Irma Florine Rothschild was born in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States of America on the 12th September 1883, the daughter, and the second youngest of five children, of Max M. and Rose Rothschild (née Fuller) of Chicago. She was related to the wealthy Rothschild family, but it is not known how closely.
In 1893, her father died, leaving her mother to raise the family of five children. It would appear that the family was quite wealthy and the children were educated at the best schools. In 1895, Irma’s mother took the entire family, complete with servants, to England, not only for a holiday, but also to further their education.
In 1908, Irma accompanied her mother on a visit to England, and while in London she met George Walter Bartlett. The couple married in London in 1909. They had no children and their home was at 137, Bedford Court Mansions, Bedford Square, London, W.C., England. Sometime following their marriage, George Bartlett changed the family name to Bowers-Bartlett. The reasons for this are unknown.
In December 1914, the couple left London for Florida to winter in the United States of America and began their return home in the spring of 1915, stopping in Chicago en route, to visit her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Austrian. Her brother-in-law was a well known Chicago attorney, with the firm Mayer, Meyer, Austrian and Platt. Whilst in Chicago, the Bowers-Bartlett’s stayed at The Blackstone Hotel.
For their return to London, George Bowers-Bartlett booked saloon passage on the May sailing of the
Lusitania which was scheduled to leave New York on the morning of 1st May 1915 and having travelled to that city, they stayed at the St. Regis Hotel, before joining the liner at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York port, on the morning of that day.
Once they had boarded, (with ticket number 46104), they were escorted to room D27, which was supervised by First Class Bedroom Steward William McLeod, who came from Birkenhead in Cheshire, across the River Mersey from Liverpool. McLeod was actually a Chief Bedroom Steward, but on what was to become the liner’s final ever voyage, he was serving as an ordinary bedroom steward’s capacity.
The liner’s sailing was then delayed until the early afternoon of 1st of May to give her time to embark passengers, some crew and cargo from the Anchor Lines vessel
Cameronia, which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for service as a troop ship at the end of April. Then, six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May, the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, by the German submarine U-20, whilst only hours away from her home port of Liverpool and only twelve miles off the southern coast of Ireland. Both Mrs. Bowers-Bartlett and her husband George survived the sinking, perhaps because, as saloon passengers, they were closer to the lifeboats on the boat deck, than many other passengers. Having jumped into the sea before the liner went down, they were both eventually rescued and landed at Queenstown, from where, in due course, they made it back to their home in London.
Once there, her husband wrote a letter detailing their experiences to his niece Mrs. A. Youngs of White Farm, Winburgh, near Dereham Green, Norfolk. She then sent it to local newspaper
The Norwich Mercury, and they published it in their edition of 15th May 1915. It stated: -
Irma and I certainly had a ‘close call’. We were in our state room at the time, as we had just finished our lunch. I was smoking and reading a book, and Irma was knitting, when we heard a terrible crash and people shouting and running.
We at once ran into the passage to go up on deck. A great crowd of other passengers were also making for the decks. We finally arrived at the top deck, and after having life-belts put on us, we waited for about five minutes, as we thought the boat would not sink altogether, when all of a sudden, she heaved over practically on her side. We then determined to make for a boat, as we felt sure she would sink.
Well, Irma was awfully brave, and absolutely refused to go without I went with her. This boat in particular, (for which we had made) had only a few people in her, as other people seemed to be on the other decks. Well, eventually, we both jumped into the boat, and at that moment, a lot of people appeared from somewhere and also jumped in the boat. It was quite useless, as the boat was jammed amongst the blocks and ropes, owing to the Lusitania being practically on her side.
I immediately saw that we were in a very bad position, so Irma and I decided quickly to jump into the sea, clear of the boat, if possible. We jumped and at that moment the ship slowly turned right over and sank, carrying Irma and me down with her. The life-belt brought me to the surface and I looked for Irma. A second later she bobbed up right alongside me. It was absolutely wonderful, as all the other people in the boat that we jumped out of must have been drowned, with the exception of two or three.
Irma and I floated about for a few moments, caught hold of an oar that floated near us, held on to that for some time, and were eventually picked up by a boat. Irma refused to go into the boat without they consented to take me. We had some trouble getting into the boat, but eventually we were both pulled in.
After some hours of frightful experiences, hearing and seeing awful things, we arrived at a fishing smack, which we boarded, and for the first time, felt that we were at least safe.
We arrived at Queenstown at 10 p.m., drank some raw whiskey and went to bed. We have not felt any the worse for our terrible experience. Irma is the pluckiest girl breathing, as never once was she frightened or excited. If she had been, we certainly should have both drowned.
Bedroom Steward McLeod, who had looked after Mr. and Mrs. Bowers-Bartlett in room D27, was not so fortunate, however and perished in the sinking.
Cunard records record the surname of the pair as simply Bartlett, but contemporary newspaper accounts and a record of saloon class passengers known to have been on board the liner’s last voyage and now preserved in the archives of the Public Record office in Richmond, Surrey, England, names the couple as Mr. and Mrs. Bowers-Bartlett.
Irma Bowers-Bartlett and her husband continued to travel by liner across the oceans of the world for many years after surviving the sinking of the
Lusitania. Her husband, George, died in London, England, on the 19th May 1937, aged 65 years. Following his death, Irma divided her time between her home in England and visiting her family in the United States of America. She died in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on the 21st August 1949, aged 67 years.
1900 U.S. Federal Census, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Nyle Monday, New York Times, Norwich Mercury, PRO 22/71, Dick Rayner, San Francisco Chronicle, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly