Robert Wishart Cairns was born in East Wymess, Fifeshire, Scotland on the 5th May 1865, the son of James and Catherine Cairns (née White). The family home was on the High Street, Kirkcaldy, Fife, and his father was a butcher, who died when Robert was a young boy. Following his father’s death, his mother supported Robert and his four siblings with money generated from various investments, while Robert, as a teenager, earned money for the family dealing in sheep and cattle.
At some time, Robert had emigrated to the United States of America where he found work with the Bartholomay Brewing Company, Rochester, New York, rising to become a company director. By 1915, he was a director of six companies connected to the parent company, and had been the company representative for Europe, residing in London, England.
He made frequent trans-Atlantic voyages between London and Rochester, New York, and began one such trip on the 16th January 1915, when he boarded the
Lusitania in Liverpool, bound for New York.
Having spent three months conducting company business in New York, he decided to return to London, but must have only decided to join the
Lusitania as a saloon passenger very shortly before she sailed, on 1st May, as indicated by the fact that there was not enough time to enter his full details into the Cunard list of saloon passengers, which still exists today in the Public Record Office in Richmond, Surrey, for that last voyage.
Once he had boarded, he paid the Purser, J. McCubbin, for his passage, and his journey began just after mid-day, after a delay caused by having to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia, which had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty for use as a troop ship.
Six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, after the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, he found himself floating in the sea off the southern coast of Ireland for at least a couple of hours, before being rescued by the Royal Naval trawler H.M.S.
Brock. Once landed at Queenstown, he was taken to The Queens Hotel to recuperate. He was aged 50 years at the time of the sinking.
Whilst at the hotel, he was anxious to tell his story to the press and local newspaper
The Cork Examiner briefly related his experiences in its edition of Monday 10th May 1915. It stated: -
In the main, he agrees with the story told by practically all the other survivors. He states that after the ship went down, hundreds of people who were drawn downwards came up again, and were struggling in the water. The scene was a frightful one, but after a short time a great many seemed give up the struggle.
He assisted getting quite a number of people into the boats, and spent a couple of hours in the water himself. He assisted a Greek lady and kept her afloat for a very long time, being ultimately picked up by the Brock.
The Greek lady was undoubtedly Mrs. Angela Pappadopoulo from Athens, the only Greek lady on board, whose husband, Michael Pappadopoulo, perished in the sinking. Robert Cairns eventually managed to reach his home, which at that time was at Queens Gate Gardens, South Kensington, London.
The Queens Hotel still exists in Queenstown today, (which reverted to its original name of Cobh in the 1920s), but it is now called The Commodore Hotel.
Robert Cairns was one of the passengers called to give evidence at British Wreck Commissioners Enquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey, into the sinking of the
Lusitania. He was called on the third day of the Enquiry, and questioned about the lifeoats.
Robert Cairns continued to make trans-Atlantic business trips until 1923.
Robert Cairns died in Brighton, Sussex, on the 6th December 1924, aged 59 years. When his will was proven on the 5th January 1925, his money and effects amounted to £13,751-0s-7d, (£13,751.03p.), which he left to Agnes Ghertrude Shepard, described as a spinster. It is unknown what relationship she had with Robert Cairns, but the estate he left to her was quite considerable for that time.
Scotland Select Births and Baptisms 1564 – 1950, Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1871 Scotland Census, 1881 Scotland Census, New Yok Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Probate Records, Cork Examiner, British Wreck Commissioners Enquiry, Rochester History Volume LIV No. 2 Spring 1992, Cunard Records, PRO 22/71, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.