People's Stories

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

About Charles Cowley

Charles Cowley Clarke was born in Bath, Somerset, England, on the 6th June 1851, the son of Charles Hall and Elizabeth Penelope Clarke (née Clarke).  His father was a medical doctor and Charles was baptised in the Parish of St. Mary, Church of England, Bathwick, Somerset, on the 22nd June 1851.

In 1858, Charles’ parents converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and his father was appointed the physician at Stonyhurst College, a Society of Jesus Roman Catholic college, near Clitheroe, Lancashire.

He commenced his education at Downside School, a Benedictine Roman Catholic boarding school, near Bath, before moving to Oscott College, Sutton Coalfield, Warwickshire, and then Manresa House, a Jesuit College in Wandsworth, London, where he was ordained into the priesthood in 1881.  He studied theology at St. Bueno’s Jesuit College, Tremeirchion, Denbighshire, Wales, for a time after his ordination.

He served as a chaplain on the Isle of Wight from his ordination until 1885, and a priest at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Brighton, Sussex, from 1886 until 1904.  He then retired for tutorial work, study, and writing, and in 1910 published a book that he co-wrote with two other priests, entitled Handbook of the Divine Liturgy - A brief study of the historical development of the Mass.

He frequently used as his address, The Union Club, Trafalgar Square, S.W. London.

He was a frequent trans-Atlantic traveller, travelling around the United States of America and Mexico, and on the 31st October 1914, he arrived in Quebec, Canada, on board the Virginian, having sailed from Liverpool.  He then travelled around Canada and the United States of America.

In the spring of 1915, he decided to return home to London on the Lusitania.  As a consequence, he booked passage as a saloon passenger and before he joined the vessel, he stayed at The Racquet Tennis Club, in New York.  Once on board - (his ticket was No. 46062), he was allocated room D12, which was in the charge of First Class Bedroom Steward William S. Fletcher, who came from Liscard, on the opposite side of the River Mersey from Liverpool.

When the liner was sunk, six days later, Father Clarke survived because he was able to get into one of the lifeboats which was successfully launched and after being rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, he told his experiences to a reporter from the local newspaper The Cork Examiner.  He said: -

Father Maturin and I were together at lunch a few minutes before the awful accident and nobody afterwards could have had the smallest hope of finding anybody.  I am sorry to think he is lost.  We left the dining-room and he went his way and I mine.

By an accident, I found myself on the promenade deck and as the vessel listed to starboard, I half fell on the slippery deck which was then at an angle of 45 (degrees).  I went into one of the boats with a crowd of firemen and third class passengers with the exception of Mr. D. A. Thomas, the well known Welsh coal owner who was directed to get into the boat by his secretary, Mr. Rhys-Evans.  We were in the boat for 1½ hours when we were picked up by a Manx fishing smack and kept on her for two hours.  She also picked up four other boats and then we were all taken on board the Flying Fox and landed at Queenstown at 10 o'clock.

The Manx fishing smack was the Wanderer which just happened to be fishing in the area at the time the liner went down and the Flying Fox was in fact the Queenstown harbour tender Flying Fish.

I was on the veranda outside the smoke room when the first torpedo struck underneath the second cabin. It shook the vessel like a mine - I thought we had struck a mine, as I did not see the torpedo coming to the liner.  The second torpedo struck the vessel in its most vital part, underneath the second funnel forward.  I think it was twenty minutes at least before the whole ship went down.  There was a scene of most indescribable confusion, and apparently only 55 first class passengers were saved.  Whole families have been lost.  One American family, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Crompton (of) Philadelphia, father and mother and six children, down to a baby of eight month were lost.  I tried to find one of the children, but it was absolutely hopeless to find anybody.

Father Clarke here makes a few wrong assumptions which are quite understandable so soon after the sinking.  Although the log of the U-20, made public as early as 1915, shows that only one torpedo was fired, many survivors continued to believe that the second explosion was caused by a second torpedo for the rest of their lives!

Out of 292 saloon passengers on board, 182 perished and 110 survived, twice the number that Clarke had estimated.  The Crompton family, in fact British and originally from Kensington in Middlesex, were all wiped out - the greatest family loss in the disaster!

I can never forget the experience.  Whilst in the boats, the funnels were hanging over us and came nearer and nearer to the boats.  It seems an absolute miracle that the boats were not overwhelmed by the funnels.  Father Maturin is the chaplain to the Undergraduates at Oxford.  We had not separated three minutes when the crash came.

During the mist in the morning of Friday, an officer told me we were not travelling at more than 12 knots an hour.  It seemed to me - of course it is very difficult to measure those things - that we were not going fast at the time we were struck.  One of the officers told me that six of the boilers were out of commission - that is - not being used - and that we could not go at more than 22 knots an hour, and that they saved 1,000 tons of coal on the journey by having these boilers shit down.  We had 292 miles to go at 12 o' clock on Friday - we were struck about 2.15 - and were told we would not be at the landing stage, Liverpool, until seven 0'clock on Saturday morning.

I believe that the reason so many first class passengers were lost is that they were under the impression that the vessel could not sink.  Captain Anderson, staff captain, who went down, told me and explained by diagrams, that the vessel could take one torpedo without serious injury.  She had her watertight compartments and her bulkheads filled with coal so that anything striking here the injury would be local.  There was a very strong impression that she was unsinkable.

I was by a fortunate accident, standing on the right deck.  When the crash came, I along (with) a great many, ran around to the port side, which was up in the air; the starboard side was down.  There was, of course, great difficulty in launching the boats on the starboard side; but I believe only one boat was successfully launched from that side at all.

It is only a miracle saved those who survived, for even in the oats, panic prevailed.

At Queenstown, Father Clarke was given a rail and boat ticket for London and the sum of £0-8s-6d (£0.46½p.).  With these, he eventually made it back to London and once there, he applied to The Lusitania Relief Fund for financial help to make up some of the loss occasioned by the sinking.  This fund had been set up immediately after the disaster by The Lord Mayor of Liverpool and other local business people to offer economic relief to those second and third class passengers who had suffered hardship as a result of the loss of the vessel.  It is not known whether or not his application was successful.

Bedroom Steward Fletcher also survived the sinking and eventually made it back to his Liscard home.

Father Clarke reportedly wrote and lectured about his experiences on the Lusitania, probably in some of the Roman Catholic colleges and seminaries he was associated with.

In November 1915, Fr. Clarke was admitted to a hospital in Bath, where he underwent an operation to remove a tumour.  While recovering from the operation in a nursing home at 9. Upper Brook Street, Bath, he died on the 4th January 1916.  He was aged 64 years.  His remains were interred in the cemetery at Downside School on the 8th January 1916.

When his will was proven on the 22nd March 1916, his estate amounted to £4,042-4s-1d, (£4,042.20½p.), which he left to Sydney Ernest Kennedy, who was described as a stock dealer.

Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Somerset England Church of England Baptisms 1813 – 1914, England Select Births and Christenings1538 – 1975, 1861 Census of England & Wales, 1871 Census of England & Wales, 1881 Census of England & Wales, 1891 Census of England & Wales, 1901 Census of England & Wales, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, U.S. Border Crossings from Canada to U.S. 1895 – 1960, Probate Records, Cork Examiner, Clifton Society, The Stonyhurst Magazine, Cunard Records, Liverpool Record Office, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv.D921/1, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly.

Charles Cowley Clarke



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