Matthew ‘Matt’ Freeman was born in London, England on 11 October 1895, one of the thirteen children of David and Lea Freeman. The family lived at 50 Old Compton Street, Soho, London, where his father, who was born in Poland, carried on a tailoring business.
He, like many in his family, worked in the family business, and in 1913, accompanied by four of his brothers, he emigrated to Canada. All five brothers gave their occupations as being tailors on entering Canada. At some point after this Matthew decided to change his occupation to become a waiter, and decided to ply his new calling on transatlantic liners.
He was a professional seaman in the Mercantile Marine when in the spring of 1915 he found himself without a ship in New York, having travelled there on the White Star liner SS Megantic.
Deciding to return home to England, on 30 April 1915 he engaged on the Lusitania as a waiter in the Stewards' Department at a monthly rate of pay of £4-5s-0d (£4.25) and he was on board when the liner left New York for the last time on the early afternoon of 1 May 1915.
Just six days later he survived the sinking of the vessel after she had been torpedoed by the German submarine
U-20, off the Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland, only hours away from her home port.
According to Adolph and Mary Hoehling in their book 'The Last Voyage of the Lusitania', published in 1956, Matt Freeman was an "amateur lightweight boxing champion of England". When the ship was struck he tried to help some members of the crew to lower the boats but in the process he cut his hand quite badly. It was bandaged by saloon passenger Madame Marie Depage, whose husband was a renowned surgeon.
The Hoehlings describe what happened to him next:
"Matt Freeman, ..... was in a hurry to get off, once his hand had been treated by Marie de Page (sic). He ran to the stern, now the highest part of the ship. When he looked down, he wondered if it weren't a bit too high.
Being an athlete in peak trim, he had full self-confidence. He climbed on to the railing and dived. He struck the side of a floating lifeboat. The blow opened a deep gash in his head and he could feel the blood ooze, even under water. But it had not knocked him out, and he began to swim."
Eventually he came across a small keg floating in the sea with five other people trying to hold on to it and he managed to cling on to it with his finger tips.
"Just before he had found the keg, he had been submerged a second time by a man who grabbed him, ‘eyes with bulging with fear‘.
The athlete had become faint with the effort to stay afloat. No match for the clawing mass of terrified men, he slipped away from the keg. He seized a passing deck chair and finally reached an upturned lifeboat to which a dozen people already clung.
In the hours that followed, many dropped off. Half-conscious himself, he was aware that "ten of them died beside me there in the water"."
Second cabin passenger Dr Daniel V Moore of Yankton, South Dakota, later told of how the keg got into the water and how he came across Matt Freeman, in the book 'The Tragedy of the Lusitania', written by Captain Frederick D Ellis and published not long after the disaster:
"By this time the ship was almost on its side and sinking by the bow. I saw a woman clinging to the rail near where a boat was being lowered. I rushed her into the boat and jumped after her. It was a twelve foot drop. The boat was heavily loaded, and when it dropped into the water we were almost swamped. Although we kept an even keel, water came over the gunwales faster than we could bail it out with our hats.
I realized that we would sink soon, so I threw a keg overboard and sprang after it. A young steward named Freeman also used the keg for a support. A full minute later we saw the boat swamped. After an hour and a half Freeman and I were picked up by a raft."
Dr Moore and Waiter Freeman were rescued from this raft by the Royal Naval trawler HMS Brock, which landed them both at Queenstown.
From there Matt Freeman travelled to Liverpool, the Lusitania’s
home port, where he was officially discharged from her last voyage and paid the balance of wages owing to him. This amounted to £1-18s-2d (£1.91) and was in respect of his service from 1 to 8 May 1915, 24 hours after the liner had foundered.
Marie Depage, who had administered first aid to Matt Freeman on the sloping deck of the liner, was on her way to Belgium to tend the war wounded in her husband’s hospital. She, unfortunately, perished in the course of the sinking.
It is possible that Matthew Freeman became a boxing champion after his escape from death on the
Lusitania and before he had related his story to the Hoehlings.
Matthew gave up his job as a waiter in the mercantile marine and returned to the clothing business, becoming a cloth buyer. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean on business on numerous occasions between 1916 and 1947 buying and selling cloth in America and Canada.
Matthew Freeman died in Eastbourne, Sussex, England on 24 March 1968, aged 72 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Tragedy of the Lusitania, UniLiv.D/92/6/1, Stuart Williamson.