Crissy Nicol Marshall Lizzie Stark Aitken, always known as ‘Chrissie’, was born in Davidson’s Main, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland on the 13th September 1898, the daughter of James and Jessie Dawson Aitken (née Jarvie). Her mother died in 1908, and up until 1912, she lived with her widowed father in Walkerburn, Edinburgh, but then, the two left Scotland for Merritt, British Columbia, Canada, to live with Chrissie’s brother Jarvie and his wife. They departed from Glasgow on the
Grampian, and arrived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on the 5th October 1912.
In February 1914, Jarvie Aitken’s wife had died and as Chrissie’s father had developed a heart condition, the family decided to return to Scotland, to Davidson’s Mains, Edinburgh, the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Marshall, Chrissie’s maternal aunt and uncle. Also in the party was Chrissie’s young nephew, also called Jarvie, born after their arrival in Canada.
As a consequence, they all booked second cabin passage from New York to Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland on the Anchor Lines vessel
Cameronia and travelled to New York for her sailing. However, the Admiralty requisitioned this steamer for war use as a troop ship at the end of April 1915 and the family was transferred instead to the much more luxurious
Lusitania. They all joined her at her berth, at Pier 54, in time for her sailing, just after mid-day on 1st May 1915.
Despite having booked as a second cabin passenger, Crissy Aitken was accommodated in a saloon, or first class, cabin on “E” Deck, as were a number of other women. This was probably due to the fact that there were far more second cabin passengers than saloon class passengers on board, and those upgraded were not charged anything extra. Crissy also became very friendly with another Scottish woman on the voyage – Martha Horsburgh.
What must have seemed to be a stroke of good fortune turned into a tragedy just six days later, following the liner’s torpedoing and sinking by the German submarine
U-20. The family party was all but wiped out after three of them were killed, only Chrissie Aitken from the four of them surviving. Martha Horsburgh also lost her life.
Having been rescued and landed at Queenstown, Chrissie Aitken toured the temporary mortuaries in on the town, looking for the bodies of her family. In one of them, she was able to identify the body of her father which was later buried in one of the mass graves in the cemetery outside the town. The bodies of the other two were never found and identified. On Sunday, 9th May, she left Queenstown and arrived at Davidson’s Mains the following day.
On Friday, 4th June 1915, a lengthy letter she sent to her brothers, William and Jack, who were still living in Merritt, was published in
The Nicola Valley News. She described what happened to her in the course of her ordeal, and asked her brothers to share the letter with the local newspapers so that her friends would know that she had survived. In the course of her letter she stated: -
...Poor father there is no fear about him, as I identified his body before I left Queenstown but Jarvie and Jarrie I don’t know. I fear they have had a similar fate, for as far as I know none of them had life belts. It happened about lunch time. The girl who slept above me was waiting outside on me so I hurried my lunch, leaving the three sitting at theirs. We (the girl and I) went to our cabins (sic.) and were just going to pack our grips to put them on deck as they were expecting to get in that night. We were standing laughing at something when the crash came. Instinct seemed to tell us what it was. The boat gave a decided list to the right, and as best we could we made for the deck. Being in the first class, (this happened as the 2nd was all filled) we had to pass some boilers, smoke, steam, and soot were gushing here and we had to run through them.
When we got on deck, everybody was making for the stairs, for the next deck, for, by this time, the first deck was enveloped in water. The crush was awful. I must say, I kept very calm. This girl friend who was with me got very excited, and in trying to calm her I forgot my own excitement. We managed to get on deck and made for the lifeboats. I then remembered I had no life belt, and turning back I went to the saloon to get one for my girl friend and one for myself. On reaching the saloon a steward turned me back and told me to go to my own cabin if I wanted a life belt. When I returned from the saloon my girl friend had disappeared. I could not see her in any of the boats so I don’t know where she could have gone.
The identity of this ‘girl friend’ is most likely Martha Horsburgh.
She continued by describing how she was given a life belt by a young, anonymous, crew member: -
I was standing wondering, when a little fellow, one of the crew came up to me and took off his own life belt and fixed it around me. How I wish now I had got his name and address, but thank God I noticed him in the crowd at Queenstown, so I know he was saved. His self-sacrificing bravery, I am sure, saved me from a watery grave.
At the saddest times you can’t help laughing; I did this and a steward turned round and said: “Thank God there’s one smiling face”.
Something had gone wrong with a life boat and men were pulling a rope to bring it nearer the ship. It was hard work, and I grabbed the rope to help. I was doing this when someone pulled me by the shoulder and told me to get into a life boat. There was about four feet to jump, and this I did. When the boat was full it was lowered. By this time the Lusitania was nearly under water. The little boat I was in having been lowered the men were doing there (sic.) best to push away, but it seemed the fast sinking Lusitania was drawing us under. Hearing the remark of a steward that our boat was being swamped, I immediately jumped out. As I left the life boat the big boat sank; and I was carried down and down. It seemed ages before I came up. My belt brought me up, but I was severely knocked about among wreckage.
