William Thomas Turner was born on 23 October 1856 at Clarence Street, Everton, Liverpool, Lancashire, the son of Charles and Charlotte May Johnson Turner. His father Charles Turner was a master mariner in the age of sail and at the time of William’s birth was serving as a first mate on merchant vessels, while his mother’s family, the Johnsons, were cotton mill owners.
It is unclear at what age William first went to sea. Some accounts state he was aged just eight years when he served as a cabin boy on a vessel named
Grasmere, and was lucky to survive when this vessel was wrecked off the northern coast of Ireland, while other accounts state that he was aged 13 or 14 years at the time. It is known that while serving on the clipper White Star he reached the Guanape Islands off the coast of Peru in 1869. His father’s ship Queen of Nations was there before him and he transferred to this vessel for the voyage home, thus serving under his father, who was the master of this vessel. En route back to England the Queen of Nations was severely damaged in storms while navigating around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America and was forced to anchor in the Falkland Islands for three months to effect repairs.
On returning to England William served on a variety of vessels belonging to various shipping companies before following his father’s footsteps in 1878 by joining the Cunard Steam Ship Company Ltd. He quickly rose to the rank of fourth officer.
Cunard were renowned as a company who would never give command of one of their vessels to a first time captain, therefore William left the company to gain his Captain’s Certificate and get command of a ship. His first command was a clipper Star of the East. Having successfully commanded this ship, earning favourable reports and testimonials from the owners of the vessel, he returned to Cunard where he served as first officer on a number of vessels.
William followed an old maritime custom and purchased a brand new bowler hat when he was given command of
Star of the East. He would wear this hat when on ship’s business in port and when going to and from his vessel. As a result he earned the nickname 'Bowler Bill', by which he was known to his dying day.
When ashore William lodged with a widowed aunt, Anne Hitching, and her two children, Alice Elizabeth and Wilfred, in Chorlton, Lancashire. On 31 August 1883 in Manchester William married his cousin, Alice Elizabeth Hitching. The couple had two children, both sons, named Percy and Norman, and resided for a time at 31 Springfield Road, Sale, near Manchester.
On rejoining the Cunard Steam Ship Company Ltd William served a chief officer on a number of the company’s vessels, including the
Cherbourg, Catalonia and Umbria. While serving on the
Catalonia he was awarded the Humane Society’s silver medal for jumping into the Alexandria Dock in Liverpool to save a boy’s life. He was also awarded the Transport Medal for outstanding government service while serving as the chief officer on the
Umbria transporting troops to South Africa during the Boer War.
Although the reasons are unknown, William and Alice’s marriage proved to be a difficult one and the couple grew apart. By 1903 Alice had moved out of the marital home with their two sons. The couple were to live apart for the remainder of their lives, although they did not divorce.
Also in 1903, William was given command of his first Cunard vessel, Aleppo, which was on the Mediterranean route. It was remarked that whereas he was a skilled and accomplished sailor, his manner was rather gruff when dealing with people, especially passengers. Notwithstanding this, he proved extremely popular with passengers, despite doing his best to avoid having any direct dealings with them.
In 1904 William was given command of the Carpathia and was captain of this liner for the entire year before being transferred to the
Ivernia on the transatlantic route, followed by command of the Caronia.
By 1906 it was obvious to all that William and Alice’s marriage had ended and he moved into a house in the Aintree area outside Liverpool, while Alice took up residence with their two sons at Bowdon, close to Manchester. William advertised for a house keeper and engaged Miss Mabel Every, who remained with him for the remainder of his life. Mabel was the youngest of seven children, whose mother died while giving birth to her, and she became a nurse before working for William Turner. It is generally accepted that they had a very private yet loving relationship for the remainder of William’s life.
By 1907, the year that Cunard took delivery of two brand new state-of-the-art passenger liners,
Lusitania and Mauretania, William’s reputation as a safe and competent sea captain was well established, and he was earning a salary of £1,000 per annum. William took command of
Mauretania on her maiden voyage on 16 November 1907, before returning to his regular vessel at that time,
The first captain of the Lusitania was Commodore James Watt, Cunard’s most senior commander. On his retirement in October 1908 William was appointed as his successor, on Watt’s personal recommendations. William held command until 26 January 1910, when he left to take command of the Mauretania. During his time on the
Lusitania, the liner completed 38 transatlantic crossings, and became renowned for the speed of the crossings, the quick turnaround times, and the clean appearance of the liner.
In 1910 on the retirement of Mauretania’s captain, Commodore John Pritchard, William was given full-time command of her. He was in command when Cunard announced a ‘Christmas Special’ voyage of the
Mauretania – Liverpool to New York and back in twelve days. Thanks to his skill, and the superhuman efforts of the crew, the task was successfully completed. Although a strict disciplinarian, or maybe because of this, he was much-loved by his crew.
In 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Commodore by Cunard and bestowed with the rank of commander in the Royal Naval Reserve by the Admiralty. He also had the honour of escorting the King and Queen on a tour of the
Mauretania while they were on a visit to Liverpool.
On 30 May 1914 Commodore Turner had the honour of commanding the RMS Aquitania on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York. Aquitania was the third of the Cunard ‘sister’ ships joining
Lusitania and Mauretania. However her design was very different from them, and was more in keeping with the design of the rival White Star liners,
Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic. When war broke out in Europe in August 1914 the
Aquitania, after only three transatlantic round trips as a passenger liner, was requisitioned by the Admiralty, first as an auxiliary armed cruiser, and then as a troop transporter or hospital ship as needs demanded.
As many of Cunard’s vessels had been requisitioned by the Admiralty on the outbreak of war, and command handed to Royal Navy officers, from the time the
Aquitania was requisitioned William Turner was without a vessel until and January 1915, when he was given another brand new liner,
In March 1915 the regular captain of the Lusitania, Daniel Dow, suffering from nervous exhaustion as a result of the German submarine threat to shipping, was relieved of command and Cunard appointed William Turner to take over the vessel. He was in command when the Lusitania departed from Liverpool on her 100th transatlantic round trip on 20 March.
On 17 April the Lusitania departed from Liverpool on her 101st transatlantic round trip with William Turner as captain. The outward voyage proved uneventful, and the great liner docked at Pier 54, the Cunard berth, in New York harbour on Saturday 24 April. While berthed in New York a number of crew members were signed off, while others joined up for the return sailing, and fuel, provisions and cargo were taken on board.
On 30 April, the eve of the return sailing, William Turner gave evidence at the hearing for the limitation of liability for the sinking of the
Titanic at the District Court in New York. He had dinner that evening with his niece, Mercedes Desmore, who was an actress appearing on stage in New York at that time.
Although the Lusitania was expected to set sail at 10am on Saturday 1 May, her departure was delayed until after midday as the Admiralty had requisitioned the Anchor Lines Cameronia, so some of the passengers, crew, and cargo from this liner were transferred to the Lusitania.
The voyage eastwards towards Liverpool was uneventful, with pleasant weather and seas; however, there was a heavy fog in evidence on Friday 7 May, as the liner approached the southwest coast of Ireland. As a result the
Lusitania reduced speed and periodically sounded her fog horn.
In late morning the fog lifted and the Lusitania increased her speed, although this was well below the speed she was normally capable of. There were two primary reasons why she was operating on reduced speed, the first being that coal was then being rationed. With a reduced number of passengers making the transatlantic crossing due to the war raging at that time, the
Lusitania the was operating on only three boilers in order to reduce her consumption of coal and keep her operating costs down.
The second reason was that Captain Turner was calculating the time he would most likely reach the Mersey Bar, the entrance to the River Mersey. The
Lusitania could only negotiate the shallow and narrow channel into Liverpool when the tide was right, and he did not want to have to lie at anchor for any length of time at the Mersey Bar as it was known that German submarines patrolled the area seeking just such a target. His intention was to reach the Mersey Bar at the optimum time so that he would not have to slow down or stop in that area.
At approximately 2pm the Lusitania passed the Galley Head and steamed towards the Old Head of Kinsale on the southern coast of Ireland. William Turner was reported to have been on the port side of the bridge at this time. When the lookouts in the crow’s nest shouted a warning of a torpedo approaching the starboard side of the liner it was too late for any evasive action and the torpedo detonated when it struck, resulting in the
Lusitania sinking in 18 minutes.
In an interview given in Queenstown and published in the 'New York Herald' on 10 May 1915, Captain Turner told the newspaper's reporter of his experience:
"I saw the periscope of the submarine myself, as did several of my officers and many of my passengers and crew.
There was no mistaking the streaky wave of the torpedoes she sent into the Lusitania. She was only about two hundred yards away when we saw the periscope peep out of the water. Two torpedoes struck us, both on the starboard side.
I stood on the bridge of my vessel until she went under me. I could do no more."
At the inquest held on the death of Lieutenant Robert Matthews, one of the
Lusitania’s passengers, on 8 May, at Kinsale Market and Court House, presided over by Coroner John J Horgan, Captain Turner gave his version of the sinking, the first time he had told his story and in many ways, one of the clearest accounts he was to give. The statement was obviously given in reply to questions from the Coroner and stated:
"I was acting as Captain of the Lusitania on the occasion of her being sunk. I left New York on May 1st about noon. The voyage was without incident of any kind. I was fully aware that threats had been made that the “Lusitania” would be torpedoed. The vessel was not armed. I had all the boats swung out and bulkhead doors closed when we came within the danger zone.
