Alexander Duncan was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1881. His home was at 101, Lawton Road, Waterloo, Liverpool.
He was a professional sea-going engineer, (with Board of Trade certificate number No.45768) having spent a lot of his sea going time with The Cunard Steam Ship Company. On 12 April 1915, at Liverpool, he engaged as Junior Second Engineer, in the Engineering Branch on board the Lusitania, at a monthly rate of pay of £18-0s-0d.
He reported for duty on the morning of 17 April 1915 before the great liner left the River Mersey for the last ever time. Having completed what was her last ever east to west crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, the
Lusitania left the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York just after noon, on 1st May 1915 for her return to Liverpool. Then just six days later, on the afternoon of 7 May, the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20, within sight of the coast of southern Ireland.
Engineer Duncan managed to survive this action and finding himself in the sea, he managed to reach an upturned boat from which he was eventually rescued by a trawler. In an article published in 'The Cork Examiner' on 13 May 1915, Fireman Charles Scannell described his own rescue after which he saw Alexander Duncan:
Then hearing a tremendous noise I turned and saw fire and smoke bursting out, and with that burst the ship went down. Around me there were scores of people shouting and screaming and all struggling - it was simply fearful. I still swam on, and suddenly found myself in a current that was dragging me back in the direction of where the vessel disappeared. After an effort, I got out of this, and soon after saw an upturned boat with about 20 people on it, amongst them being the Second Engineer Duncan and a fireman. I reached it all right, and they pulled me up ..... Eventually a trawler came along, took us on board, and brought us into Queenstown.
Having been landed at Queenstown, Alexander Duncan eventually made it back to Liverpool, where on 11 May 1915, like all
Lusitania crew survivors, he was required to give a deposition on oath to a Board of Trade official concerning his experiences of the sinking. Most of these depositions have long since been lost or destroyed. but a few, including that of Engineer Duncan, have survived in the Public Record Office in Richmond, Surrey, England in ‘facsimile’ form - i.e. copied out by hand, probably at the time. That of Engineer Duncan states:
On Friday 7th May, Deponent was in his room in the Engineers’ Quarters, when he heard a loud grating noise and the ship commenced to list to starboard. Deponent went onto the deck into the alleyway and learned that the vessel had been torpedoed.
Deponent dressed and served out lifebelts from a locker opposite his room. The list became very heavy and he proceeded through the engine room directing firemen who were coming up from their quarters to go through the engine room skylight by the escape to the boat deck.
Deponent then went to his boat station No. 4 (port side of ship) and commenced to lower (the lifeboat) to the level of the boat deck. Some of the boat’s crew were there and a number of passengers. The women there were put into the boat. Several men had followed into the boat when, the ship’s list rapidly increasing, the boat fell inboard and turned over on the deck on top of the people in the boat. The falls did not give way. There was no panic, everyone was cool and calm.
Deponent hung on to the pin of the after davit of No. 2 boat. The ship sank and took Deponent with her. Deponent came to the surface and found a lifeboat. After 2½ hours, deponent was picked up by one of the ship's boats and transferred to one of the rescuing trawlers.
His name was also engraved on a brass plaque belonging to The Liverpool Branch of The Marine Engineers’ Association which used to be in The Britannia Rooms in The Cunard Building in Liverpool. Underneath the badge of the association was engraved: -
ROLL OF HONOUR
A TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY
THE MEMBERS, WHO LOST
THROUGH ENEMY ACTION IN THE
GREAT WAR. 1914 - 1919
and then followed the names of the 226 former members.
The memorial is not in the building today, however and its present whereabouts, if it has survived, are not known.
At some time after his return to Liverpool, Alexander Duncan was officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s last voyage and paid the balance of salary owed to him, which was in respect of his sea service from 17 April 1915 until 8 May; 24 hours after the liner had foundered. This amounted to £14-12-6d, (£14.62).
Alexander Duncan continued to serve in the mercantile marine for the remainder of his working live, mostly as a Chief Engineer.
1881 Census of Scotland, 1891 Census of Scotland, 1901 Census of Scotland, Cork Examiner, Cunard Records, George Donnison, PRO ADM 137/1058, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 350.