John Teather Piper was born in Longtown, Carlisle, Cumberland, England, in early 1874, the son of William Robert John and Elizabeth Catherine Piper. His mother died while John was a child, leaving his father to raise six children, and on completion of his education, John became an architect’s clerk before deciding on a career at sea and enlisting in the mercantile marine.
Records indicate that John married in Liverpool in 1906, but no details are known.
The 1911 Census of England and Wales indicates that John was married around 1909 to one Marion Quinn, an Irishwoman who was born in County Galway, yet no record of this marriage can be found. It could have been that the couple married abroad and in 1911, they had two children - a son named John, and a daughter named Mary. In 1915 the family home was at 63, Hatherley Street, Liverpool, Lancashire.
John engaged as Chief Officer in the Deck Department on board the Lusitania at Liverpool on 12th April 1915 and he reported for duty on the morning of 17th April - in time for the vessel’s last ever sailing out of the River Mersey. As Chief Officer, his monthly rate of pay was £16-0s-0d.
The Lusitania completed what was her last ever east to west crossing of the Atlantic to New York without mishap and on the early afternoon of 1st May set off again on the return leg of her voyage to Liverpool. Then, six days out of New York and only hours away from her Liverpool destination, she was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of southern Ireland by the German submarine
U-20. At that time, she was only about 250 miles away from the safety of her home port. Chief Officer Piper was killed as a result of this action. He was aged 41 years.
His body was recovered from the sea twelve days later, however, on the evening of Wednesday 19th May 1915, at Firkall, in County Kerry about 80 miles from where the liner had foundered. Also recovered at the same time was the body of Fireman John Toale - erroneously named Toole in Cunard records.
The southern Irish newspaper The Cork Examiner reported the finding of the bodies: -
Two more bodies were to-day recovered at Firkall, 12 miles to the west of here.
(Berehaven) One was that of a ship's officer dressed in black uniform with three gold bands on each sleeve; on the inside of the shirt collar the name "Piper" was written, and he wore a gold ring inscribed "S.P.E." He was a fine type of manhood, about 6ft 1 in in height. He had a set of false teeth in both jaws. No papers which would establish further identity were found on him.
The body then conveyed by road to Castletown, where it was put on board the Queenstown harbour tender
Flying Fish and on Saturday 22nd May, it was landed at the Cunard Wharf in Queenstown where it was placed in a coffin in the temporary mortuary situated there. It was also given the reference number 231 and described as: -
John Preston (sic) Piper. (Ship’s Officer) 50 years, 6ft. clean shaven. 1 gold ring S.P.E. initials, 2 gold links, one pipe, wore uniform with three rings on sleeve.
Once it was positively identified, however, it was despatched to Messrs. R. McDougall and Co. Ltd., Funeral Directors, of St. Anne Street, Liverpool for burial in Kirkdale Cemetery, in the city.
This took place at 2.00 p.m., on 25th May 1915, the burial service being conducted by The Reverend A.J. Broad, the vicar of St. Peter's Church, Aintree, Liverpool. The coffin was draped in a union flag and carried to the grave by six quartermasters of the Cunard Steam Ship Company, J. Duncan, W. Kiberd, W. Kinride, W. Pritchard, D. Wallace and S. Walker, who were under the command of Master at Arms J. Gregson. There were also representatives present from the board of the Cunard Company and one survivor, First Officer A.R. Jones was also there.
Chief Officer Piper's remains still lay there today, in Church of England Section 5, Grave 1267, under a standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, but carved from sandstone, rather from the more normal Portland stone. It bears the private inscription: -
"S P E."
"Spe" is Latin for "hope" and the inscription is unusual in that the letters are larger than is normal for Commission headstones and may have been added privately at some later date. This possibility is fortified by the fact that the whole of the inscription has, at some time, been filled in with black paint, which is not a normal feature found on Commission stones either. However, as the description of the property recovered and a description of the body published in
The Cork Examiner both record that he wore a gold ring inscribed "S.P.E."
, it is perhaps more likely that the letters do not refer to a Latin word at all, but perhaps instead to some family motto or initials, and maybe the stone mason who carved them on the headstone did not put in all three full stops!
The property that was recovered from his corpse was sent to his widow one month after his burial, on 25th June 1915. She was then residing at 24, Lissit Hill Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
In August of the same year, she received the balance of pay owing to him for his sea service on the
Lusitania, which was reckoned from 17th April 1915 to 8th May, 24 hours after the liner had foundered. In addition, The Liverpool and London War Risks Insurance Association Limited granted an annual pension to Marion Piper which amounted to £127-10s-0d. (£127.50p.), payable at the rate of £10-12s-6d. (£10.62½p.) per month, which at that time, was a significant sum, and much higher than the average wage.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1881 Census of Scotland, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cork Examiner, Cunard Records, Kirkdale Cemetery Burial Register, Liverpool Journal of Commerce, Robert O'Brien, UniLiv.D92/1/8-11, UniLiv. PR 13/24, PRO BT 334.