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  • Writer's pictureColleen Murray

From Edmonton to the Aran Islands: genealogy of Lusitania victim

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A few months ago, some friends and I visited Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The usual way to get to Inishmore is by ferry, but you can’t bring your car with you. So once there, we hired a driver, Tommy, to take us around. Tommy was born on Inishmore, and had lived most of his life there. We told him that we were from Edmonton, Canada, and I also mentioned to him that I am a genealogist. Knowing my interest in history, Tommy told us that there was a woman from Edmonton who had died in the wreck of the Lusitania, who was buried in the local graveyard.


I’ll admit that at first I was a bit doubtful- was someone from Edmonton on the Lusitania, and did Tommy remember her place of origin correctly? Edmonton, Canada??


I knew a little bit about the Lusitania. On our last visit to Ireland, my husband and I had been to the “Queenstown Story” at the Cobh Heritage Centre, which included displays about the Lusitania.[1] The British luxury passenger ship had been torpedoed during WWI, near the Old Head of Kinsale, County Cork, on 7 May 1915. Many of the survivors and bodies of the victims were brought to Queenstown (now Cobh), which was the major port nearby. 1201 people died in the attack, and 761 survived.

Image of the ship the Lusitania

The ”Lusitania” Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital


Later that same evening, when my friends and I were out for a walk, we ran into Tommy again. He mentioned that Killeany graveyard was nearby, and he even offered to backtrack to show us the tombstone of the woman from Edmonton. We agreed, and Tommy led us to a lovely graveyard on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was quite overgrown in places, and the tombstone in question was deep in the corner of the cemetery near the cliff, but Tommy remembered exactly where it was.

Killeany Cemetery on Inishmore
Photo of Killeany Cemetery by Colleen Murray

Like most older tombstones in Ireland, there is some lichen damage on the stone, making it difficult to read. In the photo, you can see the tall grass that hid many smaller stones entirely.


Photo of Wooden tombstone
Photo by Colleen Murray

Photo of Woolden tombstone by Colleen Murray


I should have transcribed the stone in person, when it would have been easier to read, but at the time, I didn’t foresee researching this story further. The stone appears to say:


In Memory

E.V. Woolden And D.C.C.

Lusitania May 1915

Erected by Lindon Bates

New York


Later that night, I searched online for Lusitania victims, and determined that Tommy had remembered everything correctly. A Nellie Woolden was listed as a second class cabin passenger, who had travelled from Edmonton, Canada.[2] To my surprise, twenty other passengers had also come from Edmonton. Doing further research, I discovered that Nellie’s surname was actually Woolven, not Woolden.[3] E.V. would turn out to be her husband’s initials, and her full maiden name was Helen Saunders.[4] (I’ll call her Helen here, for clarity).


Article listing the twenty-one people on the Lusitania from Edmonton
Edmonton passengers: Wetaskiwin Times May 8 article

Back home in Canada, I kept thinking about the coincidences of the Edmonton connection and Tommy putting it all together, and I was curious to see what else I could learn about Helen. So I put my genealogist hat on.


Research question: Can we trace the genealogy of Helen Woolven, the Lusitania victim from Edmonton, who was buried on the Aran Islands? Why was she on the Lusitania? And who was Lindon Bates, who erected her tombstone?


This final question is, I think, fairly easily answered. Lindon Bates Jr. was one of the more prominent American victims on the Lusitania.[5] Lindon’s body was also found near the Aran Islands. His father, Lindon Bates Sr. was quite affluent, and perhaps he paid for the cost of Helen’s tombstone to do something meaningful in the wake of the tragedy.


A newspaper article outlined how Helen’s body was found, and why that particular burial plot, far on the edge of the graveyard, was chosen:[6]


Describes discovery and burial of Helen
Galway Express 19 June 1915 article

“He had them buried in Killeany graveyard, as he did not know to what denomination they belonged, he had them buried inside the gate, as far from the other burial sites as the space would permit.”


