Oliver Percy Bernard was born in Camberwell, London, England, on the 8th April 1881, the son of Charles and Annie Bernard (née Alleyn). His father was an actor, vocalist, and theatre manager, while his mother was an actress. Although living together as husband and wife from at least 1881, they didn’t marry until 1887 in Stratford-upon-Avon. Oliver’s father had previously been married, and it seems likely he deserted his first wife in favour of Annie, who was thirty years his junior, and either their marriage in 1887 was bigamous, or else Charles’ first wife had died by then.
Oliver experienced an unhappy childhood, his mother not wanting to take on the responsibility of a child, and he was handed over to an aunt in the Waterloo area of London, who raised him through childhood. In 1894, his father died, and a family in Manchester offered to adopt or foster him. Oliver found a job in a Manchester theatre as a stage hand, property boy, and as a paint room assistant; however, his wages were very poor, and not enough for him to exist on. He educated himself by reading the works of philosophers, artists, and designers, and eventually decided to leave Manchester to seek his fortune.
He went to sea for a while, serving as a cabin boy on at least one Norwegian vessel, and made a number of trans-Atlantic crossings before settling in London and took up an apprenticeship as a scene designer and painter under Walter Hann, a scenic artist of great repute.
In 1905, he went to New York City, in the United States of America, where he was engaged as a scene designer by Klaw & Erlanger, a theatrical production duo, who at that time had a virtual monopoly of the ‘vaudeville’ scene in New York City. After a number of years working in New York City, Oliver returned to London.
In 1911, in Chorlton, Lancashire, he married Muriel Theresa Lightfoot, who was a singer and actress. He was the resident scenic artist at the Covent Garden Theatre in London
On the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, Oliver attempted to enlist in the Army, the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Naval Air Service, but was rejected by all due to his poor hearing. Disillusioned at having been rejected for military service, and also because of his perceived conservatism of the London theatre scene, he decided to return to the United States of America in November 1914, and he became the scenic director for The Boston Opera Company, which was based at the recently opened Boston Opera House.
In the spring of 1915, the Boston Opera Company was suffering serious financial difficulties, which resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy in May 1915, and it appears likely that Oliver either lost his job or resigned his position, and he decided to return to London. He booked saloon passage (with ticket number 1299) to Liverpool on the May sailing of the
Lusitania from New York. Having left Boston at the end of April, he arrived at the liner’s berth at Pier 54 in New York port on the morning of 1st May, in time for her scheduled 10.00 a.m. sailing.
Before leaving Boston, he had been approached by the Boston millionaire, William Lindsey, who would have been well-known to Oliver for his involvement with the Boston Opera House and the Boston Opera Company, who requested that he ‘take under his wing’ his daughter, Leslie, and her husband, Stuart Mason, who had recently married and were due to sail on the
Lusitania as part of their honeymoon trip to Europe.
Once he had boarded, he was escorted to his accommodation, in room B103, which was under the personal supervision of First Class Bedroom Steward Thomas Dawes who came from Walton, a district of Liverpool. The liner’s sailing was delayed until the afternoon as she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner Cameronia, which had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty for war service as a troop ship, at the end of April.
The Lusitania finally left the port just after mid-day having had her scheduled 10.00 a.m. sailing postponed, because she had to load cargo and embark passengers and crew from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia, which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for use as a troop ship at the end of April. Then, just six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20 ten miles off the coast of southern Ireland and only hours away from her home port.
Mr. Bernard was one of just over 100 saloon passengers to survive the sinking and having been rescued form the sea and landed at Queenstown, he made it back to England, where he told his story to the press. This was then syndicated all over the world and one typical version was published in The Bradford Daily Times of Monday 10th May 1915, in which Bernard stated: -
I saw the periscope of a submarine about 200 yards away. Then I noticed a long white streak of foam. It gave me the impression of a frothy fizzing in the water.
A lady and two gentlemen came up to me and exclaimed, "Is that a torpedo?" I felt too sick to answer and turned away. I was spellbound, knowing too well that it was a torpedo. The feeling at that moment was unutterable.
When the torpedo came within a yard or two, I covered my eyes and cocked my ears, as I did not want to hear the explosion. Almost immediately there was a terrific impact, followed by the explosion. The Lusitania was going 15 knots at the time. The shot was aimed at the bow at the start, and was perfectly timed.
When the explosion occurred, I was looking forward, and the debris, dust and water shot up in an immense column through the entire superstructure of the vessel about the bridge. Hundreds must have been blown to atoms, including stokers and trimmers, to say nothing of the men and women in the forward cabins who were about to come on deck.
A few moments after the explosion the vessel toppled over as if she were in dry dock and some of the underpinning on the starboard side had been knocked away. The shock of this flung me against the starboard rail. Recovering myself I could see there was a frantic rush from the starboard entrances for the port side of the deck and from below.
Women shouted wildly, "What shall we do/". They knew too well what had happened, as the chances of being torpedoed had been discussed every day. I heard nothing else on the voyage.
In order to save myself I struggled to the port side to get a lifebelt. There was great excitement but no panic in the real sense of the word. Most of the women tried hard to keep cool, and except for occasional screams, I think they behaved most bravely. "Where is my husband?", "Where is my child?" were questions asked on all sides. I noticed that more people were going below than coming upstairs after the explosion.
The last passenger I spoke to was Mrs. Mason, a young American, who was on a honeymoon trip to England. She was the daughter of Mr. Wm. Lindsay, a well known Boston manufacturer of military equipments. Mrs. Mason rushed up to me exclaiming "Have you seen my husband?" I advised her to remain on the port deck as I was certain Mr. Mason would come up there to find her.
