Biography, Event, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Death of Nellie McPherson, the first seawomen to die in WW1.

Few people know that women seafarers sailed in wartime. The stereotype is of rugged Cap’n Birdseye types in sou’westers standing stalwart at the storm-lashed wheel. But women were there – in surprisingly large numbers, as I found when writing my forthcoming book (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press).

The first women seafarer to die in WW1 was Miss Nellie McPherson on March 15, 1915. She was a ship’s stewardess – the counterpart of today’s cabin crew on planes. [i]

At a time when few women travelled, these extraordinarily mobile women looked after women passengers, dusting and nurturing their way round the world. The war did not deter between 200-500 of them (about 10 per cent of the peacetime women’s maritime workforce). Many more would have sailed despite the danger. Indeed, they applied in slightly higher numbers than in peace time. But female crew were not required: the British Admiralty had restricted women passenger voyages, which meant that there was less demand for women workers to attend such passengers.

What happened? Nellie was one of six fatalities caused by a German submarine, U-23, which torpedoed the Fingal without warning. The small passenger steamer was sailing from Leith. Nellie, her 26 shipmates and the Fingal’s passengers were just six miles south of Coquet Island, now an important seabird colony off the Northumberland coast. Stewardesses on ships sometimes died because of their dedication to passengers. They lingered too long below decks making sure all ‘their ladies’ were safely dressed in lifejackets; they put their own safety last. There’s no record of whether this was true of Nellie too.

Who was Nellie McPherson? We know four facts.

1.      Location. She was from 42 Balfour Street, Leith, the Edinburgh port. Most stewardesses, like her, lived in the ports from which they sailed, such as Liverpool and Southampton.

2.      Age. She was 26, and thus only just eligible to sail. Shipping lines said women crew had to be at least 25 – otherwise they might be too flighty. However, women lied about their ages in order to get this highly desirable job, so Nellie could have been younger.

3.      Marital status. She was single – as most women seafarers were. Not only would few husbands tolerate their wives being away globe-totting for most of the year. Shipping lines also have felt it improper to take women away from their home duties.

4.      Family situation. She was the daughter of the widowed James McPherson. Her late mother, Christina McPherson, was dead. So Nellie may have been at sea as the family provider (many women were). Or she may have been able to work far from home because another family member was caring for him. 

Was her death unusual? In some ways yes, because at that time Germany had only sixteen long-range submarines and only five were on duty at any one time. The Fingal was unlucky to encounter the U-23. And ships carrying women crew were few. Nellie’s ship was one of the seven that were wrecked while carrying women crew in 1915, part of the total of 26 in that war. If less than 500 women seafarers were sailing (as I believe) then to lose 53 – over ten per cent- is shocking, especially at a time when women so protected.

But in other ways, her death was not unusual.  Overall, 17,308 merchant seafarers died on 4,837 merchant ships in WW1.[ii] It was a risky job. And 1915 was the worst year for seawomen’s death. Nellie was one of 26 seafaring women (between a tenth and a twentieth of the workforce) to die that year. The number was particularly high in 1915 because sixteen seawomen died when the famous Lusitania sank, two months later.

Her loss is commemorated, along with her shipmates and many other fatalities in the Mercantile Marine, at the Tower Hill Memorial, London.

Jo Stanley is an expert on gender and the sea. See her website   and her blog.

[i] The Times, 18.3.1915: ‘Two Vessels Torpedoed: First woman victim of submarine war.’

[ii] Commonwealth War Graves Commission list, newspaper reports and WWI websites such as Great War Forum.

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