As we lead up to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, TIS will be featuring a daily post about the ship and her crew and passengers. This first tribute was published in VOYAGE and written by Michael Poirier. Mrs. McDermott attended the 2003 and 2004 TIS conventions in Newport and Groton. She was greatly-loved by all who had the good fortune to meet her, and sorely missed.
“Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot’s boat” … From the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Funerals are a time to reflect on the life of the person you are paying tribute to. I had much time to reflect on the lifeof Barbara McDermott, when I received the call that she had passed away on April 12, 2008. I thought about the firstletter I had written her in 1998. I asked her about what she remembered about the Lusitania and also a bit about her lifein general. Her reply came quickly and was signed, ‘All my love, Barbara’. Our correspondence continued, not really about the Lusitania, about life in general. Early on, I asked her if she would liketo be my penpal. She said that she had never had one before and would be, ‘delighted’. Soon letters became phone calls. Birthdays and holidays were always remembered and always ended with, ‘I love you.’Many people who came to know her will tell you the same thing. Once you had met her, you felt like you had known her all your life and that was her way and her key to a long life.
How does one describe someone who was genuinely sweet, unpretentious, full of faith, and an easy going wit? If we all had her wonderful qualities, life would be much simpler. I recall my very first visit to her house. Shelley Dziedzic and I came to her house in Wallingford on a warm summer’s day, July 21, 2002. The weather was perfect and before long we encountered Barbara running and waving to greet us. Shelley asked me, “Is this the daughter, Elizabeth?” No, it was Barbara. Her youth and vibrance were incredible. She gave us huge hugs and what a grip it was! She just loved people.
I remember Titanic survivor, Lou Pope being the same way. Her apartment in the lower part of the house was charming with a mixture of family portraits, antiques, stuffed ‘kitties’ and beautifully crocheted items that she had made herself. Her prize item was a full size poster of her favorite actor, Tom Selleck, who her husband had termed her, ‘boyfriend’. Her cooking was amazing and those that have attended her picnics can attest that she made an excellent potato salad, and a cake injected with jello.
We learned quite a bit about her life that day. Her parents, Rowland Anderson and Emily Pybus had been childhood sweethearts from the Darlington area of England. He emigrated to the US first aboard the Carmania on May 20, 1910. His original destination was Providence, Rhode Island where his brother Percy lived, but settled in Connecticut where he found work as a machinist. Emily then sailed on the Caronia and arrived June 28, 1911. They soon married and on June 15, 1912, Barbara Winifred Anderson was born in Derby, Connecticut.
The family moved again, and took up residence at 35 Morningside Drive, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Life was very simple for the family and there were trips to the park and to the beach. Emily became pregnant again in early 1915 and it was decided she would take Barbara to visit the Anderson and Pybus families back in England. How long she intended to stay it is not known. The timing was not good for Rowland and he had to remain behind to work. The ship booked was the Lusitania and unbeknownst to the couple, it was to be a prize target for German submarines. Barbara later said to me, “If my father had seen the warning from the Germans, he would not have let us sail.” A further inducement was that Cunard has reduced the rate to $50 for second class.
The day before mother and daughter were to embark, “I remember being taken to visit neighbors and friends to say goodbye. Suitably, I was dressed in a blue sailors suit.” The following morning, they proceeded to New York City and went to Cunard’s pier 54 to board the ship. People have found over the years that if you directly question someone about an event, they freeze up and the memories are not forth coming. However, in the course of a friendly conversation and with gentle prodding, perhaps something will come to mind. Barbara once said, “I have images in my head. Like snapshots.” That being said, she once remembered “standing beside my mother at the rail looking back at all the people on the pier. I tried to find my father in the crowd, but could not see him. I imagine he was there. After awhile, I remember leaving the rail and entering the deckhouse.” Following the disaster, her mother was quoted in the local Darlington paper that upon sailing from New York they saw, “many warships about and they anticipated seeing many more when approaching England, but saw none…” Emily would describe it as a “splendid passage” and that the weather “was fine all the way”.