When I got my head above the water the Lusitania was no where (sic.) to be seen. Seagulls in hundreds were hovering around, but nothing but a few life boats and wreckage was to be seen. I heard someone close by say “there’s a woman,” and I saw three men on an upturned boat. They tried to get me, and I tried to get to them. Eventually the managed to pull me on to the boat, and we sat huddled together to keep each other warm, till (sic.) another boat came along. After a while another came along we got in and the half dozen of us sailed along, picking people up till we had forty in our boat. I was next afraid maybe we would capsize with so many but we didn’t. It was a sight I’ll never forget, passing people who are crying for help, and not able to help or save them. We were in this boat for a long while till we were picked up by a minesweeper.
Chrissie was in a lifeboat for about three hours before being transferred onto a minesweeper and subsequently landed at Queenstown. She was taken to a hotel, given a change of clothes, and identified her father’s remains, before travelling by train to Dublin, then by mail boat across the Irish Sea to Holyhead, and thereafter by train to Davidson’s Mains, where numerous press reporters called on her over the following days.
In 1991, aged 93 years, she gave an account of her survival which was published in
The Sunday Express in the edition of 10th February. She again described what happened to her in the course of her ordeal, but there were a few discrepancies between her account in 1991 and her account of 1915, which is hardly surprising given the passage of so many years: -
Most of the passengers were happily chatting over lunch when the first torpedo struck. I had gone downstairs with the young Irish girl who shared my cabin, for an afternoon nap after saying goodbye to my family for what was to be the last time.
When we got to the cabin, I heard a loud bang that sounded to my unpractised ears like a door being closed. But the Irish girl realised immediately that something was wrong and began to run along the corridor and I followed.
When we arrived on the boat deck the ship had begun to list badly. The lifeboats were hanging awry in their davits. A crewman saw that I did not have a lifejacket and tried to fit me with one, but his hands were cold and wet and as I waited, I saw the first two lifeboats being lowered. They turned upside down as they hit the water, spilling people into the sea.
When she saw a third boat being launched, she was determined not to suffer the same fate as the passengers in the others and despite the fact that she could not swim, she trusted in her lifebelt and jumped into the sea, hoping to be picked up by the lifeboat, should it be successfully launched. She continued with her story: -
My lifejacket kept me afloat. Then to my horror, I saw I was being dragged towards the hole the torpedo had blasted into the hull. I tried to stop myself but the current pulled me inside.
I started to spin in the water, then I was sucked underneath. I was so sure I was going to die that I just shut my eyes and accepted death. Then I must have blacked out.
When I came round I was being pulled aboard an upturned lifeboat by two men who had seen my plight. Then we were all taken on board a passing minesweeper and brought into port in Queenstown.
Eventually, on the morning of 10th May, the day of her father’s funeral, she arrived at ‘Ivy Lea’, Davidson's Mains, Edinburgh, the home of her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. W.M. Marshall.
The Sunday Express continued her story after her return: -
When I was orphaned by the sinking, a doctor advised me to go out and find myself a job and work the grief off me. Within weeks of my return to Edinburgh, I found a job in my local post office and began to rebuild my life.
It was not that I did not think, of my loved ones. I still think of them often, but I don’t dwell on it. It is in the past and well forgotten.
She was paid the sum of £0-10-0d., (£0.50p.), per week for her post office work.
In the summer of 1915, she applied for financial assistance to The Lusitania Relief Fund, which had been set up after the disaster by The Lord Mayor of Liverpool and other worthy dignitaries, to help those survivors and relatives of the dead, who found themselves in difficulties as a result of the sinking. The committee administering the fund awarded her the sum of £5-0s-0d., and later sent her a Christmas gift of a further £2-0s-0d.
In 1920, Chrissie returned to Canada, stating her occupation as a saleswoman, but eventually found employment as a telephone clerk with T. Eaton & Co., Toronto, Ontario. While working in Toronto, she resided at 190. Yonge Street, in the city. She returned to Scotland for a visit in 1926, staying for a number of months.
She eventually returned permanently to Edinburgh and married George Scott Barnett on the 29th October 1932. George died in St. Andrew’s, Edinburgh in 1980 while Chrissie died in Newington, Edinburgh on the 20th October 1992, aged 94 years.
1901 Census of Scotland, 1921 Census of Canada, Cunard Records, Canadian Passenger Lists 1865 – 1935, UK Incoming Passenger Lists 1878 – 1960, Chris Doncaster, The Nicola Valley News, Edinburgh Evening News, Liverpool Record Office, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, PRO BT 100/345, Sunday Express, Surrey Comet, UniLiv D92/2/2, UniLiv D92/2/11, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly