Three Wearside men killed in torpedo attack

A 1915 painting of the sinking of the Lusitania.
A 1915 painting of the sinking of the Lusitania.
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A Wearside man’s dream of introducing his new wife to his parents ended in tragedy 100 years ago.

David March Spendley married Kate Bermet, an Austrian emigrant, while working as a printer at a hotel in New York in 1914.

The north side of High Street West, looking east from Gillbridge. David Spendley grew up in the street at around the time this photo was taken.

The north side of High Street West, looking east from Gillbridge. David Spendley grew up in the street at around the time this photo was taken.

But when the happy couple decided to visit Sunderland the following year, they chose to sail aboard RMS Lusitania – which was torpedoed during the journey.

David drowned in the tragedy of May 7, 1915. Kate, however, was rescued, and finally managed to make her way to her husband’s family in Sunderland.

“Lusitania was attacked by a German U-boat, and her sinking was one of the worst disasters of World War One,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“In firing on a non-military ship without warning, the Germans breached international laws. Britain condemned the sinking as an act of piracy.”

David Morrice - killed in the sinking of the Lusitania.

David Morrice - killed in the sinking of the Lusitania.

David, son of compositor David Spendley and his wife Catherine, was born in Bishopwearmouth on March 1, 1886, and trained as a printer in his teens.

After completing his apprenticeship he left the family home at 26 High Street West in 1908 for a new life in America, where he found work at a Manhattan hotel.

“David’s wife-to-be Kate also worked at the hotel, and the pair fell in love. They married on January 31, 1914 and, a year later, decided to visit Sunderland,” said Norman.

“Submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic as Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915. Indeed, Germany had just declared the seas around the UK a war zone.

“But despite the Imperial German Embassy placing warning notices in 50 US newspapers, urging people not to put their lives at risk by sailing on Lusitania, the voyage went ahead.”

A third-class ticket was bought for Kate, while David signed on as a member of the Lusitania crew, intending to work his passage across the Atlantic as a waiter in the Steward’s Department.

It is not known if the newlyweds managed to meet up during the crossing but, on May 7, they were tragically parted forever – after enemy submarine U-20 launched attacked the ocean liner.

“We know that David wanted to introduce his new wife to his family, but it is thought he may have been travelling back home in order to enlist in the army and fight for Britain.” said Norman.

“Whatever his intentions, just one torpedo destroyed them all. It struck the ship on its starboard bow and, seconds later, an explosion erupted within Lusitania’s hull.

“Immediately, the ship started to founder – causing total chaos. As the crew scrambled to launch the lifeboats, there was a general rush for lifebelts, with many people plunging straight into the sea.”

It is not known what exactly happened to David, as his body was never found. Kate, however, was rescued and, after visiting her in-laws in Sunderland, went on to start a new life in Canada.

“Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania, 1,191 lost their lives. As in the sinking of Titanic, most died from drowning or hypothermia,” said Norman.

“It is impossible to imagine how Kate must have felt about losing her husband, yet surviving herself. It must have been a terrible, and very lonely, time for her.

“Among those to perish were 128 Americans – then a neutral country. This helped shift US public opinion against Germany, but it was another two years before she joined the war.”

l At least two other Wearsiders also perished in the Lusitania disaster, including David Morrice, who was working as a junior 6th engineer aboard the ship when it was torpedoed.

Born in 1885 to harbour pilot John Morrice and his wife Jessie, David moved to Aberdeen with his family while still a child. After leaving school he served an apprenticeship as an engineer.

“He married his wife, Beatrice, in 1912 and his daughter, Barbette, was born in Glasgow in 1913. Sometime after that they must have moved to Liverpool, as that was his last address,” said Norman.

“The third Wearsider to perish was carpenter Thomas Robinson, who was returning from Canada to fight for his country. His wife Alice, who was also aboard, managed to survive the disaster.”