Little Barbara, aged 3
There were a number of pregnant women on board like herself and many with children. One woman she became friendly with was Margaret Cox, an Irish woman who settled in Canada. She had a son Desmond with her, who was about a year younger than Barbara.
Second class on this voyage was over-booked and a section of first class cabins forward on E-deck were used to accomodate the excess passengers. Barbara once said that they were in a cabin where the beds were “one on top of the other”. The dining room was also crowded and it was deemed necessary that meals would be in two sittings and that open balcony would be fitted with tables. Emily and Barbara were given one of these.”It was a small table just for two and it overlooked the balcony. Looking back the entrance to the corridor was right there.” Another visit made to Barbara’s brought forth another detail, “There was a table nearby, with nothing but men.” At one point, Emily or one well-meaning steward gave her a souvenir spoon from the barbers shop with the name ‘Lusitania‘ engraved on it.
The ship steamed along and people amused themselves with deck games, whist drives, and concerts. May 7 arrived and Emily described it as a “glorious day”. They proceeded to their table for the second seating at lunch. As it came to a close, Barbara’s strongest memories about the voyage came to the forefront. “We had just finished lunch, and I hopped out of my chair and stood next to my mother and looked over the rail. The people were still eating their lunch at the long tables below. Suddenly, the torpedo struck.”
A torpedo struck the Lusitania at about 2:10p.m. Emily continues the story. “I was in the saloon at the time and I made for the boatdeck at once. Someone carried my little daughter up the stairs to the boat deck, or I might not have got there. The deck was at such an angle we slid down towards the boats. I got into one with the covers on, but I was ordered into another one, which was ready.” This was lifeboat 15, in which First officer Arthur Rowland Jones was in charge. He filled it way beyond capacity in the hopes of saving as many people as possible. The man who helped carry Barbara was assistant Purser William Harkness. He had also helped ready the boat and assist in the lowering. When he was done, he joined Emily and Barbara. The ever- tilting deck caused problems for many and people had trouble staying on their feet. As Emily noted about Mrs. Cox and her son, “One little boy was badly bruised for this reason. His mother, a native of Ireland, was rescued with him.” The lifeboat was finally ready to cast off and they were “touching the water… they simply cut away the ropes from the davits.” The boat was so near the side of the liner, the young mother was afraid they would go down with the suction. Looking up, she was also afraid of the funnels, “which seemed to be coming right upon them.”
The skill of the oarsmen helped the boat get away, but they encountered another danger, the wireless antenna came across their boat. Another passenger in the boat watched as Harkness heaved one overboard and as another snapped and broke off. The Lusitania made her final plunge and disappeared.
The sea was dotted with people and bodies. One woman who Emily met said that she went under twice and described the sensation of drowning as ‘dreadful’. She sat near Robert Leith, the wireless operator and he told her that he sent out distress messages for 14 minutes, before abandoning his cabin. Boats from Queenstown harbor could be seen be them on the horizon, but it would take hours before they were rescued. Their boat drifted along and came across another boat with just two men. Officer Jones transferred people from his boat into that one to even the load and both went in search of more people to pick up. Barbara’s only memories of being in the boat was of facing her mother and that it seemed like they were lost. Finally, the majority of survivors arrived in Queenstown and were immediately brought to the various hotels. The loss of life was staggering. Almost 1200 people had perished. The two were in fairly good shape and made their way to England soon after. Barbara’s last memory of the incident was that they were going through a long yellow tunnel and at the end, her aunts and other family members were waiting for them.
Newspaper clipping photo of Emily post sinking
As soon as they arrived at her parent’s home in Woodside Gardens, a reporter from the North Star came to interview Emily. “Mrs. Anderson looks none the worse for her terrible experience and her charming little daughter was prattling away merrily with the innocence of childhood… She lost all her belongings. It would be difficult to imagine from Mrs. Anderson’s pleasant chat that she had passed through such a terrible experience. She is possessed of strong nerves and a cheerful temperament, and is supremely grateful for her narrow escape.”
