Edward Downey was born in Seacombe, Wallasey, Cheshire, England, in 1892, the son of Richard and Catherine Downey.He lived at 8 Mersey Street, Seacombe.
He engaged as a trimmer in the Engineering Department on board the Lusitania on the morning of 17 April 1915, just before the liner left Liverpool for the last time. The monthly wage for this rate was £6-0s-0d, and although it was his first voyage on the Cunarder, he had served in the Mercantile Marine before and his previous ship had been the S.S.
Cervantes. She was captured and sunk by the German warship S.M.S. Karlsruhe
in October 1914; however, so presumably Edward Downey must have left her by then! As he did not join the
Lusitania until the morning she sailed, perhaps his decision was made at the last minute.
He survived her sinking, however, three weeks later, when she was nearly home and six days out of New York. Having been rescued from the sea, he was landed at Queenstown, from where he eventually returned to his Seacombe home. There, he was interviewed by a reported from local newspaper The Wallasey and Wirral Chronicle and his account of the sinking was published in the edition of Saturday 15 May. It stated:
When the liner was struck at about five minutes past two, he was in the washhouse, washing after dinner. He hearing the crash rushed upstairs and climbed on deck where he looked around for a life-belt. However, he found it was best to take things easy and while looking over the side of the ship he saw the first boat lowered was smashed by the suction of the sinking vessel, the people (who were provided with life-belts being cast adrift. The scene was truly awful, men dived off the top deck and were killed through jumping from such a height. Downey said that whilst on deck he was thrown from one side to the other through the ship listing. Two funnels flew up, boilers burst, and decks heaved. “The noise was terrible to hear,” he remarked.
“I thought if I was going to be killed, I might as well dive. So I dived over the railings. I was swimming round for about a quarter of an hour; then I came to an upturned boat and got on it. People were all round shouting for help. I caught hold of one little girl about ten years old and another about nineteen.”
This boat evidently came in very useful for not only was Downey able to get on it with the two girls, but several other people as well, including women.
“Another boat was full of water,” remarked Downey, “and the people were shouting for help to us. One poor woman was there with a baby. We went for them but their boat went over, the poor woman and baby going too. She came up again and clung to the side of our boat, and turning to the baby, threw it away dead. As soon as she got alongside the boat, she went underneath but shot up again. For the second time she went down but the third time we grabbed her by the head and fetched her up. We had three women dead on the up-turned boat.”
Continuing his narrative, Downey pointed out that he then noticed there were two other up-turned boats beside the one he was on and a collapsible boat. There were about 30 women and children on the latter. Then a steamer was sighted in the distance and a man took off his trousers which, on being tied to an oar, were used to attract attention. But the steamer did not seem to see them and passed away out of sight, a fact which naturally damped their hopes of being rescued.
However, about ten minutes after, the mine-sweepers came out. “We put the women and children on to the Indian Empire, and handed the dead - the three women - up also.”
The Indian Empire was H.M.S. Indian Empire, a former fishing trawler requisitioned for war use as a Royal Naval patrol boat, which was responsible for rescuing many survivors from the sea. The man who took off his trousers which, on being tied to an oar, were used to attract attention, was almost certainly saloon passenger Clinton Bernard, who also described the incident in The Tragedy of the Lusitania, by Captain Frederick D. Ellis, published in America not long after the sinking. The 'Wallasey and Wirral Chronicle' account continued:
Once safe on this vessel, Downey borrowed a jacket from a lift boy - for he was only clad in his trousers - and some of the survivors, in order to cheer themselves up a bit, began singing ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, but these airs proved too much for the emotions of the passengers, who began to weep, so the singing ceased.”
On arrival at Queenstown, the survivors were hospitably received by the people, and at the Soldiers’ (sic) Home, Downey was given tea and cakes, whilst later on, some ladies provided him with one or two additional garments. The night was passed in the Sailors’ Home till it was time to leave by train for Dublin.
Thence, sailing to Holyhead, he at length arrived safe in Liverpool at about eight o’clock on Sunday morning. His comment on these nerve-trying experiences is - “It was terrible to hear the cries in the water. People were drowned without it becoming possible to help them. We were four hours on the water.”
Not long after his return to Merseyside, he was officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s final voyage and paid the balance of wages owing to him in respect of his service from 17 April - 8 May 1915, 24 hours after the great liner had gone down. This amounted to £5-6s-4d (£5.32p).
Cunard records show his surname to be spelled Downy, but this is probably a clerical error made when Trimmer Downey engaged.
Edward Downey continued to serve in the Merchant Navy and died in Birkenhead in 1950, aged 56 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, British Vessels Lost at Sea, Cunard Records, PRO BT 100/345, Tragedy of the Lusitania, Wallasey News, Wallasey & Wirral Chronicle, PRO BT 350.