Norah Annie Keating was born in Brighton, Sussex, England, on the 6th January 1883, the second eldest of the five daughters and one son of Samuel Ffennell and Annie Keating (née Skews). Her father was a commission agent. Her sisters were named Emily, Kathleen, Mary and Vera, and her brother, who was the youngest in the family, named Edward.
Her uncle was the Bishop of Cloyne and the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cork and her aunt, Sister (later Mother) M. Liguori was a nun at the Ursuline Convent, Blackrock, Cork City, County Cork. As a consequence, Norah and her four sisters were all educated there.
On the 13th June 1910, Norah boarded the S.S. Kroonland at Antwerp, Belgium, arriving in New York City on the 23rd June. She was on her way to meet her fiancé, Cyril Herbert Emanuel Bretherton, who was a lawyer practising in Los Angeles, California. Cyril had been born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, and had emigrated to the United States of America in October 1906. On the 30th June, they were married in Los Angeles, and they set up their home at 311. Arizona Avenue, Santa Monica. On the 10th January 1912, their first child, a son named Paul, was born, and later that year Cyril became a naturalized American citizen. On the 4th February 1914, their second child was born, this time it was a daughter named Elizabeth, who became affectionately known as “Betty”.
Norah’s husband had just secured a position with the Washington Herald newspaper, his business having gone through a difficult period, but his pay at that time was not substantial. Norah was pregnant with her third child, and it was intended that she stay with her family in England until sometime after the birth, when it was expected that the family’s financial situation might have improved.
In April 1915, she set out for England and booked second cabin passage for herself and her two children on the
Lusitania, which left New York just after mid-day on 1st May 1915. They occupied cabin C14.
When the liner was sunk, six days later, Mrs. Bretherton and her son Paul survived, but Betty was drowned. While recuperating from their ordeal, they stayed in the Bishop’s house in Queenstown. While there, she had the following notice published in
The Cork Examiner newspaper on the 10th May: -
MISSING A BABY GIRL, 15 months old; very fair hair, curled; fit and rosy complexion; in white woollen jersey and white woollen leggings. Tries to walk and talk. Name Betty Bretherton. Please send any information to Miss Browne, Bishop’s House, Queenstown.
Obviously distraught at the loss of her daughter, Betty, and not being able to find any trace of her, Norah, accompanied by Paul, travelled to England to be reunited with her family. On Tuesday, 11th May, she arrived at the home of her sister, Kathleen, who was married to Major Frederick P.C. Keily, and was residing at 61. Dorset Road, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex. Another sister of theirs, Mrs. Mary Osborne, resided at Heatherdune, Bexhill-on-Sea.
No sooner had Norah arrived in Bexhill-on-Sea, she received word that Betty's body had been recovered from the sea, and Norah begged permission of the Ursuline Convent to bury her daughter there. This was naturally granted and Betty Bretherton was buried in the cemetery of her mother’s former convent school on 12th May 1915.
As Norah’s husband, Cyril was a naturalized U.S. citizen, she and Paul were also naturalized citizens, and the U.S. government sought depositions from all U.S. citizens who had survived the sinking of the
Lusitania. Norah sent her statement from the home of her sister at 61. Dorset Road, Bexhill-on-Sea. It is obvious that she was still in a state of shock when she wrote it. She stated: -
I was a passenger on the Lusitania on 2nd Class Salon (sic) – My room being C.14 on Deck C – The dining rooms being on Deck C. and Deck D. (owing to the large number of passengers) we had two sittings for meals. I had lunched at the first sitting and taken my little girl up on deck B to play, and put the little boy to sleep in cabin on Deck C. I was on the stairs midway between Deck B & C when the explosion occurred soon after 2.00. I hesitated which way to go then ran up to B deck got baby from her play-yard and ran along to the stairs (---------- ones) leading up to deck A where the lifeboats were, I begged and implored dozens of men to be lowerd (sic.) when I climbed on the side of the boat with the boy – and I heard men’s voices saying “lower for she’s full”, get into the next boat, I had a friend in that boat a woman who called out for them to let me in – and, she tells me the men didn’t want men in (This friend a Mrs, Schecchi (sic.) was the second person to get into the bye boat – she found a man already in it sitting there on the way to go down to get Paul – they took no notice one man looked right at me and I knew he had played with Paul and I saw (sic.) “you know Paul get --------- in the cabin” – but he went on – Then I forced baby into some man’s arms who had got to the stairs (I saw a man pull a woman by the arm and get up in front of her) then I ran back and down stairs to deck C – In the meantime I had been thrown from one side of the ship to the other as she listed – I reached my cabin (passed no one on the stairs inside) smoke was coming up through the floor in the hallway and in the cabin seized Paul and carried him to deck B and rushed to the starboard side (is the side on which the bye boats were useless. A crowd of people were rushing the same way but an officer called out “to the other side”. I dragged the boy along – not one of the men who rushed by offered to help me and I saw a woman with a little baby fall and slide along the deck but saw no one help her up – I tried for two life- which were out of order – and came to the third – An officer was giving orders for her into the bye boat at last and we were the last to pull away --- from the ship – we had a splendid sea man on (sic.) charge and another of the regular lifeboat crew – there were otherwise 22 men and 20 women and five children – We pulled away just as a terrific explosion occurred and the Lusitania went down – We rowed hard and came to a bye boat in which two men were bailing out water, people were floating on water round her – the men in the boat told us they found the boat had no plug when she was lowered and they had plugged her with his clothes – We picked up about five people.
I notice Dr. Foss in his interview with the lost Examiner to-day says “I was disappointed in the behaviour of the crew” – so were others. The men passengers were heroic in many cases – and the official Rept corl – but it was every man for himself.
