John Clifford ‘Cliff’, Morton was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on the 18th May 1895, the elder son of John William and Annie Morton, (née Swinburne). He had a younger brother named Leslie Noel and a younger sister named Winifred. In 1900, the family moved to ‘Wynnmere’, Kirkstall, near Leeds, Yorkshire, and early in 1901, Annie Morton died in Leeds.
Cliff Morton spent all his early holidays (with his younger brother Leslie), at the home of their maternal grandmother, Mrs. Swinburne of 94, Buchanan Road, Seacombe, Wallasey, Cheshire. The two brothers spent most of their time there on the nearby dock estate and both gained a great love of ships and the sea from these times.
He was educated at the School for Gentlemen’s Sons, at Barry Road, Dulwich, London, which was also attended by his younger brother Leslie. After leaving school, he worked for a while in London for The Excello Arc Lamp Company, in London, before taking out an apprenticeship with the shipping company J.B. Walmsley and Co., of Liverpool.
His first ship was the square rigger Wray Castle, but after a romantic interlude in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, he jumped ship and after being rejected by his new found love, he signed on the German barque
Obitreta in Sydney, bound for Valparaiso, Chile. Once in Valparaiso, however, he learned that there was a British vessel, the
Englehorn in port, needing crew members, so he jumped ship again to join her for the voyage back to England.
Once back in Liverpool, he made his peace with J.B. Walmsley and Co., on condition that he finished off his apprenticeship and as a result, he joined the square rigger
Naiad outward bound for Australia, via New York. His brother Leslie was also persuaded to join the same ship as acting second mate. By this time it was early 1915 and the Great War had been raging in Europe for the best part of five months. Neither brother was totally happy with this arrangement, as both feared that the war might be over before they had had a chance to get properly involved in it!
Consequently, once the Naiad had got to New York, the brothers decided to jump ship and return to England and cabled their father in Kirkstall to send them enough money for their passage home. This he duly did, sending them each £37-10s-0d., (£37.50p.), -enough to buy a second class ticket!
They then discovered that the next ship due out for England was the Lusitania and when they went to look at her, an officer apparently recognising that they were seamen, (according to Leslie Morton, in his autobiography
The Long Wake, written in 1968), said to them: -
“Why do you want to come home in Lusitania paying your fare? We have had ten of our deck hands run away this trip in New York, we suspect it is the threat of conscription coming in at home. They don’t like the idea. I could use two boys like you“.
As a result, they engaged on the spot as able seamen in the Deck Department at a monthly wage of £5-10s-0d., (£5.50p) and spent all the money that their father had sent them with shipmates from the
Naiad, some of whom also joined the Lusitania’s crew. They then reported for duty before the ship left the Cunard berth just after mid-day on 1st May 1915. Cliff Morton was aged 20 years at the time.
The Long Wake naturally contains an account of the sinking of the great liner, parts of which referred to him: -
Before I had time to think of anything else, there was a tremendous explosion followed instantly by a second one and a huge column of water and debris and steam went shooting into the air on the starboard side between No. 2 and 3 funnels of the ship. I immediately dived down the scuttle to the fo'c'sle to see if my brother, who was in the other watch, was moving and met him coming up the scuttle in his shirt and nothing more, very annoyed at the interference with his watch below. He asked me: “What the hell are you doing with the ship, Gertie?”
Gertie was a nickname Leslie Morton had acquired in his early days before the mast on account of his high pitched unbroken voice!
If I had had time to think I should have been very flattered indeed at this sudden promotion. I said, “We have been torpedoed we must get to our boat stations,” and with that went back up the scuttle and along to my boat station on the starboard side of the boat deck at No. 11 Lifeboat. .....
I suddenly saw my brother at the for'ard end of the boatdeck at No. 1 lifeboat which they had lowered halfway down to the water, full of people, so I went along at the 'double' and joined him and, finding that he had no one at the stern end of the boat to assist him, I took over the after fall and together we managed to lower away and get No. 1 boat into the water. Lusitania by this time had slowed down to about one or two knots. We immediately went down the falls into the boat which was full of passengers with no crew members in it and time was running extremely short.
Having got into the boat my brother at the for'ard end tried to push off with the boat hook and get her away from the ship. I was trying to do the same thing at the after end of the boat, but many of the passengers were hanging on to bits of rope from the side of the ship and the rails, which were now level with the water, in some mistaken belief that they would be safer hanging on to the big ship rather than entrusting their lives in the small lifeboat. Despite all our efforts we could not get her away from the ship's side and, as Lusitania started to heel over a little more, just before starting to settle by the head for her final dive, a projection on the side of the boat deck, which was nearly level with the water, hooked on to the gunnel of the boat we were in and inexorably started to tip it inboard. The time for heroics was obviously past and my brother yelled at the top of his voice, “I'm going over the side, Gertie.” I replied, “So am I,” and we waved and both dived over the outboard side of the lifeboat.
Once in the sea, Cliff Morton managed to get into a lifeboat and haul other survivors in with him. One of these was second cabin passenger The Reverend H.L. Gwyer and by strange coincidence, at about the same time, Cliff’s brother, Leslie was in the process of rescuing his wife, who had had the doubtful distinction of being sucked into one of the liner‘s great funnels and then being blown out again! After being rescued by the Queenstown harbour tender
Flying Fish, Cliff Morton was eventually landed at Queenstown itself, in the late evening of the day.