I reached the funnel deck and crossed over to look at the starboard side. There I came across two Marconi operators. They were sending out their ‘S.O.S.’. The explosion had disorganised the main wireless room and they were working the emergency apparatus. I asked the wireless operators how they were getting on, and at that precise moment they received an answer to their call. A moment later the apparatus was smashed.
One of the operators offered me a swivel chair to go down into the water. His colleague took out a pocket Kodak and going down on his hands and knees on the deck, which was now at an angle of about 35 degrees, took a solitary snapshot of the scenes forward. It would have been a wonderful photograph, but the film was destroyed in the water.
The two Marconi operators were telegraphist Robert Leith and his assistant David McCormick, but Mr. Bernard is mistaken about their apparatus being smashed, although Leith did eventually have to change over to an auxiliary battery driven radio set when the main power failed. It was also he who took the photograph that Bernard describes.
Oliver Bernard continued his story with: -
The increasing tilt of the vessel caused me to slide down to the rail. I managed to climb down the starboard stairway on to the boat deck, which was awash and I slid straight into the water. I floundered for a boat, which fortunately, was just in front of me, hanging down from the davits in the water, which swamped the deck. This boat itself was waterlogged, and hundreds were trying to scramble into it.
This boat was lifeboat No 11.
The funnels from the Lusitania were gradually sweeping sown on us, and we had enormous difficulty to get the boat free. I thought my hour had come. However, we succeeded in chopping through the tackle and this released the boat. Not a moment too soon, for when this had been done the great liner heaved over. One of the funnel stays caught us right in the middle of the boat. By a superhuman effort we got the line clear, one of the funnels just grazing our heads as the Lusitania went down on her starboard side. In the twinkling of an eye the monster vessel disappeared amidst appalling cries from those who were caught.
What I saw in the water I can hardly describe. It was one long, indescribable scene of agony. There was floating debris on all sides, and men, women and children clinging for dear life to deck chairs and rafts, which littered the water. There were such desperate struggles as I shall never forget. Many were entangled between chairs, rafts and upturned boats. One by one they seemed to fall off and give themselves up.
One poor wretch was struck by the oar which I was sharing with a steward. It struck him full on the head, but he seized and clung to the oar like grim death until we were able to drag him into the boat.
Next we saw a woman floating quite near us. Her face was just visible above the water and her mouth was covered with froth. She appeared to be in the throes of her death struggle. We rowed alongside and pulled her in. The boat was by now packed to its full standing capacity, but the steward and I let her slip down between us where she lay in about eighteen inches of water between my knees. And there she died. We could not help crying, but we had done all we could to save her.
I saw one terrible picture - a picture of haunting horror. A number of babies, I should say about thirty, were laid out stark and still on the floor of a temporary morgue. I never saw anything quite so ghastly and harrowing, and it filled me with an insensate desire for vengeance. I hope those tiny mites will be avenged.
I might tell you that I served before the mast in a Norwegian barque, and I want to say something about the launching of the boats. I took a great interest in the boats because I had seen a good deal of the boat drill. The crew, if I may say so without being harshly critical were somewhat indifferent in this respect. I mean that they were not up to the standard one looks for on a great liner.
I suppose the most efficient and experienced sailors are not unnaturally employed by the navy in war time. For one thing, there were not enough men. As far as I could see, one of he first boats away went without proper attention.
There was an exciting scene while of the boats were being lowered. An alien, I don't know of what nationality, tried to jump into a boat before it had been lowered to the deck level, where women and children were waiting. A seaman standing by dealt promptly with this cowardly act, and gave the man a rough time of it. I am not sure whether he was thrown into the sea, but he was certainly flung head over heels out of the boat, and if a revolver had been handy he would have been shot.
Although Oliver Bernard had survived, both Stuart and Leslie Mason, the ‘honeymoon couple’, had not, although both of their bodies were recovered.
On his return to London, Oliver Bernard stayed at The Savage Club, Adelphi, London W.C. He was persuaded to execute five pen and ink illustrations of the sinking by the editor of
The London Illustrated News which were published not long afterwards and gave a graphic companion to Bernard’s spoken account!
Having recovered from his ordeal, in 1916, Oliver was eventually commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a ‘camouflage officer’, serving in France, Belgium and Italy. He ended the war with the rank of captain, and having been awarded the Military Cross and an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire).
After the war, Oliver returned to the theatre and designed sets for the Covent Garden and Admiralty theatres among others. He was also a consultant to the Board of Overseas Trade, and designed displays for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. In 1925, he was a consultant to the British government for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, France. He was also a consultant artistic director to J. Lyons & Co. and his influence and designs can still be seen in their Oxford Street, Coventry Street, and Strand Corner Houses in London today. He also designed parts of the Strand Palace Hotel in 1929, and the Cumberland Hotel in 1932, both in London.
He also wrote a number of books and articles about design and architecture, and designed furniture and a number of industrial buildings in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
For many years, Oliver was estranged from his wife, Muriel, and in 1924 the marriage was dissolved. Shortly thereafter, he married Edith Dora Hodges in London, and the couple had five children – two daughters and three sons. Edith was an opera singer who went by the stage name of ‘Fedora Roselli’.
Oliver Bernard died suddenly at St. Thomas’ Home, Lambeth, Palace Road, London, on the 15th April 1939. The cause of his death was stated to be peritonitis. His address at the time of his death was 11. Dilke Street, Chelsea, London. Administration of his estate was granted in London on the 8th July 1939 to his widow, and Sir Owen William. He left his estate of £2,950-1s.-1d. (£2,950.5½p) to his widow; however, he also left her with substantial debts to be paid.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 Census of England & Wales, 1911 Census of England & Wales, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Bradford Daily Times, Cunard Records, London Illustrated News, PRO BT 100/345, R.M.S. Lusitania, Southern Star, UniLiv D92/2/539, Probate Records, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Stuart Williamson, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly