People's Stories

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

About William Henry Helm

William Henry Helm Brown was born in Old Machar, an area north of the city of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on the 29th April 1881, the second born son of Alexander Wilson and Margaret “Maggie” Brown (née McDonald).  His father was described as a master draper, who owned his own successful business.

In 1886, his parents immigrated to the United States of America with their entire family, four sons named – James Henry, William Henry Helm, Alexander Munro, and Gerald Graham, settling in New York State, first in Syracuse, then Buffalo, and finally Auburn.  Between 1889 and 1892, three more sons were welcomed into the family – Duncan McDonald, Douglas Morrice, and Colin Campbell.  Alexander Brown became a naturalized U.S. Citizen in 1892, and thus the entire family enjoyed U.S. citizenship.

On completion of his education, William became a dealer in bicycles, and then a machinery salesman, before he founded the William H.H. Brown Company, who were representatives for the Continental Rubber Company of Erie, New York.

On the 23rd April 1910, William married Winnifred Dora Houghton at the Grace Episcopal Church in Buffalo, and they set up their family home at 689. West Delaware Street, Buffalo.  Their marriage was blessed by the birth of two sons, Angus McLean born in 1911, and William Henry Helm Jr., born in 1914.

On the evening of the 28th April 1915, William Brown celebrated his 34th birthday with his family and a number of friends.  Among them were two brothers – Fred and Norriss Perry, two Englishmen working in the motor trade.  Both had originally been employed by Messrs. D. Napier and Sons, Motor Manufacturers of New Burlington Street, London and Acton Vale, but Norriss had recently taken up a position as European representative for the Commercial Vehicles Section of Pierce-Arrow Automobiles, of Buffalo, New York.  The two brothers were booked on the 1st May sailing of the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool, although Norriss was booked to return permanently to Buffalo on the Lusitania’s sailing from Liverpool, scheduled on the 15th May.  Therefore he was only planning to stay in England for approximately one week, presumably to wind up his affairs in England.

Perhaps as a birthday gift, or maybe to take a short holiday, William decided to accompany the Perry brothers on their voyage to England, and consequently booked return passage to Liverpool with J.W. Klauk and Co., of Buffalo.

Consequently having left Buffalo early on that morning, the three men arrived at the liner’s berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour and William boarded her with ticket number 1349.  He was then escorted to his saloon class accommodation, which was room D34, in the charge of First Class Bedroom Steward William Barnes, who came from Wallasey on the opposite side of the River Mersey from Liverpool.  Norriss Perry occupied room D38, while Fred Perry occupied room D28.  All three staterooms were in close proximity to one another.

The liner’s sailing was delayed until the early afternoon, as she had to embark passengers, cargo and some crew from the Anchor Liner Cameronia which had been requisitioned for war service by the British Admiralty, but just before 12.30 p.m., she slipped her moorings and sailed into the North River on the first part of what would be her last journey.

Six days later, as she was steaming past The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20.  At that time, she was only about 250 miles from her Liverpool destination.

Initially it was reported in a local New York newspaper, the Auburn Citizen that he was safe as detailed in this report: -

Mr. & Mrs. A. W. Brown of Elizabeth Street, were made happy this morning when they received a telephone from their daughter-in-law in Buffalo saying that she had received a cablegram from her husband, William H. Brown, who was a passenger on the ill fated Cunard liner Lusitania, saying that he was safe and sound in Queenstown.

Ever since the news of the disaster reached here, Mr. & Mrs. Brown and their son Colin, a brother of William had been much distressed for fear that he might have been one of those among the missing.  The mother was especially affected and all night sat awaiting some news which would at least end the suspense, but not until about 7 o’clock this morning was her vigil rewarded.

Was Well Known Here

Although Mr. Brown was never a resident of this city, he was well known here, having spent much time with his parents, and his many friends will be pleased to know that he is safe.

Brown, who was a well known athlete, had a premonition before he sailed that the boat would meet with some disaster, as is shown by the fcat that he told his wife.

The Voyager’s Dream

“If the Lusitania sinks you can picture me bobbing up and down on top of the waves.  My dream tells me the ship will meet disaster, but I am sure I will be saved should the vessel be sunk.”

