Benjamin Robert ‘Ben’ Holton was born in Liverpool, Lancashire England on the 7th August 1898, the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Holton. In 1904, his father died at the age of 31 years, as a result of which, Ben was sent to Ripley Hospital in Lancaster, which was described as an endowed charitable school for orphans and fatherless children. In 1915 was residing at 83, County Road, Walton, Liverpool.
He was a professional seaman in the Mercantile Marine and enlisted as a stewards' boy in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at Liverpool on 12th April 1915 at a monthly rate of pay of £2-10s-0d., (£2.50p.) and reported for duty on the morning of the 17th April, before the vessel left the River Mersey for the last time. It was apparently the 17th time he had sailed on the vessel, which means that he must have first engaged on her at New York, unless he did not count his last voyage, as it was not completed.
Having carried out his duties successfully on the outward journey across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, Ben Holton was present on the early afternoon of 1st May 1915, when the great liner left the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York for what would be her last voyage ever out of the port.
Six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, he was lucky enough to survive when the vessel was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, off the coast of southern Ireland and only about fourteen hours steaming time away from the safety of her home port. Having been rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, he eventually made it back to Liverpool where, he was officially paid off from the Lusitania’s final voyage and given the balance of wages owed to him. This amounted to £2-17s-8d., (£2.88p.) and represented his service from the day the liner left Liverpool until 24 hours after she had gone down.
In 1932, Ben married Amelia Hartley in Leeds, Yorkshire.
In 1972, with the publication of Colin Simpson’s book Lusitania and a BBC documentary programme entitled
Who Sank The Lusitania? written by journalist Nicholas Thomalin, the debate as to exactly why the liner had sunk so quickly was opened. The programme posed the possibility that there was a huge internal explosion and this was also taken up by Thomalin in the B.B.C. publication The Listener, in an article of 26th October 1972, who also posed the possibility that that incompetent design was a contributory factor in the liner’s sinking.
The former stewards' boy replied to these possibilities in a letter published in the edition of 16th November, when he stated: -
Was the Lusitania incompetently designed? A naval architect could no doubt supply the answer, but let me say that in my 17 voyages in this ship she was never in any trouble, whatever the weather, and she did her regular New York runs with the regularity of a train; she was a comfortable ship and rode the Western Ocean winter gales like the thoroughbred she certainly was.
Nicholas Thomalin reports that John Light the diver has been down to the wreckage 300 feet below and has photographed the buckled plating in the bow section of the ship. It is inferred that the damage was caused by a ‘vast internal explosion’, but this is pure hypothesis.
I claim that there was no such explosion in this part of the ship: the buckled plating was the result of 31,500 tons of ship hitting the sea-bed with the ship poised bows down, stern up and at an angle in the region of 45 degrees. In company with the ship’s Second Engineer, I watched the ship’s final agonies.
We were together in the water for a while, on the port side. So I can at least believe the evidence of my own eyes. We saw her pause on her bows as the forefoot hit the bottom, finally levelling off by the stern till out of sight. The only explosion that occurred was the one when the torpedo hit the starboard side 250 feet from the forward end.
The Second Engineer referred to in his account was either Senior Second Engineer Andrew Cockburn or Junior Second Engineer Alexander Duncan - probably the former. Both of these officers survived the sinking.
Mr. Holton then finished his letter by stating that the only time that the
Lusitania flew the Stars and Stripes was on her penultimate voyage under the command of Captain Daniel Dow. He was also of the opinion that this is why Dow was replaced by Turner for what became the liner’s final voyage. This conflicts with the evidence that Dow asked to be relieved of his command through illness, or because he did not want to captain the vessel through a war zone.
At the time he wrote his letter, Ben Holton was living in Copmanthorpe, in Yorkshire, England.
Ben Holton died in York, Yorkshire, England, on the 4th January 1975, aged 76 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, B.B.C., Cunard Records, Listener, PRO BT 100/345.