James Alexander McCubbin was born in 1853 the son of Peter and Susan Elizabeth McCubbin of Liverpool, Lancashire. Little is known about his early life; however, he married Annie (née McCubbin!) in Liverpool in 1876. Annie died in 1885, and there is no evidence of the couple having had any children.
James joined the mercantile marine after his wife’s death and rose through the ranks until he became a Purser with the Cunard Steam Ship Co. Ltd.
When ashore, he is known to have resided at 2 Queen's Road and St Alban's Road, Bootle, near Liverpool and also stayed at hotels in Liverpool, notably the Midland Adelphi Hotel and the North Western Hotel, which were both situated in Lime Street, in the centre of the city.
He engaged as Purser on board the Lusitania at Liverpool on 12th April 1915 for what would become her final voyage, at a monthly rate of pay of £17-0s-0d., and he joined ship on the morning of 17th April, before she left the River Mersey for the first leg of her voyage to the United States of America. On his engagement, he gave his home address as 8, Water Street, Liverpool, which was the official address of the Cunard Steam Ship Company.
It was not the first time that he had served on the vessel and having reached New York without mishap, he was performing his duties when the liner left the Cunard berth at Pier 54 there, on the early afternoon of 1st May 1915, for her return home. The other members of his staff were Second Purser P. Draper, Assistant Purser George Beesley, Assistant Purser Arthur Burden, Assistant Purser William Harkness and Junior Assistant Purser Alfred Harrod.
Six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, off The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland and only about 250 miles away from the safety of her home port.
In an account of the sinking published in The Maidenhead Advertiser of 12th May 1915, Mr. George A. Kessler, an American wine merchant, living in Maidenhead who had travelled as a saloon passenger on board, told of a conversation with Purser McCubbin:-
On Wednesday I saw the crew taking the tarpaulins from the boats and I went up to the purser and said: “It's all right drilling your crew, but why don't you drill your passengers?” The purser said he thought it was a good idea and added “Why not tell Captain Turner, sir?”.
In a further account of the sinking printed in The New York Times on 2nd June 1915, a Mr. Isaac Lehman from New York, also travelling as a saloon passenger on board the ship stated: -
I walked up to B deck and met my steward - by the name of Barnes - on the way, and told him to get me a life preserver. I waited for him to get this and he put it on for me, saying that it would come in handy. I walked out on B deck and met the ship's doctor and the ship's purser, who told me there was not a chance for the boat to go down, that I should remain calm, and I was foolish to have my life preserver on. However, I did not take very much notice of this outside of the fact I laughed at them and said it was better to be prepared if anything did happen. This was the last that I saw of these men. I understand they have been drowned.
Purser McCubbin was indeed drowned, or at least he was killed when the ship went down but his body was recovered from the sea. At first it was not identified and was given the reference number 91 in one of Queenstown's makeshift and temporary mortuaries. Cunard staff there described his body as very stout! Upon eventual identification, however, it was sent to Messrs. R. McDougall and Co. Ltd., of St. Anne Street, Liverpool, for burial in the family grave in Toxteth Park Cemetery, in Smithdown Road, Liverpool.
His funeral took place there on 14th May 1915. The coffin, which was draped with the union flag, was carried by six quartermasters from the Cunard Steamship Company and was met at the cemetery gates by a number of boys from the Seamen's Orphanage, an institution supported by Purser McCubbin, and they led the cortege to the graveside, where The Reverend C.W.R. Higham conducted the funeral service. Purser McCubbin was aged 62 years, although he had given his age on engagement as 60!
Amongst the many mourners present there, were the chairman of the Cunard Line, Mr. A.A. Booth and its general manager, Mr. A.D. Mearns and survivors from the disaster, including Chief Steward F.V. Jones. At the end of the service, the boys from the orphanage sang the hymn Star of Peace. From his staff of pursers, only Draper and Harkness survived the action, all the others were also killed!
Purser McCubbin's remains still lie there today, along with those of his family, in Church of England Section A, Grave 5. The pertinent inscription on the headstone states: -
ALSO JAMES ALEXANDER MCCUBBIN,
DROWNED BY THE SINKING OF THE R.M.S. "LUSITANIA,"
MAY 7TH 1915, AGED 62 YEARS.
His father had died in May 1863 aged 39 years and his mother in October 1871 aged 42 years.
On 3rd June 1915, his property was handed over to Mr. R. Mills, Solicitor, of Harrington Street, Liverpool, who was the executor of his will. It consisted of £2-12s-6d., (£2.62½p.), in gold and silver British coinage, some American coinage, a gold watch and chain, two pairs of spectacles, a fountain pen, a gold pencil, a knife, a bunch of keys and a pair of cuff links.
When his will was proven on 22nd March 1916, his money and effects amounted to £3,336-18s-10d (£3,336.94), which was a considerable sum for those days. His next of kin had already been sent the balance of wages owed to him for the
Lusitania's last voyage, in August 1915!
In the book The Tragedy of the Lusitania, published in 1915, actress Hilda Spong who knew the purser very well, reported: -
He had spent all his life at sea working hard, and this was to have been his last voyage. Two days before the Lusitania sailed, he told me, with great joy, that he had purchased a small farm near Golders Green, about twenty miles from London. There he intended to spend the remainder of his days.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1891 English Census, 1881 English Census, Bootle Times, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, Maidenhead Advertiser, New York Times, Probate Records, Toxteth Park Cemetery Burial Records, The Tragedy of the Lusitania, UniLiv.D92/1/8-10, UniLiv D92/2/406, PRO BT 334.