By John and Diane Robinson, Family History Society of Cheshire
On May 1st 1915 the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania left New York on her return journey back to Liverpool. On board were 1265 passengers and 694 crew. Both passengers and crew had good reason to be apprehensive when the ship left New York. Before the ship sailed, a notice appeared in the New York Times, actually alongside Cunard’s sailing notice for the Lusitania:
The ship sailed about two thirds full and, in spite of the anxiety about the German threat to British shipping, life on board went on as normal. However as the Lusitania approached the southern coast of Ireland, the ship’s crew were on full alert because this was a danger zone and, sure enough, lurking right in the path of the liner was the German submarine U-20 waiting for any opportunity to strike. At 14.10 on Friday, 7th May the lookout on the bridge of the Lusitaniasaw a torpedo heading straight for the ship. There was nothing those on board could do. The torpedo hit the ship below the bridge and a huge explosion rent the air. Less than twenty minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk beneath the waves.
In Britain and America, the news of the disaster hit the headlines. People were shocked and horrified to learn that twelve hundred men, women and children had lost their lives. Merseyside and Cheshire were particularly affected, because the majority of the ship’s crew were drawn from Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey. Families and friends of crew and passenger victims were in great distress. As word spread, increasing numbers of people came onto the streets expressing their anger and frustration, particularly against anyone who had a German sounding name. Unfortunately, this led to rioting mobs attacking any shop which seemed to have German associations. The riots started in Liverpool on Saturday, the day after the sinking.
Trains bringing survivors home arrived at Liverpool, but in addition, another train brought back Wirral residents to Birkenhead. The Birkenhead & Cheshire Advertiser of May 12th described the scene thus:
How poignantly the blow has struck at Birkenhead was pathetically and vividly apparent on Sunday evening when 62 adults, 11 children and one infant, survivors of the Lusitania, arrived at Woodside Station . . . and there was a large crowd to meet it when it steamed in. Well-dressed ladies mingled with the roughly-clad wives of firemen and greasers, all with one object, the fate of their loved ones. Here and there was a happy reunion, but there were many whose distraught faces were eloquent of disappointment and they had to be led away from the station bitterly weeping.
At least twenty seven Birkenhead seamen lost their lives on the Lusitania including John Mills, of Hemingford Street, who was a steward on the stricken ship. His wife, who had a 14 month-old daughter to look after, was desperately worried and, according to the local newspaper, made a ‘daily pilgrimage to the Cunard offices, cherishing the idea that her husband might be among the survivors.’ Sadly, on her last visit she was handed his pay-slip, ‘which unfortunately seemed to put Mr Mills’ fate beyond doubt.’
Street rioting in Birkenhead began the following day, when the shop of John Swarb, a pork butcher, was attacked and wrecked by the rioters. Although the police had anticipated there might be trouble here, they were soon outnumbered by the crowd and could only watch. Mr Swarb lived on the premises with his German wife and their four children, who had all been born and educated in England. Ignoring the police, the crowd began stoning the windows until they were all smashed. Eventually, the contents of the shop were thrown into the road, with much cheering by the mob, although Mr Swarb, having been forewarned, had taken the precaution of removing his most valued possessions.
Even before they had finished with Mr Swarb’s shop, some of the rabble ran round the corner into Price Street and joined the crowd outside the premises of Charles Dashley, also a pork butcher. Although German-born, Mr Dashley had taken British citizenship. He also had a shop in Oxton Road. Both of his shops received the same treatment as that of Mr Swarb. The story is vividly taken up in the Birkenhead News of 12thMay:
Hams, pieces of pork, sausages, pickles and other things were thrown into the street, and were seized by whoever could get hold of them. Shop fittings, cash-books, etc. shared the same fate and then some of the rioters got upstairs and began to pitch out the contents of the bedrooms. The excitement grew greater still when fire was set to the growing piles of wreckage in the road, and blazed up. Mr Dashley’s trap was found in a neighbouring building and a group of young fellows rushed it down Oxton Road shouting gleefully and took off somewhere.
Mrs Krook of Camden Street ran another pork butcher shop. First the windows, were all broken, then the rioters discovered what they thought was a picture of the Kaiser, but which later turned out not to be. Nevertheless, the crowd were incensed, then delighted when Mrs Krook’s piano was thrown through the window of an upper room and smashed to pieces on the street below. Mrs Krook’s husband was away at sea and her only son had been serving in the British army since volunteering at the outbreak of the war.
As soon as they had wrecked shops near the town centre, the rioters continued with an onslaught on shops in Woodchurch Road, then a quiet area on the edge of Birkenhead. Here
they attacked Mr Miller’s shop, a boot-repairer and the recently opened drapery shop owned by the Benedix family. The shop had extensive living accommodation in which the elderly parents lived with their daughters, the eldest of whom ran the shop with the help of one of her sisters. The rioters smashed every window, including the plate glass of the shop-front. Both shops were looted; boots and shoes from Mr Miller’s and hats and blouses from the Benedix shop. The Birkenhead News commented that: ‘Amongst the neighbours much sympathy was expressed for this family, who were regarded as very quiet, respectable people.’
All over the borough, there were dozens of similar assaults, including several attacks on shops with British names, such as Jones and Woodson. Mr Jones, a fireman, had his house wrecked because he was married to a German woman. As to Woodson’s Stores (two of their shops were wrecked and robbed) there seemed to be no reason other than the desire to do damage and steal. The proprietor of Woodsons Stores put an advertisement in the Birkenhead News offering a substantial reward to anyone who could prove a German connection to his business. He also pointed out that his daughter, a Red Cross nurse, had been serving in France since the war began and that his son had joined up with the Liverpool 1st Pals Battalion.
In all about two dozen properties were attacked during the riots in Birkenhead. Eventually, many of the businesses managed to keep going with the help of compensation paid for out of the rates. This was provided for by the Riots (Damage) Act of 1886. However, some families, such as the Swarb’s, simply disappeared from Birkenhead.
Another direct result of the sinking of the Lusitania was the Government’s renewed efforts to incarcerate all male ‘enemy aliens’. As early as ten days after the Lusitania sank trains were leaving Liverpool’s Lime Street station en route to Scotland with German citizens who had been arrested locally. Many of these were later moved on to camps in the Isle of Man or to a camp near Wakefield, where they were interned for the duration of the war.
Birkenhead News, 1915
Birkenhead and Cheshire Advertiser, 1915
New York Times, 1915
Birkenhead, A Pictorial History. Ian Boumphrey, 1995