Maud Gertrude Cox was born in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, in July 1884, the third daughter, and one of five children, of John George and Mary Ann Cox (née Elliott). For many years the family resided at 57. Regent Street, Swindon. Her father had been tailor and woolen draper, and also a local councillor and a member of The Board of Guardians. When her father retired, the family home was at 1. Hunt Street, Swindon.
In October 1912, Maud Cox had married Frederick Chirgwin and the marriage was solemnised at the local Wesleyan Chapel. Her new husband was also a native of Swindon and his home there had been at 27, Dixon Street.
Shortly after the marriage, the couple set off for Havana, Cuba, where Frederick Chirgwin had been appointed Assistant Stores Superintendent on the Cuban Central Railway at Sagua La Grande. He had been working in Cuba since 1907. They boarded the
St. Paul at Southampton, Hampshire, on the 9th October on the first part of their journey, arriving in New York harbour on the 17th October, and from there, they boarded another liner to Havana.
Maude’s father died the following year and in June 1913, she returned home, probably after she had received notification, going back to her husband four months later, having crossed the Atlantic on the White Star liner
Oceanic. In September 1914, a baby son was born to her and her husband, whom they named Richard, possibly after his paternal grandfather who also bore that forename.
In the spring of 1915, because Maud Chirgwin wanted to take her son to see his relatives in England, she decided to return home to Britain with baby Richard, for a holiday. Her husband had intended to join them in July. Consequently, she booked second cabin passage for them both on the May sailing of the Lusitania, which was scheduled to leave New York for Liverpool at 10.00 a.m. on 1st May 1915.
Having left Cuba some time in April, she and her son arrived at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York on the morning of the scheduled sailing and having boarded the liner, had to wait until just after mid-day before she left, as her departure was delayed to give her time to load cargo and embark passengers and crew from the Anchor Liner Cameronia
which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for service as a troop ship at the end of April.
Just six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20 off The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland, only about fourteen hours steaming time away from the safety of her home port! Both Maud Chirgwin and her baby lost their lives as a result of this action. She was aged 30 years.
Although the body of baby Richard was never recovered from the sea and identified afterwards, that of Maud Chirgwin was. Having been landed at Queenstown, it was taken to the temporary mortuary set up in the yard of Cunard’s offices at Lynch’s Quay - given the reference number 88 and described as: -
Female, 33 years, 5’7”. Dark hair, slight build, heavy gray woollen coat, black dress.
Having been positively identified, on 10th May 1915, it was buried in The Old Church Cemetery, two miles north of the town in Mass Grave C, 5th Row, Upper Tier, where it lies to this day. It was on that day that the bodies of most of the recovered dead were buried, after a long funeral procession which began outside the Cunard office on the waterfront in Queenstown.
It must have been disfigured in some way, however; because Maude Chirgwin’s father-in-law, Mr. Richard Chirgwin, must have seen it there in the early hours of the morning of Sunday 9th May, as described in an article of
The Evening Swindon Advertiser for 13th May 1915: -
Directly the intelligence was known that the great liner had been torpedoed and sunk, the deepest concern was naturally felt for Mrs. Chirgwin's safety. Anxious inquiries were made by telegraph but no news was forthcoming, and on Saturday Mr. R.J. Chirgwin proceeded to Queenstown, arriving there at one o'clock on Sunday morning. His daughter-in-law’s name was absent from the list of survivors, but he clung to the dimmed hope of finding her, possibly, unconscious in hospital, or, at the worst, of establishing her identity among the dead. Unhappily, however, Mr Chirgwin could discover no trace of her and there seems no possible doubt that Mrs Chirgwin and her baby went down with the ship.
Amid the many distressing scenes which Mr Chirgwin witnessed in Queenstown, the most painful was that when, after inquiring at the offices of the Cunard Line, he was directed to an adjacent yard where some 40 or 50 bodies were lying. “I could not attempt to describe the scene" said Mr Chirgwin to our representative. “It was most gruesome, but I must say that what struck me was the very peaceful appearance of very many of the women and children. Some, of course, showed signs of struggle and others, again, had been bruised. There was one poor woman lying there who was the mother of twin children. She had one under her arm, and someone had placed some flowers by her side. I was also struck by the appearance of the little children. As I looked upon them, I could not help escaping my lips, - ‘Good God! I wish the Kaiser were here to see his handiwork.’” Mr. Chirgwin failed to discover any trace of Mrs. Chirgwin here, neither could he find her among the bodies which were lying on the Wharf, or among the unconscious survivors at the hospital. Having thus abandoned all hope, Mr Chirgwin left Queenstown on Monday.