Despite the war, the initial first months about their visit was pleasant. Barbara recalled her maternal grandfather, Robert taking them for a carriage ride. “We were going along when all of a sudden it began to rain. My mother laughed and we returned home.” Yet, all was not well. Emily’s health became precarious with her pregnancy.
She gave birth to a son, Frank Roland, in September 1915 who was not well. He lingered on till March 1916, and to Barbara’s regret she never had a chance to see him. Her mother’s health continued to deteriorate. A TB- related illness had taken effect. When she caught this is a matter of debate. It was once claimed by her daughter, that she was ill when she boarded the Lusitania. Other times, it was felt she caught it by being exposed in an open lifeboat for many hours. Emily was put in a separate small cottage on the property. Barbara was taken to see her on Christmas and her mother had a present to give her, a new doll carriage. Finally, the end was near, and Barbara was taken to see her mother one last time.
“She held her arms out to me and just hugged me and held me. That was the last time I saw her.”
Emily Mary Anderson died on March 11, 1917. Rowland received word in Bridgeport and the local paper wrote a loving tribute to her. It said, “her unusual cheerful dispostion made for many friends in this city.” Her husband continued on and worked for the Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven. He did not visit England, but it can be assumed with the dangers of torpedoing, it was not deemed wise to travel and might have possibly left Barbara an orphan.
Barbara cherished her childhood in England. She was surrounded by both sets of grandparents, aunt and uncles who fussed over her. One grandfather worked for the train station and they were always given complimentary rides to wherever they wanted to go. Despite her young age, she was allowed to travel alone, by foot, to visit her father’s parents. She would wander through the main city and look in all the shops and marvel at the chocolate store. Barbara remembered having a good friend, Eileen and one time, they were taken to the movie theater to see a Charlie Chaplin film. Another visit was to the beach. She was placed in a cart with a donkey, but after a short distance, the donkey tipped the cart and she fell out. Some of her favorite memories were watching her Granny Pybus cooking over an open hearth. “Granny used to show my Lusitania spoon to people when we had company.”
Her faith was strong early on and she attended the Quaker church which she found quite peaceful. The war did cause some struggle and there was no Christmas tree, but that did not matter to her. Her strongest recollection of the war was the German soldiers who had been captured and were forced to work on her grandfather’s farm.
“I sat at one end of a long table and the German soldiers sat at the other end during lunch.”
The war finally came to a close and Rowland requested that she be sent home. His sister Annie was reluctant and offered to adopt Barbara. However his sister Edith declared that Barbara would be sent home. She arranged for passage for her niece on the Mauretania and her companion was to be a family acquaintance.
“I did not like the woman,” Barbara said. “She wasn’t very nice. We got off the ship at one point to walk around and this woman got down in a ditch, hiked up her skirt and went to the bathroom!
I was not well on the voyage and the doctor was sent for. He came to the cabin with another man. He was a handsome man and I can still see his face. He asked me if I would like to be his dinner companion one night in the diningroom. His name was Arthur Rostron, and as it turns out he was the Captain of the Carpathia, that rescued the Titanic survivors.
The people at the table that night were all so nice and he was so kind and I had a good time. I was in the writing room aboard the Mauretania and when I looked out I could see whales spouting. We arrived in New York and when we disembarked I said to my travelling companion, ‘There’s my Daddy! That’s my Daddy!’ She replied, ‘Oh how do you know.’ Well as it turns out, I was right. He met me and we went to my new home. My new stepmother Helen, gave me a doll that had been hers as a child which I named Eileen, after my friend in England.”
The compensation of being a survivor of the Lusitania was determined during the next few years, with Rowland filing suit. She was awarded a sum of money, but it may not have been honored by the German government as Barbara didn’t know anything about it.
Adapting to a new life was rough at first. Her stepmother was not used to having a child and when she had her own child, it was clear that there was awkwardness with Helen favoring her son Dickie. Despite this, Barbara had a normal childhood of playing and going to Morris Cove for swimming. She attended the Nathan Hale School in East Haven and from there to the local high school. She worked at one of the historic homes giving tours as a part-time job. A love of acting and performing came naturally to her and she remembered dressing up as a ghost, sitting on stage and” we all screamed our heads off.” Looking through an album a photo showed her dressed as ‘The Queen of the Nile’.
