Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 June 2021
Full Fathom Five
7 MAY 1915. The luxurious Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was some eleven miles from the Irish coast, moving towards port after a transatlantic crossing marked by apprehension and rumour among the passengers and crew. Lulled by the short time left to the voyage, the passengers basked in the balmy spring weather. After enjoying a sumptuous lunch, some passengers strolled about on the decks admiring the clear sky and the brilliant blue of the northern sea. Children, of which there were an unusually high number on this voyage, played on the decks – those whose parents had booked a first-class passage enjoyed the amenities of a specially appointed playroom.
Among those children was Catherine Mary, the third eldest child of Paul and Gladys Crompton, who had a family of no less than six high-spirited children. Indeed, the Crompton children were so boisterous that the fastidious socialite Theodate Pope, who was assigned a nearby cabin, insisted that her stateroom be changed because of the ‘very noisy family’ next door. Paul Crompton was a successful British businessman, the vice-president of the Surpass Leather Company, who had decided to move his lively brood back to London from their Philadelphia home at the corner of St Martin's and Hartwell Lanes in the affluent suburb of Chestnut Hill. Given the nature of Paul Crompton's business, the family was peripatetic: Catherine was the only child born in London, as three of her siblings were born in Philadelphia, her sister Alberta in South America, and the eldest boy, Stephen, in Vladivostok, Russia. While the Crompton family settled in America in 1904, they still registered their permanent address in 1915 as a house in Kensington. As they had just shut up their house in Chestnut Hill, it seems likely that the family was moving back to London permanently. They had packed all of their papers and photograph albums and had taken them on board.
Then, just after 2:00 p.m., along with the rest of the passengers and crew, Catherine felt a sharp concussion and heard two explosions in rapid succession, followed by a violent shudder. A torpedo, launched by the German submarine U-20 on the orders of its captain, Walter Schwieger, caused the first explosion;