William ‘Will’ McLeod was born in Union Street, Chorley, Lancashire, England, on 14th October 1857, the son of Thomas and Margaret McLeod, (née Gerrard). His father was a master plumber and glazier.
At some time William McLeod left Chorley and moved to Cheshire, where he married Caroline Biggs. They lived at 142, Bedford Road, Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, where Caroline McLeod ran a shop. They had two sons, one who died in infancy, another named Allan, and five daughters, Clara, Annie, Margaret, Caroline and Cecilia, (‘Cissie’).
Having been employed for many years by The Cunard Steam Ship Company, Will McLeod had reached the rank of Chief First Class Bedroom Steward in the Stewards' Department.
His daughter Clara married a Mr. Robert Beavan, who was also a steward with the company. He had also served on the
Lusitania, but as Clara was pregnant with daughter Kathleen, Will McLeod advised him to stay at home and not sign on for what actually proved to be the Cunarder’s final voyage.
Will McLeod himself did sign on, however, as an ordinary first class bedroom steward, at Liverpool on 12th April 1915, at a monthly rate of pay of £4-6s-0d., (£4.30p.), and consequently, was not serving as
Chief First Class Bedroom Steward on the Lusitania’s final voyage.
He left the River Mersey on board ship, for the last time alive, on the morning of 17th April and after an uneventful passage to New York, he had what would be his last ever view of that city when the liner began her last Atlantic crossing just after mid-day on 1st May 1915. His special responsibility on that voyage was for rooms D1 to D29.
Will McLeod was killed six days later when the liner was sunk by the German submarine
U-20 off the coast of southern Ireland on the afternoon of 7th May. He was aged 57 years, although when he engaged, he gave his age as 50, which is the one quoted in official records.
George Mitchell, the Lusitania’s printer, and a family friend, who also lived in Rock Ferry, visited Bedford Road on his return to Birkenhead and described how he had last seen McLeod on the ship’s main staircase, without a lifejacket, kneeling in prayer. Mitchell had said to him: -
There’s no time for you to be doing that, Will, get your lifejacket on!
Obviously he did not heed Mitchell’s advice for he perished in the sinking, although his body was later recovered from the sea.
It was landed at Queenstown, where it was initially given the reference number 92 in one of the temporary mortuaries there. However, his son-in-law Robert Beavan and a family friend, named Forsyth, who was also a Cunard official, travelled to Queenstown from Merseyside and after discovering it there, were able to make a formal and positive identification. It was then despatched to Messrs. Swan, Funeral Furnishers of Birkenhead, for interment.
This took place on Friday 14th May 1915 at Bebington Cemetery, Birkenhead, in the Church of England Section, in Grave D. 628, following a service at St. Peter's Church, Rock Ferry. This was conducted by The Reverend John Alban, M.A.. Amongst the mourners at the funeral, was Mr. J.E. Clark, who was General Secretary of The National Union of Ships' Stewards, in Liverpool.
No headstone was ever erected on his grave, at the time, and for over 80 years, it had no obviously identifiable location. Furthermore, the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission did not show him ever to have had an actual grave, until research by the author proved that this was actually in Bebington Cemetery. Up until then, his body was thought to have been missing, and as a result, his name is erroneously recorded on the Mercantile Marine Memorial to the Missing, at Tower Hill, London. However, after representations from the author, the Commission accepted that he was not commemorated where he was buried and on June 18th 1997, erected a permanent headstone on his grave, to rectify this omission.
This headstone was dedicated on 7th May 1998, the 83rd anniversary of his death, by The Reverend Peter McGrath, of the British and International Sailors’ Society and members of William McLeod’s family and others who had relatives on the
Lusitania, in the presence of the Merseyside Branch of the Merchant Navy Association and the Royal British Legion, who carried appropriate standards.
Today, the inscription on the headstone states: -
CHIEF STEWARD MM.
7TH MAY 1915 AGE 57
However, when the headstone was first erected, the age at death, was thought to be 50 years, because of the erroneous details given by Will McLeod when he engaged for the
Lusitania’s final voyage. Consequently, this was the age incised on the stone. When the author realised the mistake, however, he was able, through the family, to furnish the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with a copy of William McLeod’s birth certificate and his correct age at death was officially altered on the headstone at the end of 1999!
The Commission has further amended the entry in the Tower Hill Memorial register to show his correct details and actual burial place and has stated that should it ever be necessary to re-cast the relevant bronze panel on that memorial, his name will be omitted from the new one.
Letters of Administration to William McLeod’s estate were granted to his widow Caroline, on 8th June 1915, and his effects amounted to £1,100-6s-0d, (£1,100.30p). She was also sent the sum of £4-9s-6d. (£4.47½p) by Cunard, which was the balance of wages owed to him. Personal effects recovered from his body were also sent to her on 1st November 1915. They consisted of some small American coinage, a pair of glasses three pencils and a rubber - very little to show for a lifetime at sea.
Caroline McLeod died in 1924 and was buried in the same grave as her husband.
Compensation claims for the families of Lusitania victims took a long time to be settled and it was just after Caroline McLeod’s death that a cheque for £120-0s-0d., arrived at the family home. Because she, as next of kin, was no longer alive, the family was not entitled to the money and unable to encash the cheque, they had to send it back to Cunard!
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 English Census, 1901 English Census, 1891 English Census, 1881 English Census, 1871 English Census, 1861 English Census, Birkenhead News, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, Kathleen Dodd, Robert O’Brien, Probate Register, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D92/1/8-10, Wirral Cemeteries, PRO BT 334.