Source "Memoirs of a Gentleman's Gentleman" By Nina Slingsby via Eric Sauder
This is George Slingsby - one the great heroes of the Lusitania. We are only a just over a month away now from the 7th of May when my family lost so many on the Lusitania. Central to their story is "Slingsby".
George Slingsby was the valet to my Aunt Marguerite's close friend Fredrick Orr Lewis. It was Slingsby who first saw the torpedo. It was Slingsby who gathered the Allans, Aunt Marguerite and her daughters Gwen and Anna; Mr Orr Lewis; Dorothy Braithwaite, sister in law to Guy Drummond; Aunt Frances Stephens and her grandson, my great uncle, baby John and their staff. Namely, Emily Davis and Annie Walker who were Aunt Marguerite's maids and Aunt Frances' maid Elise Oberlin and her nurse, Caroline Milne.
The Allan table was in the main first class dining room. As Aunt Marguerite had the Regal Suite, she would have had the best table. It may have been like this one. Slingsby and the staff also ate in the first class dining room. They also had cabins on first class (More on where they all were in a later post). Slingsby and the staff ate in the gallery that you can see above.
On the fatal day, lunch for the Allans was over and they had retired to the lounge for coffee.
Image by kind permission of Eric Sauder - who has more images on the Lusitania than anyone.
George was late and, as he came to the upstairs staff table for his lunch, he saw the torpedo out of the window. It is likely, because he saw the torpedo first, that it was George that warned the family party.
It seems to have been him who organized the life jackets too. The Lusitania was sinking very fast. It took only 18 minutes from start to finish. The life jackets were in the cabins. There had to have been a mad rush to get them. Here is George's account (Source)
“I at once made for my lifebelt and fixed it on ready for what was to take place. When I got to the boat deck I saw my master and Lady Allan and two daughters and two maids without lifebelts. I at once pulled my belt off and gave it to the ladies. I then rushed in the ship and got two more, which I also gave to the ladies, and by that time the ship had got too much of a list on, and it took me all my time to get back on deck, as the fore part of the ship was almost level with the captain’s bridge."
So here we see the valet in charge. But there is more. George could not swim. By giving aunt M his wife jacket, George must have thought that he was giving up his life for her.
So why did George do this?
He was her friend.
It may be hard for modern readers to understand this but, while people behaved with decorum and formally with each other, deep friendships often developed between personal staff and the people they worked for.
Orr Lewis and Allans were very close. They travelled a lot with each other. As a result, George and Lady Allan knew each other very well. George knew the girls well too. The girls and their brother Hugh all went to school in England before the war. There were 6 "school run" crossings each year. In those days, HM Customs levied duty on personal jewelry. To avoid paying duty, Aunt Marguerite would give her jewels to George who had a specially made smuggling cummerbund. He would carry them under his shirt. She in return had given him a diamond pin.
It is clear that they spent a lot of time with him on the voyage. It would have been safe and proper for them to do that. They were the awkward age. The Lusitania had a group of stewardesses that looked after the young children. But aged 16 and 15, and a girl, you would not fit into that. But at that age, you also did not fit into the world of the grown ups. So George would have filled the space. They could be open and themselves with George but would have to be closed with other adults.
My bet is that they were a bit in love with him. He certainly thought the world of them.
So, how does this trust and affection take place in what might seem to us today have been a feudal system?
It starts with intimacy. George as Orr Lewis valet would see and know everything. He would attend Orr Lewis as he bathed. He would shave him. He would dress and undress him. He would take care of all his clothes. From these menial tasks would come trust. For, while this tasks were performed, they talked. You would talk about everything with your valet. There was no holding back. In effect, your valet was also your therapist. A therapist that you could not hide from or lie to. After all he knew you at your most vulnerable.
We see this bond in action. On the Titanic, Astor and his valet, Victor Robbins, spent their last hours helping the women and children get to the life boats. On the Lusitania, Vanderbilt and his valet, Ronald Denyer, who shared a cabin with George, spent their last minutes helping others such as Alice Middleton.
This was a bond created from the most intimate contact over time.
It was the same with the maids and the ladies. Emily and Annie were part of a 3 woman team who had looked after Aunt Marguerite for years. On this trip it was just the two of them.
A woman like Aunt Marguerite would have needed even more care than Orr Lewis. She boarded with 18 steamer trunks. She would have had breakfast in her suite in her dressing gown. But then would have changed for lunch, changed for the afternoon and then changed for dinner.
Image by kind permission of Eric Sauder - who has more images on the Lusitania than anyone.
Aunt M's Cabin. This is where the girls slept. Here is the cabin plan - again thanks to Eric Sauder.
Emily and Annie would not only dress Marguerite but also do her hair and makeup. The dresses had sleeves that were detachable and had to be put together. The day hats had feathers that were packed separately and had to be reassembled. Each night on the trip the evening dress increased in splendour.
Emily and Annie were so much more than maids. They were hairdressers, manicurists, seamstresses, milliners and confidants.
Their days were very long. For every dressing there was the undressing. As Aunt Marguerite might be closing her eyes at night, Emily or Annie, on the late shift, would have to put everything away, make repairs etc and get ready for the next day. Then they would retire to a nearby cabin, also in first class, so that they could be close to their charge.
What would have been discussed? Everything! Your maid was the only safe person you could expose your hopes and fears to. And this in the end is the greatest act of intimacy. Your maid knew you as no other human could. She certainly knew you better than your husband, any friend or your children.
Finally more about the children. This was not a time when parents were traditionally warm and affectionate with their children. When Chattan heard of the death of his mother Frances Stephens and his son, John, this was his diary entry on May 8th.
"Just heard that Lusitania has been torpedoed. 1700 lost 800 saved. Mother and John on board."
That's it! That is the sum total of his remarks. The explanation is the opposite of the bond between maid and lady or valet and master. There was almost no contact and so no chance of intimacy or feeling between upper class parents and children then.
Children in this era and later, could only be close to their servants. Personal servants were the only safe source of love and attention for upper class children. Hence my sense of George's relationship with Gwen and Anna.
I grew up in an Edwardian time slip myself. I used to have lunch with my mother on Thursdays when Nanny had her day off. My first strong memory of my father was when he came into the nursery to tell us that we had a new sister. I was 7. My own nanny Fluffy was my sole source of love. Our Slingsby was Charlie, my father's driver. He was the brother I never had by blood. When I buried my father, Charlie carried his coffin with me.
Privileged children then, and maybe even now, find what affection and love they can with the staff. These are not trivial relationships. Churchill kept "Woomany's" picture by his bedside his entire life. She, Mrs Everest, was his nanny. My father's nanny died in the arms of my aunt is buried next to her boy, my father, in the family plot.
This was the life of a child like John then.
John, my great uncle, had not seen his mother for months and had been with Granny Stephens and with Granny Kemp in Toronto. In reality, his nurse, Caroline Milne, was his de facto mummy.
So when George Slingsby ran into the lounge with the rest of the staff behind him, the employers paid attention. When there were no life jackets, he got them. When there was still one jacket missing, George offered up his and so his life to my Aunt.
In May, we will post about why this group were sailing, what happened on board, what cabins they used, what happened in the water and what happened on shore. We explore the full drama.
But today, I would like to pay tribute to George Slingsby. He lived. But he could not have known that that when he handed his life jacket to Marguerite.
Aunt Marguerite would have died without his life jacket as she was terribly injured and was unconscious for most of the 3 hours the survivors had to wait for rescue. Thank you George.
Thanks to Eric Sauder - here is George's grave