Tragedy, the Lancastria and my Firkins cousins

Susan Tippins was my great-great-great-grandmother’s youngest sister. As the paper trail went cold, until very recently I’d suspected she had died young, or fallen into obscurity. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that a distant cousin of mine in Australia, who also happens to be an avid family historian, managed the break through this mysterious brick wall and provided me with several fascinating leads which I just had to research.

But let’s start at the beginning. My “aunt” Susan Tippins was born in 1833 in the village of Staunton-on-Arrow, in rural Herefordshire; she was the youngest of ten children. Her birth, by all accounts, appears to have been almost miraculous: Susan was five years younger than her next elder sibling, and both her parents, who had married almost twenty-five years before, were in their late forties by the time of her birth.

For the first few years of her life, Susan lived at the family home in Staunton-on-Arrow, under the watchful eye of her parents. By then, some of her elder siblings had already moved out – she was about thirteen by the time her elder sister, my great-great-great-grandmother Ann, decided to leave home to get married and start a family of her own. By 1861 Susan had also decided to leave the family home . In order to earn a living for herself she went into service, working as a domestic servant in the Warwickshire village of Lillington, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. While living there, she met a young man called Edmund Firkins, who worked as a groom or coachman. Despite being unmarried, the two began an affair which resulted in the birth, in 1864, of a boy whom they called Harry.

Why the couple did not marry is not known. It is possible they could not do so in order to hang on to their jobs. It is possible that perhaps their families were against the match (both Susan and Edmund were still officially underage). Nevertheless, their relationship continued regardless, and within a few months Susan found herself pregnant for a second time. Perhaps to hide the existence of her second pregnancy, Susan made her way to Llandinam, in the Welsh county of Montgomeryshire, where in 1865 she gave birth to a son called William James, but always known as Willie. It would take Edmund and Susan a further four years to officially become husband and wife, as proven by the entry in the Liverpool marriage register on 2 August 1869. Less than three years later, the couple welcomed their third, and last, son, whom they named Edmund after his father.

For the next few decades, the Firkinses seem to have led what seems to have been a stable, conventional and close-knit family existence. While Susan had probably ceased to work as a domestic servant sometime during her first and third pregnancy, her husband temporarily carried on working as a domestic coachman before turning to earning his living as a farrier (that’s a smith who makes horse-shoes, in case you were wondering). The family’s peaceful existence was eventually shattered in 1894, when Edmund died at the age of 59, leaving his wife to provide for her two younger sons, who were still living at home.

Susan continued to live in Liverpool for over two decades; in 1911 she is recorded as a visitor in the house of her middle son Willie. Sadly, life would deal her a cruel blow only four years later, when in 1915, despite her advanced age, she made her way to the local registry office in the city to register the death of her youngest son Edmund, who had died of phthisis (tuberculosis) at the age of just 43. Susan herself would pass away in 1918, having reached the advanced age of 85. But what of her remaining descendants? This is what I discovered about each one of her sons’ families:

Harry Firkins, Susan’s eldest son

Susan’s eldest son, Harry, worked as a domestic gardener throughout his life. In 1886 he married Lucy McGahy in Toxteth, Liverpool and the couple were blessed with the birth of five children: Edmund, Harry Jr, Joseph Fielding, Margaret Lucy and George Nicholas Firkins.

In 1914 Harry and his wife were faced with the sad loss of their middle son, Joseph, who died of consumption at the family home, on 40 Bowring Street; he was only 19. Had he lived longer, he would have probably been called up to serve in the First World War, which broke out only weeks after his death – and who knows if he may have been among the lucky ones to return home…

The life of Harry’s youngest son, George Nicholas, would also be cut short. He married Isabel Baywater in 1927 and had two children, George (who died aged two) and Evelyn, who married John Colquhoun and settled in Wales, where their three children were born. George Nicholas himself died at the young aged of 32, in 1935.

Harry Firkins (1891-1940), who died in the Lancastria sinking.

It was perhaps the clouds of war gathering on the horizon in 1914 which pushed his brother Harry Jr, to marry Ruth Haake in February 1914. He appears to have enlisted shortly after the outbreak of war, and saw military action overseas. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to survive the war, and returned home to his wife. The marriage, which remained childless, lasted until another great war brought their peaceful existence crashing down. At the start of the Second World War, Harry Jr. volunteered to fight, and made his way to France in the early months of the war. He was in France when the Battle of Dunkirk took place in June 1940, although it is unclear if he was in the area at the time. What is known, however, is that after it became clear that the Germans would soon occupy all of France, Harry Firkins Jr and his comrades in arms were pushed to retreat and board a ship which would take them to safety in England. On 17 June 1940, at the port town of Saint Nazaire, off the coast of Brittany, Harry Jr. boarded a large ocean liner called the HMT Lancastria, which had recently been requisitioned as a troopship. The captain of the ship was given orders to take on board as many people as possible (both troops and civilians), and although the Lancastria only had a capacity for 2,200 people, her crew stopped counting when they reached 6,000. Estimates currently place the number of those on board the Lancastria as between 8,000 and 9,000, although the actual number will never be known. That same afternoon, as the Lancastria was leaving Saint Nazaire, an air raid of German planes began to bomb the ship. The ship was badly hit, and it quickly began to list violently to one side, taking in water as she slipped under the waves. Many of those on board were killed instantly in the first explosions, while hundreds of others remained trapped in the bowels of the ship. There is no way of knowing how or at which point Harry Firkins Jr died, but by late June news had evidently reached his wife Ruth back in Liverpool that her husband had gone missing. The sinking of the Lancastria was reported in the press, but the seriousness of the event, and the large loss of life, were never published, under strict orders issued by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The sinking of the Lancastria remains to this day the worst sinking (in terms of loss of life) in British maritime history, some estimating the number of dead as high as 6,500.

One of the few photographs of the sinking of the Lancastria in May 1940.

Harry Jr’s parents were still alive in 1940, and therefore had to endure the loss of their son. Far worse was to come: their eldest son, called Edmund, had been born in Liverpool in 1888; his marriage to Theresa Ward produced four children: Theresa, Edmund Jr., Harry and William. By a cruel twist of fate, Edmund lost his wife in 1932, followed three years later by their 20 year-old daughter Theresa, who succumbed to tuberculosis. Two of her younger brothers, Edmund and William, died in March and April 1939 respectively, also due to tuberculosis. They were 22 and 17 respectively. Their sole surviving son, Harry, was the only one to survive his father (who died in 1942), but only a year later his grandparents (who, as we said, were still alive, received the devastating news that he had been killed near Catania during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. With this string of losses, Edmund’s branch of the family was wiped out in less than a generation.

Harry Firkins (1919-1943), who was killed in action in Sicily.

Willie Firkins’ family

Fortunately, not all the Firkinses’ lives were scarred by tragedy. Willie Firkins (Susan and Edmund’s middle son) lived until the advanced age of 93. His marriage to Elizabeth Francis produced three children, two of whom married and had children, while the middle daughter died in her early thirties.

Willie’s eldest son Thomas Firkins also died in his thirties, but not before marrying and having three children of his own. Like their cousins, this branch seems to have settled in Wales.

Edmund Firkins and the Australian connection

Edmund Firkins was the only one of Susan’s three sons to have died during her lifetime. He worked as a brewer and barman. In 1901 he married Mary Ellen “Millie” Stainton, and the couple had a son and a daughter (a middle son died shortly after birth). Despite the births of their children, the marriage seems to have been rocky, and eventually the couple separated. In December 1913, Millie and the children (Ada, aged 11, and Edmund, aged eight) boarded a ship called Otway bound for Australia. Less than a year later Millie’s husband succumbed to tuberculosis back in England.

In Australia Millie probably began a life of struggle, but also a life of independence. She brought up her children single-handed, and probably had high hopes for both. Her daughter Ada went on to marry a Thomas Jensen, and had at least three children. Sadly though, this was not to be with regard to her brother Edmund.

On the afternoon of 27 June 1925 twenty-year old Edmund attended a “wedding breakfast” which was being held in the Church of England Sunday School in Annendale, Sydney. After drinking some wine, he returned home for tea, after which he rejoined the party and continued drinking with some friends. He then went to another party, where he became evidently inebriated. At about one in the morning, his mother heard him trying to enter the family home, as she let him in, Millie broke down crying (this was probably not the first time her son returned home drunk) and asked him how he could come home in such a state. Edmund’s simple reply was “I’m fed up with this”, and he went into his room, where he shot himself with a pea-rifle before his mother’s very eyes.

An inquest was held as to what may have driven young Edmund to end his life in such a drastic way. His relatives stated that he was of a cheerful disposition, and could not explain what had happened. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide. Thus came to an end the male line of Edmund Firkins’s family.


This entry was posted in 1911 Census, Australia, Death, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Liverpool, Ships, Wales, World War I, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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