William Herbert Harkness was born in Bootle, Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on 18 June 1885, the son of John and Mary AAH Harkness. He lived at 112 St Domingo Vale, Everton, Liverpool.
He signed on as Assistant Purser in the Deck Department for the Lusitania's final voyage at Liverpool, at a rate of £10-0s-0d per month for what would be the Cunarder’s final voyage. He reported for duty at 7am on the morning of 17 April, as the Cunarder left the River Mersey the last time.
After helping other passengers to get into the boats, just before the liner went down, he was able to rescue Barbara Anderson, the two year old infant daughter of second cabin passengers Mr and Mrs Roland Anderson and get her safely into a lifeboat. This rescue and his own escape is described in the book 'The Tragedy of the Lusitania', published privately in America not long after the disaster. Its author Captain Frederick D Ellis reported:
"Assistant Purser W. Harkness busied himself helping others until the Lusitania was about to settle beneath the water. Then, seeing a lifeboat striking the water, one that was not overcrowded, he made a rush for it. The only person he encountered was little Barbara Anderson standing alone and clinging to the rail. Gathering her up into his arms, he leaped over the rail into the boat and this without injuring the child."
Although the Anderson family were British, they were travelling to England from Bridgeport Connecticut, USA.
Assistant Purser Harkness was one of only two officers from the pursers section to survive the sinking, the other being Second Purser P Draper. The Purser JA McCubbin, his other Assistant Purser AH Burden and his three Junior Assistant Pursers GW Beesley, AH Harrod and LH Sloane were all killed.
In late 1917 William married Muriel Irene Howarth in West Derby, Liverpool.
William Harkness continued to serve as a purser on ocean-going liners until he died at the age of 52 years at Liverpool in June 1938. His address at the time of his death was Mayfair, Orient Drive, Liverpool. On 22 August 1938 administration of his estate was granted to his wife, Muriel, and his effects amounted to £551-2s-3d.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, PRO BT 100/345, The Tragedy of the Lusitania, Probate Records, PRO BT 350.