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Professor John “Ian” Bernard Stoughton Holbourn

Prof. Ian Holbourn Second Cabin Passenger Saved
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Born John Bernard Holbourn 5 November 1872
Died 15 September 1935 (age 62) Scotland, United Kingdom
Age on Lusitania 43
Cabin number C 10
Lifeboat 15, 1
Rescued by - Wanderer (Peel 11) - Stormcock
Occupation Professor, traveling lecturer, author, laird
Citizenship British (Scotland)
Residence Edinburgh and Foula, Scotland, United Kingdom
Other name(s) Bernard Holbourn
Spouse(s) Marion Archer-Shepard (1905? - 1935, his death)
Ian Holbourn, 43, was laird of the island of Foula in Scotland, also a professor, and traveling lecturer returning to Britain.  On board Lusitania, he befriended passenger Avis Dolphin and aided her and her nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith, during the sinking.  Holbourn and Avis Dolphin survived.  Avis' nurses did not.
  1. Youth and education
  2. Two loves:  Foula and Marion
  3. Married life and career
  4. War
  5. Lusitania
  6. Continued friendship with Avis Dolphin
  7. Teaching in the United States
  8. Hobbies
  9. Later years
  10. Media portrayal
  11. Links of interest

Youth and Education

Holbourn was born on 5 November 1872 (Guy Fawkes' Day) to Alfred Holborn* , first class Honours in Mathematics from New College, London, and Mary Jane Stoughton, daughter of John Stoughton, DD, celebrated Congregational minister, preacher, and ecclesiastical historian.  The couple had two children, John Bernard ("Ian" being the Scottish equivalent of "John") being the older of the two.  As a child, he was often addressed as "Bernard."  Mary Jane died three years after her and Alfred's marriage, and Ian would adopt her mother's maiden name as part of his own.  After her death, Alfred's health broke down and the two children were sent to live with their stern Aunt Augusta. A nurse's neglect during young Holbourn's childhood had led a scratch on the four-year-old into an infection with an abscess reaching to the bone, which had to be scraped periodically.  Thus, he was often sent to London under the care of his Uncle William in order to receive the best medical attention.  As the chloroform anasthetic made him sick for days afterward, he had implored the doctor to operate without the painkillers, promising not to move and not to make a sound. Young Ian was educated at the Bradford Grammar School until age ten, and later at Mill Hill.  Not only was he a competent athlete, but he was also editor of the school magazine, officer of several organizations, winner of the Mill Hill School Mathematical Prize, and winner of the Bousefield Scholarship.  It was here at Mill Hill that he met one of his best friends, Henry Child Carter, later chairman of the Congregational Union.  It was also during these college years that Holbourn became more known as John, later becoming Ian. The Blousefield Scholarship took Ian to London University for honours studies in Mathematics.  Ian's passion for humanities, however, led to his transfer to the Slade School of Art where he studied for five years.  At Slade, he founded The Quarto, a literary magazine that has become a collector's item in years since.  Holbourn was also placed in charge of "the bad boys class" at the Sunday school at Ealing.  His gift for teaching had managed to turn the class of six rowdy boys to a class of thirty plus serious scholars in a very short time. Feeling that art application without theory would be incomplete, after Slade he attended Merton College in the University of Oxford to pursue an honours degree in literae humaniores.  Henry Carter was also attending Oxford at the time, and among other connections that he made during his Oxford years were John Buchan, later Governor General of Canada, Ian McAlister, later secretary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and Sir Richard Livingstone, afterwards president of Corpus Christi. With Mr. Lees-Smith, Ian founded the Ruskin College for working men.  For a number of years, Ian Holbourn served on the college's correspondence and examining staff.

