Agnes Cowper (1874-1963): War, Memory and Life Writing

In A Backward Glance on Merseyside, Agnes Cowper writes of her brother Ernest Cowper. Like John, Ernest moved to Canada. At onset of World War One Ernest was rejected by the army due to medical conditions. Instead of going to war, Ernest planned to go to France with his publisher, Richard Rogers, in order to follow the Canadian Forces and as a war correspondent for Toronto’s Jack Canuck magazine.

The Lusitania: Ernest Cowper survived the sinking of this ship in 1915

Ernest planned to visit Liverpool before arriving in France, and so he boarded the Lusitania on 1st May, 1915. However, as the ship was reaching the Irish Coast on 7th May, 1915, it was hit by a German U-20 torpedo. Before setting sail from New York, the Cunard Liner was warned that any ship entering the ‘European War Zone’ was at risk of attack by German ships. Believing that the liner was of no military value, the ship set sail with many passengers on board, including some of the rich and famous. It took just eighteen minutes for the ship and around 1,500 people died at sea that day.  

Whilst on board the ship, Ernest met and became fast friends with Elbert Hubbard, a successful business man who lead Roycroft Press. Ernest spent a lot of time interviewing Elbert whilst voyaging on the Lusitania. On the day the ship sank, Ernest was on his way to interview Elbert when he saw the torpedo coming towards the ship. As it was sinking, he saw Elbert and his wife enter a room off the deck, in which they died together.

Ernest Cowper and Helen Smith

Before the ship sank, Ernest found a little girl, called Helen Smith, aged six. She had been playing on the deck when the torpedo had hit. In the panic and commotion she had lost her parents and asked Ernest for help. He saved her from the sinking ship, placing her in a lifeboat whilst wearing his lifebelt. When they arrived in Queenstown he searched for her parents but they would later learn that Helen’s family had been lost at sea. Helen had grandparents waiting for her in Liverpool and after the tradegy that happened at sea on 7th May, 1915 she and Ernest remained in touch with one another.

The sinking of the Lusitania saw the deaths of many people from Liverpool, leaving many families and communities to grieve for their loss. This event triggered great anger within many people in Liverpool and across Britian and so there was an outburst of ‘Anti-German’ riots. Shops and businesses ran by people who appeared to be German were looted and vandalised across the city. By the end of the week, the violence had increased and the police, who had made over fifty arrests, were becoming increasingly aware that women and children were also active in the riots. The damage was said to have cost around £40,000 which would translate to around £3.5 million in today’s money. 

Anti-German Riots, Liverpool, 1915
Anti-German Riots, Liverpool, 1915

After living through two world wars, Agnes Cowper ends her autobiography with a reflection on those wars and her hopes for the future of Liverpool:

Those war scars will disappear, and though I shall not live to see it, I am certain that from those sad but honourable heaps of rubble and waste spaces which lie about the centre of our city, and which mark the trail of the beast, a greater and regenerated part of Liverpool will rise consonant with her position among the great mercantile cities of the world.

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