We passed the Fastnet about 11 a.m., on Friday 7th May. We saw no submarine from then to the time of the accident. There was a slight fog bear to the Fastnet and we slowed down to 15 knots. We were in wireless communication with the shore all the way across. We received messages with reference to submarines being off the Irish Coast. I did not receive any message as the sinking of a schooner the Earl of Lathom off the Old Head of Kinsale.
I received special instructions. I carried them out. I am not at liberty to say what they were.
The weather cleared up after passing the Fastnet and we went along at a speed of 18 knots. I was on the port side of the lower bridge when I heard the second officer Mr. Hefford call out “There’s a torpedo”. I ran over to the other side and just saw the wake of the torpedo approaching the vessel. We were then about fifteen miles south of Kinsale. I then heard the explosion and saw smoke or steam rising between the third and fourth funnels. There was a slight shock to the vessel.
The torpedo was almost on the surface. Immediately after the report of the first explosion, there was another. I gave the order to lower the boats down to the rails and get all women and children into them. I also gave the order to stop the ship but could not do so, as the engines were out of commission. Therefore it was not safe to lower the boats till the weigh was off the ship.
There was some headway on her up to the moment she went down. She listed to starboard the moment she was struck. I remained on the bridge all the time and the ship went down from under me. She sank about 18 minutes after she was struck. It was a quarter past two by my watch when she was struck. It was thirty six minutes and a quarter past two o’clock when my watch stopped.
I was picked up about two and a half hours afterwards by one of the boats and placed on a trawler. At the time of the collision there was no warship convoying us. We did not meet any war vessel after sighting the Irish coast. There were no living bodies in the water as far as I could see when I was picked up. I did not know any of the people by whom the inquest in being held. The normal speed of the vessel is 25 knots, it is reduced to 21 knots since the war.
We were going at the speed of 18 knots in order to arrive at Liverpool Harbour Bar about two hours before high water so that we could go right in without stopping for a pilot. Those were my instructions. There was a double look out specially for submarines. We were not going on a zig.zag course at the time of the accident. It was bright, clear weather and smooth water and we could see full range on the horizon.
A submarine could easily have been there without being seen. All the boats on the port side could not be lowered owing to the list of the ship. I can not say how many boats were launched safely. A few even were launched on the port side. There was very little panic on board and all my orders were promptly obeyed by the officers and crew.
There were about 1,500 passengers and about 600 crew. I made no application to the Admiralty for an escort. I got no wireless ordering me to steer the vessel in a northerly direction. I headed straight for the land immediately after being torpedoed. All watertight bulkheads and ports were ordered to be closed prior to the explosion. All the passengers were served with lifebelts.
There was no warning whatsoever given before the torpedo was fired. I saw a statement in the New York Herald under the Cunard Company’s Advertisement of Sailing and over the America Line advertisement, warning that all persons sailing by British ships did so as to their own risk and this advertisement came from the German Embassy."
On his eventual return to Liverpool, Captain Turner was called to give a deposition on oath, concerning the sinking, to an official of the Board of Trade. Consequently on 15 May he said that:
"The ship was in good condition and well found. She was unarmed, having no weapons of offence or defence against an enemy.
Boat drill was carried out at New York before the vessel left, also fire and ****head drill. There was boat musters at various times each day of the voyage."
The main part of Captain Turner's deposition was written down for him and stated:
"Deponent was on A Deck first outside his room's door on the port side. The vessel was at least 15 miles from the Old Head which was bearing before the beam. The vessel's speed was 18 knots. Deponent momentarily observed the track of a torpedo on the starboard beam and instantly was struck on the starboard side, as far as deponent could observe, between the third and fourth funnels.
The ship listed on the instant, throwing deponent off his balance. Deponent went up to the navigation bridge, rang the "engines full speed astern" and headed the vessel for the land. There was no response from the engines. At the same time he ordered the boats to be lowered to the rail and the women and children to be put into them first.
Almost instantaneously after the first torpedo struck the ship, deponent felt the concussion of a second. Deponent's orders were being carried out. There was very little panic. It was impossible to lower the port boats owing to the heavy starboard list and dangerous to lower the starboard boats until the way was off the ship. Several of the boats got away. The vessel righted a little and commenced to sink by the head rapidly.
Deponent remained on the bridge, put on a lifebelt and the ship went from under him. Deponent was in the water for two and a half to three hours when he was picked up by one of the ship's boats, transferred to the trawler Bluebell and landed at Queenstown."
