John Idwal Lewis was born in Portmadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales, on the 29th August 1885. He lived at 92, Queens Street, Bootle, Lancashire, England.
On completion of his education, John went to sea, first serving on a three-masted barque, before leaving sailing ships in 1912 and serving on steam ships. He was engaged on vessels owned by the Moss Line and Blue Funnel Line, and earned his Master’s Certificate in 1913.
He joined the Cunard Steam Ship Company Limited in September 1914, and the following month was assigned to the RMS Lusitania as Intermediate Third Officer. He remained in this position until the liner sank.
He engaged as the Intermediate Third Officer in the Deck Department on board the
Lusitania at Liverpool on 12th April 1915 at a monthly rate of pay of £10-0s.-0d. and joined the ship at 7 a.m., on 17th April before she left Merseyside for the last time.
In Colin Simpson’s Lusitania, published in 1972, it is reported that he was at the head of the main gangway when the liner was loading passengers at New York on the morning of 1st May 1915 and noted that the mood amongst the passengers was unusually subdued, because of the German warning that it was not safe to travel on the Cunarder.
Simpson also states that soon after the torpedo strike, on the afternoon of 7th May, down in the engine room, Senior Third Engineer George Little tried to put the engines full astern, on orders from the bridge, with the result that one of the main steam pipes fractured. This blew the top off one of the condensers on the boat deck and nearly decapitated Third Officer Lewis who was standing nearby!
Lewis did survive the sinking, however and after his return to Liverpool, like all surviving crew members, he made a deposition on oath to a Board of Trade official. Most of these have not survived to this day but some have, in facsimile form, written at the time. These are held in The Public Record Office in Richmond, Surrey, England and that which Lewis made, on 12th May 1915, states: -
On Thursday at 5.30 6th May, I supervised the swinging out of all the 1 class boats, all were in good order and lift swinging and ready for lowering. On 7th May from 9 am to 1.40 pm I supervised the getting up of baggage and mails on deck and then went to lunch.
At about 2.10 pm by the Dining Saloon clock, while at lunch, I heard an explosion. I at once got up and strolled out of the Saloon which was full of passengers and made my way out to C Deck, portside, and from there onto the boat deck by the outside ladders and went to my own section of boats, which were 1 to 11, starboard side. The ship, by the time I reached the boats, had a heavy list to starboard.
No. 1 boat was being lowered, the forward end had been lowered too far so I ordered the aft end to be lowered as well, and left it fastened only by the painter with two men in her. No. 3 was lowered to the level of the rail. Seeing a crowd of people round No. 9, I went to it and found (the) boat full of people and lowered to the rail and some men, aliens, trying to get into the boat, which I immediately stopped and ordered the boat to be got away.
By this time, owing to the vessel listing, the water was almost on a level with A Deck and I returned to No. 1 Boat which was by this time floating level with the deck and helped to put passengers aboard, and I had just time to order it to be cast off when the vessel lurched and I managed to scramble on to a collapsible boat which had been under No.1 and made my way over to the port side along the funnel deck, but before I could reach the rail, I was overtaken by the water and I managed to get hold of the life lines of a collapsible boat and stuck to it.
When I came to the surface the vessel had disappeared. At one time, 25 people were clinging to the overturned boat, but when finally picked up by the chief Boatswain’s lifeboat only five of us were left. At about 7 o’clock we were taken on board a steam trawler.
Another survivor, Able Seaman Frank Hennessy also gave a deposition on the same day and part of it stated: -
Deponent was in the water and managed first of all to get hold of a boat chock, and then pushed this over to a lady passenger. After swimming a good while, deponent got to a collapsible boat with several persons on it, including Mr. Luce, one of the officers.
The boat repeatedly turned over and several of the people were lost by this. Finally, the boatswain’s boat took them on board and later transferred them to a trawler.
The Mr. Luce referred to was almost certainly John Idwal Lewis.
Intermediate Third Officer Lewis was eventually officially paid off from the voyage at Liverpool and given the balance of wages owing to him, which amounted to £8-6s-8d., (£8.33p.). In company with all the
Lusitania’s crew, whether survived or perished, he was paid up to 8th May, 24 hours after the liner had gone down.
Following his ordeal, John continued to serve at sea, eventually attaining the rank of captain, and later still becoming assistant marine superintendent of the Cunard White Star Line, when the two great companies amalgamated in 1934.
In April 1918, John took up permanent residence in the United States of America, and applied for naturalization in 1924. At this time, he resided at 880. St. Nicholas Avenue, New York City. He became an American citizen on the 9th May 1925.
He eventually married – his wife’s name being Sophia, and had two children – Henry and Joan. He retired in 1950, and continued to live in New York until 1956, when he and Sophie relocated to California to be close to their children, both of whom were living in the state.
John Lewis died in Lodi, California, U.S.A. on the 21st August 1974, eight days short of his 89th birthday!
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, New York Naturalization Records, 1884 – 1944, Cunard Records, Lusitania, PRO ADM 137/1058, PRO BT 100/345, California Death Index 1940 – 1997, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus.