John Needham was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England on 13 August 1897, the son of Patrick and Bridget Needham. The family home in 1915 was at 24 Clare Street, Liverpool.
He engaged as a trimmer in the Engineering Department on board the Lusitania on the morning of 17 April 1915 at Liverpool Pier Head, just before she left the River Mersey for the last time, on the first stage of her return voyage to New York. As a trimmer his monthly wage was £6-0s-0d. It was the first time that he had ever been to sea.
Having completed the liner’s crossing to New York without mishap, Trimmer Needham was trimming coal on board the ship on the early afternoon of 1 May, as the
Lusitania left New York on the start of her return voyage to Liverpool. Six days out of that port, on the afternoon of 7 May, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, within sight of the coast of southern Ireland. At that time she was only about 14 hours steaming time away from the safety of her home port. Needham lost his life as a result of this action. He was only 17 years of age, although he gave his age on engagement as 22.
His body was not recovered and identified afterwards, so he is commemorated on the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London. He is also commemorated on the City of Liverpool Roll of Honour in the basement of the Town Hall in Liverpool.
As it was necessary to bury all the recovered bodies as soon as was practicable, for hygienic reasons in the heat of early May, they were all photographed in the temporary mortuaries in Queenstown before being buried. Anxious relatives of those missing were then invited to identify their loved ones through these photographs. This was difficult in certain cases because of injuries they had received as a consequence of the sinking or because they had been in the water for a long time.
The photographs were posted in St George's Hall in Liverpool and John Needham’s mother must have gone to view them, as she later wrote to Cunard positively identifying body number 106 as that of her son. To fortify her opinion, she sent Cunard a brief description of him, which stated:
"Age 18, hair black, complexion sallow. Large brown mole on middle of left hand. Nearly 6 ft. tall. Probably wearing his father’s Naval Reserve singlet and navy blue trousers."
Despite Bridget Needham’s certainty, body number 106 was in fact, that of second cabin passenger Archibald Parsons.
In August 1915 Bridget Needham was paid the balance of wages owed to her son, in respect of his service on the
Lusitania’s last voyage, which was reckoned to be from 17 April to 8 May, 24 hours after the vessel had gone down.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, Denise Deighton, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D92/1/6-2, PRO BT 334.