Eleanor May “Queenie” Benjamin was born in Baumber, Lincolnshire, England, on the 1st May 1894, the daughter of Edgar and Kate Benjamin (née Drake). Her parents met when they were in domestic service to Arthur Raymond Heath, M.P. and Barrister-at-law, at Thorpe Hall, South Elkington, Louth, Lincolnshire, where Edgar was a butler and Kate a nurse. Later, the family home was in Burgh Le Marsh, Lindsey, Burgh Le Marsh, Lincolnshire.
Having completed her education, Queenie found a position as a kitchen maid at the home of Sir John Brickwood, the chairman and managing director of Brickwood & Co. Ltd., a brewery in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and then, on the 21st February 1914, she boarded the S.S. Caledonia at Liverpool and arrived in New York City on the 4th March. From there she made her way to Maryland, where a job awaited her.
By 1915, she was living and working in Roland Park, Maryland, but in the spring of that year, she decided to return to England, perhaps because of her native country’s involvement with the Great War. She consequently booked herself a third class ticket - numbered - 83424 on the May sailing of the Lusitania, to cross the Atlantic. Having left Maryland some time in April, she arrived at Pier 54, the Cunard berth in New York on the morning of 1st May 1915, in time for the liner’s scheduled 10.00 a.m. departure for Liverpool.
This was then delayed until the early afternoon, because she had to wait to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Lines steamer the
Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service as a troop ship, at the end of April. Then, six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May, and within sight of the coast of southern Ireland, the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20. At that time, she was only about 250 miles away from her home port.
Queenie Benjamin was fortunate enough to survive the sinking, however, one of only just over 130 third class passengers to do so, and having been rescued from the sea, she was landed at Queenstown. After recovering from her ordeal, she managed to complete her voyage to mainland Britain and her family home, which at that time was a public house named the
Cross Keys, London Road, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, where her father was the licensee.
She was aged 21 years at the time, although it was stated that she was aged 30 years!
She gave an interview to a reporter from the Newark Advertiser, which appeared in the 12th May 1915 edition of the newspaper. She recollected: -
“I had just gone to my cabin when the boat was struck. I heard a terrible commotion and ran up on deck, and went to the high side of the vessel. When the order was given we all got into the boats, and somebody yelled to cut the boats away. It was a good job this was not done or the wooden boats would have dropped thirty feet into the water and we would all have been smashed up.
“The vessel seemed to be floating all right and we all got out of the lifeboat again. No doubt she would have been all right, but then another torpedo struck us. In a second I scrambled back into the lifeboat and others came on the top of me.
“In a very little time the vessel went down with the lifeboat fastened to it. I went down in the lifeboat with somebody holding me down and I wondered if I should be drowned. Yet presently I came to the top of the water.
“Chairs and trunks and all manner of things had been thrown overboard and I clung to something which kept me afloat. I would see a boat – but between us were numerous packing cases, trunks, and things floating.
“I shouted to a man in the boat, ‘Do you mind picking me up? I can’t swim’
“He replied, ‘Hold on, girlie, you’re not dead yet!’
“Eventually they got to me and pulled me into the boat. The American in the boat said, ‘You are a brick. Can’t you swim?’
“I said I could not and he replied, ‘You’re more than lucky’ and I really think I was.
After two hours, they were picked up by a fishing smack and landed at Queenstown on the coast of Ireland at 11pm. In the chaos on the small quayside, there were far too few ambulances for the sick and no help at all for those merely suffering from shock. Queenie was left to her own devices and it took her another three hours to find a hotel room.
In early 1919, Queenie married Idris W. Lewis in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, Wales. Nothing is known of the marriage, and there are no records of any children resulting from it.
In 1926, Queenie married James Benjamin West in Marylebone, London. James West was a garage manager and haulage contractor. The couple set up home at Elm Tree Cottage, Box Tree Lane, Postcombe, Oxfordshire, and in 1927, the couple had a son, Kenneth Donald.
On the 9th August 1960 James West died and left his estate, valued at £14,684-6s.-9d. (£14,684.34½p.), to Queenie and their son, Kenneth.
On the 18th July 1972, Queenie West died in Oxfordshire, aged 78 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 Census of England & Wales, 1901 Census of England & Wales, 1911 Census of England & Wales, 1939 Register, New York Passenger Lists 1820 - 1957, Cunard Records, Newark Advertiser, Probate Records, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly