Marian May Bird, (always known as May), was born in Great Meols, Hoylake, Cheshire, England on 12 May 1875, the daughter of John and Jane Bird (née Powell). The family home was later at 3 Evans Road, Hoylake. Her father was a fisherman always known as ‘Skitter’ Bird. The Bird family was a well established and respected family in the Hoylake area.
May Bird lodged at the home William Evans, plumber of 40 Church Street, Hoylake, where his daughter kept house and she shared her lodging with her great friend Mrs Fanny Morecroft, who was not only a fellow Cunard stewardess on the
Lusitania, but whom also survived the sinking. The two had met in Cunard service in 1911.
Miss Bird joined the Cunard Line as a stewardess in 1907 and up until the outbreak of the First World War had served mostly on the
Aquitania. She only left that ship 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. She joined the liner at 7am on 17 April, for her fateful last voyage out of Liverpool. When she engaged, she gave her age as 36 years, whereas she was actually exactly one month short of her 40th birthday!
When the liner left New York on the afternoon of 1 May 1915, on her return voyage to Liverpool, there were 19 stewardesses on board and when the ship was sunk a week later, only six survived. One of these was Stewardess Bird. Six days later, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20, off the southern coast of Ireland and only hours away from her home port.
After escaping from the sinking ship, Miss Bird was able to help in the rescue of passengers and crew from Lifeboat Number 13. In fact, afterwards she was hailed as "The Heroine of Boat 13", by other survivors. She later recounted her story to a reporter of 'The Birkenhead News and Advertiser' which was published in the edition of Saturday 15 May 1915. This account stated:
"Miss Bird said that at the time the ship was struck by the torpedo the passengers were lunching. Mothers of children were in the cabins, and when the alarm was sounded the mothers with their infants came on deck half dressed. 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."
In AA and M Hoehling's 'The Last Voyage of the Lusitania', an account concerning second cabin passenger Archibald Douglas Donald stated that he had watched a lifeboat, after being badly lowered, spill its occupants into the sea.
"Donald watched the boat's passengers struggle onto a rope netting attached to a lower deck, and climb higher as the water reached them. He recognised one of them - May Bird, a stewardess. It seemed strange to see her hair streaming all over her face, her usually starched uniform clinging soddenly like wet laundry."
This conflicts with Stewardess Bird's account and it is possible that Mr Donald was mistaken about the identity of the stewardess he saw.
The account in 'The Birkenhead News' continued: -
"Miss Bird saw Mrs Gwyer disappear down a funnel of the ship. Mrs Gwyer was shot out of the funnel into Miss Bird’s boat. When the boatload of passengers was transferred to the Flying Fish; the first person Mrs Gwyer saw was her husband."
This account must be treated with a degree of scepticism, however, for Mrs Gwyer’s fate is also recounted in the Hoehlings' book. In this the funnel incident, which is undoubtedly true, is related, but the account states that Mrs Gwyer was dragged out of the sea into one of the Lusitania's collapsible boats by two saloon passengers, Mr James H Brooks and Mr Charles E Lauriat. It further states that she was then picked up by the fishing smack
Peel 12, before being transferred, with other survivors, to the Queenstown tender
Flying Fish and eventually landed at Queenstown.
It is possible that Miss Bird may have heard of Mrs Gwyer's experiences whilst on the Flying Fish and perhaps embellished them a little to include her own participation. 'The Birkenhead News' account continued:
Mrs Moorcroft 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.
However, when only a week short of her 96th birthday, the former stewardess recounted part of her story again in an article which was published in 'The West Kirby and Hoylake Advertiser' on 6 May 1971. This time, the facts differed slightly. She then said: -
We got as far as Ireland when lunch was taking place. We heard a thud that was the only warning we got. Then we heard a second one. We went round all the rooms. I went on deck, there was only me and two men who were doing the davits. The last lifeboat was going and they said I must take it.
The boat, No. 13 was being lowered and so I had to jump to get in. As we were going down, the ship was leaning over. We had to get away quickly so as not to get caught in the suction. We were amongst dead people, and those calling for help.
After about 20 minutes we were transferred to a herring boat. Her old captain put me in charge of the casualties and gave me a bottle of whisky to use on those I thought needed it. We were on the herring boat until a little steamer called The Flying Fish came along. I knew the captain who gave me his overcoat when we got ashore at Queenstown at 10.30 pm.
The next morning we had to catch a train from Queenstown to Dublin. All along the line, there were people waving. On the boat to Holyhead I said I wanted to remain on deck just in case anything happened. We eventually got to Liverpool safely, where people were trying to make a list of the lost and saved.
Since the disaster the Liverpool Echo tried to trace survivors. As a result a bellboy, who was 13 at the time, who was in lifeboat 13, came to visit me about two years ago.
It is probable that the ‘herring boat’ was the Peel 12, which had picked up Margaret Gwyer and if so, May Bird would possibly have heard her story then, before she was taken on board The Flying Fish. The bell boy who had called on May Bird in 1969, was Stewards’ Boy William Borrows who was actually 15 years old when the liner sank, but looked young for his age.
The 1915 account continued: -
Miss Bird related a pathetic incident of parents’ devotion to their children. Father and mother each took charge of a child when the ship went down. The mother and her infant were not seen again. The father was stunned in his fall but was saved, and on stepping ashore at Queenstown was met by his eldest child, “Billy” who was all the time crying out for his “daddy”. The meeting between Billy and his daddy was most affecting.
This was possibly the Webster family travelling from Toronto to Liverpool. Mrs Margaret Webster and her two infant sons Frederick and Henry were lost, but her husband Frederick and their three year old son William survived. Miss Bird may not have been aware of the exact family numbers or the full story.
She was also full of praise for Chief Officer Jones: -
Miss Bird paid a high tribute to the splendid behaviour of Chief Officer Jones who, she said, was instrumental in saving hundreds of lives. He helped to launch the boats and saw to the safety of the children.
This was First Officer AR Jones who also survived.
In keeping with all the Lusitania’s crew, May Bird was paid up to 8 May, 24 hours after the liner had sunk, and on her return to Liverpool, the balance of wages owing, £3-15s-11d, (£3.80) was paid to her, upon her official discharge from the voyage.
After her ordeal on the Lusitania, May Bird never went back to sea but instead took up nursing and worked in several military hospitals for the rest of the First World War. During the course of the war she married Mr Charles Ernest Walker, who was a chief steward in the Mercantile Marine, and possibly another Cunard employee.
By the 1930s Marian and her husband were residing at ‘The Moorings’, Grange Road, Ashtead, Surrey. Her good friend Fanny Morecroft, who rose to the position of Chief Stewardess on board the
Lancastria, came to reside with the couple on her retirement. In later years they all moved to 30 Queens Road, Hoylake, Cheshire.
Marian lived to a ripe old age, eventually dying 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, 1881 Census of England and Wales, 1891 Census of England and Wales, 1901 Census of England and Wales, Geoff Bird, Birkenhead News, Cunard Records, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Liverpool Echo, PRO BT 100/345, Nora Roberts, West Kirby and Hoylake Advertiser.
(Photograph BN 08/05/1915 P2. col.4)