George William Bilbrough was born in Manningham, Bradford, Yorkshire, England on the 2nd October 1879, the son, and eldest of five children, of James William and Clara Bilbrough (née Baines). His father was a solicitor, and obviously earning a good income, as William attended a private school. In 1915, his parents resided at 26. North Parade, West Park, Leeds.
On the 26th March 1900, George arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, intending to work at farming, but became an estate agent, and later an insurance agent. He settled in Smiths Falls, Ontario, and eventually married Annie Jane Fields, who was a native of the city. He made a number of return journeys to his family, including one from April to October 1914. Then, in the spring of 1915, he had reason to make another visit home, perhaps due to the failing health of his parents.
As a consequence, he booked a ticket as a second cabin passenger on the Lusitania's
sailing from New York to Liverpool on the morning of 1st May 1915. Having left Smiths Falls at the end of April, he boarded the liner at her berth at Pier 54 in New York in time for her scheduled 10.00 a.m. departure on that day. He shared his cabin with Canadian Scot Archie Donald, fellow Briton John Wilson and one other.
He then, like the others, had to wait until just after mid-day for the liner to actually set sail from the port. This was because she had to wait to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Lines vessel the S.S.
Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service as a troop ship at the end of April.
George Bilbrough seems to have spent most of the crossing playing bridge with his cabin mates and Scots Episcopalian Minister The Reverend Herbert Gwyer and 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, within sight of the coast of southern Ireland and only 250 miles from her home port.
When the ship went down, George Bilbrough found himself in the sea but was able to get into one of the collapsible boats which were floating in the sea. He began to haul in other survivors and one of them was none other than his old friend Archie Donald and the two of them were able to raise the canvas side of the boat to make it more seaworthy. Having been eventually rescued from the sea, by the Royal Naval Trawler H.M.S.
Brock, Bilbrough was landed at Queenstown, where he, Archie Donald and John Wilson searched the hotels and private houses for shipboard acquaintances. From there, he eventually made it to his destination!
Another second cabin passenger who was killed and whose body was never recovered from the sea and identified afterwards was Richard Preston Prichard, who originally came from Ramsgate in Kent. In an attempt to learn more of his fate, the Prichard family first went to Queenstown and scoured the mortuaries there and his brother Mostyn printed and published posters seeking information about him. The Prichard family then wrote to many surviving passengers and crew members seeking information. One of these was George Bilbrough, who, in November 1915 wrote in reply to the family about his own experiences of the sinking and stated: -
Will you please accept my sincerest sympathy in your bereavement, and I am also very sorry that I did not meet your Brother on board and can not give you any information about him.
Your brother’s cabin was immediately below mine (I was on “C” Deck) and he had ample time to go below and get his life preserver and get back, as I was sitting smoking on “A” Deck when we were hit and made a couple of trips down to my deck.
When I left the ship the boat deck aft was awash and I was not able to get more than 30 yards away before she disappeared. A girl and I were hanging on to 3 collapsible boats which had somehow got on the top of each other when they were washed off and with the assistance of 2 or 3 other men, we managed to launch the uppermost one. ..... We were able to pick up about 30 people and were eventually taken on board the “Brock”; I saw the “Indian Empire” picking up survivors and I think she docked in Queenstown just ahead of us; I can not say if anyone died on that boat but a woman died on ours before we got to land.
The “Brock” and the “Indian Empire” were both Royal Naval Trawlers taken up from trade for the duration of the war. Bilbrough’s account continued: -
The following morning, Mr. Wilson and I went through all the mortuaries about 1.30 p.m. as several of our friends had not been heard of, in fact the man with whom I was sitting when we were hit has not yet been found.
Amongst the bodies were several that we had seen on board but did not know their names, you will easily understand that amongst so many passengers, one would get into conversation with several and perhaps not know their names.
Mr. Wilson was second cabin passenger and cabin mate John Wilson, en route from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, who came from Glasgow, Renfrewshire, in Scotland.
Despite the quite heavy loss of life amongst second cabin passengers, all George Bilbrough’s bridge partners also survived the sinking, although The Reverend Herbert Gwyer’s wife Margaret, won dubious fame as one of those unfortunates who were sucked down one of the funnels of the sinking ship and then blown back out again as the ship’s boilers imploded!
Following his ordeal on the Lusitania, George Bilbrough carried on with his business, returning to New York from Liverpool on the White Star Liner
Adriatic on 22nd October and not returning to Falls City until November 1915!
George Bilbrough lodged a claim with the Canadian authorities on his return, which was not settled until April 1926. His claim was for the loss of his personal effects, which he valued at $461.00, and he was awarded the full sum, with 5% interest per annum from the date of the sinking.
In 1916, both of George’s parents died in Leeds. George died in Smiths Falls in 1949, aged 69 years, and was interred in St. John’s Anglican Cemetery.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1881 Census of England & Wales, 1891 Census of England & Wales, 1921 Census of Canada, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Canadian Passenger Lists 1865 – 1935, Cunard Records, IWM GB62, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, UniLiv D92/2/187, Canadian Claims Case No. 856, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly