Michael Chester was probably born in County Waterford, Ireland in 1864, the son of Michael and Catherine Chester. He was married to Ann Chester (née Boyle) and they lived at 1 Court, 1 House, Curran Street, off Scotland Road, Liverpool. Ann Chester had previously been married to a Mr Smith and was known as Ann Smith when she married Michael Chester. They had three children, Michael, Mary and Annie. Michael was an excellent father and totally devoted to his three children.
He was a professional fireman in the Mercantile Marine who had worked for The Cunard Steam Ship Company all his working life. After the
Lusitania had first sailed the Atlantic in 1907 he had spent most of his working life on board her.
In 1998 his daughter Mary Murray recounted:
“He was a lovely father and a great seaman. He always worked for Cunard. He had trip after trip on the ‘Lucy’. We would always wait for him to come home as he always brought us a present. We would always wait for the two-wheeler cart to come with his bag on it, than we would know he’d be home. But then he was not long home, and away again, and so life went on... away, home, away again.
He was so happy when he came home, and when the next day came it was time to go for his pay-off, and who would be with him? Yes, me! We would go to Bank Hall where he would meet all the boys from the ‘Lucy’ all getting paid off. Oh yes, I remember what a jolly lot of seamen they were, and of course I used to be well off from them. And when they said ‘Oh well, see you next time’, they meant on another trip.
When we got home, I would share out with my brother, and I remember so well my father saying to my mother, ‘Hold up your apron’, and in would go the money. How much, I would not know, and so it would go - another sign on. Because it was his ship, we were happy, but sad when he went of course. We would count the days from Liverpool to New York and then we were all right. Then another trip and home.”
On 13 April 1915 Michael Chester engaged to sail on the liner once more, as a fireman, in the Engineering Department, at a monthly rate of pay of £6-10s-0d (£6.50). He reported for duty at 8am on 17 April before she left Liverpool for the last time. When he engaged he gave his age as 40 years, which was clearly not true and from Mary Murray’s recollections, he was not happy about the forthcoming trip.
“Although I was only ten then, in 1915, I could see a difference in him when he went on this trip in March or April 1915. He never said anything because they had to work on her. But I remember on the trip before the last, he was very, very sad - why, I have lived to learn. He was ready again but so sad. He used to lift me up, swing me and say, ‘Goodbye, I’ll be home’, but that did not come. You can call it what you like, but I know what I’d call it. This time I heard him say to my mother, ‘I’ll call it a day next time because the ship is not the same as it used to be. The food’s not the same. All the men are discontented and not going back on her.’ He was a very sad man, because they had all sailed a long time together, - and after what I saw at Bank Hall - they were so jolly and friendly.
Anyway, his trip had come. His bag went and then, as I said, a very sad man went. Of course, no-one could do anything about it. My mother was very upset as well. So after he had gone, she did the usual things, cleaning up, getting on with the housework and then a sit down, thinking. All we could do was go out and play, my brother with his mates and me with mine.
As you know it was April and lovely light nights, so come 9 o’clock my mother said to me, ‘I’m only going next door.’ Of course I knew what went on, a little drink - I did not mind because I knew she was upset. She said, ‘Don’t stay out too long’. We were all right, we knew what to do.
And believe it or not, my father came back and came upstairs, shook me and said ‘Where’s your mother?’ I said ‘I think she’s next door’, and he must have been tied for time because he did not go for her. He said to me ‘Tell your mother I’m not going back on her, I’m going on the S.S. Delaware.’ I said ‘I can’t say that big word’, so he took down an old picture and wrote the name of the ship he said he was going on. But he must have changed his mind again. “I told you he was a very sad man. Of course I think my mother had an idea he would not leave his beloved ship the ‘Lucy’, and so he was gone, sailing away to New York and we counted the days when he would be home again.”
Fireman Chester was killed when the Lusitania was sunk. He was aged 50 years.
Mary Murray continues the story: -
“They left New York on 1st May 1915 and 7th May did not come quick enough for us, so off we went to school and back home again for dinner. I remember my mother was ‘shining’ and she said ‘It’s Friday and your dad will be home, so stay off. He will be there about 3.30.’ We were made up because we never did that, stay off school, as he would not have liked that.
And so there were two happy children waiting for their father to come home. My mother received a ship’s telegram, ‘HOME IN A COUPLE OF HOURS’, between 12.30 and 1 o’clock and then at 3.30 the news ‘LUSITANIA GONE DOWN - ALL HANDS LOST’. The world went wild. The paper boys were running everywhere. The world stood still for us, believe you me!
It was a week I shall never forget. My aunt took us to live with her. My little sister went to my step-sister. I don’t think we knew what was going on, but I learned later, when my mother decided to come back home. We could not open the door there were so many letters behind it and when it was open, it was awful; I saw my mother cry and cry - but you have to get through it. We were a poor family then and left without a father inside a couple of hours - and not only us! What could my mother do only wait?”
His body was never recovered and identified after the sinking.
"Anyway, we did not have a body and in those days, I remember, they put up the sheets around the window and my mother had a big photo of my father inside the sheets and that was supposed to be the body. The old people were funny in those days. Everyone showed their respect and said prayers for him and then came the crunch.
My mother got two little pensions - one from The Sailors’ Home and one from the County Court. Money was put aside for the children, Michael, Mary and Annie until they were of age. I don’t remember whether it was 18 or 21, but I never received any. I often wonder where it went. I also remember that outside the Town Hall there was a big sheet rigged up and believe me, everyone gave. It was a public fund and that was where the widows from the Lusitania got their pensions from. I have lived with this all my life, the loss of a good father."
In common with all crew victims of the sinking, Cunard paid Michael Chester’s wages up until 8 May, 24 hours after the sinking and eventually the balance owing to him, £4-14s-0d (£4.70) was forwarded to his widow, Ann. In addition the Liverpool and London War Risks Insurance Association Limited granted a yearly pension to Ann to compensate her for the loss of her husband which amounted to £52-12s-2d (£52.61) payable at the rate of £4-9s-5d (£4.47) per month.
As he had no known grave he is commemorated on the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London. By the time that the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were compiled, the family had moved to 3 Court, 6 House, 27 Clayton Street, Liverpool.
Ann Chester died in January 1964, aged 93 years and nearly fifty years a widow, but the tragedy of the
Lusitania did not leave her alone - even in death. Mary Murray relates another twist of the story: -
"My mother always said “Don’t worry, when I die the Lusitania will bury me.”, and so we sent her pension book to the Cunard asking for a little help to bury her and a letter came back saying they were sorry, but my mother had outlived her pension. She was only drawing the interest on the money they had!"
Mrs Christina Webster, one of Michael Chester’s grandchildren, recalled to the author in May 2002 that she used to accompany her grandmother Ann Chester to the Cunard Building in Liverpool when she was a little girl, to pick up pension payments in respect of her grandfather. Family lore always recounted that these payments were made up with money from the wealthy American Vanderbilt family. Millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a saloon passenger from New York on the
Lusitania's last voyage, also perished in the sinking.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Birkenhead News, Cunard Records, Mary Murray, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv. PR 13/24, Christina Webster.