Lady Rhondda

Commemoration | Lady Rhondda: A Survivor’s Tale

The considerable achievements of Margaret Haig Mackworth (nee Thomas), also known as Lady Rhondda, were commemorated in her hometown of Newport on June 12th with the unveiling of a blue plaque in her honour. During a remarkable life of public service, Lady Rhondda worked as a suffragette, civil servant, business leader and magazine publisher. In 1926 she was elected the first female president of the Institute of Directors.  Her blue plaque is situated at 97 Risca Road, Newport, where in 1913 she set alight a post-office box as part of a suffragist campaign of civil disobedience orchestrated by Emily Wilding Davison. Wales Arts Review proudly supported the crowdfunding campaign that paid for the plaque and co-sponsored, with Melin Homes, a memorial lecture titled ‘A Survivors Tale: Lady Rhondda and the Lusitania’ delivered by Dr. Angela V. John at Newport’s City Campus of the University of South Wales.

Wales Arts Review celebrated the bravery of the suffragettes, and latter day equal rights activists, in a special edition published last November. In the account below, taken from Angela V. John’s lecture, Lady Rhondda emerges as a person of great physical as well as moral courage.

Lady Rhondda
A miniature of the young Margaret by her mother Sybil Haig Thomas (Dowager Viscountess Rhondda) also shows the Lusitania (left) and Usk Gaol (right).

July 12th 2015 would have been the 132nd birthday of Lady Rhondda (1883-1958), that unlikely firebrand who edited the highly influential weekly Time and Tide, became one of the country’s leading businesswomen, the first female president of the Institute of Directors, and fought to win women a seat in the House of Lords.  She was also one of Wales’s leading suffragettes, and her incendiary activity landed her in prison in 1913.

In addition to the unveiling of the plaque at the site of her militant action, my talk at the University of South Wales’s Newport City Campus focused on another dramatic episode in the life of this extraordinary woman from Llanwern: her survival of the sinking of the Lusitania a century ago.

At 2.10pm on 7th May 1915, with Ireland’s Old Head of Kinsale visible, a torpedo from the U-20 German submarine struck the mighty Lusitania. It disappeared within eighteen agonising minutes. Margaret Mackworth, as she was then called, was travelling home from the United States with her father, the wealthy industrialist and Liberal politician, D.A. Thomas (known as DA), and his secretary, A.L. Rhys Evans. 1,198 perished but they were amongst the 764 survivors.

Margaret and her father had left the dining saloon and were in the lift on D deck. She heard ‘a dull, thud-like, not very loud but unmistakable explosion’. They rapidly left the lift. Those who remained were trapped when the electrics failed. They drowned. DA went to assess the situation from a porthole. It was the last Margaret saw of him on board.

She ran upstairs to collect her lifebelt from her cabin. The vessel was listing badly. It was difficult to keep upright. She grabbed her lifebelt then rushed to the boat deck. There seemed to be no emergency plan. Most had now abandoned ship. Margaret unhooked her skirt, donned her lifebelt correctly (some did not) and prepared to jump. But water was already flooding the deck. The vast liner sank and she was sucked down with it.

Margaret was deep in the water in darkness. She grabbed a small piece of board. Half-dazed, she was beyond feeling acute fear. She later wrote that with death so close: ‘the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that’. She lost consciousness.

Lady Rhondda
Postcard of the Lusitania (Dinah Jones)

After almost three hours in the sea, she was picked up by a rowing boat. She had been detected because a wicker deck chair had floated beneath her, raising her a little and so making a mark in the water. She was initially presumed dead and dumped with a load of bodies on the deck of the patrol steamer the Bluebell.

DA and his dazed secretary, who had received a blow to the head, made it into the last lifeboat. They were taken to Queenstown (now Cobh). That evening DA took his first alcoholic drink for fifteen years. He had no idea whether his daughter had survived.

When Margaret crawled down the gangplank of the Bluebell covered in black and brown dirt, bruised from head to foot, and wearing a soldier’s overcoat and carpet slippers, it was, DA told the press, ‘the most joyous moment I have ever experienced’.

What effects did this traumatic event have on Margaret? She was seriously ill with bronchial pneumonia. She experienced night sweats for months but most of the horrors that haunted survivors did not trouble her, perhaps because she had been too dazed at the time to recall them later.

It would hardly be surprising to learn that she became terrified of the ocean.  Instead she embraced sea voyages. She crossed the Atlantic again in 1922. A short circuit in the reserve coal bunker caused a fire. Five of the crew died. Yet Margaret claimed that she was now much less afraid of dying than she had been as a nervous child. Into her seventies her holidays of choice were long sea cruises. In 1930 she sailed to Australia.

She became a proficient swimmer and took up diving. Her goddaughter told me that you couldn’t keep her out of the water. She added a swimming pool to her Surrey home in the 1930s.

The disaster helped to re-shape Margaret’s views on war. Billed to speak at a ‘Great Patriotic Meeting’ at the London Palladium but insufficiently recovered to attend, Mrs Pankhurst read out her words.  ‘I do not think that any survivor from the Lusitania can be other than deeply interested in the suggestion of universal service for men and women’, she wrote. Many children had perished and she condemned ‘the Brutality of people who could make war on those defenceless babies. Mad brutes of that type are very much too dangerous to live at large.’

She later modified her language and recognised that the deliberate fomenting of hatred against the enemy via propaganda involved believing many lies. But there was no such insight or compassion in the immediate aftermath of her ordeal.

Margaret complained about the handling of the emergency, the inadequate number of lifeboats and that those in charge had been so afraid of frightening the passengers that they failed to provide boat drill. Had they done so, she argued, many lives would have been saved.

In 1917 she became Welsh commissioner for the new Women’s National Service Department, recruiting for organisations such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She then became chief controller of women’s recruitment in London at the Ministry of National Service.

On 7 May this year, whilst the United Kingdom was experiencing electoral fireworks, the town of Cobh commemorated the centenary of the Lusitania tragedy. A Cunard liner disgorged 2,000 passengers from across the world and descendants of survivors and those lost, met and swapped stories. The president of Ireland laid a wreath at the town memorial. There were exhibitions, events at sea, a dinner and talks. An Australian family attended my talk. Their grandfather had been John Thomson, the captain of the Bluebell that had rescued Margaret from the sea.


Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda by Angela V. John is available from the Parthian Books website
The biography is reviewed here by Adam Somerset of Wales Arts Review.