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,