.  People were crowding along the deck, along the water.

John stood by himself for some time when he saw a man run past, shouting that everything would be all right.  The man ran back to where he came from, but never came back to John’s area of the deck again.  John then saw two women crying and he instinctively put his arm around the shoulder of one of them.  He was never quite sure what made him do that.  A young man from Liverpool asked John if John could look after the man’s mother and daughter, and John agreed.  The other man darted off.  One of the women insisted on going into the lounge; she was sobbing and wanted to sit down.  John tried to persuade her to not go into the lounge, but she went inside anyway, and John followed them.  He kept one foot inside and one foot out on deck.  They stayed in the main entrance for a few minutes, where John noticed the basketwork chairs and that the lights had gone out.

They heard a scream.  As the lights had gone out, John wondered where the scream was coming from, and he looked to the rails and saw “a lifeboat hanging upside – all the people were in the water.”  One end of the lifeboat had come loose and thrown the people in the boat into the sea below.  He couldn’t recall the details of the people screaming in the water, but he noted a general sense of fear of people getting into the lifeboats.  John stood where he was for another minute or so.  He wasn’t fully aware of the danger he was in, but his instincts were telling him that the ship was going to go under.  He went to the railing and jumped and soon found himself sliding down the side of the ship.

John recalled the lack of order, but there was no panic during the sinking.  He would say later, “I’ve seen more panic at Anfield . . . tryin[g] to be the first of 40 thousand tryin[g] to get out every Saturday.”

Struggle in the water


John landed in the water and went under.  He felt that the water around him was “like a big hole.”  He could see the water above and he went up and down in the water.  When he came up, he saw white water, flotsam, and swam to a nearby plank and grabbed onto it.  He looked around and could hardly believe that Lusitania was gone.  All around him were people in the water.  He saw a man clinging onto a basketwork chair.  He was wondering who that man was when three other men grabbed onto the other side of the plank John was using.  The men wrestled for control of the plank, one of them looked badly injured.  John had his lifebelt on and he thought that he might cramp holding onto the plank, so he let go.  Someone then grabbed his belt and John’s head was soon in the water.

John saw an overturned lifeboat some distance away.  Knowing that he would be drowned by these men if he stayed where he was, John held on to the plank just a little longer and chanced the swim to the lifeboat.  As he floated off, a man kicked John in the face.  John went underwater, but came back up and made his way to the lifeboat.  When he got near the lifeboat, he saw half an oar and thought it would be useful.  He got on the boat with the oar, and when another man swam over to the boat, John extended his half-an-oar to the man and brought him onto the boat.  On the boat were John, an engineer, and two other men, riding on the boat in silence.  Two of the men stood on the boat, facing each other so one could look one way and the other man the other way.  The men couldn’t move much on the overturned boat, lest they upset the balance and fall into the water or pitch everyone back into the sea.

The man who John believed was the engineer said that he could see a ship coming toward them, but then the ship turned her broadside to them and steamed away.  The men on the boat knew that they would have to hold on for a while longer.  More people then came to their boat, among them some men who had helped with lowering the boats, and Marguerite, Lady Allan.  Lady Allan sat next to John on the boat and he gave her his hand.  Lady Allan then said to John, “I like you, what for I don’t know.”

They were picked up by the Westborough, which was disguised as the Greek steamer Katrina.

Bootle auxiliary fire service, John O'Connell is seated on the extreme right.

Bootle auxiliary fire service in World War II.  John O’Connell is seated on the extreme right.  Image courtesy Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

Ashore


After reaching land, John was in the dock offices where various people were rushing around.  He was with five others where they each received one pound.  The next morning, the men went to the pub, where the porter was two pence a pint.  John himself joined them but didn’t drink.

John went to the Cunard office to get compensation for the day’s worth of pay that had been docked because his ship sank.  He was given clothes and a place to stay for the night, which had cost the company £8.10.  Cunard agreed that John was entitled to some sort of compensation, so they gave him 30 shillings.  Afterwards, he served with the Royal Navy in the First World War.

Service in World War II


During World War II, John volunteered for the auxiliary fire service.  His job was to keep the large gas tanks cool as Bootle burned around him.  Bootle was bombed out three times.

Over 70,000 people in Merseyside were made homeless during the Blitz.  The first German bombs landed on Merseyside on 9 August 1940 at Prenton, Birkenhead.  In the following sixteen months, German bombs killed 2,716 people in Liverpool, 442 people in Birkenhead, 409 people in Bootle, and 332 people in Wallasey.  The worst periods of bombing were the Christmas Raids of December 1940, and the May Blitz of 1941.  The final bombs of World War II were dropped on Merseyside on 10 January 1942.

John O'Connell in his later years.

John O’Connell in his later years.  Image courtesy Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

Reflections on Lusitania


Gus Smith interviewed John O’Connell for his and and Des Hickey’s book, Seven Days to Disaster.  While he was the youngest member of the stokehold on Lusitania‘s last voyage, when Hickey and Smith’s book came out in 1981, newpapers reported John as the oldest survivor still living.

Looking back on what happened on Lusitania, John said in an interview to the BBC, “I think this lifeboat drill and all this malarky that goes on is nonsense.  Even up to now the people on the boat have no idea what to do . . .. The officer’s satisfied there, he’s got his boat full and off you pop.  No idea of how to, how to get the boat away, lower the boats, or . . . who’s goin[g] to pull the oars of any damn thing.”

John related that in World War I they would abandon ship during lifeboat drills, emptying a ship of 300 in roughly 7 or 8 minutes, and row away and come back again.

John also had the opinion that Lusitania was deliberately sunk by the British Government, saying, “I don’t know what reason but . . . it brought the Yanks in.”

Personal life


John O’Connell and Norah Hannaway married on 7 July 1917.  The couple had seven children, named Mary, Norah, Sheila, Collette, Frank, James, and Geoffrey.  When John left the sea, he worked at the local gas works, where he stayed for 40 years.  John and Norah celebrated their 50th, golden wedding anniversary in 1967, both husband and wife were 71 at the time.  Norah predeceased John in 1974; John himself lived for another 14 years, passing away on 2 June 1988 at the age of 92.  His funeral was held at St. James Church in Bootle on the evening of 6 June, the requiem mass held the next day on 7 June.  He was interred in Ford Cemetery.  A death notice for John in the newspapers, written by his son James, read, “The gates of Heaven opened, Dad, my Mum was standing there, she put her arms around you to welcome you to her.”

John and Norah celebrating their 50th golden wedding anniversary.

John and Norah celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.  Image courtesy Jimmy O’Connell. Click for full size.

Contributors:
Jimmy O’Connell (grandson of John O’Connell)
James O’Connell (son of John O’Connell)

References:
Transcript of BBC interview with John O’Connell

Hickey, Des and Gus Smith.  Seven Days to Disaster.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981.

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