Captain William Thomas Turner

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the sinking of RMS Lusitania, one of the worst casualties of WWI in which 1,198 people lost their lives.

Capt William Turner

Capt William Turner

Captain William Thomas Turner was her commander when she sank, torpedoed by a German submarine. This was just one incident in a life full of adventure and bravery, but one that haunted him until his death.

Born in Clarence Street, Everton in 1856, Will Turner followed in his father’s footsteps, embarking on a life at sea as a cabin boy at the age of just eight. When the barque he was on was wrecked in a gale off the coast of Ireland, he refused all offers of help and swam to shore himself. Over the coming years, he would escape further disasters, including being swept overboard, shipwrecks and yellow fever, but never lost his boyhood dream of becoming a ship’s captain.

He became known for acts of bravery, putting himself at risk to save others in danger, and won various accolades throughout his career from the Humane Society and the government for his role in the Boer War.

Finally in 1903, he achieved his goal, becoming captain of Cunard’s ship, the Aleppo. While he was loved by the men who served under him, Cunard often didn’t know what to make of him. His bosses respected his ability, but disapproved of his gruff and dismissive way with the passengers. For instance, he often refused to carry out the custom of dining with them at the Captain’s table. Oddly, though, this only seemed to endear him to the travelling public even more and they actively asked to sail with him! He built a reputation for the fastest sailings, with the quickest turnarounds at ports, too.

Will first took command of the Lusitania in 1907, and then after promotions to captaincy of the Mauretania and Aquitania, resumed his command over the doomed vessel in April 1915 after her previous captain had retired due to nervous exhaustion from the constant threat from German U-boats. Less than a month later, RMS Lusitania, with Captain Will Turner at her helm, fell victim to German submarine U-20. A significant factor in her terrifyingly fast sinking was thought to be the substantial cargo of munitions she was secretly carrying in support of the war effort. Another element was the fact that the Admiralty had seen fit to withdraw Lusitania’s escort ship, HMS Juno, despite being aware of the German presence in the area.

Memorial to Capt William Turner, Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey

Memorial to Capt William Turner, Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey

Reluctant to accept responsibility, the Admiralty openly and loudly blamed Turner, even going so far as to say he was in the pay of the Germans and had sabotaged his own ship. Although he was later cleared of guilt by the Mersey Inquiry and Mayer hearings, and awarded the OBE in 1918 for his war efforts, controversy dogged him even in retirement. Hounded by the press after Churchill repeated the allegations against him in his memoirs, he sadly died almost a recluse, bitter and still living in the shadow of the disaster, in 1933. He is buried in Rake Lane Cemetery in Wallasey.



Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.

Remembering the Great War (1914 – 1918)

The Sinking of RMS Lusitania, a Disaster for Liverpool

As we arrive at the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War (1914-1918), our blogs for the next few weeks focuses on some of the defining moments for Liverpool during those terrible years.

RMS Lusitania arriving in New York on her maiden voyage

RMS Lusitania arriving in New York on her maiden voyage

With Liverpool’s status as a leading UK port, it’s inevitable that many of her tragedies during war as well as peace-time involve the sea. One such event was the sinking of the steamship RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner owned and operated by Cunard. At the time of her launch in 1906, Lusitania took the prize as the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world; and she sailed regularly between Liverpool and New York, until the fateful day of 7 May 1915, when she was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland.

Struck in the hull, this magnificent, proud ship sank within just 18 minutes with a massive loss of life. Of the 1,198 people known to have died that day, 785 were civilian passengers and 413 were crew. Poignantly for Liverpool, many of the crew came from close-knit Irish communities living in the north of the city. In fact, recent research has shown that altogether, around 600 people aboard had links with Liverpool, the Wirral and the wider region that is now Merseyside.

Significantly in terms of the course of WWI, 128 of the deceased passengers were US citizens, which had a dramatic effect on America’s view of Germany. Although not a direct result of the Lusitania’s sinking, it was a contributory factor to the United States joining the Allies against Germany in 1917 – which in turn was a decisive moment in the eventual Allied victory over the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Many victims of the disaster were buried in mass graves in the Old Church Cemetery, Queenstown, Ireland, not far from the site of the wreck.  

Among the memorials in Liverpool to those who lost their lives in this impressive ship’s sinking, an annual memorial service takes place each year in front of a salvaged propeller from this tragic ship, held by the Merseyside Maritime Museum on the dockside between the Museum itself and the Museum of Liverpool. Next year, of course, will see the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe. There is also a memorial constructed in glass in St James’ Church, Mill Lane, West Derby in Liverpool.

Louise McTigue is a freelance researcher and writer, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials Liverpool.

Liverpool shipowner Sir Percy Elly Bates, 4th Baronet

12 May 1879 – 16 October 1946

Sir Percy Elly Bates - Portrait

Sir Percy Elly Bates – Portrait

Percy Bates was the second son of Edward Percy Bates and grandson of Sir Edward Bates, 1st Baronet and a Conservative Member of Parliament. He dedicated much of his life to ship-building and in his role as Chairman of the Cunard-White Star Lines in later life, his policies were credited with leading towards the construction of some of the most famous passenger ships in history, including the original Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I vessels.

Percy was born in Wavertree, Liverpool in 1879 and was first apprenticed to William Johnston & Co, a Liverpool shipbuilder; later joining the family firm Edward Bates & Sons after the death of his father in 1899. He became 4th Baronet after his elder brother, Edward Bertram Bates, died of enteric fever in India in 1903 and in 1910, he took up a role as a director of Cunard. When the First World War broke out, his experience suited him for service in the Transport Department of the Admiralty and he later rose to become Director of Commercial Services with responsibility for shipping civilian supplies in the newly-formed Ministry of Shipping. He was knighted for his services in 1920.

Percy served as High Sheriff and Justice of the Peace in Cheshire. But it wasn’t all work: he was also interested in literature and was an occasional member of The Inklings, the Oxford literary society which boasted JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis amongst its membership.

His only son, Edward Percy Bates, served as a pilot officer in the RAF in WWII and was killed on New Year’s Day 1945 while flying over Germany. His war grave is in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Germany.

Sir Percy Elly Bates' Grave, Childwall Churchyard, Liverpool

Sir Percy Elly Bates’ Grave, Childwall Churchyard, Liverpool

Sir Percy died a year later. After suffering a heart attack while in his office on 14 October 1946, he died at home on 16th October, the day he was supposed to have attended the launch and maiden voyage of his ship, The Queen Elizabeth. He is buried in Childwall Churchyard, Liverpool.


Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.