Updated: Jan 21, 2021
I’ve written before about people from the Kootenay who were aboard the SS Lusitania the night it was sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915, killing nearly 1,200 people. But there was another one I didn’t know about — and his role was nothing short of extraordinary.
Nelson Daily News, May 8, 1915
George Smith was a shipwright, born in Buckie, Scotland in 1881, the eldest of John and Margaret Smith’s eight children. He reportedly came to Canada about 1901 and to Nelson in 1904 or 1905, but I can’t find him on the 1901 or 1911 census or in the civic directories until after the Lusitania sank.
His obituary said he worked in Nakusp, Slocan, and Nelson when he first came to Canada but was in Prince Rupert when World War I began and was aboard the Lusitania to return to Scotland to help in the war effort.
His story appeared in the Fraserburg Herald and Northern Counties Advertiser on May 25, 1915, and was unearthed and transcribed by Peter Engberg-Klarstöm on his Lusitania blog.
Smith told a reporter that he was helping to launch the life boats when the Lusitania received “the blow which sounded the death knell to hundreds.” He saw dozens of people being tossed about in the water, which swept over the deck from which the boats were being lowered.
Just as the vessel seemed to settle after the first attack — the cry had gone round that all was right — she gave another lurch and the next thing I knew was that I was in the water.
When I came to the surface I espied a large box full of biscuit tins floating in the water, and this I caught hold of. Shortly afterwards I noticed a submerged boat with a canvas cover on the top of it, the oars being underneath, and I cast off from the box, and clambered on to the top of the boat, which was collapsible.
I sat there feeling a bit all right, and gradually one by one five other men got on to the boat. We cut the canvas cover off with a view to bailing out the water, but to our dismay there was a large hole in the stern. Nevertheless, we got the oars in position, and started to row about.
The danger of the small craft sinking altogether was very great, and it was a decided relief, therefore, when we saw, about 30 feet distant, another upturned collapsible boat. We rowed to the boat, and having got possession of it, fixed it to the stern of our frail craft. Several of us manned the new-found boat, and not a minute too soon, for all around poor creatures were to be seen struggling in the grip of death, their cries for help being piteous and heart-rending.
Women were in the majority, and whenever opportunity offered we gave a helping hand. In the course of half an hour we had taken 22 passengers on board, and I can assure you they were a thankful band. In their joy at being rescued they were exuberant, and one of the party — he was a steward, I think — so far forgot the ordeal through which he had passed that he took out a camera which he had with him and ‘snapped’ us.
Sadly, that photo isn’t known to exist.
After recuperating in Scotland, Smith plied his trade as ship’s carpenter until the war ended. He married Margaret Wiseman in Scotland in 1917 and their only child, Ann, was born there the following year.
The family returned to Canada in 1921, settling in Nelson, where George went back to work for the CPR in its shipyard. They lived at first on Fourth Street in Fairview, then 501 Elwyn, then 716 Third St. which is still standing.
In 1965, the CBC produced an award-winning documentary about the Lusitania sinking entitled Rendezvous With Death, which included the voices of nine Canadian survivors, George Smith supposedly among them. He is not identified in the version available online but some unidentified voices are heard, one of whom might have a Scottish burr (for instance, at the 50:20 mark).
George Smith died in Nelson on March 1, 1966, age 84, and was buried in the local cemetery. His obituary in the Daily News (pictured) acknowledged that he was one of the Lusitania’s survivors. He was survived by his wife, daughter, and three siblings, two of whom lived in Vancouver.
Margaret Smith died in 1971, followed in 1972 by daughter Ann. Ann married Lawrence Porter and had two daughters.
Gerry Stevenson, who lived across the street from the Smiths, says George was a “very nice man and his wife was always so good to all of us kids in the neighbourhood. My dad told us that Mr. Smith was on [the Lusitania] and saved others on a makeshift raft.”