William Francis ‘Willie’ Neems was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on 27th November 1877, the second son of George Frederick and Margaret Jane Neems. His parents had lived in the Isle of Man where they were married in 1871 and then moved to St. Paul’s Square, Liverpool. After the turn of the century and the death of George Frederick Neems, the family moved to 54, Vaughan Road, Wallasey, Cheshire, the home of Edith, one of Willie Neems’ sisters.
Willie married Margaret Eliza Norris in Wigan in 1910, and they first lived at Dalmorton Road, New Brighton, Cheshire with their two daughters, Muriel and Olive. Not long before the
Lusitania’s final voyage, however, they moved to 46 Upper Brassey Street, Birkenhead, Cheshire. Margaret Neems was a long-term invalid.
Willie Neems had worked for the Cunard Steam Ship Company for most of his life and he first joined the
Lusitania on her maiden voyage in September 1907, being employed as a first class waiter in the Stewards' Department.
On 12th April 1915, he re-engaged as a saloon smokeroom steward at Liverpool for what would be the liner’s final voyage and reported for duty on the early morning of 17th April before she left the River Mersey for the last time. His monthly rate of pay was £4-5s-0d, (£4.25p.).
Three weeks later, following the vessel’s torpedoing, he was last seen as the ship was sinking, attempting to save the lives of two children. Assistant Linen Steward William Mitchell described this to a reporter of his local newspaper,
The Wallasey News, which was published on Saturday 15th May 1915. He said: -
“But I must tell you of one act of gallantry which was noticed and which had reference to one of the stewards a Mr. William Neems of Dalmorton Road New Brighton. He was last seen on the boat struggling to save two children. The attempt cost him his life. It was a fine chivalrous deed.”
Neems was aged 37, although he gave his age on engagement as 35! As his body was not recovered and identified afterwards, he is commemorated on the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London.
On the Lusitania’s penultimate trans-Atlantic voyage to Liverpool, Neems had noticed that an aspidistra plant in the smokeroom was wilting, probably, he thought, as a result of an unwanted drink being poured into its pot! In an attempt to revive it, he took it back to New Brighton so that it would have a chance to recuperate intending to return it to the saloon class smokeroom when it had done so. Although it eventually did survive, the ship and its rescuer did not. It is still flourishing today, however, as a treasured family possession, in the home of Willie Neems’ nephew in Wallasey!
Although William Mitchell and The Wallasey News both state that Neems lived in Dalmorton Road, New Brighton, the
Birkenhead News of 15th May 1915 and the records of The Cunard Steam Ship Company and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission all show his home address to be in Upper Brassey Street, Birkenhead. This apparent discrepancy is because he had moved address shortly before the sinking.
In August 1915, his widow Margaret was given the balance of wages owed to him from the
Lusitania’s last voyage, reckoned from 12th April 1915, until 8th May, 24 hours after she had gone down. In addition, The Liverpool and London War Risks Insurance Association Limited granted her a yearly pension which amounted to £55-16s-4d. (£55.81½p.) which was payable at the rate of £4-13s-1d. (£4.65½p.) per month.
Willie Neems’ younger brother Henry Charles Neems was also killed in the Great War. As 36308 Private H.C. Neems of the 13th Battalion of The Cheshire Regiment, he was killed in action on 7th June 1917 in Belgium, during the opening day of the offensive on the Messines Ridge. He was aged 32 years. Like his older brother Willie, his body was never recovered and identified, and he is commemorated on The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing of the Salient at Ypres.
Thus, the Great War had wiped out the last remaining male line of the Neems family. The only other son, Frederick Robert Neems had died aged only eight years, in 1880.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Birkenhead News, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Cunard Records, Norman Kingham, PRO BT 100/345, Wallasey News, UniLiv PR 13/24, PRO BT 334.