People's Stories

Everyone on the Lusitania's last voyage, including passengers and crew.

Denis Duncan Harold Owen Boulton

Denis Duncan Harold Owen Boulton

About Denis Duncan Harold Owen

Denis Duncan Harold Owen Boulton - known as Harold Boulton - was born in Great Britain on 10th December 1892, the son of Sir Harold Edwin Boulton, (2nd Baronet), and Lady Ida Boulton, (née Davidson) of Tulloch Castle, Dingwall, Scotland.  His father had served as a captain in The Queens Own Cameron Highlanders and had been created a Companion of the Victorian Order.   Harold Boulton junior was educated at Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, from 1907 onwards.

In 1913, he had been commissioned into The Bedfordshire Regiment but was later discharged as being medically unfit for service and the same year, he went to the United States of America and worked for The American Creosoting Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  The spring of 1915 found him in Chicago, Illinois, and probably because of the war, and mindful of his patriotic duty, he decided to return home and once more offer his services to the British Army.  He was staying at the Hotel Blackstone in Chicago when he booked his passage, and gave his intended address as being 5. Smithwick Street, Hyde Park, London.

For his return, he booked saloon passage on the May sailing of the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool and having left Chicago at the end of April he arrived at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour on the morning of 1st May 1915, in time for her scheduled 10.00 a.m. sailing.  Once on board, - with ticket number 20609 - he was escorted to his accommodation in room A8, which was the personal responsibility of First Class Bedroom Steward Edward Bond who came from Anfield, a district of Liverpool.

The liner’s sailing was delayed until 12.27 p.m., because she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service at the end of April.  Then, six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May, and within sight of the coast of southern Ireland, the Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger.

Harold Boulton later wrote of his experiences of the disaster to his old school and his letter was printed in the June 1915 edition of The Stonyhurst Magazine: -

The Lusitania left New York on May 1st, 1915, about 12 o'clock, and some miles out of the harbour we passed a British cruiser, an auxiliary cruiser, and later on, further out at sea, we passed a French battleship.

The British cruiser, and the auxiliary cruiser, were almost certainly H.M.S. Essex and former Cunarder H.M.S. Caronia, which were just outside American territorial waters, (then set at three miles) to intercept any interned Central Powers vessels which might attempt a break out.  The account continues: -

The journey was quite uneventful till Friday morning, May 7th, when I was awakened at 8-30 a.m. by the fog-horn blowing, which went steadily on till about 11 o'clock, during which time I had got up, had breakfast, and dressed.  About 11 o'clock the fog lifted, and it was a very calm sea and a beautiful day.  There was a natural excitement on the ship because we were nearing the “danger zone“, and I am told the “look-outs” were doubled.

I went down stairs to lunch at about 1-30 p.m., and had just come up and was smoking a cigarette on the boat deck, outside the palm lounge, talking to Mr. Foster Stackhouse, who I found out afterwards was drowned.   At the time we were struck he was explaining to me how quite impossible it was for a submarine to get us, for he said that anyone that was used to the sea could see the periscope of a submarine at least two miles away, and as they have to have the periscope up above the water at the time they fire the torpedo, the speed of the ship which could do 26 knots a hour, could easily outdistance any submarine.  He was in the middle of telling me this when suddenly on the starboard side there was a terrific explosion, and the whole ship seemed to shudder at the shock.  A few seconds later a huge quantity of dirty water and wreckage came crashing down near us, and we both rushed inside the palm lounge to escape the falling debris.  That was the last I ever saw of Mr. Stackhouse.

Mr. Stackhouse was fellow saloon passenger and explorer Commander John Foster Stackhouse, who had been in the United States to raise funds for his next expedition to Antarctica.  Boulton was convinced, however, that Stackhouse was on a secret Government mission: -

Immediately the ship started to list to the starboard side, and I rushed down to the cabin of a woman, by name Mrs. Lasseter, (sic) who was returning from a tour round the world with her son, who had been wounded at the front, and at whose table I had sat on the whole voyage.  I opened the door, went into the cabin and shouted to her, but there was no answer, and so I tried to turn on the light but found it would not work.  Having hastily looked in the cabin to see that she was not lying there asleep, I went to my cabin, which was almost opposite, to look for my lifebelt, but someone must have taken it, as it was not there.  I then rushed along the corridor - I say “rushed“, hut it hardly was a rush, as there was such a list on the ship, that one foot was really on the side of the wall and the other on the floor - and I managed to get to the end of the corridor, where I found a steward giving away lifebelts.  I joined three or four people waiting for them, and, having received one, rushed out to the deck in search of this woman and her son.

At this stage of his escape, Harold Boulton had reached the main entrance and Des Hickey and Gus Smith in their 1981 book Seven Days to Disaster describe his horror at what he saw next: -

On reaching the Grand Entrance he noticed the lift had jammed halfway between floors and was filled with people who had been coming up from lunch.  They were screaming and struggling frantically to release the gates.  Boulton thought “They are trapped like rats.”

