THE last Master of the Lusitania was known to his friends as “Bowler Bill” because of the hats he wore when off duty, writes Ray Ryan
But the veteran skipper, who was torpedoed three times in his long career, was never snobbish, avoided the social trappings of his commands as much as possible, was respected by his employers Cunard and was popular with the crews who travelled with him on the ocean waves.
William Thomas Turner, who resisted the desire of his Everton family that he should become a churchman, rose from being a deckboy on small boats to command some of the greatest British passenger liners including the sisters Lusitania and Mauretania.
He stayed on the bridge of the Lusitania as it sank, was flung into the water, where he caught hold of a chair and floated in the sea until he was spotted and rescued by a small steamer, Bluebell. He was landed with other survivors at Queenstown and looked after in a banker’s house. Tired and shocked, he walked around the harbour town the following day, and was asked by a reporter from this newspaper for his comments: “All I can tell you,” he said, “is that I stuck to my ship until she went from under me.”
Another shot of the group carrying an American victim en route to
the temporary morgue in Queenstown. Ref.44
Capt Turner gave evidence at the historic inquest in Kinsale two days later, which returned a verdict of wilful and wholesale murder against the Kaiser and the Impertial German Government.
Coroner John J Horgan sympathised with the Master and with Cunard on the loss of Lusitania in what he termed as the terrible crime that had been committed against their vessel and expressed his appreciation of the great courage he had shown.
“It was worthy,” he told Turner, “of the traditions of the service to which you belong. We realise the deep feelings you must have in this matter.”
Thanking the Coroner for his words, Captain Turner bowed his head and cried. Shortly afterwards Cork Crown Solicitor Harry Wynne arrived with instructions from the Admiralty to stop the inquest and ensure Turner did not give evidence. “Too late, Harry,” said Horgan. “It’s all over.”
Horgan later wrote that the British Admirality had been as belated then as it had been in protecting the Lusitania against attack.
Just as the inquest was taking place, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admirality, was beng questioned in the House of Commons about the sinking of Lusitania and the failure to provide the liner with a Naval escort.
A defiant Churchill said the Admiralty’s resources did not allow a destroyer escort for the 200 merchant or passenger ships that reached th e shores of England every day. He went on to implicidly criticise Turner and apparently tried to make him the scapegoat for the sinking, a move some people believed was designed to shift attention from his and the Admiralty’s role in the disaster.
Wagons and horses from all over Cork were used to help the hearses on funeral day. Photograph: From The
Sinking of the Lusitania – Unravelling the Mysteries by Patrick O’Sullivan, published by The Collins Press, 2014
The 58 year-old Turner was later exonerated in the report of the inquiry conducted by Lord Mersey, who said the captain had exercised his judgement for the best. He said it was certain that in some respects Turner did not follow the Admirality’s advice. This could not be attributed to either negligence or incompetence.
It was the judgement of a skilled and experienced man, and while others might have acted differently and perhaps more successfully, he ought not to be blamed.
Cunard stayed loyal to Turner, a seaman to the marrow, who was only thirteen years of age when a small barque he was on struck a sunken rock near Belfast and the crew carried the passengers ashore on their backs.
History repeated itself when Captain Turner, in command of the Ivernia, which was also the ancient name for Cork and Kerry, was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean on New Year’s Day 1917 while taking British troops to Salonika. Once again he survived.
During his distinguished career, he commanded famous Cunard liners including the Mauretania which once made the return voyage between Liverpool and New York in 12 days under his guidance.
William Thomas Turner, aboard the Lusitania in 1915.
He escorted his King and Queen on a tour of the Mauretania when they visited Liverpool in 1913, was made a Commander of the Royal Navy Reserve, was honoured for saving lives at sea and was awarded the OBE in 1918 for his war service.
Gardening was his abiding interest during his final years but he never forgave Winston Churchill for the way he treated him over the Lusitania.
“Bowler Bill” died in 1933. He was 77 and was laid to rest near Liverpool, not far from the great port he had navigaged in command of some of the most famous passenger liners in maritime history. There to take him on his final journey, the sirens of ships going in and out of Liverpool being heard in the distance, were some of his old seafaring colleagues. They had remained loyal to him to the very end.
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