Mr. Oliver Percy Bernard

Oliver Bernard Saloon Passenger Saved
Oliver Bernard The Boston Globe, Globe Pequot Press. Guilford, CT.  Courtesy Carole Lindsay.
Born Oliver Percy Bernard 8 April 1881 Camberwell, London, England, United Kingdom
Died 15 April 1939 (age 58) London, England, United Kingdom
Age on Lusitania 34
Ticket number 1299
Cabin number B 103
Traveling with - Leslie Mason (employer's daughter) - Stewart Mason (employer's daughter's husband)
Lifeboat 11
Rescued by - Wanderer (Peel 12) - Flying Fish
Occupation - Architect - Set designer - Graphic designer - Industrial designer
Citizenship British (England)
Residence London, England, United Kingdom and Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Other name(s) Bunny (in his autobiography)
Spouse(s) - Muriel Theresa Lightfoot (1911 - 1924) - (Edith) Dora Hodges (stage name Fedora Roselli) (1924 - 1939, his death)
Oliver Bernard (1881 - 1939), 34, was an English architect, and scenic, graphic and industrial designer. He was returning to England aboard Lusitania after working on a theatrical set design for Boston millionaire William Lindsey. Bernard was escorting Lindsey's daughter, Leslie Mason, and her husband, Stewart Mason, across the Atlantic. Bernard saw the torpedo strike the ship and attempted to help Leslie find her husband, only to be separated from Leslie. Bernard escaped in lifeboat 11 and was rescued by the Wanderer (Peel 12) and Flying Fish.
  1. Early life
  2. Finding work
  3. America
  4. Lusitania
  5. Disaster
  6. Only one torpedo
  7. War and post-war
  8. Art deco
  9. Personal life and later years
  10. Links of interest

Early life

Oliver Percy Bernard was born 8 April 1881 to a theatrical couple in Camberwell, London, England.  His father was a theater manager, Charles Bernard. His mother was an actress, Annie Allen. As a child, Oliver overheard his nurse chatting to another that when he was shown to his mother for the first time, his mother had said, "Very nice, but please take him away." Young Oliver had an unhappy childhood. He was placed in the charge of his aunt who lived in the Waterloo area of London so that his parents would not be "encumbered" by him on their travels.  His father died in 1894, and at the age of thirteen, a Manchester couple offered to adopt him. He found work in a Manchester theater as a property boy and paint-room assistant, but his earnings could hardly buy food for his survival, much less a train ticket to London. After his move north, Oliver decided that escaping from Manchester would be in his best interests.

Finding work

Oliver working tirelessly to become a designer.  He also educated himself by reading John Locke, John Ruskin, and others. The next job Oliver took was cabin-boy on a Norwegian barque.  He had sailed twice to Montreal before finally settling in London to begin his apprenticeship as a scenic artist under Walter Hann.  In his spare time he boxed and played billiards. In 1905, he went to New York to work for Klaw & Erlanger before returning to London. In 1912, he was scenic director of the Quinlan Opera Company during their Australian tour. By 1914, Oliver had a designing job at the Royal Opera House in London's Convent Garden. Months before the war started, Bernard was in Berlin for a production of The Ring at Charlottenburg.  He had been followed by a German officer, lured into a quarrel with a group of German men, and informed on the train that "Germany will soon show your Mr. Churchill how to trim his navy."


At the outbreak of war, Oliver enlisted; however, he was rejected by the British Army, the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Naval Air Force due to his poor hearing.  At the same time, the conservatism of the London theater frustrated him. Ashamed of being a noncombatant, Oliver quit his job and went to New York. Bernard often disliked having to explain to friends why he was in America instead of fighting the war.  Many of them tried to persuade him to settle permanently in America.  Oliver found New York invigorating but "in the throes of a spectacular disease" that created skyscrapers, monuments to commercial obsession.  As time wore on, Oliver became disillusioned with New York and moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he took up the job of resident technician at the city's new Opera House. When he was told that the British armed forces would be changing their standards to admit more men, he planned to return to London after a commission for designing theatrical sets from the Boston millionaire William Lindsey for "a deplorable play set round medieval Picardy".  Truth be told, Lindsey's riches came from his invention of the ammunition belt and not his playwrighting. Even though the play may not have proved to be one of Oliver's liking, Lindsey persuaded Oliver to take his daughter Leslie and son-in-law Stewart Mason under his wing.  Leslie and Stewart had been married on 21 April 1915 and the Lusitania's next voyage was to be a part of their honeymoon.  Oliver stayed in the Knickerbocker Hotel where he saw the German notice in the paper.


