Fanny Jane Chamberlain was born in Holborn, London, England, on the 22 January 1871, the daughter of Arthur and Elizabeth Chamberlain. Her father was a newspaper compositor who worked for one of the Fleet Street newspapers.
When she was aged about 16 years, Fanny met Herbert Johnston Morecroft, who was nearly 20 years her senior. Herbert, who was born in Cheshire, came from a wealthy family and was a qualified solicitor. He had married Mary Galt in Liverpool in 1879, but became a widower in 1881 when Mary died in childbirth. It would appear that following this, Herbert turned his back on his profession and to the horror of his family, became a travelling actor. Fanny also became a theatrical actress, but whether this was before or after she met Herbert is unknown.
As actors, especially travelling actors were not held in very high esteem by Victorian society, Herbert’s liaison with Fanny did not meet with the approval of her family, and eventually the couple eloped, and got married in Manchester in 1890. At that time, any person under the age of 21 years who wished to marry had to have the consent of their parents, and it appears that Fanny lied about her age as her parents did not approve of her intended spouse and would not have given their consent.
The couple continued to reside in Manchester following their marriage, and their daughter, Caroline Mary, was born there in 1893; however, they moved to Douglas in the Isle of Man shortly after the birth and it was here that Caroline was baptized. By 1894, the family were residing in Chester, Cheshire, and it was here that Fanny gave birth to her second child, a son named Herbert Thomas.
As the years went on, Herbert became a theatrical manager and promoter, and as a consequence, the family moved about mainland Britain quite a lot. At some stage Herbert became known as Herbert
Montague, and the entire family adopted this surname for a time. Whether Herbert adopted the surname
‘Montague’ for theatrical reasons or for some other reason is not known.
Herbert Morecroft died on the 6 September 1907. At that time the family were residing at 19 Elgin Street, Clydebank, Lanarkshire. He left an estate of £258-14s-5d (£258.72) to his widow, Fanny.
As a widow with two children to support, Fanny was obliged to find stable employment and thus moved with her children to Liverpool and became a stewardess on ocean-going passenger liners.
She joined the Cunard Line in 1911 as a stewardess, where she met Miss May Bird, who was also a stewardess and who was to become a lifelong friend. They lodged together at the home of William Evans, plumber, of 40 Church Road, Hoylake, where his daughter kept house.
Having served on the Aquitania, Fanny Morecroft left that vessel when she was taken up by the Admiralty for conversion to an armed merchant cruiser in August 1914. She then transferred to the
Transylvania, finally signing on for service on the Lusitania, on 12 April 1915 at Liverpool, at a monthly rate of pay of £4-0s-0d. She joined the liner at 7 am on 17 April, for her last ever voyage out of the River Mersey.
When the Lusitania left New York, on the early afternoon of 1st May 1915 there were 22 stewardesses on board and after the ship was sunk, just six days later, off The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland, by the German submarine
U-20, only nine survived. One of these was Fanny Morecroft.
She recounted her story of the sinking to a reporter of The Birkenhead News and Advertiser which was published in the edition of Saturday 15th May 1915. The account told of the part played in the sinking by both Mrs Morecroft and Miss Bird. It stated that when the ship was struck:
The children began to scream, and the stewardesses ran among the passengers beseeching them to keep quiet. Lifebelts were handed round whilst some of the passengers had already donned them in their cabins.
When the ship was “listing” the passengers in a body ran to the port side, and were sent sliding down the steep decks into the water. A man and woman were seen, when the vessel was leaning almost on her side, climbing up a rail and asking in God’s name for their children to be rescued. Mrs Moorcroft (sic) took the children from the parents and threw them to a man in one of the boats. Miss Bird and her companion were the only females on the deck when the vessel went down, and they jumped together into the sea, and were picked up by one of the boats...
Mrs Moorcroft (sic) interrupting the story, said Miss Bird was known as “The heroine of Boat 13”. She helped to row the boat, and when transferred to the fishing smack tore her clothing up to make bandages for the wounded.
Another account told by former Stewardess Bird in 1971, when she was in her 96th year said that she had jumped into lifeboat 13 just as it was being lowered so it is probable that Stewardess Morecroft did the same.
They were then rescued by a small fishing smack, possibly the Peel 12 and then in turn taken on board by the port tender the
Flying Fish and landed at Queenstown, from where they both made it back to Birkenhead, via Dublin and Holyhead.
Mrs Morecroft ended her interview with The Birkenhead News by saying:
There was absolutely no panic on board, everyone was perfectly cool, calm and collected; the crew exhibited the utmost bravery and self sacrifice. The people of Queenstown were extremely kind to all the survivors. They opened their houses and forfeited their beds and clothing so that the utmost comfort might be given to the rescued.
On her return to Liverpool, Mrs. Morecroft was officially discharged from her service on the Lusitania’s
final voyage. In keeping with all the liner’s crew, survived or perished, she was paid up to the 8th May, 24 hours after the liner had sunk, the balance of wages owing to her being £3-15s-11d, (£3.80).
Although Cunard records and the newspaper accounts spell her surname Moorcroft, her signature on her Particulars of Engagement book, still held in the Public Record Office shows it to have been Morecroft.
Shortly after the Lusitania sinking, Cunard made the decision not to employ female crew members for the duration of the war, a decision that angered and disappointed Fanny Morecroft. She found work in various areas while this ban remained in force, including becoming a tram conductress. Eventually, in 1919, she returned to Cunard as a stewardess and eventually became the Chief Stewardess on the Cunard liner,
Lancastria, a position which allowed her to have her own stateroom!
On retiring from the mercantile marine in the 1930’s, Fanny Morecroft went to live with her great friend, Marian Bird, who never returned to sea after her survival. By this time, Marian Bird had married Charles Ernest Walker, and was residing with her husband at ‘The Moorings’, Grange Road, Ashtead, Surrey. In later years, Charles, Marian, and Fanny moved to 30 Queens Road, Hoylake, Cheshire. Charles Walker died in March 1950 and was buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hoylake.
Although both Fanny Morecroft and Marian Bird continued to live at Queens Road, Hoylake, Fanny Morecroft died at nearby 6 Egbert Road, Meols, on the 9 July 1958. She was aged 87 years. Probate was granted to her daughter, Caroline, her estate amounting to £498-8s-1d (£498.40½).
Marian Bird died at the age of 99 years, on 31 January 1975, at her home, 30 Queens Road, Hoylake. She was just over three months short of her 100th birthday when she passed away!
She was buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hoylake in the same grave as her husband Charles who had died in March 1950. His name is the only one to appear on the headstone. Another
Lusitania survivor, saloon passenger William John Pierpoint, who also died in 1950, is buried only yards away!
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1911 English Census, 1901 English Census, 1881 English Census, Birkenhead News (Photo. 08/05/1915 P. 2 col.4), Cunard Records, Probate Records, PRO BT 100/345, PRO BT 349.