John Stevens was born in 1852 in St Ives, Cornwall, England, the son of Matthew and Jane Stevens. He married Elizabeth (Bessie) George in Cornwall in 1881, and in 1915 they lived at 11 Bellair Terrace, St Ives. They had two children, John and Elizabeth, also known as Bessie.
John Stevens senior was a career deck officer in the Cunard Steam Ship Company and in early 1915; he was serving as Chief Officer on the steamer
Pannonia. In early April, whilst she was berthed in an American port, he received a cablegram to tell him that his wife, Bessie, was seriously ill. Later, after the
Lusitania was sunk, the Liverpool press stated that he was given special permission by the company to return to England to be with her and set sail on the
Lusitania to get home as quickly as he could. However, Bessie Stevens died on 8th April 1915, three weeks before the
Lusitania set sail on her last voyage, so it would seem that the press reports owed more to drama than to accuracy.
However, another account published in The Cornish Echo of 14th May 1915 states that Chief Officer Stevens was on board ship in France when he heard that his wife had died, but was unable to leave his ship until she berthed at New York, where he arranged for a substitute to take his place. This would be a more reasonable explanation for the delay in his return to St. Ives.
Stevens did sail on the Lusitania, however, having joined her in New York on 1st May and a crew list published by Cunard in March 1916 describes him as
Extra Chief Officer Stevens, which implies that he was on the nominal strength of the
Lusitania for the voyage home and did not sail as a passenger. This is fortified by the fact that the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also list his being a member of the crew. Presumably mindful of his tragic circumstances and his high position within the Cunard fleet, Cunard must have allowed him this privilege, although one could probably assume that his duties on board would have been minimal. In that rank, however, he would have been entitled to a monthly wage of £21-0s-0d.
The kind gesture made to him by Cunard only made worse the tragedy that had followed the family in that spring of 1915, however, for he was killed when the ship was sunk on the afternoon of 7th May 1915, by the German submarine
U-20, whilst steaming off the coast of southern Ireland. The Official History of the Merchant Navy in the Great War states that he was standing his watch on the bridge when the torpedo struck. His body was later recovered from the sea, however and it was initially taken to one of the temporary mortuaries specially set up in Queenstown and given the reference number 98, until it was positively identified.
On 11th May 1915, it was delivered to Messrs. G.H. Lee & Co., of Liverpool, for burial, which eventually took place at Barnoon Cemetery, St. Ives and his remains still lie there today, in the family grave, in Section C, Plot D, Row E, Grave 3. He was aged 62 at the time of his death. The pertinent inscription on the headstone states: -
WHO WAS DROWNED IN THE LUSITANIA
MAY 7TH 1915
AGED 62 YEARS.
Administration of his estate was granted to his daughter Bessie on 26th May 1915 and his effects amounted to £267-10s-0p, (£267.50p). On 14th June 1915, property recovered from his body, which might have helped to have identified it, was also sent to daughter Bessie, c/o Mr. T.H. George, of 18, The Terrace, St. Ives. It included £15 in British treasury notes, 40 French Francs, £0-19s-6d, (£0.97½p.), in silver coinage, a watch and guard, a silver match box, a pair of spectacles and a leather purse. In August of that year, she also took possession of the residue of wages owed to him for the
Lusitania's last voyage.
Bessie Stevens, who married a Mr. Daniel Lander after her father’s death, lived until October 1971 when she died aged 83 years and her brother John had died before either of his parents, in Pennsylvania U.S.A., in 1910, aged only 20 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1861 Census of England and Wales, 1871 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, The Bootle Times, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cornish Echo, Cunard Records, David Irving, James Maggs, Penwith District Council, Probate Records, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D92/1/8-10, PRO BT 334.