My first task to learn more about Helen, was to look for her marriage registration to “E.V. Woolven”, to learn the names of her parents. Helen Saunders married Edmund “Victor” Woolven in Edmonton Alberta, on the 3 April 1915.[7]


The marriage registration said that Victor was a 37-year-old merchant living in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, but he was originally from Sussex, England. His parents were Henry Woolven and Emily Crippes. Newspaper articles showed that Victor owned the Palm Pool Room in Wetaskiwin.[8]


Helen, also supposedly 37, was born in Bishopstone, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, to parents Thomas Saunders and Mary Ann Coker. Her baptism shows that she was actually around 40 when she married, as she was baptized 30 May 1875.[9]

1875 baptism of Helen Saunders
1875 baptism of Helen Saunders

Helen’s father, Thomas Saunders, was the owner of the White Swan pub in Bishopstone, and he was also a gardener with 7 acres of land and ten children.[10] Helen was last enumerated with her parents in 1881 when she was 6 years old.

Snippet of 1881 census showing Helen age 6 living at the White Swan
The Saunders household in the 1881 English census

Helen was away from home, working as a domestic servant by at least the age of 16.[11] I couldn’t definitively identify her on a passenger list, nor in the 1911 census in Canada or England, so I’m not sure exactly when she immigrated. Why she came to Canada, and whether she came alone, is unclear, but the need for domestic servants, especially women, was strong in Western Canada at the time.


With the wedding on April 3rd, and the Lusitania leaving New York on May 1st, it would have been a very short honeymoon before Helen said her goodbyes to Victor and began to make her way to New York. A card found in her pocket showed that she had probably stayed in the Cornish Arms Hotel in New York prior boarding the ship.[12]


The question I can’t answer satisfactorily, is why Helen decided to travel back to England in 1915. One newspaper article stated that she was going to visit relatives- but why now, during such a dangerous time?[13] One possible answer, is that it probably hadn’t been quite as dangerous when she booked her passage. As late as February 1915, maybe later, the Lusitania had flown an American flag as protection from German submarines, but on April 22, the Germans told the American embassy to warn Americans not to travel on British-owned ships, which were at risk of attack regardless of the flag they flew under.[14] (Recall that at this point, the United States wasn’t yet fighting in WW1). Unfortunately, that warning wasn’t printed in newspapers until May 1st- the same day that the Lusitania left harbour with Helen aboard. Did Helen even learn of this warning? Or did she just decide to risk it anyway, since she was already half-way through her journey?


Helen’s parents, Thomas & Mary Anne Saunders had celebrated their golden anniversary about four months prior, and likely Helen had missed the celebration.[15] Perhaps this was a delayed reason for her visit. Helen’s mother and father died in 1917 and 1919 respectively, so she wasn’t returning home for their funerals, but perhaps one of them had been unwell in 1915, which could explain the timing.[16] Since she travelled without her new husband, it wasn’t to introduce him to her family. Conscription wasn’t introduced in England until January of 1916, but Victor might have still felt uncomfortable returning to England in 1915, not having enlisted, nor being employed in farming or another essential service. And, of course, there is always the possibility that Helen regretted her recent marriage, and with limited options, decided to return permanently to her family regardless of the risks. We may never know.


Description of Golden wedding anniversary of the Saunders
The Bucks Herald 16 Jan 1915

I searched the Bucks Herald, the same paper that reported the anniversary and Thomas and Mary Ann’s deaths, for any mention of Helen’s death- but I didn’t find anything. Only the Wetaskiwin, Alberta papers gave further details, reporting that Victor received confirmation from Cunard regarding Helen’s remains being found.[17]

E.V. Woolven is informed by Cunard re: wife's remains being identified
The Wetaskiwin Times 9 Sept 1915

Sadly, Victor didn’t outlive his wife by very long. Shortly after her death, he sold the pool room, moved to Three Hills Alberta, and began working as a salesman. He died 12 September 1923 in Trochu, Alberta, from botulism.[18] His obituary said that he had no relatives in Canada, despite the 1916 enumeration showing Victor living with his brother John’s family in Wetaskiwin.[19] (John died in 1920, and his widow and children had moved back to Manitoba afterwards.)[20]


Obituary of E.V. Woolven
The Calgary Herald 20 Sept 1923

Having no descendants, and apparently leaving no family behind in Canada, Helen and Victor’s sad story has attracted little attention. An entry on FindaGrave reports the wrong location for Helen’s burial, and the wrong parents and siblings for her. My next step is to get her tombstone photo uploaded with the proper details, so that Helen’s story will be a bit easier to track for anyone interested in the future.