The following morning, believing his brother Leslie to be dead, he began the grim task of searching the temporary mortuaries in the town to look for his body, little knowning that his brother was safe and well and engaged on exactly the same task! Leslie Morton continues the story: -
I made my way to this building and went in at one end; there were entrances at both ends of a very long room. Laid out in rows all the way down on both sides were sheeted and shrouded bodies, and a large number of people in varying states of sorrow and distress were going from body to body, turning back the sheets to see if they could identify loved ones who had not yet been found. I started at one end on the same grisly job, hoping that I would not, but fearing that I might, find my brother.
I had turned back I don't know how many sheets until, coming to one body, I put out my hand to turn the sheet back and, by the most amazing coincidence I shall ever know, a hand on the other side went to turn the sheet back and I looked up and there was my brother. He was engaged on the same job as I, and had worked from the other end of the room.
We were both glad to see each other but I do not remember that there were any histrionics or demonstrations of excessive joy, it was just a case of “Hallo, Cliff, glad to see you.” My brother said “Am I glad to see you too, Gert?. I think we ought to have a drink on this. .....
We went out of the hall and many people were moving about the town, survivors, passengers, searching; there was a big air of unreality about it, and word was going round of the total people lost, total people saved, although nobody knew at that time exactly what the figure was. As we turned to the right coming out of the hall who should I see coming along the pavement but the lady of the funnel, Mrs. Gwyer, on the arm of a Reverend gentleman. She greeted me effusively and he greeted my brother equally effusively. ..... Mrs. Gwyer had told her husband about her rescue, no doubt adding many heroics to it which did not actually exist: when they learnt we were brothers they could not get over their surprise.
Leslie Morton was later presented with a gold inscribed wristlet watch by the Gwyers, for his part in rescuing Margaret Gwyer, so it is unlikely Cliff Morton did not receive a similar tribute for his action with The Reverend Gwyer.
Wearing ill-fitting and most unsuitable clothes obtained in Queenstown, - Cliff had chosen
the loudest check suit, check tie cap and horrible yellow shoes, - the brothers then went by rail to Dublin, from where they took a ferry to Holyhead in north Wales. From there, they travelled further by rail to Liverpool.
The reception at Lime Street Station was terrific; wives, sweethearts, the Press and public numbered thousands, but we survived. Next day we went to the Cunard offices and were told to report at the shipping office in Paradise Street that afternoon, where our 'pay off' was rushed through, our discharges given with injunctions to remain handy for further instructions at our respective homes, or to notify our whereabouts, but not yet to sign on again to go to sea.
Cliff Morton was officially discharged from the Lusitania’s final voyage and given the residue of wages owing to him, which amounted to £2-7s-0d., (£2.35p.). This was in respect of his sea service from 1st May until 8th May 1915; 24 hours after the liner had gone down. Leslie Morton continued the story: -
So we all made our different ways home. My brother and I, of course, went on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway from Exchange Station, through to Leeds. We arrived in Leeds fairly early in the afternoon, and instead of going home we went to my father's place of business which was a fairly large building, with a very commanding Commissionaire on the door. He saw these two figures coming in the main entrance (I was a few steps behind). My brother's brilliant check outfit caught the Comissionaire's eye at once; it was probably to his taste. He had been advised that the Boss's sons were coming in that afternoon and he immediately greeted my brother: “Sir, come this way,” leaving the jerseyed figure of myself standing there. Having led my brother, who did not give any sign by a look or a word (as I said before he had quite a sense of humour), through to my father's office, the Commissionaire came back and asked me what I wanted. Looking a little puzzled but with an expression of alarm on his face he said “Are you Mr. Leslie, Sir?” I said, “That's the general idea.” “Oh,” he said, “I didn't recognise you in those clothes.” I replied, “No, but we do go to sea in them occasionally” and then grinned at him, and so I too was escorted to my father's office.
Not long after his safe arrival home, Cliff Morton joined the Cunarder Aquitania as quartermaster on general standby duties. At this stage of the war, the liner was being used as a troop ship, taking men and war materiel to the Dardanelles. He was at the wheel when the liner ran aground outside Alexandra Dock in the River Mersey and almost broke her back before she was re-floated. Sabotage of her steering gear was later suspected. He was also called, with his brother Leslie, in June 1915 to give evidence of the Lusitania sinking to the Lord Mersey Enquiry at Caxton Hall, London.
Some time after this, he left the Mercantile Marine and joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a rating and spent most of the rest of the war on minesweeping duties out of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
Having survived the war, in 1928, he married Marjorie Briggs in Birkenhead and they set up home at Frizinghall, near Bradford, Yorkshire.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve and died on active service as a Lieutenant, on 6th June 1943, whilst serving on H.M.S.
Asbury, a shore base at Monmouth, New Jersey, in the United States of America. He was aged 48 years.
He is buried in Asbury Park (Monmouth) Memorial Park, in Plot 186, Block 9, Section A.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 English Census, 1901 English Census, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, The Long Wake, Steve McGreal, A Merchant Fleet at War, Wallasey News, Gary Wimpress, Yorkshire Post, PRO BT 350.