THE SINKING OF R.M.S. LUSITANIA AND ITS EFFECTS ON MEXBOROUGH AND DISTRICT
At the beginning of the 21st century, as we are, if you were to ask many about the Lusitania there would be a vague negative response, but at the beginning of the 20th century quite the reverse would have been true.
Firstly therefore, I would like to introduce you to the lady herself. R.M.S. Lusitania was primarily a luxury passenger ship and was constructed for the Cunard Line, by a subsidiary of the heavy engineering firm of John Brown Co. Ltd., Sheffield, on Clydebank in Glasgow. Her design was quite distinctive as she had four funnels. The ship was 78 ft long and 88 ft. wide, she weighed 31,550 tons, travelled at 26.7 knots (10 knots = 10 nautical MPH), and carried 563 1st Class, 464 2nd Class, and 1,138 3rd Class passengers. She was launched on 7th June 1906 by Lady Mary Inverclyde, was registered in Liverpool and her maiden voyage took place on 7th September 1907.
During the early years of the 20th century the Mexborough and Swinton Times was not just a local newspaper, but was also a Booking Office for ships used in travel, tourism and emigration, and to promote this ran advertisements on a weekly basis under the 'Shipping' columns for the American Line, Cunard, and White Star Line. The average price of berths being 10 for a saloon and 5.75 for a 2nd Class passage.
In April 1915 we therefore discover an advertisement that states that at 2:30pm on the afternoon of Saturday 17th April 1915 R.M.S. Lusitania would be leaving Liverpool for New York. This must have been her last voyage from Liverpool and as our local newspaper supported the Cunard Line there may have been a good chance that she was carrying many people from our area who were either starting a new life in a new country or visiting loved ones who had emigrated to the New World.
With the sinking of the Titanic still fresh in people's
minds and with the First World War commencing its eighth month many must have entered into the idea of such travel with much trepidation, but would have been comforted by the fact that our enemies were prevented from shelling or torpedoing passenger ships by international law.
It came as an appaling shock to everyone then, that on her return journey, entering into the Southern Irish harbour of Queenstown, at 2:10 pm on 7th May 1915 that R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed by the German U-Boat U-20.
At 2pm, for the benefit of the passengers in the first-class saloon who were finishing their lunch, Mr Ernest Dixon-Drakefort, ex-resident of Swinton, was playing Strauss' The Blue Danube' in the violin section of the ship's orchestra. Following this he descended to the bandman's cabin and it was here that he heard, what the Mexborough and Swinton Times in their interview with him described as "a terrific thud just like an underground explosion". He rushed up on deck where he found the ship already beginning to list heavily and frightened women and children crying and clambering to get on the boat deck. He and the baggage master, had the presence of mind to obtain and fit a life-belt and fearing for their lives made promises to one another that whosoever should survive would visit the other's family to inform them of the death of their loved one. He returned on deck to see a terrible scene as two life-boats smashed as they were being lowered to rescue people and another, full of women and children, plummet to the sea spilling everyone, as one of the supporting ropes gave way, then the life-boat fell killing those below in the sea.
The Lusitania was by now listing so heavily that no one could stand and Mr DixonDrakeford slid down to a rail where he managed to free himself by pulling his shoe off, and came to the surface where he had to push and struggle to prevent wreckage from hitting him, in time to see the four great funnels disappearing below the surface. He could hear people screaming, crying and shouting for help. After a short while he saw a barrel, and pushing dead bodies and debris out of the way, swam for it. Here he clung for some time until at last he believed he would be saved when a life-boat came quite close, but they were overfull and it was impossible to rescue him as this would have overturned
the boat, and dejected, he returned to the icy waters and his barrel. Then he saw the Bos'n and two other men fitting together a collapsible boat and after picking up two women came to rescue him, but although he had only been in the water a short time he was in a terrible state and found it impossible to climb into the boat unaided and had to be assisted by all three men. Despite this, in a while, he began to assist the men in the rescue of others and in total sixty people at last filled the boat. Then, one and a half hours after the sinking of the Lusitania, a scouting-steamer was spied and they were rescued and taken to Queenstown Harbour.
The entire final casualty figures were 1,198 dead of which 94 were children.
When the news of the sinking of the Lusitania, by a German U-Boat, broke in South Yorkshire it was met with a rolling, infectious rage which the people vented onto anyone and anything that was of German origin.
