Miss Florence Whitehead

Florence Whitehead Image:  Michael Poirier/Mariners' Museum Florence Whitehead, 41, was the foster sister of Elizabeth Hampshire, with whom she was traveling aboard Lusitania.  The sisters roomed in E-135 with Henrietta Pirrie.  Florence and Elizabeth were at lunch when the torpedo struck.  They saw lifeboat 11 spill and safely escaped in lifeboat 13.  In the lifeboat, she, Elizabeth, and Ernest Cowper took turns taking care of Helen Smith.  Lifeboat 13 was picked up by Stormcock.

A visit to America

Florence Whitehead was from Glossop, England, where she became foster sister to Elizabeth Hampshire.  How this happened, present family members are not sure. Around 1900, Elizabeth's siblings began emigrating to the United States, so in 1914 Elizabeth and Florence decided to make an extended visit to brothers Ernest and William.  The ladies sailed on the Cunarder Laconia on 1 September 1914.  The ship docked in Boston and the two women went to the home of their brother William in Milton, Massachusetts.  Elizabeth was enthralled with America during her visit, but Florence was not. The sisters moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island where Elizabeth stayed with Ernest on Colombia Avenue, while Florence kept her own place on Whitford Avenue.  Florence did not like living in the United States.  After eight months she wanted to return home, ostensibly to be near her sister Edith Beard of Glossop.  Elizabeth wanted to stay in America but felt that she should accompany Florence back to England.


The two booked second class passage on the Lusitania sailed on 1 May 1915, aware of the submarine danger that lay ahead.  Florence and Elizabeth were assigned cabin E-135 with Henrietta Pirrie.  Henrietta was on her way to Scotland to be married and showed the sisters her intended’s picture. Florence and Elizabeth became acquainted with their fellow passengers, such as Hannah Ackroyd and her little boy Freddie, with whom they spent much time together on deck. The women had a pleasant voyage.  At 2 p.m. on 7 May, Florence and Elizabeth were in the dining room eating lunch. Florence had already finished, but Elizabeth was still enjoying her meal. Florence had just finished saying, “Hurry up - let’s start packing” when the ship was struck. Elizabeth described the torpedoing as a “terrific explosion” that seemed to “shatter the vessel”. Their dining room steward took command and said, “Follow me.” Despite remaining calm, his face had gone pale as a sheet. The women grabbed their purses when they left their table so that they would have their money with them. They followed the steward up the stairs, but found that as they climbed they had difficulty walking due to the listing of the ship. Out on deck, the two entered first class area. The debris from the explosion turned out to be dangerous and as Elizabeth tried to walk, she fell and began to slide down the sloping deck. Florence made a grab for her foster sister’s hair as she slid near the ship’s rail. Elizabeth steadied herself and noticed that the water was not far from where she stood. They approached lifeboat 11, but Florence thought it looked crowded and said to Elizabeth, “Let’s not go in that one. Let’s get in the second one.” She made the right decision. No sooner had she said this, boat 11 suddenly dropped it’s stern into the water spilling everyone into the sea.


The sisters entered lifeboat 13.  Canadian journalist Ernest Cowper, who had found 6-year-old Helen Smith by herself, handed the little girl across the gap to Elizabeth, who took the girl on her knee.  Cowper also climbed into the boat and John Davies and William Harkness helped lower the boat. The lifeboat slowly began to row away as soon as the falls were detached.  A crew member began shouting at the people at oars, “Row!  Row!  Hurry up, before the ship goes under and the suction gets us.” Florence was unable to take her eyes away from the scene unfolding before her.  Elizabeth couldn’t stand to look at the poor people who were left behind and tried to comfort Helen.  Despite the danger, the lifeboat stopped to pick up a few people in the water who had been in lifeboat 17, which had been swamped during lowering.  The aerial from the mast dangled down into the water and the funnels seem hang over the small craft.  Elizabeth finally turned her head to see the last of the ship, but it was too terrible and she looked away again.  The Lusitania plunged downward and disappeared. The two women spent several hours in the boat and during a quiet moment, Helen said to Elizabeth, “If I can’t find my Mamma and Daddy, I’ll go with you ladies.”  Florence and Ernest took Helen on their laps in order to give Elizabeth time to stretch her legs.  Finally after several hours floating about, the Stormcock rescued lifeboat 13. The survivors landed at Queenstown and Florence and Elizabeth were lead to the post office. Elizabeth sent wires to family members to let them know she and Florence were safe. Elizabeth saw a nurse take Helen Smith away and never saw her again.


Later that Saturday, they decided they were well enough to continue their journey and arrived Sunday morning in Glossop.  The local paper arrived that night to interview them and they gave a thrilling account of the events.  They told how the crew in the boat had said if they had been shipwrecked on a previous day, they may not have made it due to the heavy seas running. Florence Whitehead stayed in England after Lusitania, while Elizabeth returned to the United States.  Florence passed away in England, though her family is not quite sure when. Contributors: Frank Deluski Lois Deluski Michael Poirier

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