Hugh Robert Johnston was born on 19th January 1894 in Litherland near Liverpool, Lancashire, England, the son of John and Eliza Johnston. The family home was at 29, Blisworth Street, Litherland, Lancashire.
He was educated at St. Philip’s Church of England School, Litherland and then entered the Royal Navy as a boy seaman, serving on the China Station on the Yangtse River. When he was aged 16 years, he joined the Mercantile Marine. He stood at 5’ 6” tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and dark hair and at some time, possibly whilst serving in the Royal Navy, he was tattooed with a flower pot on his right forearm and a butterfly on each shoulder.
He first served on the Lusitania in 1914 and signed on for her final voyage as an able seaman in the Deck Department at Liverpool, on 12th April 1915. His monthly wage as an able seaman was £5-15s-0d., (£5.75p.), £1 of which was advanced to him at the time. He reported for duty at 7 a.m. on the 17th April, before she left for New York.
His job on board was that of quartermaster and he was actually behind the wheel, three weeks later, on the afternoon of 7th May, when the vessel was torpedoed. He had only taken over from Able Seaman Thomas Evans ten minutes earlier. He described what happened in a deposition to an officer from the Board of Trade in Liverpool, on 12th May 1915, which stated: -
I was at the wheel and heard a very loud explosion and felt the ship quivering. Just before the explosion I heard Mr. Hefford, Second Officer sing out from the bridge “Here is a torpedo” and immediately afterwards the Captain gave me the order “hard a starboard”, and I put the wheel to 35 degrees and I reported to the Captain “helm is hard a starboard” and he replied “all right boy”.
The vessel answered the helm and swung round with her head to Kinsale, then the Captain gave me the order “Steady - keep her head on to Kinsale”. I tried to steady the helm by meeting the ship with 35 degrees of port helm and eventually she stopped and I let the helm go amidships.
The vessel started to pay off to starboard and I gave her starboard helm and the Captain gave me the order “Hard a starboard” again, but she would not answer her helm and kept paying off to starboard.
After the Captain gave the order “Hard a starboard” when the vessel was head on to Kinsale, I heard him say to the Second Officer W. Hefford, “Have a look what list she has got”, and Mr. Hefford answered “She is listing 15 degrees to starboard, Sir.”. Then I heard the Captain sing out “Watch if she goes any further” and the Second Officer watched the indicator on the compass until he got some other order which I did not hear from the Captain and Mr. Hefford told me to watch the indicator and sing out if she went any further.
The vessel remained at 15 degrees list for two or three minutes when she began to list further. When the water started to come over the starboard side of the bridge the Captain said to me “Save yourself.”.
Having no lifebelt, I got the lifebuoy that was on the starboard side of the bridge. Before I had the lifebuoy free the water had reached my waist and the Captain was then on the high side of the bridge. I was washed off the bridge right across the ship. I went down and when I came up there was no sign of the ship.
I drifted on to an upturned boat and clung on to it until I was pulled on top of it by two foreigners. I was finally picked up by a trawler which I think was named the Argos and brought into Queenstown.
Before leaving the wheelhouse, Able Seaman Johnston locked the door and put the brass key in his pocket. When he was eventually rescued, it was still there and remains a treasured family possession to this day.
After his return to Liverpool, he was called to give evidence of the sinking to the Mersey Enquiry in London. Whilst dressed in civilian clothes, on a No. 28 tram going to Lime Street railway station to catch a train to London, he was given a white feather, signifying cowardice, by some no doubt well-meaning young lady, as she must have assumed that he was not serving his country!
Another account of the sinking was given by Hugh Johnston in 1957 to Ian Severns, who was a feature writer for local newspaper
The Liverpool Echo. This was published in the edition for 2nd April in that year and stated: -
The rating of quartermaster did not exist when able-seaman Johnston sailed in the Lusitania from New York on May 1, 1915. But that is what he would have been called to-day; he was one of the helmsmen of the giant liner - “ a fine ship with every comfort for the crew.”
His four hour shifts of duty included two hours at the wheel and two on general work about the bridge. He was destined to be the man who wrestled with the liner as, uncontrollable, she rushed to her doom.
“Many of us were bits of kids; we didn’t know that the impossible or the incredible can happen during a war. We thought nothing could live against the Lusitania’s speed and thus treated the ominous warnings as a big joke,” he told me.
On May 7, Johnston was helping to keep the war-zone lookout. At 2 p.m. he took over the wheel. Soon, a lookout reported the impossible - a torpedo was heading for the ship on her starboard side. Peering straight ahead Johnston could see nothing. He could not leave his post, he could only hope.
Johnston never had a chance to prove whether the ship could slip from the path of destruction. “The look-out had no sooner got the words from his mouth than with a wallop we were hit. The captain ordered hard a starboard; then full astern.” Then arose a misunderstanding against Captain Turner that was never adequately cleared. Says Johnston, "The captain gave the order to lower no more boats into the water.
People thought he meant that no more boats were to be lowered at all. What he meant was 'into the water' and this was sound. The ship was fairly belting along still under way; the engines were under orders to be reversed to counteract this, so that the boats would reach the water safely instead of hitting it and capsizing.
Thus, all might have been well with the boats but the order was never met. Bryce, the chief engineer reported that the engines were useless, and it became a question of whether or not the ship would lose headway sufficiently to launch the boats before she sank. She did not; she went down while still making progress."
Meanwhile, next to captain Turner, Johnston was the loneliest man on board. While crewmen rushed to boat stations, passengers snatched belongings and searched for their families, he fought alone with the wheel. "Steer for Kinsale," ordered Captain Turner, but although she was still heading for land after being hit, Lusitania soon began to veer out to sea again.