In an interview published in 'The Daily Mirror' after the sinking he said: -
"Let there be no mistake made concerning the deliberate intent with which the Germans set about destroying the ship. We were attacked without warning, and without question it was a submarine that sent us to the bottom.
I saw a periscope myself, as did several of my officers and many members of the passengers and crew, and there was no mistaking the streakey wake of the torpedoes she sent into the Lusitania.
She was only about 200 yards away when we saw her periscope peep out of the water, and almost at the same moment her first torpedo was launched against us. Two struck us and both on our starboard side.
We were given no grace by the devils between the firing of the first and second torpedo. The second came less than a minute after the first , as is it were the deliberate intention of the submarine's commander to ensure that not a sould of the 2,000 odd people on board the liner should live to tell the tale for how could we be expected successfully to lower our boats and save so many lives at less than one minute's notice.
We listed badly after the first torpedo struck, and it was all over at the end of some twenty minutes, when the ship headed for the bottom, bow first."
In the months following the sinking of the Lusitania William Turner was busy on shore, attending the official Board of Trade Inquiry presided over by Lord Mersey, and dealing with other matter pertaining to the sinking. At the inquiry the Admiralty attempted to apportion a good deal of the blame for the sinking on him, without success, In November 1915 he returned to sea in command of the
Ultonia, on a voyage from France to Quebec, Canada. On reaching port in Quebec he took the time to travel on a brief visit to New York City, leaving on 23 November 1915. This was his last ever visit to North America.
Shortly after the Board of Trade Inquiry William’s estranged wife Alice emigrated to Australia with their two sons.
In the autumn of 1916 William was given command of the Ivernia, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea, when the usual master of the vessel was taken ill. On New Year’s Day 1917, while off the coast of Greece, the
Ivernia was sunk by a torpedo fired from the German submarine UB-47 and sank with the loss of 120 lives. William Turner survived and was rescued from the sea.
This proved his last command, and on returning to England he commanded a desk at the Cunard offices. At the behest of the Chairman of the Cunard Steam Ship Company Ltd, William was awarded the Order of the British Empire medal (OBE) in January 1918, and in November 1919 he retired.
‘Bowler Bill’ Turner built himself a cottage in Yelverton in Devon, and retiring there with Mabel Every he took up beekeeping. Once the press discovered his whereabouts he left for Australia to search for his sons, whom he had not seen since the opening of the Mersey Enquiry.
Not having found them, he returned to Liverpool 18 months later and resided at 50 De Villiers Avenue, Great Crosby, near Liverpool with his companion Mabel Every as his housekeeper.
According to Colin Simpson in his book 'Lusitania':
"He became a great favourite with the local children, teaching them sea shanties and accompanying them on a fiddle. He died of cancer of the intestines in 1933 being bedridden for the last five years of his life and remarking to visitors with bitter humour : "I am all right fore and aft but my longitudinal bulkhead’s given way"."
After a long fight against stomach cancer he died at his home in Great Crosby, Lancashire on 23 June 1933, aged 76 years. He was buried in the family grave in Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey the following Monday. His coffin, draped with a Union Flag, had been taken by motor hearse from Great Crosby to Liverpool, after which the Commander made his last ever sea journey, across the River Mersey, by ferry to Seacombe, Wallasey and from there was conveyed to the cemetery.
The coffin was carried to the graveside by six quartermasters of the Cunard Line and followed by many former shipmates who had served under him and many relatives and friends. Many other representatives of the shipping fraternity on Merseyside, including the Cunard Company were also present.
Two former members of the Lusitania’s crew on that fateful May day in 1915 were also present. They were former Second Steward Robert Chisholm and former First Class Bedroom Steward William Fletcher, both of whom came from Wallasey.
The funeral service was held in the Cemetery Chapel and was conducted by he Reverend AP Miller of Great Crosby, after which the body was taken to the grave for interment.
Commander Turner’s remains still lie there today, the inscription on his headstone stating:
CAPT WILLIAM THOMAS TURNER,
COMMODORE OF THE CUNARD S.S. LINE,
WHO WAS IN COMMAND OF THE R.M.S. LUSITANIA
WHEN SHE WAS TORPEDOED 7TH MAY 1915.
BORN 23RD OCT. 1857, DIED 23RD JUNE 1933.
"FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH"."
The date of his birth is incorrect on his headstone.
William’s father had died in October 1900 aged 74 and his mother died in March 1920, aged 90.
Probate of his will on 31 July left his estate of £4,427-0s-9d (£4,427.04) to George Ball, described as a bank manager.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1861 Census of England and Wales, 1871 Census of England and Wales, 1881 Census of England and Wales, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, Probate Records, Lusitania, New York Herald, PRO ADM 137/1058, Tragedy of the Lusitania, Wallasey News.