Mrs. Helen Secchi and Dr. Carl Foss were both second class passengers who survived.
While recuperating at the home of her sister, a reporter from the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer called, seeking to interview her, but as she was still suffering from severe shock, her sister related her account. The report was published in the newspaper on the 15th May 1915: -
…It appears that as soon as the torpedo from the German submarine had exploded the great liner at once began to sink. There was a rush for the boats, and though naturally there was a good deal of excitement, the crew and passengers remained calm and collected. At the time Mrs. Bretherton was on the main deck, with her 18-month-old child Betty, and when the shock of the explosion occurred, she handed it to a man who was standing near, and asked him to take charge of it while she went below to look for her other child, Paul, a boy of three years. When she returned she was horrified to find that both the man and her child had disappeared, in all probability in the endeavour to find safety in one of the boats which were being launched. There was no time to look for the child, as the great ship was by this time listing heavily over and people were rushing about in order to look for lifebelts or anything which would serve to float with. The next clear recollection Mrs. Bretherton had was that of finding herself floating in the water with her boy Paul, and holding on to some floating wreckage. A boat full of people came up, and after some difficulty, owing to the quite natural excitement, which prevailed at the time, Mrs. Bretherton and her child were got on board the boat. Nothing had been seen or heard in the meantime of the man to whom she had given her baby, and the poor distracted lady could only hope that it had manage to secure safety in one of the other boats which were rowing about in the vicinity, and picking up survivors.
The people in the boat, after waiting for some time, started to row for Queenstown, and reached there some hours later. There they were treated with every consideration by the kindly-hearted Irish people, and Mrs. Bretherton and her child were taken to the house of Dr. Brown, the Bishop of Cloyne, Queenstown. Subsequently the rescued lady journeyed to Bexhill, which she reached on Tuesday. As soon as Mrs. Bretherton arrived at Queenstown she circulated a description of her missing child, and set enquiries on foot with a view to discovering what had happened to her child from which she had been so suddenly and tragically parted. Nothing was heard until soon after she got to her sister’s house in Dorset-road, and the sad news was then sent to her that the body of her child had been washed ashore at Queenstown during Monday. The sorrowful tidings came as a great grief to the poor lady, distressed, as she was, with her tragic experiences, and the hearts of all Bexhill people will go out to her in her deep sorrow, as well as to all those whose homes have been thus stricken by the unspeakable act of a cowardly enemy. …
Some months later, Norah Bretherton gave birth to her third child, a son named Cyril Richard F. Bretherton.
In January 1916, Norah’s husband, Cyril, travelled to England to be re-united with his family, and meet his new son. He enlisted in the British Army, and was assigned to the Royal Ordnance Corps. He was also still working as a newspaper correspondent, and filing reports for the Philadelphia Eagle, Brooklyn Eagle,
New York Evening Post, Boston Transcript, as well as a number of others. In June 1917, still in the British Army, he was posted to Ireland to procure wool for the military, and he also continued to write to his various newspapers. He reported on the Irish struggle to gain independence from Great Britain, and his reports depicted the Irish in such negative terms that his life was put under threat, and according to contemporary reports, was only saved by the intervention of the American Consul. He left the British Army following the end of the War, but remained in Ireland and continued his duties as a newspaper correspondent. Around the time that Ireland secured independence in 1921, he returned to England and later published a book entitled
The Real Ireland, which spoke very negatively of the Irish people. For a number of years he travelled throughout mainland Europe filing reports for various American newspapers.
In 1916, Cyril Bretherton had filed a claim with the American State Department for compensation for the death of Betty Bretherton and the loss of his family’s personal belongings as a result of the sinking. He claimed $10,000.00 for the loss of his daughter, and $400.00 for the loss of the personal belongings. He later increased the value of the personal belongings, first to $1,500.00, and then $4,115.00.
On 25th February 1925, the Mixed Claims Commission awarded Cyril Bretherton the sum of $7,500.00 in compensation for the loss of his daughter, and $1,500.00 for the loss of the family’s personal belongings. Interestingly, no claim was made for any injuries suffered by Norah or Paul.
Also in 1925, on the 18th March, Norah Bretherton gave birth to her fourth child, a son named John Christopher.
The family resided for many years at Forge Cottage, South Moreton, which was then in Berkshire, but is now part of Oxfordshire. Cyril Bretherton divided his time between his home at Forge Cottage, and also at 3. Brick Court, Temple, London, where he resided when in London. He was a staff correspondent for the London Evening News, wrote poetry, and also was a regular contributor to
Punch magazine. For a number of years he wrote a column, entitled “Essence of Parliament” for
Punch, and also wrote light verse under the pseudonym “Algol”. On the 14th November 1939, he was found unconscious in his bedroom in London, having suffered a stroke, and died some hours later, aged 60 years. He left his estate of £5,788-16s.-1d. (£5,788.80½p.) to his widow, Norah.
Norah Bretherton lived a long life, and in her later years, lived with her youngest son, John. She died of degenerative heart disease on the 29th April 1977 at the Cheriton Nursing Home, Swindon, Wiltshire, and she was interred at Holy Cross Churchyard, Ramsbury, Wiltshire. She was aged 94 years.
Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1891 Census of England, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, California County Marriages 1850 – 1952, California Birth Index 1905 – 1995, Cunard Records, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 1263, PRO BT 100/345, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, The Cork Examiner, Belfast Newsletter, Tragedy of the Lusitania, Ursuline Convent Annals, UniLiv D92/2/23, UniLiv D92/2/65, NARA, Probate Records, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Paddy O'Sullivan, Stuart Williamson, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.