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Geordie Smith: Nelson’s Lusitania hero

Updated: Mar 20

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 (Geordie) 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.

He and his friend Bill Bennett booked passage via Montreal and New York. Bennett, a fellow ship carpenter, was headed home to Dundee to see his wife and six children.

However, when they got to New York, Bennett was broke and Geordie had to pay his bill at a restaurant before the two could board the liner. Their ticket was in steerage.

Soon after they set sail, Geordie heard a rumor German leaflets were being passed around, warning passengers not to board, although he never saw one. For the next few days all was well and Geordie heard one fellow passenger dismissed the German threats as “all bluff and fizzle.”

Geordie and Bennett were smoking in steerage when the torpedo struck. They rushed to the upper deck but realized they had left their life preservers behind. In trying to recover them, the two became separated. Geordie never saw Bill Bennett again.

Back on deck, Geordie saw people “running aimlessly because many passageways between the different classes were closed and the lifeboats were on the upper deck.”

He climbed a stanchion to an upper deck as the ship listed precariously. Many lifeboats launched from the lower side were smashed or titled into the water. He helped a mother calm her little boy and boosted them into one of the lifeboats.

His full 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.

Geordie told a reporter that as he was helping to launch the life boats, 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.

Alas, that photo isn’t known to exist.

About three hours later, help arrived. Geordie climbed aboard a trawler and was comforted with hot tea while his clothes dried. Oddly, the first sailor to greet him asked: “Have you a sister?” Yes, Geordie replied. He was told she was staying with the sailor’s wife.

Also on board the trawler, Geordie tried to revive another survivor with hot tea, but missed her mouth and poured it over instead. It achieved the desired results anyway, as she recovered with a start.

After recuperating in Scotland, Geordie plied his trade as ship’s carpenter until the war ended. However, his ordeal left what we would now call post-traumatic stress: for five years, he slept with his hands gripping the bedstead, and often woke up trying to throw himself overboard.

Geordie 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 Geordie went back to work for the CPR in its shipyard until he retired in 1947. They lived at first on Fourth Street in Fairview, then 501 Elwyn, then 716 Third St. which is still standing.

Under the treaty of Versailles signed in 1919, Germany accepted responsibility for losses of the allied nations during the First World War and agreed to compensate civilians. This included survivors of the Lusitania.

Geordie Smith put in a claim for $354 (about $6,000 today) the loss of his carpenter’s tool kit and other personal effects. But processing the claim took forever, as parliament could not agree how to disburse the money. The opposition felt claimants should be paid in full with interest, while the government felt the money represented losses to the nation and that while “compassionate allowances” should be made to individuals, the government wasn’t obligated to pay civilian claims.

Nelson Daily News, May 25, 1929

After three years of haggling, the government introduced a bill to distribute $2.5 million and pay all claims of up to $15,000 in full plus a percentage of larger claims.

Consequently, more than 1,600 claims were allowed, including Geordie’s — in 1929, a full 14 years after the Lusitania sank.

In 1959, Cam Hooper of the Nelson Daily News interviewed Geordie about his Lusitania experience and he revealed that he still had his wallet from that night, including a landing card and a water-soaked letter. Where is that wallet today?

Nelson Daily News, July 29, 1959: “Geordie Smith, 716 Third St., looks at a billfold which represented his entire belongings [sic] when he was plunged into the Atlantic and survived the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the world’s major maritime disasters. The wallet is in remarkably good condition after 44 years.” (Ian Brown photo)

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).

Geordie 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 Geordie 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.”

Updated on March 20, 2024 to add details and images from the Nelson Daily News of May 25, 1929 and July 29, 1959.

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I remember the Smiths, they were old when I knew them. We lived on the same block on 3rd st.

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