This crossing would be his second on the Lusitania, but twelfth in total. As Oliver came down to the dining saloon for dinner on the first night out, he noticed that a "supercilious steward" had given his table to another.  He snapped at the steward, saying, "Perhaps you could tell me why the genius of the engineers that built this ship should be depreciated because you think some passengers are more important than others?" "I beg your pardon, sir."  Answered the steward, directing him to another table. A cynical social observer, Oliver was quick to disparage the wealthy and affluent lifestyles of many onboard the Lusitania, especially that of Alfred Vanderbilt, whom he often observed during the voyage.  Oliver was also not too fond of romantic love, and was quite relieved when Leslie and Stewart kept more to themselves instead of displaying their affections in front of Oliver all during the crossing. On Sunday, 2 May, Oliver observed the half-hearted effort of a lifeboat drill.  A few men climbed into lifeboat #14 and then got out.  No attempt was made to lower the boat. Oliver arrived late to the ship's concert on Thursday night.  He observed that Stewart and Leslie were already there, as was Alfred Vanderbilt.  Oliver couldn't help but notice that most in the saloon class lounge were sitting in twos and threes, hardly mingling with each other.  He thought to himself, "A submarine would have at least socialized the audience." The blaring foghorn during breakfast made Oliver irritable.  Captain Turner was practically announcing to the enemy where the ship was in the fog.  He was also annoyed at the lack of speed at which the Lusitania was proceeding.  He wondered, "Is the Commodore waiting for something to happen?" At lunch Oliver grew impatient with an American woman who was going on about which lifeboat she would pick should the ship be torpedoed.  Oliver's curt response was, "My choice would be a raft."  Oliver then gave a coin to Josephine Brandell, who was collecting for members of the orchestra, and rose from his table.  He paid his wine bill and bid "Good afternoon" to Theodate Pope as he passed her table on his way to the port boat deck.


Oliver walked clockwise on deck, past the bridge and ending by the verandah café at the aft of the saloon class superstructure.  He noted, "I have had sufficient exercise on this deck to last me a lifetime." As Oliver gazed over the polished sea, he noticed a slight disturbance in the water that was spreading and nearing the ship.  An American woman next to him asked, without much concern, "That isn't a torpedo, is it?" The sight of impending doom made Oliver too sick to answer.  He shut his eyes and held onto the rail as a severe shock reverberated through the hull.  As he opened his eyes his saw a gigantic column of white shoot up into the air.  Oliver ducked into the café to avoid the debris raining down all over.  After seeing the awning over the entrance sag under the weight of water and debris, Oliver ran back out again.  The ship began to list sharply. On the port side he met up with Leslie Mason.  She was hysterical, shouting, "Where is my husband?" "Your husband will soon be here."  Oliver answered reassuringly.  "We shall be going ashore directly." Leslie was still hysterical and Oliver grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her violently, shouting, "Listen to me!  If you stay right here your husband will find you . . ..  If you go running around this town of a ship, you'll never meet up with him.  Understand?" He then told Leslie to wait for him in the verandah café while he went to go look for Stewart and a lifebelts.  A nearby officer shouted, "Nobody in the boats yet.  Keep back, everybody." As he made his way into the A Deck saloon class entrance, he saw Alfred Vanderbilt there, calmly distributing lifebelts and directing passengers to the boats, acting as if the whole sinking were a show put on for his benefit.  Oliver would never forget the grin on Vanderbilt's face.  Distracted, Oliver lost his balance on the listing ship and crashed on the bottom the B Deck stairs.  Getting up he heard the screams of passengers trapped in the elevators, but tried his best to ignore the unfolding horror as he ran towards the newlyweds' cabin. "Stewart!"  Oliver called. Inside the cabin were only lifebelts.  The ship was sinking rapidly and quickly made his way back to the verandah café but Leslie was already gone.  In a moment of bewilderment, another woman passenger screamed at him, demanding to know where Oliver obtained the extra lifebelt.  He let the woman snatch the belt from his grasp.  Oliver was not able to find Leslie or Stewart afterward. Climbing onto the funnel deck, Oliver saw a stoker covered with soot and a scarlet smear on his face, the crown open "like a bloody sponge pudding."  Wondering how long the ship had left, Oliver saw a naked man swimming away from the sinking liner on his back.  Oliver, too, began to undress and neatly folded his clothes and unlaced his boots, thinking about life.
"Death is close.  How insignificant everything seems in retrospect.  All one's struggles, hopes and achievements will be wiped out in seconds.  What a fuss I've made about my life. It has amounted to nothing.  When I'm dead everybody will say 'How sad,' and go on fussing until they come to their own silly end."
He was next to the radio room at the time and saw Chief Electrician George Hutchinson and wireless operators Robert Leith and David McCormack.  Leith was sending out his last SOS.  Hutchinson commented, "There are plenty of boats around." "That doesn't interest me much."  Oliver replied.  "I can't swim a stroke." McCormack then pushed a swivel chair towards him, telling Oliver, "Here's something for you to hang on to, sir." "I'm no good at working waterwheels either."  Oliver joked. They all laughed as the chair slid out of the room and crashed into the starboard rail.  McCormick rushed outside with his camera and took a picture of the event, facing the bow. Oliver made his way to lifeboat #11 and helped others into the boat, including Member of Parliament D. A. Thomas.  Lifeboat #11 was one of the last to leave the Lusitania at the time and was in danger of being crushed by the funnels. Lifeboat #11 was picked up by the fishing boat Wanderer also known as Peel 12.   After four hours of being cold and miserable, Oliver asked D. A., "Exciting day, Mr. Thomas?" "Outrageous.  Simply outrageous."  D. A. growled. "They certainly made a job of it." "Didn't you see what happened at the lifeboats?  Deplorable.  The standard of human efficiency is far below what we are entitled to expect - today it was ghastly." "Of course," Bernard said, "it's got to start at the top.  You can't expect efficiency from the crew if you don't set an example on the bridge." "What do you imagine the percentage of average efficiency to be?"  Thomas asked. "Fifty per cent?" "Nonsense, young man.  Any employer who gets an average of ten per cent efficency all around is doing extremely well." As the Wanderer was becoming overcrowded, the skipper, Ball, had to have many of the rescued transferred.  Bernard and Thomas was taken aboard the trawler Flying Fish. In Queenstown, Oliver identified the body of Charles Frohman.  He did not find Stewart or Leslie Mason, but their bodies were found and identified by others.

