Jonathan Sanders Denton was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England in 1868. On the 13 March 1892, he had married Eliza Walker in Liverpool, and in 1915, their home was at 6 New Chester Road, New Ferry, Cheshire.
His profession was that of gentlemen’s barber and prior to the Great War, he had served mostly on the Cunarder
Aquitania, but on 2nd August 1914, just before the outbreak of the Great War, she had been requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and he left the vessel. He was an active freemason and a member of The Lodge of Emulation No.1505 in Liverpool.
Although he had served on the Lusitania before April 1915, he did not engage for her last voyage until 17 April, the morning that the liner left Liverpool landing stage for the last time. Then, he signed on as a barber in the Stewards' Department, to replace another barber, William Perry, who had been taken ill at the last moment and had transferred that morning. Denton’s haircutting responsibility was for second cabin passengers and his monthly wage was a token £0-s-1d (50p), so presumably he was either expected to charge for his services or was expected to subsist on tips.
Three weeks later, on the afternoon of 7 May 1915, he was one of the three barber survivors after the ship was sunk by the German submarine
U-20, off the coast of southern Ireland, on her return to her home base. The other barbers on board were Lott Gadd who survived and Reginald Nice who perished. Having been rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, Jonathan Denton eventually got back home to New Ferry and was able to describe his experience of the sinking to a reporter of 'The Birkenhead News and Advertiser'. These were then published in the edition of 12th May 1915 and stated:
Mr. Denton said everyone recognised what the matter was when a deep thud was felt against the side of the ship. All the officers and crew to the lowest ratings were as cool as possible, and deserved the highest praise and tribute for their work. The boat made no lurch before she sank and she disappeared gracefully.
Mr. Denton heard no internal explosions. A submarine was seen to come to the surface after the torpedoes had been fired, and hoist a flag, after which she disappeared.
Barber Denton must have been mistaken about this, or he heard it from someone else, as the log of the
U-20 confirms that at no time did the submarine surface either before or after the sinking. It was a popularly held belief amongst some at the time, however. The account continues:
Mr. Denton was amongst the last to leave. In fact he was the last to leave the particular part of the vessel where he was stationed. Before he entered the boat he was ordered to do so. Those who left afterwards did so by jumping overboard, saving themselves by clinging to rafts. When the boat in which Mr. Denton was saved was lowered, water was rushing into the Lusitania, and she was settling down fast. In “listing” over, the funnel missed the boat by inches. One woman was washed up the funnel and washed back again and rescued.
This was second cabin passenger Margaret Gwyer who was subsequently rescued form the sea and landed at Queenstown, blackened, but none the worse for her experience. The account continued:
Mr Denton’s boat picked up another craft containing two men. They were stark naked and apparently lunatics. They were taken charge of as well as other passengers. First officer Jones returned in the Lusitania’s boat to the scene of the disaster and continued the work of rescuing the drowning.
Mr. Denton said that he had plenty of opportunity to watch the crew. They behaved admirably. There was no panic, no hustling, no shoving or pushing - everybody was quite orderly. All the rafts were speedily cut away and the collapsible boats kept hundreds up. Further, the lifebelts served out were excellent in every way, and by their means, many must have been saved. Preference ..... was given to women and children, and no man attempted to look for safety until all the passengers in the vicinity had been gathered together.
Referring to the death of the chief second-cabin steward (Mr. Handlin), Mr. Denton said his life was sacrificed for others. Mr. Handlin had got into the boat, and being of the opinion that the Lusitania would not go down, went back. He was controlling the remaining few and assisting them in every possible way when the huge liner took her last plunge.
Second Class Steward D.C. Handlin from Waterloo, Liverpool, did, in fact perish in the sinking.
The stewards, concluded Mr. Denton, acted with great presence of mind. They hurled overboard every chair and piece of loose furniture they could lay their hands on. By this means many were able to keep afloat until the rescuing steamers arrived.
After his return home, Denton was eventually officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s final voyage, at Liverpool.
Jonathan Denton died in Birkenhead in 1929, aged 61 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1871 Census of England and Wales, 1881 Census of England and Wales, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Birkenhead News, (photo 12/05/1915, p.2 c.6 ), Cunard Records, Geoff Cuthill, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 349.