John Davies was born in Cardigan, Cardiganshire, South Wales, in 1853. His father was a coachman and his uncle was in H.M. Coastguard Service. The family home was at St. Dogmaels, Cardiganshire, but when quite young, John Davies ran away to sea and while still a boy, joined The Cunard Steam Ship Company.
This brought him to the Liverpool area and eventually, in 1882, he married Bessie Jane Broomfield and they produced nine children, Steve, Bessie, John Wornell, Ethel, Eva, Caleb, Florence, David and Eleanor. The family home in later years was at 28 Grove Street, Bootle, Lancashire, England.
He engaged as Bosun in the Deck Department on the Lusitania for what would be her final transatlantic voyage, on 12 April 1915 at Liverpool. His monthly rate of pay was £8-10s-0d (£8.50) and he was advanced £2-0s-0d of this, at the time he engaged.
Not only did he survive the disaster, three weeks later, but his actions before and after the liner sank were nothing short of heroic! One of his daughters worked for Johnson Brothers, (Dyers) Ltd., of Bootle, and the company magazine 'The J.B. Journal' for June 1915, reported:
"Bosun Davies, whose daughter is in the Upholstering Department at the Works, has been a servant of the Cunard Company since boyhood, and when the vessel was torpedoed, he, according to one of the survivors amongst the passengers, set a great example by his undaunted heroism, as, calmly smoking, he walked along the deck, releasing lifeboats.
We understand that Bosun Davies was still on board the vessel when she sank, and although he had no lifebelt and could not swim, he was providentially thrown near an upturned collapsible boat, which he managed to right, and in which he was eventually the means of saving 42 lives."
Fellow survivor second cabin passenger Ernest S. Cowper, wrote about the disaster a year after, in 'The New York Times Magazine', published on 7 May 1916. He especially praised Bosun Davies and his efforts:
"But the bravest of all that brave assembly was rugged old John Davies, the boatswain. Many there are on both sides of the Atlantic today who owe their lives to him. He stuck to his job until the ocean took him off his feet.
He worked the forward falls on the lifeboats which got away from the starboard side, and smoked as he did it. He was assisted by two boyish-looking well groomed wireless operators, who, catching John Davies’ spirit perhaps, pulled out their cigarettes and smoked as they worked the after falls with him. They were drowned.
I will never be able fully to understand how John Davies was saved, but he was. I saw him disappear as the vessel sank beneath him, yet he was walking around Queenstown a few hours later, still smoking his pipe. I implored him the next day to pose for some newspaper photographers to whom I was anxious to give the story of his bravery, but he was too modest.
’Och, man, they don’t want this damned ould face of mine in a dacent newspaper!’ was all the satisfaction I could get from him."
Cowper’s memory of John Davies’ accent might be a little suspect in view of the latter’s Welsh origins. Similarly, the 'boyish-looking well groomed wireless operators' ought to have been Robert Leith, unlikely to have been 'boyish-looking' at the age of 29, and David McCormick then aged 20, but Cowper was wrong about their respective fates, as both survived. Furthermore, the story does not fit with the way in which either Leith or McCormick escaped from the sinking vessel. Both of them were working the wireless until virtually the last moment before the liner went down and then Leith got away in a sinking boat, in which there was only one other occupant and McCormick was taken down in the vortex when the
Lusitania sank and was picked out of the water some time afterwards.
These facts notwithstanding, John Davies’ heroism was also recognised in a book 'The Tragedy of the Lusitania', published privately in America not long after the sinking. In it, it also lauds him and his efforts:
"There are people who to the end of their days will keep in their minds the picture and revere the memory of 'Bosun Joe' Davis (sic). Of all the Lusitania’s crew, 'Bosun Joe' was the man who realized, the instant the ship was struck, what was likely to happen and acted with the object of saving all the lives possible. And 'Bosun Joe' knew the lifeboats, knew what knot was untied and what block kicked out would release the craft and send her away.
In fifteen minutes, 'Bosun Joe' sent five of the boats away. Puffing a stub pipe he went about the work as if he had been practising with the passengers. Many passengers who were sufficiently calmed by his behaviour to watch his efforts, now owe their lives to him.
When the lifeboats were ready 'Bosun Joe' began chucking the now willing passengers into them, ladies first and a few men to each boat to help them. The craft dropped to the water with amazing rapidity. 'Good luck to you, lads, and take care of the ladies.' was Joe’s farewell as he went on to the next boat.
For 'Bosun Joe' there was a providential rescue. He went down as did his captain, but was picked up by one of the boats he cut away."
Despite his obvious and well noticed heroism, Bosun Davies never received any recognition from his company or his country. Perhaps this is because of the modesty already remarked upon by Ernest Cowper.
Having been landed at Queenstown, he made his way back to Liverpool and without any footwear; he walked all the way from the Pierhead to Bootle, a distance of some five miles, without complaint, rather than make any fuss! Like all crew member survivors, he was officially paid the balance of wages owing to him from 17 April until 8 May 1915; 24 hours after the great liner had gone down. He received his payment at Liverpool on 10 May, when he was also officially discharged from her final voyage, so he had obviously returned from southern Ireland by then. The balance of wages owing to him was £5-18s-0d (£5.90).
He was aged 62 years at the time of the disaster and for the rest of his life, he always maintained that the cargo never contained munitions capable of causing such a damaging explosion.
John Davies died, aged 73 years, in October 1926 and was buried in Bootle Cemetery, Lancashire, in Section 3, Plot 44. 28 Grove Street, Bootle, continued to be the family home until destroyed in another war, during the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign of May 1941.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1871 Census of England and Wales, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cork Examiner, Cunard Records, J.B. Journal, New York Times Magazine, PRO BT 100/345, Bill Redman, Tragedy of the Lusitania.