Two loves: Foula and Marion

In 1899, Ian accompanied Mr. Barrett in an expedition to Iceland headed by F. W. W. Howell.  Together, they were the first to cross the unexplored Láng Yökull, a vast ridge of ice fields.  Howell, as leader of the expedition, kept the records.  Unfortunately, Howell died the following year, so the only record of the expedition is in Ian's diary.  All members of the expedition were thoroughly impressed by the grandeur of the sights of Iceland as well as the hospitality of the Icelandic people. On the way to Iceland, the expedition team had passed the isle of Foula, and Ian made a visit there in 1900.  Once there and sampling the sights Ian was determined to buy the island.  Foula, however, had recently been purchased by a Mr. Ewing Gilmour.  Gilmour was a rich business man willing to part with the island should he receive a "sufficiently tempting offer."  Ian pulled together all the resources he could.  A bargining war ensued, with the "final" transactions, of which there were several, were conducted via telegrams.  Despite Ian's family's disapproval of such a "hare-brained investment," in the end, Foula belonged to Ian, and he was laird. Back at Oxford, Ian was president of four literary and debating clubs as well as sub-librarian of the Union.  Ian became president of the Oxford University shooting eight in 1902, and it was through his shooting comrade, Laurence Archer-Shepherd, that he met the woman he would marry, Marion, Laurence's sister. As Marion's father was a vicar in Avenbury, Herefordshire, his disapproval of Ian stemmed from Ian's not being a part of the Established Church (Ian was first a Congregationalist, then an Anglican, and later a member of The Society of Friends, or Quakers).   Ian's low-paying job as lecturer had nothing to do with what Vicar Archer-Shepherd thought.  Nonetheless, Ian and Marion courted for three years, three months, and three days and he propsed to her on the top of Merton Tower on the Oxford Campus. April of that year, Ian took Marion to visit Foula.  Much to Marion's surprise, as Ian was laird of the isle, the residents of Foula regarded them as royalty.  The islanders were sure always to be polite and to never say or do anything that might offend the rulers of the island.  For instance, to offer help would imply that the lord of the island was incompetent.  Instead, the islanders prefered "to have a word with" them, which was always the islanders' pleasure. That autumn, Ian and Marion were married and moved to London.

Married life and career

Now that the young couple was living in London, their relatives were rather concerned about the ability of the young couple to not flounder financially.  But all went well.  Ian went to lecture for Oxford, Cambridge, and London while Marion continued her studies at the Royal College of Music.  Ian's lecture program soon picked up, and often he would be spending hours on end on the train between lectures and classes.  Ian's lecture topics were broad and not confined solely to one particular area of concentration.  His interests were varied and ranged from archaeology to Greek philosophy to poetry to Medieval history to art and architecture to social and ethical problems. As summers were often free, Foula became more or less the Holbourn's summer residence.  Whenever Ian was up north, he took the opportunity to sit in the Zetland County Council, of which he was a part.  Each way meant traversing twenty miles of sea and then walking another twenty-seven miles before reaching his destination.  In undertaking such an arduous journey, he hoped to obtain grants that would improve the life of the islanders of Foula. In 1906, the Holbourns purchased a nine-ton cutter.  Ian christened his yacht the Paralos after the historic Athenian trireme.  The next year Ian and Marion moved from London to Edinburgh, where they lived at 28 Nile Grove.  A few days later, their eldest son Hylas was born.  In 1908, the Holbourns moved to Mayfield Terrace where their other sons, Alasdair and Philistos, were born. Ian was commissioned to write The Gothic Era, but the publisher folded before he was finished.  He also contributed a number of articles for Dr. Hastings' Dictionary of Religion and Ethics on The Architectures of European Religions, published in 1908. Ian continued his lectures, and in his growing popularity was often was caught unaware by pastors of churches to deliver sermons.  He received invitations to lecture in France, Germany, Canada, Austria, and Switzerland.  In 1913, Ian was invited by the Lecturers' Association of New York to tour the United States.  He gave over a thousand lectures across the United States at the universities of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, California (Berkeley was the only UC campus until 1919, when UCLA was founded), and so on.  Ian set the record for the largest Oxford University Extension audience since the movement was started.


Ian was back in Foula when war was declared.  The mail boat had been delayed a week and the people of the island had not known until 10 August 1914.  Ian was surprised that the islanders reacted as if nothing were the matter.  They welcomed the Royal Navy when they were stationed on Foula, but after they left the islanders felt "quite deserted."  Ian hosted Officer Mallet of the HMS Forward.  The Forward and all of its complement would be lost. Holbourn's greatest project was the Fundamental Theory of Beauty.  He had worked on the project for twenty years and had taken his manuscript with him when touring the United States in the fall of 1914.  He hoped to be ready for publication in 1916.  For the trip home, Ian booked passage on the Lusitania.


Before sailing, Ian had dreamed three times that the Lusitania would be torpedoed.  On the night of 6 May, Marion Holbourn had a similar premonition in what she called a "waking vision" of the Lusitania being torpedoed before she went to bed. On board, Ian stayed in cabin C 10.  Second cabin was overbooked and meals had to be taken in two sittings, with several tables put in the hallways. Realizing that the Lusitania would be sailing into the war zone, Ian thought it important that passengers know proper evacuation procedures and the way to put lifebelts on properly.  A deputation soon came to him on Tuesday, ordering him to stop talking about such things because he was upsetting the passengers.  Ian was also critical of Captain Turner's refusal to order a lifeboat drill in order not to distress the passengers.  On Wednesday, 5 May, Holbourn complained directly to Captain Turner, but Holbourn sensed that his interference was rather unwelcome.  For people's refusal to face the facts and recognize dangers, Ian nicknamed them all the "Ostrich Club." As a great lover of children, he also befriended twelve-year-old Avis Dolphin, who was on her way to England for school accompanied by nurses Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith.  Avis was seasick throughout the whole voyage and Ian was able to keep her spirits up by regaling her with his stories of Foula. Coffee had just been served during the second sitting of lunch where Ian was when the torpedo hit.  The Lusitania listed so suddenly and violently that dishes crashed to the floor.  The stewards shouted, "No danger, keep to your seats!"  Except for a few screams, the atmosphere in the dining room was one of "absolute calm." Ian's first thought was to reach Avis, but he first waited for the worst of the rush to be over.  Avis was also at lunch, sitting about twenty feet away.  Ian took her back to his room to get lifebelts as Avis' room was on a lower deck.  He put on her a lifebelt that belonged to a fellow passenger while the other passenger assisted in tying the lifebelt.  Ian gathered a few of his most important manuscripts and carrying his own lifebelt, together they made for the top.  Ian and Avis were at the top of the companionway and almost out on deck when the lights went out. On deck, Ian and Avis sighted Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith.  Sarah did not have a lifebelt and Ian offered her his.  She refused, saying that "his life was of more value than hers as he had a wife and children" (Holbourn, 248).  Ian would later comment strongly on the need of lifebelts on the boat decks.  They agreed that Ian would keep his lifebelt if he could find a boat for Avis, Sarah, and Hilda.  Ian attempted to get them away in a portside lifeboat, but they saw one smashed in launching.  They saw another launched empty, and some men stripped and swam for it. Sensing that the starboard side was their only hope, the group moved forward and Professor Holbourn placed Avis, Sarah, and Hilda in a starboard lifeboat (possibly #17).  He kissed Avis, and fearing that he would not survive told Avis to "find his wife and children and kiss them goodbye for him" (Holbourn, 248). Twelve to fifteen minutes had passed since the torpedo struck.  The Lusitania was now very low in the water and Ian put on his lifebelt and stuffed in his manuscripts.  He moved forward to find a clear space to jump.  As Ian jumped, with horror he saw Avis' lifeboat capsize and Avis sucked under.  The tangle of wreckage and people made it impossible for Ian to make his way over.  Ian would have nightmares of the lifeboat spilling for years afterward. In the water, Ian became entangled in ropes.  He was able to free himself saw the Lusitania in her final death throes.  He made for lifeboat #15, the closest one, and hoping to get in, pushed along a companion in the water.  When he got to the boat, he discovered that his companion was dead, and that the people in the overcrowded boat refused to let him in.  Fearing that he and his manuscripts would be lost, he threw his manuscripts into the boat so at least his papers would be saved, and then grabbed onto a rope trailing from the stern of the lifeboat. The people in the lifeboat saw another, empty boat (perhaps #1 or a collapsible) a few yards off and made towards it.  As #15 was full of people fished from the water, the oars moved slowly.  It took perhaps three-quarters of an hour to reach the other boat, but to Ian it seemed to be "an interminable age."  Weakening from the cold water, he asked for one of the men in the boat to hold his hand.  Those in the boat were all too horrified by their surroundings that they refused to do so. He was dragged into the second boat with the help of Francis Luker and then he retrieved his manuscript.  Seeing and hearing so many people drowning painted a picture "too ghastly to describe" (Holbourn, 249). Ian was picked up by the fishing smack Peel 11.  The Peel 11 was already overcrowded but still took on the two lifeboats.  The survivors, many of them seriously injured, huddled together in a small hold, before they were transferred to the Stormcock. Upon arrival in Queenstown, Ian continued his search for Avis despite his exhaustion and exposure.  He was able to walk, but his limbs refused to work.  Two soldiers then took him to the Cunard office and then later to a hotel where he was put to bed.  Ian asked for news of Avis whenever he could.  It was not until 2 a.m. in his hotel that he finally got word that Avis was safe.  His exposure to the water was now taking a toll on him and was confined to his bed in the hotel.  Avis, very much well, came to see him. On the way back home to the island of Great Britain, Ian continued to take care of Avis, providing rooms for her at a Dublin hotel in Sackville Street.  Marion met up with Ian and Avis at the Birmingham railway station.  As Marion packed away Ian's wet belongings, an astonished porter asked Marion what she was doing.  When she replied that she was meeting her husband who was on the Lusitania, the porter then asked, "Oh, was 'ee drownded, then?"

