As the First World War Centenary commemorations continue more and more stories of bravery and tragedy emerge. Some are well known such as the events on the battle fields, others such as the vital role played by the British postal service less so. Within The Postal Museum galleries these heartwarming and often tragic stories of how the General Post Office kept a world at war in touch will be revealed to the public. Our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie looks at one such story.
One hundred years ago, on Friday 7 May 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland when almost home on a voyage from New York to Liverpool.
The loss of 1,198 passengers and crew led to an international outcry, especially in Britain and the British Empire, as well as in the United States (128 of 139 US citizens on board died). The German government’s announcement almost two years later that having ended attacks on passenger ships it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare was a major factor in persuading the United States to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.
RMS Lusitania had been holder of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the Lusitania had the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ or ‘RMS’. This prefix dates back to 1840 and was used for seagoing vessels carrying post under contract to Royal Mail.
Given that the main connection with the Post Office was the fact that the ship was carrying mail it is not surprising that the only file in The Royal Mail Archive entirely about the Lusitania concerns the loss of mail is entitled ‘SS Lusitania sunk May 1915. United States mails missing. Salvage and compensation claims’
It starts with a newspaper cutting from the day after reporting on the tragic event and a letter from Cunard expressing their gratitude for the Post Office’s sympathies.
The file goes on to reveal that the quantity of mail on Lusitania’s last voyage was not particularly large. She carried mail that had been especially endorsed for the Lusitania; the US liner New York, leaving about the same time, carried most of the European mail. According to a note in the file, 83 sacks of mail were dispatched on the ship containing 922 registered articles, about 47,000 unregistered letters and 1800 prints.
Following the sinking the Post Office received many enquiries about lost mail in particular relating to that with a financial value. One enquiry concerned four lost dispatches from the Governor of Bermuda to the Colonial Office sent in a weighted bag that would cause them to sink in case of disaster at sea.
Perhaps the most interesting story within the file relates to the small amount of mail salvaged. Originally believed to have been washed ashore at Castletownshend, County Cork, it was subsequently found that a mail basket including a parcel of diamonds was in fact picked up by John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’. Within our file is a water damaged bill of lading from the Lusitania which accompanied the parcels which were being returned to their senders on the ship.
Correspondence concerning this basket and Hayes’ desire to be properly rewarded for the salvage of the receptacle continued until 1922 involving a £10 reward as an ‘act of grace’ and even a question in the House of Commons.
The Lusitania was not the only mail ship to be sunk during the First World War. In October 1918 the RMS Leinster was torpedoed in the Irish Sea killing more than 500 including 21 postal workers, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.
To find out more about the vital role played by the General Post Office and those who worked for it visit our online exhibition Last Post