John McStay was born in Widnes, Cheshire, England, on 19th April 1888, the son of John and Jane McStay. His father died either before John was born, or while he was an infant, and in 1892 his mother re-married, her second husband being Thomas Randles. John was educated at The National School, West Bank, Widnes, although he was never a frequent attendee and preferred instead to spend his time swimming in the River Mersey or playing in the local woods!
He first joined the Mercantile Marine before the Great War and his favourite ship was always the
Lusitania. He thought her a beautiful vessel and greatly admired all who crewed her. Whenever his ship docked at New York he would take a train to Albany, to visit his aunt, Betty Bouch and take with him several pairs of Lancashire clogs, made in Widnes, which were always treated as great curios by the locals.
He engaged as a trimmer in the Engineering Department on board the Lusitania at Liverpool, on 12th April 1915 and reported for duty five days later before the liner left the Mersey for the last time. His wage as a trimmer was £6-0s-0d., per month. When he engaged, he gave his home address as 71, Dallam Lane, Warrington, Cheshire, which was the home of his maternal aunt, Mrs. Robinson, although the family home was still at James Street, Widnes. It is believed he also had an address at 72. Mersey Road, Widnes.
Having safely arrived at New York on the first leg of the liner’s journey, he was on board when she left that city on the early afternoon of 1st May 1915. Six days later he survived her torpedoing and sinking and having been rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, he set out for home. This involved his taking a train for Dublin and a boat to Holyhead in Wales and then another train to Birkenhead on the opposite side of the River Mersey from Liverpool. He finally arrived in Liverpool by Mersey ferry in the early hours of 10th May.
On his return to Widnes he related his story to a reporter from The Widnes Weekly News, which was published in the edition of 14th May 1915. He said: -
It was my third trip. We left New York on May 1st. We had a pleasant voyage and good weather. The passengers had no fear of submarines, but the officers knew we had to go through the danger zone. Coming near the Irish coast the boats were swung out on the davits and preparations made for meeting danger. My duty on board was to wheel coal and look after the fires.
On Friday I was on the middle watch, 12 to 4 o'clock. I had just pulled up the plate for the fireman and was about to go up to have a 'blow' and to get fresh air, and bring along a can of tea, when I heard a thud. Then the ship gave a shake. With so much talk of submarines, I thought that we had been hit. I heard no explosion, but I ran to the deck and got to my boat station. There were a lot of people on deck, and they were running in all directions. There was no great panic, although there was a crush. The officers were giving orders and encouraging the people to keep cool, and women were shouting the names of their children and their husbands.
A little girl of about nine years of age asked me to save her. I put her into my boat and then the boat was lowered. Then I jumped into the water and after two or three minutes I was taken in by the men in the boat I had helped to lower. There were 68 in the boat; sailors, firemen, trimmers, greasers, and passengers - including women and children. There was one old woman of about 63 years of age and she was ill, but nobody in our boat died that I saw. We were pulling about for two hours, and saw 20 or 30 dead bodies with lifebelts on. We made for the Old Head of Kinsale and were taken up by a trawler.
I saw some deeds of heroism. I didn't know the names until I saw them in the papers. I saw young Jack Roper, an A.B., go back to the vessel in his boat and pick up survivors. He is the lad who saved the captain. I did not see Captain Turner myself, but I believe he was one of the last survivors picked up.
The balance of wages owing to Trimmer McStay, paid up to and including 8th May, 24 hours after the sinking, was eventually given to him at Liverpool on 19th October 1915.
Although a list of crew survivors published by The Cunard Steam Ship Company in March 1915 shows his rank as that of fireman, it is clearly shown to be that of trimmer in a contemporary
Particulars of Engagement book, filled in when he engaged. This is verified by his own description of his job, in the above newspaper extract.
After surviving the sinking of the Lusitania, he thought it might be safer if he joined his friends in the Army and as 4758 Private J. McStay, served with The South Lancashire Regiment for the rest of the war. It proved to be
“the biggest mistake I ever made", however, and he later described it as "like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire". Every time he came home on leave, he always over-stayed and the Military Police had to come round to the house to take him back! He was horrified by what he had seen in the trenches and for the rest of his life he refused to talk about it.
On 27th January 1917, he married Ann Sinnot, (née Kinsella), at St. Pauls Church, Widnes. She was the widow of Thomas Sinnot who already had four children, Frederick, Alice, James and John. Together, they would have four more, Joseph, Jane, John and Jean.
In the early 1920s, he received £90 compensation from The Cunard Steamship Company in respect of the
Lusitania's sinking, which was a considerable sum in those days.
On his return to Widnes after the Great War, he managed to obtain employment with The Birmingham Corrugated Iron Company and remained with this firm for the rest of his life. In the depression of the 1930s, however, this often meant part-time working and whilst considering himself lucky to have any job at all, he did not waste his spare time in idleness like many of the unemployed and laid-off! Instead, he spent all his free time in the reading room of the local library and educated himself through this medium. He was always a great lover of books and habitually gave them as presents to his children at Christmas.
He was also a great animal lover and was always bringing home 'strays', which he would clean and feed until their owners discovered where they were and gratefully came to collect them. No-one thought it strange at the time that they always knew where to go to retrieve them!
In 1935, whilst looking through Time magazine in the library, he saw a photograph of a lady and her family on holiday in America and he was certain that he recognised her. On his return home, he told his family that he had last seen her 20 years earlier as she was getting into one of the Lusitania’s lifeboats. Having written to her via the magazine, he was most surprised to receive a letter from her, written from her home in New York and she enclosed a photograph of herself wearing her life jacket. They then corresponded until 1942, when her letters stopped and John McStay concluded that she must have died.
He died from pneumonia, at the early age of 63 years, at Whiston County Hospital, Lancashire on 19th May 1951. He was buried in Widnes Cemetery.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 English Census, 1891 English Census, Cunard Records, Christopher Dignall, Jean Dignall, David Irving, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D92/1/6, UniLiv D92/11, Widnes Weekly News.