Lisburn’s Lost on the Lusitania: the case of Christopher Evans McConkey

A guest by local researcher Pat Geary, author of the Friends’ School Lisburn WWI database.

Born in Hillsbrough, Co. Down on the 7 August 1853 Christopher Evans McConkey was the son of John and Bessie and grandson of Edward and Elizabeth McConkey. The family, who appear to have been farmers, had lived there at Sion Hill, possibly in the townland of Reillys Trench, for at least two generations but just how long Chris remained there is uncertain. One source suggests that it may have been until his early teens but this is impossible to substantiate. What we can say though is that as the fifth child and fourth son in a farming family in post-Famine Ireland he would have been unlikely to inherit any of the land and more likely to have to make his own way in the world.

The next sighting we have of him is in 1871 by which time his parents had retired to the Isle of Man and he was a 17 year old grocers apprentice living in Liverpool, probably with his employer Thomas Thompson a grocer, and wine and spirit merchant, in Myrtle Street. Still single, that would change nine years later when he married Annie Peirce in Dublin in 1880. They would go on to have nine children and, with the first two, Henry and Frederick born in Ireland between 1881 and 1883, it seems that they continued to live there for a time.

However, the question of where is a little less clear. The 1891 England census shows that the two boys were born in Co. Down raising the possibility that Chris McConkey had returned home. But this may have been a case of the enumerator finding it easier to complete the children’s entries on the census form with ditto marks below their father’s details or simply making an assumption that they had been born in the same place. Other sources show that Henry and Frederick were born in Dublin.

Off to Liverpool

Wherever the family were living in Ireland we know that they would not remain there. Moving to Liverpool sometime between 1882 when Frederick arrived, and 1885 when Edward their third child was born, it would become the family home although, to begin with at least, there would be several changes of address. In 1888 they were at Pendennis Street and by 1890 on Sybil Road in Walton on the Hill, at which point the family had expanded to seven with the arrival of Emily and Gladys. Christopher junior followed a couple of years later and by January 1895 when Irene was baptised they were living at Oakfield Road. Six years on, at the time of the next census, with William and Bessie having arrived between 1892 and 1900, the family numbered eleven and were now at Beech Road.

By that stage, the spring of 1901, the three elder boys were working, Henry and Frederick as grocers assistants and Edward as a steward in the Merchant Marine. However, the year would not end happily for the McConkey household. Sometime towards the end of the year, Edward died at the age of 16. It was also about this time that the family moved again, this time, briefly, to Gillman Street, before one final shift to 25 St. Ambrose Grove sometime between October 1901 and March 1902. That would remain the family home.

A new life at Sea for McConkey

But more importantly Chris McConkey began a new career that, years later, would have unfortunate ramifications for himself and his family. Between 1888 and 1901 he had been working in what we might today describe as ‘sales’. There had been some variation in the job title – commercial traveller, commercial agent, salesman and traveller, but it is hard to imagine that the job description changed a great deal. Then, on the 20 September 1901, he signed on as a steward on the SS Majestic. Run by the White Star Line, its captain, one Edward Smith, would later rise to prominence as skipper of the Titanic; three years after that his less famous crewmate would meet a not dissimilar fate on an equally famous liner.

In the meantime, first as a steward and then a waiter he plied the north Atlantic passenger routes first on the Majestic and later, from July 1902, the Saxonia and Campania operated by Cunard. Over the next five and a half years he made at least 41 return crossings with the round trip usually lasting between three and three and a half weeks; most were to New York, some to Boston, and the work earned him the princely sum of £3 a month as a steward or £3 5s as a waiter. There are gaps in his record either where he did not sign on for a voyage or possibly where the Crew List is missing. Most are for one or two months and probably the same number of round trips, but until March 1907 there are long periods of continuous service with turnaround times in Liverpool typically 5 to 7 days. The one exception is between July 1904 and December 1905 when there is no trace of him at all. Then, from the spring of 1907 we lose track of him again, almost completely.

He does not even feature on the 1911 census though we know that the family, bar Henry the eldest son, were still living at 25 St. Ambrose Grove. Frederick and Irene were shop assistants, he in a grocers, she in a drapers, Emily was employed in a “milliner’s work room” and Christopher junior as an office clerk. The youngest, William and Bessie were still at school. As for Henry, he was a married man and by the time of the census was living with his wife and their 1 year old son at 98 Heyworth Street where he managed a pub.

The sinking of the Lusitania

At the time of Henry’s marriage in July 1907 his father Chris was still working as a ships steward but the next time we see him is on the 12 April 1915 when he signed on at Liverpool as a second class waiter in the Stewards’ Department on the Lusitania (read Lisburn’s story of the Lusitania here). The pay was better at a monthly rate of £4-5s, but so too were the risks. Chris McConkey reported for duty three days later at 7 a.m., “in time for the liner’s last ever voyage out of the River Mersey.” He was also on board when the ship left New York on its return voyage just after noon on the 1 May. Six days later on the 7 May and 10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale she was hit by a single torpedo fired by the U-20. It was shortly after 2 p.m.

