Soon after Christmas 1915, the British public heard bad news from the Mediterranean. A P&O passenger ship, the SS Persia, was sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 334 lives.
The Persia was built in Glasgow and launched in 1900; it left Tilbury docks on 18 December with 519 passengers and crew on board, 184 of them passengers. According to a contemporary newspaper article, “She was very heavily loaded with parcel post and mails, but there was very little cargo on board, and no war material.” After calling at Gibraltar and Marseilles, the Persia headed towards the Suez Canal on its route to India. On 30 December, its journey was abruptly ended in the Mediterranean.
Londoner Georgina Lee (in Wales for New Year) wrote in her diary on January 3rd 1916,
“Another terrible tragedy like the Lusitania horror. This time a P&O liner, the Persia, has been torpedoed in the Mediterranean off Crete without warning. Out of about 500 souls, 334 have been lost including 60 women and children. There was no panic, a few boats were lowered, and as the ship went down a few among those washed overboard were taken up into the boats but the vast majority were drownded.
“Some of the lost are American, including the American Consult for Aden [the British colony in modern-day Yemen] and his secretary. Perhaps this new outrage will at last arouse Present [Woodrow] Wilson’s anger and break his determination to remain patient.”
In her hopes about Wilson’s actions, Lee was wrong – it took him another 15 months to declare war, only after having fought a general election in which his party trumpeted his record in keeping America out of war with Germany and with Mexico. Lee’s diary entry gives a good insight, though, into the public revulsion at attacks of this sort. The New Zealand newspaper quoted above referred to “a profound sensation throughout Great Britain” caused by the sinking of the Persia following the recent “piratical destruction” of French and Japanese ships.
The SS Persia was sunk at lunchtime on 30 December 1915, south-east of Crete, by German submarine U-38, which had not issued a warning to the ship before opening fire.
The website The Sinking of the Persia gives a lot of detail about the ship and the sinking. Their description of the passengers is worth quoting at length:
“On board was a diverse mix of military (mainly officers) going out to postings in far flung parts of the British Empire, wives and children going out to India to be reunited with their fathers administering the Empire, there were Belgian nuns heading out to India, a team of YMCA staff heading to Egypt, missionaries, an American diplomat, business executives, the entourage of a maharajah, an Indian gentlemen having just had his case heard at the Privy Council, civil engineers, doctors, nurses, the headmistress of a Bombay school and a miscellany of other professions. The group that was under-represented was tourists for the run had become dangerous and wartime was not a time for the frivolity of viewing the pyramids or going tiger hunting in up-country India.”
That website gives information about many of those who died (including one of the proprietors of the Times of India, F.M. Coleman) and who survived the journey, so I will focus only on a few of the London connections, three women of the 32 who died – only 15 women survived the sinking. The three were women had very different life stories, but strong connections to the Empire.
The most glamorous is Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Nelly Thornton (also known as Thorn or Thorny) was born in 1880 in Stockwell, the daughter of an Australian engineer, and has supposedly found immortality as the model for the female figure on the bonnet of Rolls Royce cars. She worked as secretary to Claude Johnson, the first secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, until 1902 when he became a partner at Rolls Royce and she became the personal assistant of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu MP (later Lord Montagu), the owner of The Car Illustrated. Thornton went on to become his mistress and they reportedly had an illegitimate child together – Montagu was married to someone else.
The figure for the cars was commissioned in 1910 by Johnson from sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes. There were rumours immediately after its unveiling that the figure was Thornton, who had certainly modelled for Sykes. According to a detailed article on the subject, however
“By now he [Sykes] had obtained plenty of practice at drawing scantily clad winged goddesses, and at sculpturing nude female figures. He would therefore have had no difficulty in creating the figurine he had in mind, though he would have needed the services of a model to help him perfect details of the mascot’s pose. Jo Sykes remembers Eleanor Thornton as a strong, vigorous, statuesque woman – rather like Nike in many ways – and not the floating delicate form embodied in The Spirit of Ecstasy. So although Eleanor probably posed for the specific purpose of helping Charles develop his design for the mascot, it is not in its finished form a figure of her or any real person.”
Even so, Thornton appears to have been as close to being a model for the Spirit of Ecstacy as it was possible to be. She was on the Persia with Lord Montagu, who survived the submarine attack.
Another young Londonerror who perished was Miss Gladys Enid Macdonald. She was also the daughter of an Australian, her father being James Middleton Macdonald, chaplain at Oxford University and later a senior chaplain in India. Enid’s brother Roy was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he was drowned aboard HMS Hawke in October 1914; the Macdonalds therefore losthe both of their children at sea during the war. In the official records, Enid’s address is stated as 60 Stanhope Gardens, Kensington (near to the museums). She was on the Persia travelling to India to marry the wonderfully named Rowland Hatt-Cook, of the Public Works Department of the Indian Civil Service; their wedding was due to be held in Bombay in January 1916. Hatt-Cook later served as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Another woman with a London address was Mary Fernandez. In the National Archives’ list deaths at sea, her occupation is stated as “Mrs Bird’s Ayah” and her address as “Ayah’s House, 26 King Edward Road, Hackney”. Ayahs were private nannies hired by British families in India to look after their children and often accompanied the families on their journeys back to the UK. An article on the Women’s History Network blog gives more information about these travelling Indian nannies. It summarises how they ended up in London:
“We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle. The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.”
The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney is precisely where Mary Fernandez gave as her last address. She appears to also have been there in 1911; at least there is a Mary Fernandez listed there in the census, aged 41 and born in Bombay. Her occupation is listed as ‘ayah (travelling)’. The Women’s History Network article also refers to the fact that many ayahs were given European names, so Mary Fernandez may not have been her real name. It would be very interesting to find out more about her than the scant references in wartime records. A set of letters sold in 2014 on ebay mention her and her death on the Persia; these appear to be letters to and from her aunt, Isabella Bell.
The Ayahs’ House in Hackney had been at 26 King Edward’s Road since 1900, when it moved from near Aldgate. It was run by a matron called Mrs Sara Annie Dunn, under the auspices of the London City Mission who tried to convert the stranded ayahs (and other nannies) to Christianity.
According to an Open University article “Mrs Dunn told the India Office in 1910 that the Home dealt with about ninety ayahs a year. The Home was designed not only for Indian ayahs but also for nurse-maids from other countries such as China who were similarly brought over by families and required assistance in returning. The travelling season was March to November and so the Home was practically empty from November to March. During the First World War, women were not allowed to travel by sea and so there were many more stranded ayahs during those years.” Mary Fernandez was obviously an exception to the wartime travel ban for some reason, to her cost. (If you saw the BBC tv series Remember Me, starring Michael Palin, Mary Fernandez’s death is remarkably similar to the series’ back story)
These three women ended up travelling across the British Empire on board the Persia for very different reason: a nanny, a mistress/secretary and a bride-to-be. They all met the same end, though, when the ship encountered a German submarine. The loss of these and the other 331 people who perished on board is a reminder of the reach of the the war beyond the Western Front.