People's Stories

Everyone on the Lusitania's last voyage, including passengers and crew.

Charles Warren Bowring

Charles Warren Bowring

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren Bowring was born in St. John, Newfoundland, Canada, on the 7th March 1871, the son of Charles Rennie and Laura Ann Bowring (née Warren).  He was a nephew of Sir William Bowring and a cousin of Mr. A.J. Willmer, T.C., J.P., the proprietor of The Birkenhead News and Advertiser.  He was a director of C.T. Bowring and Co., steamship owners of The Red Cross Line, and petroleum importers of Liverpool, and Bowring and Co., of New York, in the United States of America.  The Red Cross Line ships plied between New York and St. John’s, Newfoundland.

In 1897, he had taken over the company business in New York City, and in 1901, he married Amy B. Bonner and the couple originally resided at 160 East 74th Street in New York City.  The couple had five children – Charles M., Amy, Edward B., Douglas B., and Millicent B. Bowring.

In the spring of 1915, he booked passage to Liverpool as a saloon passenger on the Lusitania, at the offices of The Booth Line.  After boarding the liner, at Pier 54, on the morning of 1st May 1915, (his ticket was numbered 46153), he was allocated room B50, which was under the personal supervision of First Class Waiter John Roach who came from Liverpool and was acting as a first class bedroom steward on what became the ship’s final voyage.  He gave his contact address when booking his passage as being 17, Battery Place, New York City, which was also the main office of The Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool.

Charles Bowring then had to wait until the early afternoon before the liner actually sailed, 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 port just after mid-day and just six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May; she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20.  At that point, she was off The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland and only 250 miles hours away from her Liverpool home port destination. 

Charles Bowring survived the sinking, however; despite an immersion in the sea; and twelve years afterwards he gave an account of his experiences to author Lowell Thomas, who later recounted his interview in his book Raiders of the Deep, published in 1928.  It stated: -

Last winter, at a Whitehall Club luncheon I was introduced to C.W. Bowring, a tall, fine-looking, white haired, broad-shouldered shipping man.  Afterwards I learned that he was one of the Lusitania survivors.  So I called on him, thinking that he might be just the man to give me a coherent account.

From a drawer he took a yellow strip of newspaper backed on cardboard to preserve it.  It was the famous Von Bernstorff advertisement that had appeared in all the New York morning newspapers on May 1, 1915, the day the Lusitania was announced to sail.  It had been inserted near the Cunard Line advertisement.

"When I was rescued, of course I was wringing wet," said Mr. Bowring. "But I put my hands in my pockets to see what might still be there. This water-soaked ad from the New York Times was all that I found.   It is my one souvenir from the Lusitania."  Then he told me the tale.

"Along about noon on May 7th, as we were skirting the Irish coast, I went up on the hurricane deck to get a bit of exercise, and the purser and I were tossing a medicine ball.  Standing alongside me, playing ball with some one else, was Elbert Hubbard.  That was the last I saw of him.

We went down to lunch rather late and were sitting at the table when the explosion came.  Shattered glass from the porthole windows splattered all around us.  I got up and hurried on deck.  The purser rushed off to his office.  That was the last that I saw of him.”

This was probably Purser James Alexander McCubbin from Bootle, near Liverpool, who perished in the sinking.

“When I got on deck the passengers were milling around, running in all directions, but there was no panic, no screaming.  The ship had already started to list to starboard and the crew were trying to lower the boats.  One boat got halfway down.  But one end gave way and dumped all her crowd of passengers into the sea.  A second boat got down part way, then something happened to the ropes.  Down it fell, right on top of the first crowd-smashing them, of course.”

These lifeboats were almost certainly Lifeboats 17 and 19 respectively.

“Seeing the way things were going, and that not many had on life preservers, I decided to go after mine.  As I went down the companionway I passed Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  He was sitting calmly on a sofa-just sitting, thinking, not a bit excited.  That was the last I ever saw of him.”

American millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt went down with the vessel and although later seen in the sea by crew member First Electrician George Hutchinson, he did not survive, nor was his body ever recovered and identified later.

“I carried seven life belts back on deck and passed them around.  Nearby stood a gentleman and his daughter who also had been at the purser's table.  She had none, so I fastened a belt about her.  It saved her life.  Then I tried to get over to the port side of the ship.  But by then the list was so great that I couldn't make it and slid back. The liner was going over fast.  I saw how hopeless it was to attempt to get away in a boat.  So I waited until the deck rail was within eight feet or so of the water. Then I jumped.

I had always been keen about sports and was a fair swimmer.  But never before had I tried swimming with my clothes on.  I struck out, but kept glancing back, keeping one eye on the ship.  In another moment or two she would be flat on her side, and I saw that unless I made more speed I would be crushed by one of the huge stacks.  A few moments after that it looked as if I might get hit by the main mast.  So I slowed up a bit and it fell right in front of me.  Clambering over it, I headed for an empty lifeboat.  Before I reached it I saw the nose of the Lusitania disappear.  Her stern rose high in the air.  She seemed to poise there for a moment and then, with a lunge, she vanished.  Instead of causing a vortex and sucking us down, as I had always heard would happen, the sea seemed to hump up like a big hill. Then, as it flattened out, I was carried farther away.

One of the ship's officers clambered into the lifeboat with me.  She was half full of water, and we tried to bale her out with our hands.  Then we spent the next few hours diving in and out of the water, rescuing as many as we could.  Most of the people we got hold of were already dead, but we got some twenty safely into the boat.  Later, we were picked up by a trawler.

From her deck we beheld a strange sight that is still a mystery to me.  It was of a young woman sitting in a wicker chair, serenely riding the waves.  There she sat as though it was always done that way.  When we pulled over to her she was stone cold unconscious.  We brought her to, finally.  But she seemed to have no recollection of what had happened.  Chair and all, she simply had been lifted off one of the decks by the rushing water when the ship went down.  To-day she is one of the best-known women in the British Empire-Lady Rhondda, who since the war has gained international fame managing her father's vast coal-mining interests.”

Charles Bowring’s recollections of this part of his experience are not entirely accurate.  Lady Rhondda, - then Lady Margaret Mackworth, (she did not inherit the title until 1918), was floating in the sea for some time and after she became unconscious, the wicker chair had fortuitously surfaced underneath her.  She was eventually taken from the sea, still unconscious, by a lifeboat from which she was later transferred to the steam fishing craft Bluebell.  It is likely that Bowring’s lifeboat was the one that plucked her out of the sea before it was found by the Bluebell, otherwise, the businessman could not have seen her in the wicker chair floating in the sea!

Although many of the survivors testified that the Lusitania had been hit by two torpedoes, Mr. Bowring agrees with the U-boat commander that there was only one.  In less than twenty minutes after the torpedo shattered her hull the Lusitania had vanished beneath the surface of the ocean along with 1,152 of her passengers and crew.  And there she lies to this day, off Old Head of Kinsale, on the southern coast of Ireland, in 250 feet of water.

“When I got on deck the passengers were milling round, running in all directions but there was no panic, no screaming.  The ship had already started to list to starboard and the crew was trying to lower the boats.”

Charles Bowring was eventually landed at Queenstown by the Bluebell, along with the other survivors, at about 9.30 p.m., from where he was found accommodation overnight in one of the local hotels.

The following day, he met up with people he knew from Merseyside, including fellow saloon survivor Miss Irene Paynter, who had lost her father Charles Paynter in the sinking.  As stated in The Birkenhead News and Advertiser for Wednesday 12th May 1915: -

Despite the shock and suffering, Miss Paynter soon devoted herself with the aid of Mr. Charles W. Bowring ..... to making inquiries about her missing friends and to sending messages of reassurance as were available.

Charles Bowring eventually got safely back to Liverpool, as did Irene Paynter.  For a time, he resided at Chiselhurst, Aigburth Drive, Liverpool.

Charles Bowring continued to pursue his business interests for many years after surviving the sinking of the Lusitania, making many more trans-Atlantic crossings.  His address for most of his life was at 66. East 91st Street, New York City.

Charles Bowring died as a result of a heart attack in New York City on the 1st November 1940, aged 69 years.  His funeral service was held at St. George’s Church, Stuyvescent Square, Manhattan, New York City, and he was buried in Moravian Cemetery, Staten Island, New York.  He left an estate in England of £14,543-19s.-1d. (£14,543.95½p) which he left to his widow and his three sons.

1891 Census of England & Wales, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, 1915 New York State Census, 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, New York Death Index 1862 – 1948, Birkenhead News, Cunard Records, Liverpool Football Echo, Raiders of the Deep, This Was My World, UniLiv D92/2/354, Probate Records, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly

Charles Warren Bowring



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