William Sleath Fletcher was born in Matlock, Derbyshire, England in 1865, the son of John and Lucy Fletcher. His father was a gardener and the family moved on a number of occasions during William’s childhood, living in Clayton-Le-Moors in Lancashire, amongst other places.
He married Margaret Williams P Whitelock in Birkenhead in 1905, although it is likely that he had previously been married.
In 1915 he lived at 16 Kingsway, Liscard, Wallasey, Cheshire.
He first started work with the Cunard Steamship Company in the early 1890s and on 13 April 1915 at Liverpool he engaged as a first class bedroom steward in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at a monthly rate of pay of £4-5s-0d (£4.25). He reported for duty before she sailed in the early morning of 17 April. It was not the first time that he had sailed on the liner in this capacity.
Having reached New York without mishap he was on board the Lusitania when she left for her return crossing of the Atlantic in the early afternoon of 1 May 1915. His personal responsibility was for the 18 saloon passengers who were berthed in rooms D2 to D32. These were Miss Josephine Brandell, Miss Doris Charles, The Reverend Cowley Clarke, Mr Harold M Daly, Mr Ronald Dearbergh, Mr Charles Dingwall, Mr Justus Miles Forman, Mr Richard R Freeman, Mr and Mrs Ogden H Hammond, Mr John H Harper, Mr C Harwood Knight, Sir Hugh Lane, Mrs Florence Padley, Mr Frederick Perry, Mr and Mrs Frank B Tesson and Mr Georges Tiberghien.
Seven days out of New York on the afternoon of 7 May the Lusitania 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 250 miles away from the safety of her home port.
Although ten of his saloon passengers perished as a result of this action, First Class Bedroom Steward Fletcher managed to survive and having returned safely home, he recounted his experiences to a reporter from 'The Wallasey News' in an article printed on Saturday 15 May 1915.
He described how he was leaning over the deck railings "enjoying a brief respite in the sunshine", when he saw a "slowly lengthening stream of froth". He continued:
"In a second the terrible engine of destruction struck the vessel which trembled from beam to beam. There was a second explosion and the vessel settled down. It was the last blow which sealed the fate of the stately vessel, sending her quickly to her doom."
Steward Fletcher struck out into the sea when the water swamped the decks and after swimming for some time he reached the wreckage of a lifeboat, from which he was eventually rescued and landed at Queenstown. He reported that he did not personally see any panic and remarked:
"I should think there was more panic when the survivors and their relatives met at the station, than there was during the time of the tragedy."
He was officially discharged from the Lusitania’s final voyage at Cunard’s office in Water Street, Liverpool and paid the balance of wages owed to him, which amounted to £4-9s-6d (£4.47½). This represented his service from 17 April to 8 May, 24 hours after the liner had gone down. The balance of wages owing, was paid to all crew members until 8 May, whether they survived or not.
Perhaps Bedroom Steward Fletcher’s last link with the Lusitania passed when he attended the funeral of its captain, Commander William Turner, on 26 June 1933 in Rake Lane Cemetery, not far from where Fletcher lived.
At the time of the sinking William Fletcher had a son, W/1151 Private William Sleath Fletcher, under training at Aldershot, Hampshire, England with The 13th (Service) Battalion of The Cheshire Regiment. He saw action on the Western Front, having transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, but like his father, survived the war.
William Sleath Fletcher died on 15 June 1939, aged 74 years. He was residing at Woodside, Barham, near Canterbury, Kent, England at that time. When his will was proven on 1 March 1940, administration was granted to his wife, Margaret. His effects amounted to £504-11s-1d.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1871 Census of England and Wales, 1881 Census of England and Wales, 1891 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, Peter Threlfall, Wallasey News, Wallasey & Wirral Chronicle, Probate Records, PRO BT 349.