Miss Helen Smith

Helen Smith Second Cabin Passenger Saved
Ernest Cowper and Helen SmithHelen Smith with Ernest Cowper, the man who saved her life, in Queenstown.  Image:  New York Times, Sunday, 30 May 1915.
Born Helen Smith October 1908 Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom
Died 8 April 1993 (age 84) Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom
Age on Lusitania 6
Traveling companions - Alfred Smith (father) - Elizabeth Smith (mother) - Hubert Smith (brother) - Cecelia Owens (aunt) - Ronald Owens (cousin) - Reginald Owens (cousin)
Lifeboat 13
Rescued by Stormcock
Citizenship British (Wales)
Residence Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, United States
Other name(s) Helen Thomas (after marriage)
Spouse(s) John Henry Thomas (1931 - ?)
Helen Smith, 6, embarked on Lusitania with her father Alfred Smith, mother Elizabeth Smith, brother Hubert, Aunt Cecelia Owens, and two cousins, Ronald and Reginald Owens.  She had been playing on deck, away from her parents, when the torpedo struck the ship.  Helen was unable to find her parents during the sinking and was saved by Toronto newspaperman Ernest Cowper, who took her with him to lifeboat 13.  Helen and Ernest survived.  Everyone in her family on board, except Cecelia Owens, perished in the Lusitania sinking.
  1. Before Lusitania
  2. Disaster
  3. Queenstown
  4. Later life

Before Lusitania

Helen Smith was born in October 1908 to Alfred F. Smith and Elizabeth A. Jones in Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom.  Alfred and Elizabeth Smith moved to the United States ten months later, moving in with Alfred's brother Arthur Smith on Oliver Street in Yonkers, New York.  The Smith family then moved westward to Ellwood City, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Alfred gained employment as an electrician.  There in late 1914 in Elwood City, Helen gained a little brother named Hubert, named after her uncle, Hubert Owens.  Also settling in Ellwood City with the Smiths were Alfred's sister Cecelia and her husband Hubert Owens, and their children, Ronald and Reginald Owens. By 1915, Elizabeth had become disillusioned with life in America, and Alfred and Elizabeth had decided it was best if they moved the family back to Swansea.  Thus, the whole family would take Lusitania back to Wales.  The people of Ellwood City recalled that Helen had been talking for weeks about how much she was looking forward to seeing her grandparents.  Cecelia, Ronald, and Reginald would also go to Swansea with the Smiths, presumably to visit their ancestral home and return to the United States, as Hubert Owens had stayed in Ellwood City.


In a letter sent from Lusitania right after her maiden voyage in September 1907, now in the scrapbook of the Arthur Smith family, the officer who wrote the letter invited Arthur to tour Lusitania.  Evidently, the Smith family had a personal relationship with the Cunard Line.  This family connection may ultimately have played a part in the Smiths' choice of sailing on Lusitania on what was to be her fatal last crossing. Just after lunch on Friday, 7 May, the Smith family had returned to their cabin, and Elizabeth insisted that Helen change into traveling clothes. "Tomorrow morning we shall be landing in Liverpool," she told her daughter. While her parents proceeded to pack, Helen left their cabin with Ronald and Reginald to play out on deck.  Cecelia had only allowed Ronald and Reginald to play until two, so at 2 p.m., the two brothers left Helen by herself on deck to report to their mother. The torpedo struck at 2:10 p.m.  The ship immediately and heavily listed to starboard and started to sink.  Passengers surged onto the deck to save themselves.  Helen might have even seen loaded lifeboats spill their contents as the crew attempted to lower them.  Her parents were nowhere in sight.  Unable to find her parents, Helen ran down the deck towards a man who turned out to be Ernest Cowper. "Please, mister," Helen pleaded with him, "will you take me with you?" Cowper picked up Helen and carried her to a corner of the second cabin promenade deck. "What's your name?" Cowper asked the little girl. "Helen," she managed to say. "Wait here," Cowper instructed her, "I'll be right back.  Then you can come with me." As Cowper left to run down two flights of stairs to look for lifebelts, Helen stayed in that corner of the promenade deck, waiting patiently.  Cowper was unable to find any lifebelts and returned to Helen empty handed.  But that didn't matter to Helen.  When she saw him return, she exclaimed, "You came back to me, just like you said you would!" Cowper picked up Helen in his arms.  They went in search of Helen's parents but without success.  At the same time, Alfred and Elizabeth were searching for Helen with baby Hubert in their arms.  Cecelia would later recall that she saw Elizabeth running around frantically, with her hair falling loose around her shoulders.  The ship was sinking fast, and Cowper took Helen to the starboard boat deck.  There, Cowper ran into Elbert and Alice Hubbard, from saloon class, whom he had been interviewing throughout the crossing. "Well, Jack, they have got us," Elbert said to Cowper, "They [the Germans] are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.” "What are you going to do?" Cowper asked. Elbert shook his head.  Alice just smiled and replied, "There does not seem to be anything to do." Elbert and Alice then retreated into a room on the Boat Deck and closed the door behind them.  Cowper surmised that the Hubbards planned to die together and did not want to be parted in the water. Cowper brought Helen to lifeboat 13, then being loaded by First Officer Arthur Rowland Jones.  According to A. A. and Mary Hoehling's Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Cowper handed Helen to Nellie Hampshire inside the boat, saying with a trace of a smile, "She asked me to save her.  Says she can't find her mother or father or baby sister Bessie [sic], but her grandparents'll be waiting for her in Liverpool." First Officer Jones ordered Cowper to also get in the boat.  He complied and jumped into the boat after Helen was safely inside.  He helped to push the boat away from the side of the Lusitania as the boatswain cut through the ropes with his knife.  A crew member shouted for everyone in the boat to row for their lives before the suction of the ship swamped them.  As Helen sat on Nellie Hampshire's lap, the little girl said to the woman and her adopted sister, Florence Whitehead, "If I can't find my Mamma and Daddy, I'll go with you ladies."


