Alexander ‘Alex’ Stevenson Cowan was born in Bramley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England in 1896, the son of Maurice and Alice Cowan. His father was a bus ticket inspector and a tram ticket inspector at various times, and through his work moved his family a number of times during Alex’s childhood. The family lived at various times in Leeds, Birmingham, and Birkenhead. In 1915 Alex lived at 10 Heath Street, Liverpool, Lancashire.
He was a professional seaman in the Mercantile Marine and on 12 April 1915 he engaged as a lift attendant in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at Liverpool, for the liner’s forthcoming voyage to New York and back. His monthly rate of pay in this rank was £2-10s-0d (£2.50). It was not the first time that he had served on the vessel.
Having successfully completed the liner’s crossing to New York, Alex Cowan was serving as a lift attendant in the saloon class accommodation area on the early afternoon of 1 May, when the
Lusitania left there to begin her return voyage to her home port. Six days later, on the afternoon of 7 May, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, within sight of the coast of southern Ireland. At that time, she was only about 14 hours steaming time away from her home port.
Alex Cowan can not have been on duty when the liner was struck, or maybe he realised the danger and got out of his lift, for it is known that passengers did perish in the lifts when the electric power stopped, once the generators failed.
Having escaped from the sinking ship, he was rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, from where he made it back to Liverpool. On his return he reported to the Cunard offices in Water Street and was officially discharged from the last voyage of the
Lusitania. He was paid the balance of wages owing to him, which amounted to £2-17s-8d (£2.88). This sum was in respect of his service on board from 17 April to 8 May, 24 hours after the vessel had gone down.
Some time afterwards he must have also tried to claim compensation for injuries sustained in the sinking, for on 22 July 1915 Cunard’s Winnipeg office wrote to the office in New York, in reply to a letter concerning correspondence from a Mr Crocker in relation to him. The letter stated:
"We are in receipt of yours of the 9th instant, together with the enclosure from Mr. Crocker in reference to Alexander Cowan, 1st Class lift attendant on the S.S. “Lusitania“. We have seen our shipping department with reference to this man and it is quite evident that the injuries received were not of such a serious nature as it appears from Mr. Crocker’s letter, in as much as Alexander Cowan is now a waiter on board the “Aquitania”, which is in government service."
The RMS Aquitania was similar in size and construction to the Lusitania and her sister ship the
Mauretania, but was slightly larger.
It is thought that Alex eventually left the mercantile marine, but nothing else is known about him.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D92/1/7.