She was proud of her job at the store, WT Grant’s and while on a blind date, she met her future husband, Milton McDermott. They were married and she gave birth to two children, George and Elizabeth. When in her apartment with George, the hurricane of 1938 struck. She recalled the long hours of driving winds and rain while nursing her infant son.
Her husband supported them by working as the doorman for the Taft Hotel. She prided on herself on being self-reliant and painted rooms, put up wall paper, repaired things and even mowed the lawn. When her children were older, she returned to WT Grant’s. She first worked on the floor, but her friend, Mrs. Champagne ‘Champy’ took care of her and with her help Barbara became personnel manager. ‘Champy’ also gave her rides to work, but Barbara finally took lessons and learned how to drive which she continued to do until she was 89 years old.
The years flew by and soon she was a grandmother and she enjoyed spending time with her grandson Paul and when he and his wife Terri had children, she became attached to his children P.J. and Michael as well. A chance arose to travel back to England and in 1974 she did. Her favorite aunt, Annie was still alive and it was a joyous reunion. When questioning her niece as to why she married so young, and finding that wanting to get out of the house was a factor, her aunt shouted, “I knew it! I knew it” A tour of the area showed her childhood home at her grandparents still existed and she was allowed inside to view it. All-in-all it was a carthartic experience. Her father moved to Pennsylvania and died there. Some of her prized possessions were paintings he did himself of the English countryside.
When WT Grant’s closed, she found out through a friend at the Old Stone church they attended together, that there was an opening at the East Lawn Cemetery in the office. It was easy for her as she only lived around the corner on Martin Street. She kept herself busy after Milton died in 1981. She shared a house with her good friend Betty, another widow, also from England. She eventually came to stay with her daughter Liz and her husband Jimmy in Wallingford where she lived over twenty years. She continued her favorite past times while there such as tending to the garden, cooking, and attending her church. When she no longer could drive, family and friends took her. She made sure she prayed every night before falling asleep and one thing she gave thanks for every night was being saved from the Lusitania.
Emily’s locket worn on Lusitania
The Lusitania sinking was sporadic throughout her life. When she would tell people, “they wouldn’t believe me as I didn’t look that old.” Newspapers occassionally interviewed her over the years and also the local news. She graciously agreed to be the speaker at the Titanic International Society convention in Newport, Rhode Island. She was a hit with the large crowd and everyone had a good time. It was repeated again the following year at the Mystic convention. She was able to tour a submarine and look at an actual torpedo which she found fascinating. Between that and also being interviewed by National Geographic, she developed a large fan following. She received many letters and phone calls regarding her story and she was always happy to share her story. The moral of the story was that she was thankful for being saved and given a second chance at life. She especially loved children and enjoyed helping them with school history projects regarding the sinking.
What did she think of the wreck being salvaged?
“Well, I wish they would find our things and bring them up.” She saw no need for those items to sit on the ocean floor and hoped that they would be properly conserved for the public to see. One of her wishes was to have a German medallion made after the sinking which a man in England sent to her. She also wished to find the Harkness family. A quick search of the UK records showed he died in 38. However, it was harder to locate his four children. Eventually I received an email from his grandson Leigh, who put me in touch with his aunt Muriel. The two called Barbara and she was finally able to say ‘thank you’ to the family of the man who saved her life.
Barbara’s Lusitania medallion
Visits by myself and friends continued, but one day, after the anniversary of the sinking, she fell at church. She broke her hip, but she surprised everyone by healing very quickly. The one side effect was that her vision began failing. Not to be detered by that, she continued to cook, and when she couldn’t read her Bible, she listened to it on tape. Barbara also gave her final television interview to the BBC, but this has yet to air. My last visit with her was still one of her picnics. It was a cold buffet, but she did what she could and it was very enjoyable, especially since she still gave one of those big hugs. Regrettably, she took several more falls, and around Christmas 2007 she entered the hospital. She contracted pneumonia, but seemed to overcome that. Although her health was precarious. She entered the Skyview Nursing home and gently passed away on the evening of April 12, 2008.