Cowper became Helen's de facto guardian in Queenstown, and the two of them looked for anyone in Helen's travel party who may have survived.  They were in the Queenstown Hotel when Helen suddenly piped up, "why, here is auntie!" Helen had seen Cecelia Owens from a distance.  Cecelia came to claim Helen, although at the time, Cowper thought Cecelia was just a wealthy woman who had heard of Helen's story and wanted to adopt her.  Cecelia and Helen were the only members of their family to survive the sinking.  Helen was now an orphan.  Helen did not seem to understand that she had lost her mother, father, brother, and cousins and would never see them again. "Everybody is sorry for me because my mummy and daddy have gone," Helen told well-wishers, "they're coming on another boat." As Helen continued to wait for her parents and sister who would never come, she regaled the symapthetic crowds with stories of submarines and how she had often seen them in moving pictures.  The media found Helen's story endearing, and they snapped and published endless pictures of her in newspapers in the US, UK, and Canada.  Cowper received twenty-two offers in Liverpool, through the Cunard Line, from people wishing to adopt the poor little girl.  Even Queen Dowager Alexandra wanted Helen to come to see her at Sandringham.

Later life

Although he is often reported as Helen's grandfather, Helen's uncle, a certain Captain Smith, claimed the young girl.  Her grandfather had died before the Lusitania disaster. Helen's mother's family raised Helen out of the limelight in relative anonymity, in Swansea, to give the girl as normal a life as possible.  Helen continued to keep in touch with the man who saved her life, as a newspaper clipping from the 1920s quoted Ernest Cowper in saying that they were still in contact, and that he was proud of her for having received an award for academic excellence.  An anniversary article in 1925, stated that she was doing well in her schoolwork. Helen later worked in a shoe store and then met John Henry Thomas, a wholesale department manager.  She went through a period of ill health, which delayed their wedding in Swansea until 1931.  Together, they had a daughter named Elizabeth, named after the mother Helen lost in the sinking so long ago. Des Hickey and Gus Smith interviewed Helen for their book, Seven Days to Disaster, where she is credited as Helen Thomas.  Helen lived to be 84 and passed away on 8 April 1993 in Swansea, Wales, the town of her birth. CORRECTION: Previous Lusitania books had stated that Helen had a little sister named Bessie. Family have stated that this is not the case, and that Helen had a little brother named Hubert. Bessie was the nickname of her mother, Elizabeth.

Links of interest

Encyclopedia Titanica:  Lest We Forget - Part 1
Contributors: Huw Thomas, UK (grandson of Helen Smith) Carol Keeler, USA (relative of Helen Smith) Jim Kalafus, USA Peter Kelly, Ireland Mike Poirier, USA Judith Tavares References: Hickey, Des and Gus Smith.  Seven Days to Disaster, pages 115, 178, 194, 227, 274.  G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982. Hoehling, A.A. and Mary Hoehling.  The Last Voyage of the Lusitania.  Madison Books, 1956. Kalafus, Jim and Michael Poirier (2005) Lest We Forget : Part 1 ET Research. <http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/lusitania-lest-we-forget.html> Kalafus, Jim and Michael Poirier (2005) Lest We Forget Part 2:  As the Lusitania Went Down ET Research. <http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/lusitania-lest-we-forget-2.html> Preston, Diana.  Lusitania:  An Epic Tragedy.  Berkley Books, 2002.

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