Edward John Heighway was born in Auckland, New Zealand on 22 December 1872, the son of John Felton and Dora Eager Heighway. His mother died when he was still an infant, and at some stage he emigrated to the British Isles. Nothing is known of his life until the early 1900s, when he became a professional seaman in the Mercantile Marine.
On 5 July 1905 he married Elizabeth 'Betty' Skillen in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland, and it was here, in the village of Strangford, that he raised a family with his wife. The couple had two sons, Sydney Craig and Gerard Cecil Fulton. Between voyages he stayed at 77 Highfield Street in Liverpool, which was probably a lodging house, and also had connections with Sutton Oak, near St Helens in Lancashire.
On 12 April 1915 in Liverpool he engaged on board the Lusitania as an able seaman in the Deck Department. His monthly rate of pay in that rank was £5-10s-0d (£5.50). He reported for duty at 7am on 17 April 1915, before the vessel left Liverpool for the last time. It was not the first time that he had served on the ship.
Having completed her voyage to New York, on the return crossing he survived her sinking three weeks later on the early afternoon of 7 May, when she was torpedoed by the German submarine
U-20 off the Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland - only hours away from her home port.
On his return to Liverpool, like all surviving crew members, he was interviewed by an official from the Board of Trade and gave a deposition on oath concerning his experiences of the sinking. Most of these depositions have long since been lost, but that of Able Seaman Heighway has survived in the archives of the Public Record Office in Richmond, Surrey, England. Like the other surviving documents, however, it is not the original and was copied out by hand at a later date. Although it is labelled a 'facsimile' copy, the transcriber has mistaken Heighway’s name as Beighway in the copy. The original was given on 13 May 1915 and states:
"The said ship was in the vicinity of The Old Head of Kinsale and deponent was on the saloon deck when he noticed a ripple on the water as from a periscope about 300 yards distant abeam on the starboard side and almost immediately he saw the wake of a torpedo. The torpedo was visible when 10 yards distant from the “Lusitania” and deponent sang out a warning and made for his boat station, No 5 boat, starboard side.
The next instant, there was a violent explosion, the torpedo striking the ship just about amidships starboard side. The vessel took on immediate heavy list to starboard and within 20 seconds, deponent noticed the wake of another torpedo which struck the vessel on the starboard side quarter.
Deponent, on reaching his boat, worked at the fall but before anyone could get into her, someone let the forward fall go, so deponent let the starboard rope run, to try and get the boat level to the water, but this rope choked and the boat losing by her after fall with her forward end trailing in the water. (sic).
Deponent then proceeded aft to No 15 boat, got into her and helped to fill her mainly with women and children. When about 80 people were in her, she was safely lowered, the first officer Mr. Jones working at the forward fall, afterwards sliding down the fall to the boat."
There are quite a few inconsistencies in Able Seaman Heighway’s deposition which do not make a great deal of sense, given that it was dictated so soon after the sinking, but they show how clearly stressful conditions can alter the perceptions of the participants involved in a disaster.
There was only ever one torpedo fired by Kapitänleutnant Schwieger in command of the
U-20, so Heighway could only have seen the wake of one. Lifeboat number 5 was destroyed by water and debris dropping onto it after the torpedo strike, and from his account, it is more likely that the able seaman is describing the fate of Lifeboat number 17. If this was so, it, is difficult to see how he could have "proceeded aft to No 15 boat",
as lifeboat number 15 would have been forward of number 17. He is correct, however when he mentions number 15 boat having about 80 persons in it and being under the command of First Officer Arthur Jones. His deposition continues: -
"At this moment, the Lusitania took a tremendous dive, practically standing on her head and sank, killing hundreds of people. This was about 20 minutes after being torpedoed.
Deponent’s boat then pulled towards an empty boat and under orders from first officer, deponent and about 20 others transferred to it. They then pulled around and picked about 50 people out of the water, afterwards making for land, being eventually taken aboard the Wanderer of Peel."
The empty boat described by Heighway was probably lifeboat number 1, which was not entirely empty, but had been swamped when the ship sank, throwing out most of its passengers.The Wanderer of Peel
was a Manx fishing smack which just happened to be fishing in the area when she saw the liner go down. She then rescued many passengers and crew from the sea.
Able Seaman Heighway also gave evidence at the official enquiry conducted into the disaster, chaired by Lord Mersey in June and July 1915 at Caxton Hall in London and his account of two torpedoes having been fired must have suited the official findings of the enquiry. He was photographed outside the building with five other crew member survivors and this photograph was circulated widely in the press at the time, and was also published in Part 10 of the post-war publication 'I Was There'.
In a follow-up to this, in Part 12, a former army sergeant named Lahiff who had served in the 2nd Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment during the conflict, who came from Sutton Oak, near St Helens, wrote a letter to the editor, identifying Able Seaman Heighway (although Lahiff’s letter spelled his name Highway), in the photograph and stating that he knew him personally and saw him regularly in Sutton Oak at the end of each voyage he made. It would therefore appear that Edward Heighway continued to serve as a merchant seaman after the Lusitania‘s sinking.
Some time after his return to Liverpool, Edward Heighway was officially discharged from his service on the
Lusitania and paid the balance of wages owed to him in respect of it, which amounted to £4-18s-8d (£4.93). Like all crew members, this service was counted from 17 April to 8 May; 24 hours after the liner had gone down.
In May 1914 Edward Heighway had received a silver medal for gallantry from King George V, for an incident on 9 October 1913 while he was serving on the
Carmania. His vessel had gone to the assistance of the Canadian Northern Steamship Company’s
Volturno, which had caught fire in the north Atlantic. 30 officers and 103 passengers, out of a total of 654 souls, had perished. Edward Heighway was awarded his medal for jumping into the freezing sea, and rescuing a man who had fallen overboard from the burning ship. Ironically, the man he rescued was a German by the name of Walter Trentepohl.
Fellow able seaman Frederick Hugh O’Neill who also survived the sinking of the
Lusitania also lived at 77 Highfield Street.
Edward Heighway continued to serve in the mercantile marine for many years, mostly as a master-at-arms. He died at Whiston General Hospital, St Helen’s, Lancashire on 23 November 1950, aged 77 years. Administration of his estate was granted to his son, Detective Sergeant Sydney Craig Heighway, at London on 10 February 1951 and his effects amounted to £1272-2s-3d.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 Census of Ireland, Cunard Records, I Was There, Irish Independent, PRO ADM 137/1058, PRO BT 100/345, Roy Makinson, Probate Records.