The funeral service at the Old Stone Church, was simple, and fully attended by the family. The theme by the pastor was salvation and the Lusitania was used through out to show how Barbara had been saved for greater things. A long chat with her family came afterwards and promises to keep in touch. We then took to the road and traveled around East Haven.
As if guided by Barbara herself, we saw various points in her life… Morris Cove beach, the Nathan Hale School, her house on Martin Street, and the place where she was to be at rest. The national press did not deem it news, but the New Haven Register gave her the front page. I am sure she would have been pleased. It really marked the end of an era. Those of us who were priveleged to meet and to know survivors of the Titanic and Lusitania; those that had actual memories of being aboard those famous liners and relating their experiences are now gone. Yet, they still live on in our memories. People like Marjorie Robb, Marshall Drew, and of course Barbara, will always be part of our thoughts and those thoughts will always bring smiles.
On 18 November, it was announced in New York City that the remains of historic Pier 54, where Titanic’s survivors were landed, will be demolished as part of a $170 million project in partnership with the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation to extend Hudson River Park along Manhattan’s western side.The foundation will design, build and maintain a new 2.4 acre (.97 hectare) waterfront park and performance venue atop a new, square pier – known as Pier 55 or “P55” – between the wood pilings that once supported the Cunard Line’s Pier 56 and those of Pier 54, which has suffered significant deterioration. Some 100 feet (30.5m) of Pier 54’s 875-foot (266m) platform already has collapsed into the Hudson River, and except for a 100-foot segment at the pier’s eastern (street) end, the pier’s remaining length has been closed due to safety concerns. The proposal calls for demolishing the pier’s crumbling concrete platform, leaving only its wood pilings, which will serve as a sanctuary for the river’s protected striped bass population. The proposal still must receive approvals from the full board of the Hudson River Park Trust, the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Following demolition, construction could begin in 2016.
While the actual pier structure through which Titanic’s rescued disembarked from Carpathia, and through which Lusitania’s final passengers boarded was destroyed in a fire on May 6, 1932, the pier was rebuilt using the original steel framework. Just one piece of that original structure remains: an iconic steel archway at the pier’s entrance, which still bears in faded paint the words “Cunard-White Star.”
The project’s lengthy environmental assessment document is downloadable at http://www.hudsonriverpark.org/assets/content/general/Pier54_Environmental_Assessment.pdf. There is no mention of what would become of this arch should this project move forward. You can help to ensure that the arch is retained and conserved, either in its present location or moved to the new Pier 55, and supplemented with a suitable plaque or tablet commemorating Pier 54’s role in history. Please note that all public comments must be received by 16 January 2015, so the time for action is very short. With the help of the members of Titanic societies on both sides of the Atlantic, we have an opportunity to try to ensure that this final remnant of this historic pier can be rescued from the scrappers’ torch. Send your request via e-mail to the Hudson River Park Trust, at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or via postal letter to William Heinzen, Esq., Hudson River Park Trust, Pier 40, 2nd Floor,
353 West Street, New York, NY 10014-3674, and to the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation at 555 W. 18th Street,
2nd Floor, New York, NY 10011-2822.
The convention web site is up and running for our 25th anniversary convention in Mystic Connecticut, the place where it all began. Bring your family and friends for a memorable weekend when the daffodils are in bloom and the last wooden whaling ship in the world sets off on a triumphant voyage. To read about all the events, our flagship hotel, speakers and menus for the weekend, click on the link below to browse all the details at our special convention web site
pdf file with images VoyagePalmquistcoverage feature story by David Palmquist from the upcoming Voyage 85.
(copyright David Palmquist and Titanic International Society 2013. Please contact Revdma@aol.com for reprint permissions)
There have been developments about the plaque since the last issue of Voyage. Check these links for the latest on when the plaque will be on public view.