William Barnes was born in the Wirral, Cheshire, England, on 12 October 1874. In 1915 he lived at 3 Albion Street, New Brighton, Wallasey, Cheshire with his wife Annie Maude (née Tayler), whom he married in 1895. The couple had seven children but only three survived infancy.
He was a professional steward serving in the Mercantile Marine and he engaged as a first class bedroom steward in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at Liverpool on 12 April 1915 at a monthly wage of £4-5s-0d, (£4.25). He reported for duty on the morning of 17 April, before she left the River Mersey for the last time. It was not his first voyage on the liner.
Having carried out his duties across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York, he was performing similarly on the afternoon of 1 May when the
Lusitania began the return leg of her voyage to her home port.
On that voyage Bedroom Steward Barnes had responsibility for 14 saloon rooms - evenly numbered from D34 to D60 serving some 23 people. His passengers included all the Crompton family - Mr Paul Crompton, the family head, was managing director of The Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool - and Miss Theodate Pope, renowned female architect.
Six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7 May, the Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine
U-20, twelve miles off The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland and sank only 18 minutes later. At that stage of her voyage, she was a mere 12 or 14 hours away from her Liverpool destination.
Bedroom Steward Barnes was able to survive this action, however, and having been rescued from the sea he was landed at Queenstown, from where he was able to send a telegram to his wife, which simply stated:
DON’T WORRY; SAVED AFTER FOUR HOURS IN WATER.
Of the 23 saloon passengers in his care, however, fifteen were killed as a result of the sinking which included the whole of the Crompton family - the highest family loss of all on board on that dreadful day. Although Miss Pope survived to gain high honours for her work, her maid, Miss Emily Robinson perished.
In an account of the sinking printed in 'The New York Times' on 2 June 1915, Mr Isaac Lehman an export broker from New York, travelling as a saloon passenger on board the ship stated:
I rushed down the deck to the entrance which is known as the grand entrance and ran to D deck to my state room, known as D48, to get a life preserver. When I reached there the boat had commenced already to settle. Somebody certainly had been in my room already and had taken my life preserver.
I walked up to B deck and met my steward - by the name of Barnes - on the way, and told him to get me a life preserver. I waited for him to get this and he put it on for me, saying that it would come in handy.
It may be that Barnes' actions helped to save Mr Lehman's life that day.
On his eventual return to Merseyside, he was officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s last voyage at the Cunard offices at Water Street in Liverpool and given the balance of pay owed to him in respect of his service on the vessel, from 17 April until 8 May 1915, 24 hours after the liner had gone down.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, Liverpool Echo, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 349, New York Times.