A second explosion followed shortly after – perhaps one of the boilers, perhaps coal dust in the ships bunkers or munitions in her holds – its cause is still a matter of debate, but whatever it was, the damage was terminal. The Lusitania was soon “out of control”. It could not be steered or quickly brought to a stop so that the boats could be safely lowered; it began to list to starboard and to sink by the head.

“In those first moments passengers felt bewildered, dazed, uncertain what to do.” They swarmed up from below, “pushing and pulling their way up” the stairs. “On deck officers tried to keep order”, children were separated from parents, husbands from wives. Some tried to help others, others helped themselves, “fighting their way towards the boats”, some passengers and crew became violent; many were without life jackets.

“The lovely weather and the proximity of land made the unfolding catastrophe seem unreal”, but it was not. The list of the ship made it almost impossible to lower the boats on the port side and in the end only one from that side “got away safely without capsizing or becoming waterlogged.” The problem was that when they were released from the snubbing chain that secured them to the deck, the 5 ton craft swung inwards,

“crush

[ing] those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure. Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it, slid down the deck towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, … no .4 boat [followed] down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the wreckage of the first ….

To starboard, the lifeboats swung away from the deck by some 7 or 8 feet and could not easily be loaded. Despite this more were successfully got away, but not all. The ships forward momentum resulted in one being dropped on top of its fully laden predecessor; at least one was missing, destroyed in the explosion, another one or two were dragged under before they could be released from the falls used to lower them from the davits.

Luisitania Lisburn Museum 2015“As the ships list increased, so did the despair. … Many threw propriety to the winds and stripped down, believing their chances of survival would be better if they were wearing fewer clothes.” Some tried to slide down wires and ropes, dangling from the ships decks, others jumped. “Women in desperation thrust their children into the arms of strangers. In the ship’s dying moments children were being thrown from the decks to be caught … in the lifeboats.”

Less than half a mile away Walther Schwieger, the Captain of U-20, watched through the submarine’s periscope.

“The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was a terrible panic on her deck. Overcrowded lifeboats … dropped into the water. Desperate men ran helplessly up and down the decks. Men and women jumped into the water and tried to swim to empty, overturned lifeboats. It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen … too terrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive.”

Lusitania disappeared from view at 2.28 p.m. just 18 minutes after she had been hit. But it was not all over.

“As the waters gradually stilled, they left a pathetic residue, a circle of people and wreckage about half a mile across”. In the water, hundreds struggled to survive, some in boats, others clinging to bits of detritus spewed out by the ship as it went down, or to each other – both dead and alive. As had been the case before the Lusitania went down, some tried to help others, others helped themselves. “Those in the water – some with life jackets, some without – fought for survival”, sometimes literally. Many made for the surviving lifeboats, where they were sometimes given refuge; others were greeted with “callous indifference” or even prevented from getting on board. “Parents tried desperately to hold their children out of the water”, other infants had been “tied onto chairs or placed on pieces of wreckage.” As they waited for rescue, many, men women and children, died from hypothermia, or from the injuries they had sustained. In the end the total death toll was 1,201.

The last sighting of Christoper McConkey

Luisitania Libsurn 1915 MayAnd what of Chris McConkey in all this? He was, “last seen on deck as [the] ship went down”. Cunard would later send a description of him to Queenstown which received most of the survivors and many of the victims, so that if his body was found he might be identified. He was, this tells us, 60 years old, with a short build and somewhat thin, had a scar on his jaw, was bald and had false teeth. The name “Chris” was also to be found on his clothes. There is no indication however, that his body was ever recovered. His death is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial, London and on the family grave in Anfield Cemetery, Liverpool. He had, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, been, “drowned as a result of an attack by an enemy submarine on the 7 May 1915 age 45”. He was in fact 62.

That August, about the time of what would have been her husband’s sixty third birthday, Annie McConkey received the balance of wages owing to him in respect of the Lusitania’s final voyage.  In addition, The Liverpool and London War Risks Insurance Association Limited granted her a yearly pension of £26 18s 9d. She died in June 1932 aged 69.

Of her children, we know that Henry died in Liverpool in 1960 aged 79. Frederick who enlisted in the RASC in February 1917 aged 34, was demobilised in October 1919 after two and a half years’ service in France and, at the end of hostilities, in Germany. He married Amy Williams in the 1921 and died in Liverpool in 1955 aged 72. Christopher his younger brother also enlisted, though in the RAMC in January 1915 aged 22 and served with the BEF for the better part of 4 years. Awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, he was discharged in February 1919. Returning to 25 Ambrose Place he seems to have resumed his previous career as a Steward in the Merchant Navy. Married to Ellen Halstead in 1930, he died in Liverpool in May 1944 aged 62.

View Lisburn’s story of the Lusitania in our WWI exhibition.