The Lusitania Resource > People > Third Class Passenger List > Miss Gerda Theoline Neilson

Miss Gerda Theoline Neilson

Gerda Neilson Third Class Passenger Saved
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Born Gerda Theoline Neilson c. 1885 Norway
Died 2 June 1961 (age 76) Liverpool, England, United Kingdom
Age on Lusitania 29
Occupation Dressmaker
Citizenship British
Residence Brooklyn, New York, United States
Other name(s) Gerda Welsh
Spouse(s) John Welsh (1915 - 1941, his death)
Gerda Neilson, 29, was traveling aboard Lusitania to return to England and see her sister Thomasine.  During the voyage, she met and fell in love with mechanical engineer John Welsh.  Welsh proposed to her during the voyage.  Both Gerda and John survived the sinking and were married one week after the disaster.
  1. Early life and emigration to America
  2. Lusitania
  3. Marriage
  4. Links of interest

Early life and emigration to America

Gerda was born in Norway around 1885 to Thomas Neilson, a seaman by trade.  She had a sister, Thomasine, who was seven years her senior.  Her appearance was described as 5′6″, with fair hair and blue eyes. Mrs. Neilson had died soon after Gerda’s birth, and Gerda was relatively young when she, her father, and sister moved to England.  They settled in South Shields, Durham, England.  As of 1901, Thomas was retired and Thomasine took care of him.  Then, Gerda was working as an apprentice milliner.  Some years later, Gerda moved to Hebburn, not far from South Shields.  She had visited the United States in 1908, and after her father’s death, decided to move to New York City. In October 1910, Gerda set sail for the United States on the Cunard liner Mauretania, arriving in the city on 7 October.  She settled in Brooklyn, New York, where her friend, Mrs. Gabrielson of 95 Bedford Avenue had agreed beforehand to house her.  In New York, Gerda continued to work as a dressmaker.


Gerda booked passage on the Lusitania to return to the old country in the spring of 1915, to see her sister Thomasine, who was still living in South Shields.  While on deck on the morning of the sailing, she met John Welsh, an engineer returning home to Manchester, England.  A romance soon blossomed between them. The first night out, John invited Gerda to sit with him at dinner. Next to them were Frank, Elsie, and George Hook, and Thomas, Annie, and Thomas Marsh, Jr. Gerda and John often kept to themselves, as lovers often do, in a corner of the third class lounge.  On the night of Thursday, 6 May, they sought a change of scenery and went for a walk on deck.  There, under the stars, John proposed to Gerda and she accepted.  They decided to get married as soon as the Lusitania reached England. On Friday afternoon, 7 May, John and Gerda were back in their corner of the third class lounge after luncheon when the torpedo struck.  Rushing onto the deck, the lovers pledged to “sink or swim together.”  John placed a lifebelt on Gerda and he then placed her in what they believed to be one of the last lifeboats.  The boat soon upset and tossed everyone inside, including Gerda, into the water.  Wasting no time, John clamored over the rail of the Boat Deck and dived overboard.  He was determined to ensure Gerda’s survival. In the water, John supported Gerda and kept her afloat until a lifeboat came to pick her up.  John would later say, “she was braver than any man I’ve ever met” and that she encouraged him while they were in the water.  They reached a lifeboat where the people inside did not want to take Gerda in, but did so anyway.  After pulling her in, however, Gerda’s rescuers refused to also bring in John as they claimed that there was no more room.  Gerda pleaded with those in the boat and they relented.


The rescued couple took a ferry to England and, on Thursday, 13 May, not even a week since the disaster, John and Gerda were married in the register office of Chorlton, Manchester, England.  Their marriage was witnessed by Jane Fletcher, Ellen Fletcher, and Mary Gibbons.  They proceeded to live at 31 Carlton Terrace in Gorton, a Manchester suburb.
Welsh-Neilson marriage certificateJohn Welsh and Gerda Neilson’s marriage certificate. Editor’s collection.
Unfortunately, Gerda and John were unable to have children.  The memories of the disaster were too much for Gerda to live with.  In the years before post-traumatic stress disorder could be diagnosed, understood, and treated, the trauma of the sinking drove Gerda insane.  John committed her to a mental hospital.  While John hoped that Gerda would get better, she did not.  Years later, John moved away for work, and died in Bomsgrove in 1941.  Gerda lived in the mental hospital until her death on 2 June 1961.  Her mental health never recovered. Curiously, her obituary claimed that she was the last survivor of the Lusitania disaster. Gerda is named Gerta Nielson in Hoehling and Hoehling, in Preston she is named Gerda Nielson.

Links of interest

Encyclopedia Titanica - Lest We Forget: Part 1
Contributors: Jim Kalafus Mike Poirier References: 1901 Census Records.  Online.  <> Ellis Island Records.  Online.  <> Family Research Link.  Online.  <> 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. Kalafus, Jim and Michael Poirier (2005) Lest We Forget : Part 1 ET Research. <> Preston, Diana.  Lusitania:  An Epic Tragedy.  Berkley Books, 2002.

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