In Mexborough it centred on a pork butchers shop on High Street. Councillor George Schonhut who had emigrated from Wurtemburg in Germany c. 1876 and prior to coming to Mexborough had served for twelve years in the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons owned this. The ugly demonstration began by two men entering the shop and arguing with the son, then the wife of a soldier, besides hurling obscenities, also hurled a stone, smashing the huge plate glass window. This was the signal for an ever-increasing gathering crowd to congregate at the shop. An under-current of anger suddenly ignited and another stone was hurled. By now the police, in the form of Sergeants Dobson and Blythe, had arrived but could do nothing to prevent another stone being thrown and yet another followed shortly. The crowd became potentially riotous and the police called reinforcement from Swinton, Wath, Rawmarsh, Goldthorpe, Bolton, Denaby and Conisbrough. A rush on the shop took place and fighting occurred which deflated aggression against the shop and its occupants, who had been asked by the police to stay in the rear of the premises. The crowd then commenced to a heavy bombardment of the whole of the shop premises, and every window of the shop, on both High Street and Glasshouse Lane, were destroyed, flying glass was everywhere, even furniture in the upstairs rooms was seriously damaged. There were a few half-hearted attempts to rush the premises but no real attempts made to raid it. Two hours after the commencement of the disturbance the High Street was a solid mass of people from the offices of the Mexborough and Swinton Times (situated where Woolworth's now stand) to the Commercial Hotel (now the Boy and Barrel). After two and a half hours the much needed reinforcements of over one hundred police, at last began to arrive and at first they cleared an area up to fifty yards from every aspect of the shop. At 12:30 a.m. there were still large crowds milling about the High Street and the police stayed all night to ensure the safety of the property.
The unease had still not subsided by the following day and another disturbance was witnessed outside the home of Mrs Schonhut's sister, who was now Mrs. F. Wedgwood after marrying a mineral water manufacturer and lived in a double fronted house in the 'Brickyard'. Here a mob carrying missiles made a surge for the entrance and the
police were hard pressed to prevent them from capturing the premises by force. The mob caused considerable damage and all the windows of the house were smashed, furniture destroyed, and houses in the neighbourhood damaged along with streetlights. For hours they stood in the pouring rain shouting threats and curses at the household.
On the same night another demonstration took place at the junction of Pitt Street and Doncaster Road where the home of a Mr Stechius was attacked. They had been warned of the approach of the mob and therefore had removed all their furniture, the mob heard of this, and attacked both his home and the home of the person storing his furniture and considerable damage was done to both. But luckily the police were able to prevent entry and therefore no one was hurt.
The anti-German demonstrations of Mexborough appear to have been awful but this was nothing in comparison with other towns and villages of the area. In Denaby the assistant at Mr Schonhut's shop fled as a mob of screaming, hysterical women reduced everything in the shop to atoms. Whereas in Conisbrough the shops of Mr & Mrs A Walters, both of German origin, were attacked and they were forced to evacuate their home as the mob entered it and destroyed everything in sight. But in Goldthorpe the hysteria
became so fervent that it was not necessary for the victim to even be of German origin and here on 11th and 12th May 1915, what constituted as a riot took place. At first Mr S Elsbury, a Russian was verbally attacked. The premises of Mr F Schonhut followed this. But then the mob turned on the premises of the London Tea Company, owned by Mr J.R. Bakewell, a native of Kilburn near Belper, they yelled that he was a German Jew and rushed in force to take the property. Mr Bakewell fearing for the safety of his family opened fire with a revolver and five people were shot. Mr John Eades, a well-known footballer, who had been shot several times in the abdomen later died. Mr Bakewell, his family and his friends were at last rescued by baton charging police that had been brought from Barnsley and Doncaster. The whole block of shops owned by him was completely wrecked as was the premises of Mr F Schonhut.
Whole families of German descent left the area the following day, this included the Schonhut family. This was followed by other residents of German origin such as Miss Boesch, member of the staff of Mexborough & District Secondary School, and a Mr Kuppers of Bolton.
After a short while the Schonhut family returned to their business, but by now had changed their name to Sinclair, and Sinclair's Pork Butchers was born, which ultimately had branches in many of our local towns.
Following the sinking of the Lusitania Germany returned to comply with International Law. This law stated that if a ship was suspected of carrying arms for the enemy then that ship had to be stopped, boarded, and its cargo examined. If it was found to be carrying enemy munitions then the passengers and crew were to be removed prior to the ship being destroyed. But their recognition of this law did not last long and by the spring of 1916 their U-Boats returned to firing on merchant shipping) on sight.
I have spoken to young people concerning the Lusitania Riots and they find it difficult to envisage, in this day and age, riots and baton charging police on the streets of South Yorkshire. But let us not forget that it is not such a long time since this last happened, not quite twenty years to be precise, in the form of the Miner's Strike.
For the benefit of members wishing to discover if the Lusitania was carrying any local people on that fateful day I have managed to obtain a list of passengers and crew. This is now available on request.
Written By Julia Ashby.
Information Obtained From: The Mexborough & Swinton Times April, 15th May, 22nd May, 29th May 1915. The Lusitania Story By Mitch Peeke, Kevin Walsh-Johnson and Steven Jones.