His own account of June 1915 continued: -

At last I found them on the port side, (the Lassetters), which, owing to the list of the ship, was very high up, making walking on the top very hard.  I found them there eventually, and while the boy stood with his mother, I helped with a crowd of other men to push out the boats that were hanging and which had been swung out since Wednesday or Thursday, as we were nearing the danger zone, but they were swinging in instead of out, owing to the list of the ship.  We had to get a sort of swing on the boat and every time she swung out the men at the ropes lowered it a little till at last it was almost on the level of the deck. Then we all shouted “let the women get in first,” and a great many women did get in, but some men, and I helped the boy and his mother into this boat.

Just as it was filling up with people the Captain for the first time appeared on the bridge, and shouting loudly and waving his hand, shrieked at the top of his voice -"don't lower the boats - don't lower the boats - the ship cannot sink - the ship cannot sink.”  Then in an appealing way to the crowd of men said “will the gentlemen kindly assist me in getting the women out of the boats and off the upper deck.”  Thereupon those in the boats jumped out, and I helped the boy and his mother myself out of the boat and started with them inside on the deck.  I then felt the ship tremble, and looking towards the bow I saw a lot of angry-looking water and the bow gradually being submerged, and shouted to them, “come on, let us get away; the ship's sinking; let us jump overboard,” and hurrying across the deck, had to get into the boat that had been lowered before being able to jump clear of the ship, and we all three jumped from the boat overboard.

I jumped first.  I then swam out roughly sixty or seventy yards, but while doing so lost sight of them, and as I can swim faster on my back then in the ordinary way, I turned round just in time to see the ship take her final plunge.  Her rudder and propellers were clearly visible above the water, and she went down head first with a crashing, shrieking, booming sound, disappearing from view.  Then there was a wave that came afterwards, as she made her final plunge, and in it was a vast quantity of oars, masts, and other debris.  I saw this coming and put my hands in front of my face, up above my head.  The wave went right over me and I felt several things bump against my arms, but was not hurt in any way.  When the wave had passed, I looked round for somewhere to swim to.  Seeing an upturned life-boat with seven or eight people on it about thirty yards away, I swam to it, and was helped up by some good man, and once up, helped to pull up various other people, as others were doing.  At last the boat, having too many people on it got lower and lower in the water till the top of it was scarcely above the surface.

Seeing a cabinet that I think was used for putting a piano in, when they keep a piano on deck for open-air concerts, and no one on it, I swam a few yards to it and scrambled on.  Once on, I turned round to see where my boy friend and his mother were, and seeing them on another upturned boat about forty yards away, I shouted to them.  They shouted back, “Is there any room on there for us,” and I shouted back, “Yes, by all means.”  Leaning over into the water I picked up, by a piece of good luck, a broken oar and tried to paddle towards them, but needless to say, did not make very much headway.  They both having put on lifebelts before they jumped overboard, jumped off their upturned boat and swam to me, and I pulled them both up.  By the time the three of us were on this case - the top of it was really under water, and the hard thing to do was to balance it.  We were knocked off four times altogether, and having drifted away from the bulk of the survivors, we all three sat with our legs dangling in the water, and the water up to our waists, till about 6-30.

Mrs. Elizabeth Lassetter and her son Frederick were on their way back from Australia, where there was a family business.  Fred Lassetter had been badly wounded at Ypres in 1914, whilst serving with the London Scottish as a private soldier and had accompanied his mother to recuperate before returning to England to take up a commission with The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.  Boulton’s account continued: -

When the ship went down there was not another ship in sight.  Luckily it was a very calm day and the sun was shining brightly.  About two and a half hours later we saw away in the distance, in the direction of Queenstown, eight different clouds of smoke, and so knew that the ships in Queenstown must have received the Lusitania's “ S.O.S.,” and knowing our plight, were making straight for us.  The first ship to arrive on the scene was a torpedo boat destroyer, and shortly afterwards all other kinds of ships arrived.  Of course the larger bodies of survivors, being more noticeable, were picked up first, and we three, who were partly submerged and had drifted by then almost a quarter of a mile, were not seen until almost the last.  Eventually we were picked up, being actually the very last to he taken out of the water.  We were taken on to a trawler which was disguised as a Greek ship and were very kindly treated by the crew.  There were many other survivors on the ship, as they had been picked up first.  When I went downstairs to the cabin I glanced at a clock which indicated quarter to seven; then looking at my watch which I happened to have on me I saw that it had stopped exactly at 2-26; so 1 was in the water from 2-26 till about 6-40 p.m.

The trawler which was disguised as a Greek ship was the Hopkins and Jones steamer Westborough, registered in Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales.  She was outward bound from Havana, Cuba, with a cargo of sugar and had been diverted from Queenstown, (where she had intended to re-coal), to seek survivors.  Her master, Captain E.L. Taylor had deliberately disguised her as a Greek merchant ship, renaming her Katerina and even flying a Greek flag, in the hope that German U-Boats would respect her supposed neutral status!  At 6,400 tons, she was appreciably larger than a trawler.

