Richard Chirgwin was born a British citizen, probably in Havana, Cuba, in September 1914, the son of British parents Frederick and Maud Gertrude Chirgwin (née Cox). His father held the post of Assistant Stores Superintendent on the Cuban Central Railway, at Sagua La Grande, Cuba, which he had first accepted in October 1909. Originally, his parents had both come from Swindon, Wiltshire, England, his paternal parents living at Dixon St, and his maternal grandmother at Hunt Street. It is likely that he was named after his paternal grandfather who was also named Richard.
In the spring of 1915, Maud Chirgwin decided to return home to Great Britain with baby Richard for a holiday and probably to show him to relatives there. His father had intended to join them there in July. Consequently, they were booked as second cabin passengers on the May sailing of the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool. Having left Havana, probably some time in April, they arrived at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York in time to board the vessel for her scheduled 10.00 a.m. sailing on 1st May 1915.
This sailing was then delayed because she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Lines vessel the S.S.
Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service as a troop ship at the end of April. She finally left port just after mid-day
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 and sunk by the German submarine U-20. At that time, she was only about 250 miles away from her destination. Both mother and son were killed as a result of this action. Richard Chirgwin was eight months old.
Although his mother’s body was subsequently taken from the sea and buried outside Queenstown, that of baby Richard was never recovered and identified. As such, he has no known grave.
His grandfather, Mr. Robert Chirgwin, actually went to Queenstown once news of the sinking had reached him in Swindon, to look for baby Richard and his mother - alive or dead - but was not successful in either search, as was reported in an article published in The Evening Swindon Advertiser for 13th May 1915: -
Directly the intelligence was known that the great liner had been torpedoed and sunk, the deepest concern was naturally felt for Mrs. Chirgwin's safety. Anxious inquiries were made by telegraph but no news was forthcoming, and on Saturday Mr. R.J. Chirgwin proceeded to Queenstown, arriving there at one o'clock on Sunday morning. His daughter-in-law’s name was absent from the list of survivors, but he clung to the dimmed hope of finding her, possibly, unconscious in hospital, or, at the worst, of establishing her identity among the dead. Unhappily, however, Mr Chirgwin could discover no trace of her and there seems no possible doubt that Mrs Chirgwin and her baby went down with the ship.
Amid the many distressing scenes which Mr Chirgwin witnessed in Queenstown, the most painful was that when, after inquiring at the offices of the Cunard Line, he was directed to an adjacent yard where some 40 or 50 bodies were lying. “I could not attempt to describe the scene" said Mr Chirgwin to our representative. “It was most gruesome, but I must say that what struck me was the very peaceful appearance of very many of the women and children. Some, of course, showed signs of struggle and others, again, had been bruised. There was one poor woman lying there who was the mother of twin children. She had one under her arm, and someone had placed some flowers by her side. I was also struck by the appearance of the little children. As I looked upon them, I could not help escaping my lips, - ‘Good God! I wish the Kaiser were here to see his handiwork.’” Mr. Chirgwin failed to discover any trace of Mrs. Chirgwin here, neither could he find her among the bodies which were lying on the Wharf, or among the unconscious survivors at the hospital. Having thus abandoned all hope, Mr Chirgwin left Queenstown on Monday.
Arriving at Swindon, he received the following telegram from the offices of the Cunard Central Railways: Deeply regret to report that the result of all our inquiries re your daughter-in-law and her infant estab1ish that they went down with the Lusitania Cunard Company report no bodies yet recovered. Please accept deepest sympathy of directors, secretary and staff in your great trouble and please command us in any way if we can be of any help.
Cunard Records, Evening Swindon Advertiser, North Wiltshire Herald, PRO BT 100/345, PRO WO339/41508, UniLiv D92/2/368, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.