Nelly Elizabeth Thorpe was born in Leicester, Leicestershire, England in 1881 the daughter, and one of five children, of Joseph and Harriet Thorpe (née Watts). Her father was a police constable, and the family home in 1915 was at 32, Cecil Road, Leicester.
Having completed her education, Nelly started work in the local textile industry, first manufacturing hosiery, and then corsets.
On the 30th April 1912, she boarded the Franconia in Liverpool and disembarked in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, on the 9th May. She then went to New Bedford, about fifty miles south of Boston, where a thriving textile industry was welcoming immigrants.
On the 22nd April 1914, Nelly married James Cooper, a textile weaver and former soldier in the Regular British Army who had originally come from Burnley in Lancashire. Following eight years service, in The Border Regiment, during which time he served in the Anglo-Boer War, he had left the Army and after some time in the Volunteers, had emigrated to the United States of America in 1908.
The Burnley Express and Advertiser, for 30th December 1916 tells the story of James Cooper’s return to Lancashire: -
He was weaving at a mill in New Bedford, America when war broke out. He was outside this place when news was received that a British ship had been sunk. There were a lot of Germans who worked there, and when they heard of it, they waved their hats in jubilation. He said to them “You pigs! I’m off!” and he came right away to England to join his old regiment. This was at Christmas, 1914, and he left his wife and three children behind.
Whereas James Cooper had left New Bedford before the birth of his son, Joseph Ernest, who was born on the 16th January 1915, the newspaper’s assertion that the couple had three children was erroneous.
Nelly found it too difficult to try and raise her baby and continue working in the textile industry at the same time, so decided to return to her family in England where she would have some support. Thus, in late April 1915, she travelled to New York City, and with her young son, and boarded the Lusitania as third class passengers before the liner left her berth at Pier 54, just after mid-day on 1st May 1915.
Six days later, Nelly and Joseph Cooper were both dead, killed, when the liner was sunk by the German submarine
U-20, off The Old head of Kinsale and only hours away from her Liverpool destination.
When news of the sinking reached her mother in Leicester, she sought information about her daughter and grandson from The Cunard Steam Ship Company in Liverpool and received the following telegram: -
It is officially announced that 658 survivors have been landed. Other advices may be received. Please telegraph name and class of passenger in whom you are interested, and we will advise as the names come through.
Neither of Mrs. Thorpe’s relatives names appeared on any list of survivors nor were their bodies was ever recovered from the sea and identified afterwards. Nellie Cooper was aged 33 years.
At the time of her death, her husband had rejoined the 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment and as 18799 Sergeant J.M.M. Cooper, had been sent to fight against the Turkish Army in the Dardanelles.
On embarkation leave before his posting to the Gallipoli Peninsula, he had visited his sister Mrs. Evans, in Burnley and it was reported that: -
Whilst on leave to his sister, a fortnight before the disaster to the liner, he told her that if the Germans touched that vessel, he would have his revenge. Since the ship was sunk and he lost his loved ones, the sergeant has lived for revenge on the brutal enemy.
Obviously the time scale was not reported accurately, as the 1st Borders left for the Middle East on 17th March 1915, two months, not two weeks before the sinking!
Naturally incensed by the loss of his wife and child and true to his word to gain his revenge on the enemy, Sergeant Cooper was awarded a Military Medal for storming an enemy position and killing three Turks at Gallipoli on 8th November 1915. Nearly two years later, on 15th October 1918, he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry in Flanders, against the Germans.
The Cork Examiner for Friday 14th May 1915 stated that Sergeant Cooper went to Queenstown to search for the bodies of his wife and son and further stated that he was: -
..... frantic with grief but expressed the intensity of his feelings in expressing the wish to be in the trenches to avenge the cruel murder of his loved wife and child.
This account must have been purely speculative, however, as his regiment had been engaged in action against the Turks since 25th April 1915 and home leave to England was never granted from the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Sergeant Cooper survived to return eventually to Burnley, but although the fortunes of war had spared his life, he would never be re-united with the closest members of his family!
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Massachusetts Marriage Records 1840 – 1915, Massachusetts Birth Records 1840 – 1915, 1891 Census of England & Wales, Cunard Records, Andrew Gill, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv D92/2/111, Deaths at Sea 1781 - 1968, Leicester Mail, The Burnley Express and Advertiser, Cork Examiner, Yorkshire Post, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.