Death of a Stewardess

Image of RMS Falaba
RMS Falaba

The fate of the RMS Lusitania, sunk by a torpedo from a German U-Boat on 7 May 1915 with the loss of almost 1,200 lives, is one still remembered today. It produced shockwaves across the country (and across the United States) and is probably the cause of a similar event six weeks earlier being now largely forgotten. In the sinking of the RMS Falaba on 28 March, one of the casualties was a resident of Herne Hill. Her name was Louisa Tearle and she is one of the very few women whose name appears on the national Merchant Navy memorial.

Louisa was born in Lambeth in 1878 or 1879, probably at 22 St Alban’s Street, a street that is no more, now entirely covered by the LCC China Walk estate (near the Imperial War Museum). Her father, Arthur Lees, was a stonemason and by the time of the 1901 Census he was widowed. At this time Louisa was working as a waitress and living with her father at 70 Union Road, Clapham, along with a younger brother and sister. (It was her sister who identified Louisa’s remains from the rings found on her body when it was washed ashore near Newquay, Cornwall.) Louisa married, in 1902, one Henry James Tearle. They seem to have had rooms in Dalyell Road, Stockwell, before moving to Hampton Hill near Kingston. Her husband worked for Elder Dempster, a company that operated ships for the trade with West Africa, and it seems that Louisa had joined her husband, working for the same steamship company before his untimely death when in Nigeria in 1914. By this time Louisa had five young children, so it seems probable that her changed circumstances required her to move back to Lambeth, where she would have had friends and family. Only one of the several newspapers reporting the inquest into her death gives the exact address – 88 Railton Road. This would have been above what was then a confectioner’s shop between Chaucer Road and Spenser Road.

Louisa was engaged as a stewardess on the RMS Falaba, a 4,800-ton merchant ship built on the Clyde in 1906. It sailed from Liverpool on 27 March 1915, bound for Sierra Leone with 95 crew and 147 passengers. The ship was unarmed. The following morning the Falaba realised it was being shadowed by a U-Boat. It tried to outrun the submarine (U-28, captained by Georg Freiherr von Forstner) but could not make enough speed. The war at this stage was being conducted under maritime rules of warfare which required submarines to give unarmed merchant ships notice of their intention. This entailed ordering the ship to stop and giving those on board an opportunity to abandon ship before the ship was sunk. According to the official inquiry chaired by the Wreck Commissioner Lord Mersey, the U-Boat, on the surface, fired a detonating signal to draw attention and sent a message, using flags, telling the Falaba to stop and abandon ship or it would fire. Shortly afterwards, at noon, it signalled “Abandon ship immediately” and, now only some 150 yards away from the Falaba, hailed through a megaphone that it would sink the ship in five minutes. The Falaba came to a stop at about 12:05 and started to lower its lifeboats. At 12:10 the U-Boat fired a torpedo. The Falaba sank within eight minutes. Over 100 lives were lost: 57 passengers and 47 crew, including the captain.
In the report of the official inquiry it was said that the U-Boat: “was bound to afford the men and women on board a reasonable opportunity of getting to the boats and saving their lives. This, those in charge of the submarine did not do. And so grossly inefficient was the opportunity in fact afforded, that I am driven to the conclusion that the Captain of the submarine desired and designed not merely to sink the ship but, in doing so, also to sacrifice the lives of the passengers and crew”. This was the language of a formal legal judgment. By contrast, at the inquest the Coroner said the sinking of the Falaba “was another example of German Kultur [a term that came to be used derisively] and frightfulness” and the inquest jury recorded their “abhorrence and indignation” at the conduct of the commander and crew of the submarine. The jury members donated their attendance fees to Louisa’s orphaned children.

Louisa’s grave is one for which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible and can be seen in Newquay New Cemetery. Her name (mis-recorded as “S. Gearle”) also appears with those of other crew members of the Falaba on the impressive memorial at Tower Hill designed by Edwin Lutyens. Bronze plaques bear 12,000 names of those from the Merchant Navy and the fishing fleets who died in the First World War.

Laurence Marsh

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