William ‘Bill’ Borrows was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England on 16 August 1899, the son of Richard and Annie Borrows (née Holliman). He lived at the family home, 28 Denman Street, Kensington, Liverpool.
He signed on at Liverpool on 17 April 1915 as a substitute stewards' boy in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at a monthly rate of pay of £2.10s.0d, (£2.50). He lied about his age to get the job on the
Lusitania and was very small in any case - he never grew beyond 5’ 3” in height. The liner left the River Mersey for the last time that morning. His previous ship had been the SS Hesperian.
In letters to the author in 1998 his sister Mrs Eva Casterton wrote:
"He was on his second trip as a 'Bell Boy', aged 15. He used to be dressed in a uniform with all brass buttons down the front. He was very small for his age, but was a marvellous swimmer. He actually dived in after an American lady who fell in the water. I think that one of the lifeboats tipped over and threw her into the water. Bill saw her struggling and dived into the water to help her. Because he was small and she was large he held her head above water until another man came to help lift her into a boat. Although she promised to write to him on returning to America, Bill never heard from her again.
After he had saved the American lady, a man’s voice said “There is room in here for a little one” and a man lifted him up and put him in Lifeboat 13. From then on, he always said that thirteen was his lucky number. Bill said that No. 13 was the last lifeboat to be put in the water and he felt that the man who lifted him into it, probably saved his life."
The occupants of lifeboat number 13 were eventually picked up and landed at Queenstown, from where the crew were eventually repatriated. Eva Casterton remembered:
"I myself was only 5 years old at the time but I remember him coming home in an overcoat to his feet that someone had given him and shoes that were too big for him. He was full of fun and even joked about coming back from Ireland in clothes a lot too big for him.
I also remember woman in the street running home with sausages and things from the pork butchers they had raided when they heard of the Lusitania’s sinking."
During the remainder of the war years Bill Borrows wore a silver submarine, three blue chevrons and a red stripe on the sleeve of his jacket, which his mother sewed on for him. These were to signify the hazards he underwent during his war service. Despite his ordeal, he returned to the sea and served in the Merchant Service as a steward for the next 26 years on some of the biggest liners of the time, before taking a job in the Birkenhead shipbuilding firm of Cammel Laird and Co Ltd.
In 1923 William married Mary J Dunn in Liverpool. The couple had no children and Mary died in 1929. In 1935 he married Ada Edwards and they had two children Jean and Jeffrey; and eventually five grandchildren.
In the early 1960s he was interviewed by reporters from the Independent Television Company for a programme they were making on the sinking at his Kirkdale home, 18 Pluto Street. Before the programme was screened, Bill Burrows wrote an account of his experiences for the magazine of his local parish church, St Athenasius’ in Kirkdale. Writing about this and her father in a letter to the author in 1998, his daughter Jean Wardale commented:
"As you will read, my Dad didn’t mention anything about the American lady as he didn’t think anyone would have been interested in that. He was that sort of person, very unassuming."
In the church magazine article, Bill Borrows wrote:
"I was employed as bell-boy on R.M.S. “Lusitania” at the age of 15½. We had made the outward voyage to New York in the normal way and on the night before sailing for home, as I was coming back to the ship, a policeman on the gate said to me, “They are going to get you this time, sonny!” - meaning the Germans.
We talked about the warnings in the American papers about the danger to American citizens sailing in the ship, because the Germans intended to sink her by torpedo. We - the crew - did not take it too seriously because we thought the ship’s speed (twenty knots) was far too fast for the Germans.
Well, we sailed on time and arrived off the Irish coast on Friday 7th May. It was a lovely day and the water was like a mill-pond, when, at 2.30 p.m., a terrific bang shook the ship and all the lights went out.
I was in a wash room about three decks down from the main deck and I had to grope my way to the companion-way. I got up three flights of stairs as fast as I could on to the main deck, and then I climbed two or three more to the boat deck. The ship, by this time, was listing very heavily to starboard and the port life-boats had all swung inboard and could not be launched. So I made my way with others - men, women and children - over to the starboard boats. I managed to get safely into number 13, and we were lowered safely to the water.
By this time, she was sinking fast. The water was pouring in through the port-holes which had not been closed because of the lovely weather.
We managed to get away from the ship’s side, and then, when we were about fifty yards away, she came up with her stern and dived down, with a big explosion in her boiler rooms.
We managed to pick up several people although we were fairly well loaded down in our boat.
After about an hour or so a boat came out from Queenstown called the “Stormcock” which picked us up and took the life-boat in tow. We then went over to a couple of other boats and took those people on board. Then we sailed to Queenstown or Cobh, as it is now known. We were there treated very kindly and put up for the night in various places."
The occupants of Lifeboat No. 13 were first picked up by the fishing boat
Peel 12 and then transferred to the Queenstown harbour tender Flying Fish, so Bill Borrows is mistaken when he states that he was rescued by the
Stormcock. His account continued nevertheless: -
"Next morning those who needed suitable clothes to get home got them at the shops, and the Cunard Company paid the bills. I was glad to get a suit because I went ashore in my shirt-sleeves having left my bell-boy’s uniform on the ship in my hurry to get to the boat deck.
That afternoon we left for Dublin, Holyhead and home. We arrived at Lime Street Station on Sunday morning, May 9th to the heart-breaking scene of people hoping to see loved ones who had been reported lost."
At about the same time, he was also interviewed for an American television documentary called 'In Search of the Lusitania', and he told a little more of when he was on the deck, waiting to get into lifeboat number 13: -
"She was listing over to the starboard side pretty steeply and I was going to get into this boat here, like, standing by it, when the fellow got excited and he was lowering his side down and the other fellow either couldn't release the ropes, like, tangled and I saw all the people emptied into the water. This fellow got panicky and lowered down and emptied the people into the water. I was in the next boat. The one that I got in, No.13."
In 1969 Bill Borrows visited May Walker, then aged 94, at her home in Hoylake, on the Wirral peninsula. Mrs Walker in 1915 was Stewardess May Bird, and at the time, had been hailed as 'The Heroine of Boat 13' for her exploits in that lifeboat. Bill Borrows remembered especially that May Walker had helped row the boat and had kept everyone’s spirits up by singing songs to everyone.
The two former shipmates naturally had a long chat about their shared experiences of over 50 years before. At that time he was living at 18 Pluto Street, Croxteth, Liverpool. In all, Bill Borrows worked for Lairds for 25 years, only retiring in his 68th year in 1966, because he could not get to work from Croxteth, because of a bus strike.
He died on 31 July 1972 just over a fortnight short of his 73rd birthday and his body was cremated at Anfield Crematorium in Liverpool. His widow Ada lived until 1993 and died at the age of 89.
Cunard records published in March 1916 incorrectly recorded his surname as Burrows, but family sources prove it to have been Borrows.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, Hoylake Advertiser, In Search of the Lusitania, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 350, Jean Wardale, Eva Casterton.