His parting words instilled great confidence in Mrs. Brown, and she felt no fear for his safety, despite the disaster.

“My husband’s dreams always come true,” she said last night.  “Of course, I am anxious about him, but am just as sure he is alive and well as if he were at my side this moment.  I felt no uneasiness when Mr. Brown sailed, notwithstanding his words of foreboding.  When the news of the wreck first came I was shocked, but soon recovered.  I know his dream has come true in every way.” …

Unfortunately, this fist report proved to be incorrect and it transpired that William Brown had been killed as a result of the sinking, but unlike many of his fellow passengers, his body was recovered from the sea and landed at Queenstown, where it was taken to one of the temporary mortuaries and given the reference number 117.

Once his body had been positively identified, it was despatched to The American Express Company in Liverpool which was to arrange for its return to his family.  It is not known when this took place.

A report on a later date in the Auburn Citizen stated: -

After some hours of rejoicing over the safety of their son, William H. H. Brown, who was a passenger on the ill fated Lusitania, and from whom a cablegram was received by his wife in Buffalo saying that he was all right at Queenstown.  Mr. & Mrs. A. W. Brown of Elizabeth Street, were horrified on Saturday evening shortly after 11 o’clock to a (sic.) receive a telephone message from their daughter-in-law in Buffalo saying that she had just received a cablegram from Mr. Fred J. Perry of Buffalo, who was a companion of Brown’s on the trip, saying that his body had been recovered and identified and would be shipped at once.

The news of his death could scarcely be believed when it came and the mother and father were nearly prostrated by the shock.

“It can’t be so,” sobbed the mother, “for he sent a cable message when he reached Queenstown.  There must be some mistake,”

First Message Explained

Means were quickly taken to verify the report and this was done through Mr. Perry and the American consul at Queenstown, who explained that when a few hours out of Queenstown, a number of passengers on the ship among whom was Brown, send messages by wireless to the land and had them cabled to their relatives in America.  It was said that this was done as they knew that the rush would be great when the boat landed and they did not want to keep their friends on this side in suspense longer than was necessary.  The cablegram received by Mrs. Brown in Buffalo and telephoned on to the parents in this city on Friday evening read: “Am safe in Queenstown.  Will write.  Let parents know.”

It was thought that all danger had passed and that all was as safe as if in Queenstown harbor (sic.), when the explosion occurred, about an hour and a half after the messages had been sent to land, too late to hold them back at the cable office where they had been transmitted at once. …

William’s body was probably identified by his travelling companion, Fred Perry, who was searching for his brother, Norriss.  Tragically, Norriss’ body was recovered from the sea off the coast of Castletownsend, approximately 30 miles west of where the Lusitania sank on Sunday, the 9th May, and transported to Queenstown where it was given the reference number 161.  His remains were identified by his brother, Fred, and another brother, Harry, who had travelled from London to Queenstown to help in the search for Norriss..

Property recovered from William’s body, which probably aided its identification, was handed to the United States Vice Consul at Queenstown, Lewis C. Thomson, presumably to be sent on to his wife in Buffalo.  After the tragic news reached her, she related the story that the night before the sailing, her husband had dreamed that the Lusitania would be torpedoed and he would be killed as a result! 

Bedroom Steward Barnes, who had looked after William Brown in room D34 survived the sinking, however and eventually made it back to his Wallasey home.

In October 1917, his widow married Elmer S. Keay, a secretary and treasurer of a wholesale coal company in New York, and she gave birth to a daughter in September 1918.

On 21st February 1924, the Mixed Claims Commission decided on claims filed by William Brown’s widow and children.  Winnifred Houghton Brown Keay was awarded the sum of $10,000.00, and each of the couples two children were awarded $15,000.00 each in respect of compensation for the loss of William Brown.

Cunard records published in March 1916, state that William H.H. Brown was a British subject, but whereas he had been born in Scotland, at the time of his death he was a U.S. citizen.

Scotland Select Births and Baptisms 1564 – 1950, 1892 New York State Census, 1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1905 New York State Census, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, 1915 New York State Census, New York State Marriage Index 1881 – 1967, Cunard Records, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1915, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 279, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Auburn Citizen, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, Graham Maddocks, Stuart Williamson, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly.

William Henry Helm Brown



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