Continued friendship with Avis Dolphin

Ian and Marion then accompanied Avis to her grandparents in Worcester.  Avis' grandfather had a premonition of the Lusitania's torpedoing, similar to Marion's, also the night before the sinking.  He had seen Avis' lifeboat capsize, but when she resurfaced he said, "Depend on it, that's our Avis!" Ian and Avis continued to be life-long friends.  One day when Avis complained about how boring girls' books were, Ian promised to write her an adventure story that would be as thrilling as any that book that was written for boys.  Thus, The Child of the Moat was born.  When published in 1916, the book sold out immediately.  Before a second edition could be published, however, the publisher folded.  Children of Fancy was also published in 1916, poems that were part of his manuscripts which were lost on the Lusitania. Avis Dolphin would move to Edinburgh following her school years, close to the Holbourns.  During one visit to Holbourn's house she met journalist Thomas Foley.  Avis and Thomas married in 1926.

Teaching in the United States

Ian was appointed professor in the extension department of the University of California in art and architecture in 1918.  That same year, he was appointed lecturer to the United States Federal Government Committee on Public Information to forge a better understanding between the United States and Britain. The following year, Ian received an invitation from Carleton College in Minnesota to build up their art department.  Starting with nothing, Carleton soon became the college with the largest number of students taking art courses in any college or university in the world.  Even the US Board of Education cited Carleton, along with Swarthmore, as two of the best and most progressive schools in the nation.  Speaking of this accomplishment, Carleton's president said, "All this Professor Holbourn has done not only without straw but without bricks." Holbourn found the American people to be extremely responsive.  The Americans loved him for his unusual dress (usually appearing in a kilt) and his atypical teachings.  He told his students, "I do not mind if you contradict me and prove me wrong; what I do not want is my own lecture dished up again."  In response a student said, "But that is just what most of the other professors want!"  A local journal even said, "we love you, dear Professor, and you make us think."  Soon shops were full of postcards with quotes from his lectures, including "Never be satisfied with what CAN be done -- any fool can do that.  Strive to do the thing that CAN'T be done."


Gothic architecture and architectural design were among Ian's favorite hobbies, and in 1922 the Holbourns bought Penkaeth Castle (then called Fountainhall, but not the Fountainhall) from Sir George Dick-Lauder.  Much of Ian's limited financial resources went into restoring the castle. Holbourn was also interested in planning "the perfect city."  His urban layout skills were put to good use when Ian was asked to draw up a layout of an entire Illinois city.  The main street of the city, Nason, Illinois, bears his name. Ian had five encyclopedias in his possession and always sought more knowledge.  In later years his continuously wrote, more on his philosophy on beauty as well as research that he saw to be of benefit for others.  As a world traveler, Ian completed his million miles in 1928.  Not only had he traveled all over Europe and the United States, but he had also set foot in Japan and Barbardos.

Later years

In 1929 Ian was shipwrecked again when he and Hylas were caught in a storm while sailing on the Paralos.  The ship was not sunk, but both Ian and Hylas were injured. Although Ian enjoyed his work in America, he hoped to return to Scotland and work on his writing.  Ian had completed 25,000 pages on the theory of art and he hoped to be able to put in the time to edit and publish.  He applied for the Gordon Professorship of Fine Art in Edinburgh, but he was not successful.  The Wall Street crash of 1929 also made retirement at the age of sixty impossible.  Constant smoking also made his throat delicate, and although he tried to quit he was never able to give up the habit entirely.  He often dissuaded others from ever picking up the habit. Ian very much dreaded old age and conscious degeneration.  He became increasingly concerned with the possiblity of an afterlife.  When faced with the necessity of an operation, Ian became increasingly gloomy.  Marion and Hylas thought it would be best for Ian to get away and took him on a tour of the Border district and to the Holbourn village.  Ian's spirits were also lifted by news that Hylas' physics research, which had taken four-and-a-half years, would soon be successfully completed. The day before Ian left for the hospital, he told Marion that he had made an "epoch-making discovery" in his philosophy and hoped to be able to write it out.  The surgery went well, but three days later, Marion felt a sense of "impending disaster."  On the morning of 14 September 1935 Marion rushed to the nursing home to see Ian.  He was looking quite normal, but he seemed to be writing much in imagination.  One of his last words was "I think my philosophy may be counted as a real contribution.  Don't you think?"  Hylas arrived a few hours before the end, and at midnight Ian passed away.  He was sixty-two.  Alasdair and Philistos, in Foula, would not be able to receive word of Ian's passing until the day of his funeral.  At Carleton, a student loan memorial fund was established in Ian's honor. Ian left vast amounts of unpublished writing on a very wide range of subjects.  Marion put together the book, sticking closely to her husband’s notes on Foula.  The resulting book, The Isle of Foula, was published in 1938.  Marion would outlive Hylas and Alasdair before she passed away in the 1970's.

Media portrayal

Ian Holbourn is the narrator in the 2007 UK TV movie Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic (retitled Sinking of the Lusitania:  Terror at Sea for US release).  His and Avis' story is one of the several plotlines throughout the TV movie.  Ian Holbourn is portrayed by Scottish actor John Hannah.

Links of Interest

The Child of the Moat:  A Story for Girls, 1557 A.D., a novel by Ian Stoughton Holbourn Ian S. Holbourn Lectures: Carleton College Archives Ian Holbourn at the English Wikipedia Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic at IMDb Penkaet Castle: Mysterious Britain & Ireland Footnote * Ian's wife, Marion, notes in her memoir of her husband that "[s]pelling was of little account, for a man might be christened Howburn, married Holburn, and married Hoborn, registering his offspring under still other spellings" (211).
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. Holbourn, Ian B. Stoughton.  The Isle of Foula and "Memoir" by Marion C. Holbourn.  Johnson & Greig, 1938.  Reprinted, Birlinn Books, 2001. Lusitania:  Murder on the AtlanticInternet Movie Database.  Online <>. "Penkaet Castle."  Mysterious Britain & Ireland.  Online.  <>. Preston, Diana.  Lusitania:  An Epic Tragedy.  Berkeley Books, 2002. Scott, Ian.  "A Letter from North Ronaldsay," The Orcadian Online.  Online.  <>.

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