Arriving at Swindon, he received the following telegram from the offices of the Cunard Central Railways: - Deeply regret to report that the result of all our inquiries re your daughter-in-law and her infant estab1ish that they went down with the Lusitania. Cunard Company report no bodies yet recovered. Please accept deepest sympathy of directors, secretary and staff in your great trouble and please command us in any way if we can be of any help.
It is possible; of course, that the body, having been identified to the satisfaction of Cunard at least, had already been removed for burial by the time that Robert Chirgwin had carried out his grisly task!
Property recovered from Maud Chirgwin’s body, which had probably aided its identification, was put on board the liner
Orduña on 8th July 1915, for despatch to Cunard’s New York office, presumably at the request of her husband who was, at this time, still in Cuba, or making his way north to New York. It consisted of a 9 carat gold signet ring engraved with the letters
F.C. M.C. and a gold brooch featuring a bird and the word Coo-ee.
On 22nd July, Frederick Chirgwin, joined the Orduña for her return sailing to Liverpool and before then, he called at Cunard’s office in New York and he, too, must have had difficulty with identification, for Cunard records state that: -
after examining the photograph of the remains of No. 88, he declared positively that they were not those of his wife.
As it was necessary to bury all the recovered bodies as soon as was practicable, for reasons of hygiene, they were all photographed in their temporary mortuaries in Queenstown before being interred. Anxious relatives of those missing were then invited to identify their loved ones through these photographs.
On his return to England, Frederick Chirgwin applied to The Commissions Board offering his services to the Army as an officer. His letter stated: -
I beg to make application for a commission in the Army Ordnance Corps ......
I venture to think therefore that I can be of use in the direction that I have indicated. I say that I have strong and personal reasons for making this application as my wife and only child, who were coming home to England for a holiday, were lost on the Lusitania. Immediately the news reached me I relinquished what was a highly lucrative post and came to England in order to offer myself in whatever branch of the service I could be most useful. Trusting this application will receive your favourable consideration,
I am my Lord your obedient servant
He was subsequently granted a commission in The Army Ordnance Corps, effective from 30th September 1915 and having served on the Western Front, was a soldier until August 1919, when he finally relinquished his commission, by then holding the rank of major.
When her will was proven on the 21st December 1917, her money and effects amounted to £126-12s-3d, (£126.61p.), which she left to her husband.
The matter of his wife’s identification was not brought up again until January 1918, when he wrote to Cunard in Liverpool about the matter and the 1915 identification of corpse No. 88. He wanted to know who had identified the body, as he was still sure that it was not that of his late wife!
Cunard in New York replied on 23rd January 1919 to the effect that it still held the property belonging to corpse No. 88 and that the gentleman who was in charge of identification of the bodies at the time was no longer in the employ of the Company, and thus it was not possible to tell who had actually identified No. 88 as Maud Chirgwin.
It did state, however, that part of the held property was the gold ring inscribed
F.C. M.C., which surely must have been the initials of Maud Chirgwin and the lieutenant! It is probable that this ring was the main basis of the identification made in 1915 and it is difficult to see how this could have been wrong. Perhaps Frederick Chirgwin was not shown it in 1915, but he must have accepted it eventually, as Cunard never changed its identification of Maud Chirgwin, as body No. 88, in Mass Grave C.
After the War, Frederick Chirgwin returned to Cuba and resumed working for the Cuban Central Railway, making frequent return visit to his family in England. On the 24th October 1921 he married Edna Bessie Day, an Englishwoman, in New York City, and the couple lived in Cuba for many years until, on Frederick’s retirement, they returned permanently to England, residing at ‘Winterbrook’, Oakfield Lane, Wilmington, near Dartford, Kent. Frederick Chirgwin died on the 25th July 1955, aged 72 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 Census of England & Wales, 1901 Census of England & Wales, 1911 Census of England & Wales, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Probate Records, Evening Swindon Advertiser, North Wiltshire Herald, PRO BT 100/345, PRO WO339/41508, UniLiv D92/2/368, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, Graham Maddocks, Joe Devereux, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.