Downton Abbey at Sea

Most of us can picture a life preferable to the one we have. Some of us spend entirely too time doing that. We scarcely notice the details of the dream changing, but the imagined life is even more variable than the real one! The only constant seems the stubbornness of God in not granting our wishes, but nowhere in the sacred scriptures does God pledge the life of our dreams. God only promises that our lives will be meaningful, provided that they draw their purpose from Christ’s own, the vine whose branches we are (Jn 15: 5).

And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us (1 Jn 3: 23-24)



A hundred years ago, many an American man might have dreamt of being Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I, the son, and primary heir, of the late Cornelius, whose death in 1899 had left Alfred a rich man. Divorced, rumors flying, Vanderbilt was a bit of a rake: tall and lean, with dark eyes and hair, and a taste for expensive suits.

Ronald Denyer, Vanderbilt’s valet, might have envied his boss, might have wondered what God had in mind for such a charmed life, because Alfred “was also a member of what a Minnesota newspaper called ‘the Just Missed It’ club, a fortunate group whose roster included Theodore Dreisner, Guglielmo Marconi, and J.P. Morgan, all of whom had planned to sail on the Titanic but for one reason or another had changed their minds.”

On May 1st, 1915, Vanderbilt set sail from New York City, bound for England, aboard the British luxury liner the Lusitania, booking one of her “Parlor Suites.” According to Eric Lawson’s Dead Wake (2015), “he lodged his valet two doors down the corridor, in an interior room with neither porthole nor bath. Vanderbilt paid for both tickets in cash, $1001.50, equivalent to over $22,000 in today’s dollars”(91). Downton Abbey at sea!

That same day a notice had appeared in fifty American newspapers, “that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction…Travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

But to book passage on the Lusitania in 1915 wasn’t all that different than purchasing a plane ticket today, knowing that terrorists have threatened air travel. She was one of the fastest ships afloat. Had wartime rationing not made it necessary to use only three of her four coal burning engines, the Lusitania would have been too fast for any German U-boat.

Interviewed at cast-off by a New York reporter, Alfred “commented that there seemed to be an unusual amount of excitement aboard. ‘Lots of talk about submarines, torpedoes and sudden death,’ Vanderbilt said. ‘I don’t take much stock in it myself. What would they gain by sinking the Lusitania?’”(93).

A few passengers, lacking Vanderbilt’s pluck, decided not to sail, but forty-one others were last minute transfers onto the Lusitania, from the recently requisitioned Cameronia. (Cancellations and forced rebookings didn’t begin with air travel.) 1,266 passengers with a crew of 696—1, 962 souls, including ninety-five children thirty-nine infants—sailed on the ship’s 202nd Atlantic crossing.

At two-ten in the afternoon of May 7th, the Lusitania was in sight of the Irish coast when a torpedo launched from a German submarine struck mid-ship. The war diary of U20’s Kapitänleutnant, Walther Schwieger, reads:

Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?)... The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow... the name Lusitania becomes visible in golden letters.


The Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, who was to go down with the ship but survive, ordered a starboard swerve toward the Irish coast, but the boat was unresponsive. Steam pressure had collapsed. Within minutes electrical power went out, plunging the cavernous, stately interiors of the ship into darkness. Electric lifts failed, stranding passengers and crew; bulkhead doors, closed as a precaution before the attack, could not be reopened to release the trapped. The ship was listing fifteen degrees to starboard, making safe discharge of her forty-eight lifeboats, more than enough for her passengers, almost impossible. “With the ship’s screw propellers and rudders rising out of the water, children were being thrown from the decks to be caught by men in the lifeboats.”

1,191 of her 1, 962 passengers would die. What of Alfred Vanderbilt and his valet, Robert Denyer? Diane Preston takes up the story in A Higher Form of Killing(2015).

Young Canadian mother Charlotte Pye, who had her baby in her arms and no life jacket, kept falling to the deck because of the list when a man said, “Don’t cry. It’s quite alright.” As he tied his own life jacket on her and helped her into a boat, she recognized him as the man who had paid her five dollars for a concert program at the passenger concert—Alfred Vanderbilt. Despite owning one of the most beautiful swimming pools in America Vanderbilt could not swim. In the Lusitania’s dying moments, the ship’s barber, Lott Gadd, saw him still “trying to put lifejackets on women and children. The ship was going down fast. When the sea reached them, they were washed away. I never saw Vanderbilt after that. All I saw in the water was children—children everywhere.” A Canadian passenger had heard Vanderbilt say to his valet, Ronald Denyer: “Find all the kiddies you can boy.” As Denyer brought them to Vanderbilt, he “dashed to the boats with two little ones in his arms at a time.” (148).


Why was Ronald the valet and Alfred the Vanderbilt? Why did their lives follow such separate paths to the same end?

God doesn’t fulfill all our dreams. We’re only told that our lives are meaningful, that our decisions matter, and, even then, that their deepest purposes await the final revelation of the Christ. Until our stories are taken up into his, they remain mysterious, incomplete, full of questions.

Acts 9: 26-31  1 John 3: 18-24  John 15: 1-8

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Monica Doyle
3 years 8 months ago
I have recently taken an interest in all things nautical. Mainly my interest lies in the character of a person on a ship facing danger, whether it be a sailor bringing emigrants to America in the 1800's, or Mr. Vanderbilt giving away is own life jacket on The Lusitania. Thank you for this. Our decisions matter, even though they remain mysterious in this life.


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