Only one torpedo

Upon Oliver's arrival in London, The London Illustrated News contacted him and asked him to draw sketches of the sinking.  He thought that his drawings would only be used as guides for a professional newspaper artist.  When he was told that the sketches would be published as is, he went back and added notes to each picture.  The editor and he then celebrated the occasion with champagne. Bernard's drawings for The London Illustrated News can be seen in its entirety on pages 46-7 of R. M. S. Lusitania:  Triumph of the Edwardian Age, by Eric Sauder and Ken Marschall. Unlike many other passengers who were reluctant to relate their experiences, Oliver gladly told to story to as many presses as he could.  He was adamant that only one torpedo sank the ship, and probably because of his insistence on the matter, he was not called up at Lord Mersey's inquiry, which had decided that two torpedoes would be more "helpful."

War and post-war

Oliver joined the British Army.  In 1916, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a camouflage officer, serving in France, Italy and Belgium. He attained the rank of Captain and was awarded the Military Cross and Order of the British Empire. Bernard continued his theatrical work in 1919, designing sets for Sir Thomas Beecham's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. Bernard was also responsible for overhauling lighting and stage management at the Admiralty Theatre.

Art deco

Bernard was also a part of the art deco movement.  He was consultant to the Board of Overseas Trade and designed displays for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924.  He was a consultant to the British Government once more for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, France. Bernard was consultant artistic director to J. Lyons and Co. His influence can be seen in the interiors for their Oxford Street, Coventry Street, and Strand Corner Houses. He designed an art deco styled entrance for the Strand Palace Hotel in 1929 and worked on the Cumberland Hotel in 1932. Bernard also wrote on design and architecture. He advocated the use of engineering expertise in design. Bernard also designed furniture. In the late 1930s he designed many industrial buildings, including the Supermarine works in Southampton. He also took part in the founding of Practical Equipment Ltd. and designed the S.P.4 chair for them.

Personal life and later years

Oliver was married twice. His first marriage was to singer Muriel Theresa Lightfoot (1884/5 - ?), They were married from 1911 to 1924. His second marriage was to Dora (Edith) Hodges (1896 - 1950), also an opera singer, who went by the stage name of Fedora Roselli. Oliver and Dora had two daughters and three sons. The sons were named Oliver, a poet and translator, Bruce, a photographer and art critic, and Jeffrey, a journalist. Bernard was also cousin to comedian Stanley Holloway through his father's side of the family. Bernard's former secretary described him as "amusing, utterly impossible, kind, and a bully". In his later years, Oliver published an autobiography, entitled Cocksparrow, which included some of his memories of the last voyage of the Lusitania.  Oliver Bernard died unexpectedly in London of peritonitis on 15 April 1939. At his death, Bernard's estate was worth £2,950, but he left many debts to his wife Dora. Still, Dora was able to send their three sons to independent schools.

Links of interest

Oliver Percy Bernard at Wikipedia
Contributors Michael Poirier Judith Tavares References Ballard, Dr. Robert D. with Spencer Dunmore.  Exploring the Lusitania.   Warner Books, Inc.,  1995. Hickey, Des and Gus Smith.  Seven Days to Disaster.  G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1981. Hoehling, A. A. and Mary Hoehling.  The Last Voyage of the Lusitania.  Madison Books, 1956. Preston, Diana.  Lusitania:  An Epic Tragedy.  Berkley Books, 2002. Ramsay, David.  Lusitania:  Saga and Myth.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Sauder, Eric and Ken Marschall with Bill Sauder.  R. M. S. Lusitania:  Triumph of the Edwardian Age.  Waterfront Publications, 1993. "Oliver Percy Bernard."  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation.  22 July 2004.  Web.  8 August 2011.  <>.

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