The account continued: -

Having been given large cups of hot tea and chunks of dry bread and marmalade, we arrived at Queenstown at about 1 a.m., where we waited in the harbour for some time before a small yacht came and took us off the trawler to the pier.

Then I went to the morgues, where they already had 150 dead.  I tried to identify some of them, as I had made several friends on the ship, and was anxious to know if they had been drowned or saved.  There I remained till four, having recognised one or two of them.  Afterwards I went to the hotel and slept till 6-30 a.m. on two chairs, as I could not get a bed, every available room, sofa and bedstead having been taken.  I then got up and took up breakfast to several of my friends, having had my suit dried at the hotel, while wandering about in an overcoat, the captain of the trawler had lent me, and a pair of trousers I bought for 4/11. (£0.24p.).  I eventually bought a coloured shirt and cap and left that afternoon at two o'clock, arriving in London on Sunday morning at 8-30 a.m., the only luggage with me being my lifebelt.

Harold Boulton was one of 112 saloon passengers to survive the sinking.  At the time, of the action, the Lusitania was only about 250 miles away from her Liverpool destination.

Bedroom Steward Bond, who had looked after him in room A8, also survived, despite being sucked down one of the Lusitania’s funnels and then blown out again, before he was picked up.  He eventually got back to his home in Anfield.  The explorer Commander Stackhouse died as a result of the action, however, although both the Lassetters survived and Fred Lassetter also survived the war after service on the Western Front.

Despite Harold Boulton’s escape from the Lusitania, his family was still to suffer at the hands of Imperial Germany, for on 12th October 1917, his younger brother Lieutenant Christian Harold Ernest Boulton of the 5th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, (his father’s former regiment), but attached to the Headquarters Staff of the Battalion, was killed in action near Ypres in Belgium during the Third Battle of Ypres - better known as The Battle of Passendaele.  His body was never recovered and identified after the war.

For a dozen or so years after the sinking, Harold Boulton would have a recurring nightmare that he was being sucked down to the bottom of the sea by the sinking liner and would wake up standing on his bed, with arms flailing upwards, to ward off the inevitable!

Once safely back in England, he carried out his original intention of trying to enlist in the Army but was rejected by the Military Medical Board and instead, served for a while as an Honorary Captain in the French Red Cross, attached to No.1 Chirurgical Ambulance in France.  He then served for a short time as extra equerry to Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll and was also Honorary Manager of Queen Mary’s Hospital for Nurses.  One source also states that he served in France and Flanders in August and September 1915, but in view of the fact that he had been rejected by the British Army, it is likely that this service was that with the French Red Cross.

He returned to America in 1916 and worked for The Barrett Manufacturing Company of New York and then joined the British Ministry of Shipping in that city and served with it in Naval Intelligence, until the Armistice in November 1918.

On the 9th February 1918, at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, Boston, Massachusetts, he married Louise Wishart (née McGowan), Louise was a widow, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, and they had three children, Harold Hugh Christian, born in 1918, Duncan Davidson, born in 1926 and one daughter.

Harold Boulton returned to Great Britain with his family in 1919 and succeeded to the Baronetcy upon the death of his father, in 1935.

In 1940, just after the beginning of the Second World War, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, even though he was approaching 50 years of age and was commissioned and seconded to the Foreign Office with responsibility for American hospitality.  He was released from his commission in 1942 as a flight lieutenant and then served in the Civil Defence, working for home security.

Both of his sons served in the Brigade of Guards during the war.  Harold served as a captain in the Irish Guards and Duncan served as a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards.  Whilst serving with the 1st (Motor) Battalion of that regiment in Italy in 1944, Duncan Boulton was killed in action on 9th February during the battle for Monte Cassino.  His body was not recovered and identified after the war, and he is commemorated on the Cassino Memorial, within Cassino War Cemetery.

Denis Duncan Harold Owen Boulton died in Malta on the 10th August 1968; aged 75 years, and his surviving son Harold Hugh Christian succeeded him as 4th Baronet.  Before his death, Harold Boulton was chairman of The Peoples Palace Horticultural Society, Honorary Manager of Shelter and a member of The Board of Management of The London Mendacity Society.  He had also been appointed a Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.  At the time of his death, he lived at 55, Park Lane, Mayfair, London, W1.

On the death of his son, Harold Hugh Christian Boulton in 1996, the Boulton Baronetcy became extinct.

Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England & Wales, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Lists, Lusitania Saga and Myth, John Mulholland,  PRO 22/71, Seven Days to Disaster, The Tablet, San Francisco Examiner, Stonyhurst Magazine, Geoff Whitfield, Who‘s Who 1948, 1973-4, UniLiv D92/2/258, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly

Denis Duncan Harold Owen Boulton



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