"Between reading the list indicator to the captain, I was wrestling with that heavy wheel," said Johnston. It was like trying to aim a careering car with a broken steering wheel. Lusitania had other things on her mind, but Johnston stayed there until two minutes from the end. "Save yourself," said the captain as water began to lap over the nose-diving bridge.
Johnston's home in Litherland seemed very remote as he waded into the water which came up to meet him. The whole jumble of sensations receded ..... he seemed to go down. After a long time, he came to the surface. There was no Lusitania to be seen. After being in the water several hours, Johnston was picked up at dusk by an armed trawler and taken to Queenstown.
Meanwhile, he had seen Captain Turner climb the halyards to the highest point of the ship. The water followed Turner like a vengeful monster. As he reached the top bridge, the water got there with him, and as he went up the halyards, it was never far behind. "He must have been the last man alive off that ship," says Johnston firmly. "And I must have been the next to the last."
His account mentions that he was one of the helmsmen of the giant liner.
The other helmsman on board was Able Seaman Thomas Evans who was killed as a result of the sinking. The lookout, who according to Johnston
reported the impossible, was Able Seaman Leslie Noel Morton.
After the sinking, the balance of wages owing to Able Seaman Johnston was £4-14s-6d., (£14.72½p.), and this was eventually given to him at Liverpool, when he was discharged from the
Lusitania’s final voyage. Cunard paid all crew members until 8th May, 24 hours after the sinking, irrespective of whether they survived or not.
Undeterred by his nightmare experience, he returned to sea, completing two voyages on the S.S. Lapland to New York and the S.S.
Tropic to Australia. On 14th May 1916, he engaged on the S.S. Dominion bound for Canada, but he jumped ship at Montreal, Quebec and on 13th June, enlisted in the 159th Infantry Battalion, (known as 1st Algonquins), of the Canadian Army, at Haileybury, Ontario, as 649437 Private H.R. Johnston. After training in Canada, he left there with the Battalion on 1st November 1916 for England.
The Battalion was subsequently absorbed into the 8th Reserve Infantry Battalion and Hugh Johnston served with it on the Western Front, with the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division including service during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. He was demobilised from the Canadian Army at Vancouver, on 25th March 1919 and his discharge certificate states that his eyes were brown!
On 15th May 1919, he engaged at Vancouver on the S.S. War Cavalry of Montreal, and was discharged at London on 15th September. Thereafter, throughout the 1920s, he continued to serve in the Mercantile Marine as an able seaman, mainly on the Cunarders
Carmania and Laconia on trans-Atlantic voyages.
In 1922, he married Margaret Mary Pritchard. She had previously been engaged to his brother Alexander, but as 25532 Private A. Johnston, Alexander had died of wounds received in action, on 21st March 1918, during the first day of the German Spring Offensive, whilst serving with the 15th Battalion of The Lancashire Fusiliers. Hugh and Margaret Johnston later had two children, John and Margaret.
Some time in the early 1930s, Hugh Johnston was stranded in America unable to get a ship to take him home, so he took a job in Baltimore, Maryland, until eventually he managed to secure a job on the Eagle Oil and Gulf Lines tanker
San Geronimo, which finally got him back to England, after 18 months.
He then continued his sea service with The Cunard White Star Line and on the outbreak of the Second World War, was serving as Bosun's Mate on the troopship Lancastria. On 17th May 1940, she was bombed and sunk in St. Nazaire harbour, France, by German Stuka aircraft, whilst attempting to evacuate British troops. Her sinking must have recalled the horrors of the
Lusitania disaster twenty five years earlier for Hugh Johnston and although he escaped from her also, he sustained serious rope burns and eye and stomach injuries from the corrosive effects of fuel oil, released when she went down.
He also recalled his experiences on the Lancastria in his 1957 interview in The Liverpool Echo: -
"I had helped to lower three boats and I could see the rest were all surrounded by hundreds of men. As she was about to capsize, I climbed the mast; when she went, I was 150 yards ahead of her. Although I am not a powerful swimmer, I set my eye on a little French trawler and I was eventually picked up. I asked a mate to climb the mast with me, but he told me later, when he saw me getting ready to scramble up the mast of a sinking ship, with blood on my shirt,(caused by tiny cuts on my face), he thought I was badly injured - and stark mad. No wonder he refused.”
Afterwards, as a result of his injuries, he was declared unfit for further sea service and awarded £10 compensation for his injuries and the loss of all his possessions. He then worked on shore for Cunard until his retirement. At that time, he lived at Fernhill Road, Bootle, Lancashire, not far along the River Mersey coast from Liverpool.
Not content with an easy life, however, he then took up a job as a school crossing attendant or 'lollipop man' in his native Liverpool. At some time, also, in the 1970s, he appeared on the B.B.C. programme
This Is Your Life, when it featured a fellow Lusitania survivor passenger William Gwyn Jones, later known as Parry Jones, who was a tenor singer with the Royal Gwent Male Voice Choir.
Hugh Johnston died in Walton Hospital, Liverpool on 2nd November 1972 aged 78 years. His body was later taken to Penridge, in Staffordshire for cremation.
The records of The Cunard Steam Ship Company erroneously record his surname as Johnson, without the ‘t‘.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, Canadian Infantry Badges, Cunard Records, Lawrence Evans, Jack Johnston, H. Robert Johnston, Liverpool Echo, PRO ADM 137/1058, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 350.