Sources:

[1] “Lusitania Exhibition,” Cobh Heritage Centre (https://www.cobhheritage.com/lusitania/). All websites accessed as of October, 2023. [2] “Passengers,” Lusitania Online (http://www.lusitania.net/passengerlist_htm_files/lusi%20spread%20sheet.pdf). [3] “Edmonton, May 8,” The Wetaskiwin Times (Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada), 13 May 1915, p. 1, col. 5; digital image, Internet Archive (www.archive.org). [4] “Passenger and Crew List the day of the Sinking,” Home Page for Judith Tavares (https://homepages.rootsweb.com/~lusilist/LusitaniaPassengerList.html). Also, “Second Cabin (Second Class) Passenger List,” The Lusitania Resource (https://www.rmslusitania.info/people/second-cabin/). [5] Find A Grave, images (www.findagrave.com), memorial page Lindon Wallace Bates Jr. (1883-1915), memorial no. 34356975. Also, Joe Durwin, “The Missing ‘Monument to Sacrifice,’” These Mysterious Hills (http://mysterious-hills.blogspot.com/2006/08/missing-monument-to-sacrifice.html). [6] “Lusitania Victims,” The Galway Express (Galway, Co. Galway, Ireland), 19 June 1915, p. 5, col. 1; digital image, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk). [7] Alberta marriage registration, no. 881, Edmund Victor Woolven & Helen Saunders (1915); Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton. [8] “Town Topics,” The Wetaskiwin Times (Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada), 16 September 1915, p. 1, col. 4; digital image, Internet Archive (www.archive.org). [9] “Parish Registers for Stone, 1538-1882,” images, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org) > Buckinghamshire > Baptisms 1849-1882 > p. 76, baptism no. 602, Helen Saunders (1875); FHL microfilm 1,042,440. [10] 1911 census of England & Wales, England, Buckinghamshire County, Stone, Dinton & Aston Sandford civil parish, enumeration district 10, schedule no. 13, Thomas Saunders household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca ); citing RG14, The National Archives, Kew. Also, 1881 census of England, Buckinghamshire County, Stone, District 9, Aylesbury, Bishopstone, pg. 29, no. 155, Thomas Saunders household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca); GSU microfilm 1,341,357. [11] 1901 census of England & Wales, England, Middlesex County, Stone, Harrow on the Hill civil parish, enumeration district 6, page 19, household 112, George Lyon Tapman household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca : accessed 12 Oct 2023); citing RG13, The National Archives, Kew. Also probably, 1891 census of England, Middlesex County, Harrow civil parish, town of Harrow, pg. 20, no. 110, Matthew Marshall household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca); The National Archives, Kew. [12] “Lusitania Victims,” The Galway Express (Galway, Co. Galway, Ireland), 19 June 1915, p. 5, col. 1; digital image, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk). [13] “Large Number of Edmonton People on Board Liner,” The Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 8 May 1915, p. 13, col. 2; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). [14] “Lusitania Timeline,” The Lusitania Resource (https://www.rmslusitania.info/lusitania/timeline/). [15] “Bishopstone,” The Bucks Herald (Buckinghamshire, England), 16 January 1915, p. 5, col. 3; digital image, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk). [16] “Deaths,” The Bucks Herald (Buckinghamshire, England), 8 Dec 1917, p. 8, col. 7, also, 24 May 1919, p. 10, col 7; digital images, FindMyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk). [17] “E.V. Woolven,” The Wetaskiwin Times (Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada), 9 Sept 1915, p. 1, col. 4; digital image, Internet Archive(www.archive.org). [18] “The death occurred,” The Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 20 Sept 1923, p. 11, col. 7; digital image, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com). [19] 1916 Canada census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan & Alberta, population schedule, Alberta, district 42, Strathcona, sub district 7, Enumeration District 42, p. 10 dwelling 100, family 100, John Wm. Woolven household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-21954. [20] “British Columbia, Canada, Death index, 1872-,” index only, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca), John William Woolven (1920), no. 1920-09-274945; GSU microfilm 1,927,295. This death has not yet been digitized by the BC Archives. Also, 1921 Census of Canada, population schedule, Manitoba, district 30, Marquette, sub district 32, Foxwarren, p. 21, dwelling 210?, family 210?, Winnifred Annie Woolven household; digital image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.ca); citing RG31, Library and Archives Canada.

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