Submitted by Brian Roulston
Little Margaret Hayworth was 10 years old with her life ahead of her. She was well-liked by her classmates and teachers at Lakeshore Public School and Knox Presbyterian Sunday School. Her father John was an employee of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company on Burlington Street. He and his wife Georgina, were well-known and respected members of the local community. Margaret’s younger sister Jacqueline was six when the family departed Montreal for Glasgow, Scotland on June 23, 1939 for a summer visit to grandparents on both sides of the family in Falkirk and Aberdeen. John returned to Canada two weeks later for work and to move while his wife stayed overseas with the children. Life for the Hayworth’s was pretty good.
That summer, the German High Command had been preparing for a war. But, no one clearly knew who with or why. Talks that had been ongoing between Germany, the Soviets, Britain and France broke down. On September 1, Germany swept into Poland from the north, the west, and the south. The speed and the relative ease in which they took control of Poland astounded the world.
John convinced Georgina to return earlier than planned. She ended up on the S.S. Athenia which was fully booked with 1100 passengers and 300 plus crew. Most of the passengers were either Canadians or Americans looking to get out before the fighting began. Before sailing the ship’s crew checked and double-checked every lifeboat and life jacket while dock workers installed heavy metal covers over the portholes. The 16-year-old Athenia set sail on September 1, for Quebec City and Montreal via Liverpool. Captain Cook followed the Trade Division’s updated route, which avoided Ireland by 200 miles.
On September 3rd, Britain declared war on Germany at 11 a.m. Cook had assured one of the passengers later in the day that they should be well out of harm’s way, in international waters.
It was 7 o’clock, and the evening meal service had just begun. Captain Cook and the first-class passengers were seated when Cook felt an unsettling calm. He excused himself and went to the bridge where he felt his presence was needed. Meanwhile, Georgina and the girls were enjoying a beautiful moon and starlit evening on the deck. She had thought about turning in but it was such a pleasant evening she changed her mind.
Lurking beneath the surface, hoping to make history by becoming the first to sink an enemy warship in the new war, was 46-year-old U-boat captain Fritz-Julius Lemp. For a while, he had been following Athenia. Only moments before, Lemp had been given authorization by Hitler’s rank and file to begin scuttling ships. Passengers noticed something unusual under the water, but it was too late; at 7:40 pm the U-30 launched four torpedoes on the Athenia’s port side. One slammed into the ship’s stern. Athenia shuddered and came to a dead stop after losing its power. A second torpedo turned around, nearly striking Athenia’s attacker.
In the dining room, tables and chairs slid violently across the room causing the ship to list to one side and sink lower at the stern. Glasses, plates and cutlery were hurled through the air. Water gushed into the engine room, kitchen, dining hall, and the staterooms. People managed to reach the deck by feeling their way through pitch-black corridors. After what seemed like an eternity, the emergency lighting flickered on.
Captain Lemp ordered his submarine to surface. He broke into a cold sweat when he realized his error. There were just too many people in the water for a war vessel. Within minutes after hearing Athenia’s distress calls Lemp’s radio operator would confirm that he just torpedoed a passenger ship. One hundred and eighteen people lost their lives that evening. Fifty of them were British or Canadian passengers.
Lemp dove back down and didn’t report the incident to his superiors for several weeks. Hitler was still hoping to reach an agreement with Britain even though Britain declared war. However, Lemp’s actions ended any chance for negotiations. Under international law, passenger ships are not considered legitimate targets of war, and Germany had agreed not to attack them without warning after the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. Lemp was never court martialed and he died in 1945 during the seizure of the U-110, which later became part of the Nuremberg Trials.
Shrapnel from the explosion hit Margaret’s head, knocking her unconscious. Blood ran down her tiny face as her mother carried her to a lifeboat, with Jacqueline clinging to her skirt. Georgina managed to get Margaret on board, but Jacqueline was still on the deck. She asked a man to pass her down, but in the confusion he gave her a different girl. She tried again with another man, but he too handed her the wrong child. Jacqueline ended up on another lifeboat.
Margaret and her mother along with other survivors spent eight hours in a cold, dark lifeboat before being rescued by the S.S Southern Cross, one of the many ships that went to their rescue after receiving SOS signals from Athenia. Once owned by the American billionaire Howard Hughes the luxury liner was owned by a Swedish industrialist. Because the Southern Cross had reached her capacity, saving about 200 passengers, they were immediately transferred to the rescue vessel City of Flint. The finest care was given to Little Margaret Hayworth.
The SS Athenia sank some 200 metres to her watery grave off the coast of Inisthrahull, Ireland around 10:40 am the next morning. Canada, Britain, and the United States became part of what would soon become a new world war. A war that would involve other ‘innocent people’ from Hamilton and beyond.
According to the Halifax Chronicle, dated September 14th, as the City of Flint was being moored in Halifax, passengers were so grateful to be in a safe place they belted out a round of “Oh Canada.”
As Georgina and Margaret were crossing the Atlantic, John Hayworth was sitting on the steps of the Hamilton Spectator building on King Street, across from the Royal Connaught Hotel waiting anxiously for any news of his family. All night bits and pieces of information came across the teletype machines. First came the good news, Jacqueline was safe and sound and on her way to Glasgow. She’d soon be safe with one of her grandparents. Finally, news that Margaret and Georgina were on their way to Halifax. John boarded the train to meet his family. He met Georgina on the gangway and she cried. “Oh John, I can’t believe it, she’s gone!” The official cause of death as recorded by doctors aboard the S.S City of Flint was a brain concussion and pneumonia.
The couple brought Margaret’s body back to Hamilton. At the CNR station on James St. North at 6:40 pm on September 15th a crowd of about a thousand people silently gathered to pay their respects. A plain pine box was removed from the train and taken to the Brown Brothers funeral home.
A small private ceremony was held on September 16th, then she was moved to the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Barton Street where she laid in state. It should be noted, Jacqueline was absent from the funeral. It was a hot and humid Saturday afternoon in the Golden Horseshoe with intermittent rain. A tiny white coffin with silver handles laid with a red, white and blue pillow on top. A Canadian Red Ensign flag draped from the organ. Breathtakingly beautiful flowers sent from each of Firestone’s departments filled the air with their scent. Outside, along the church wall, flowers were piled high, left by sorrowful and bitter Hamiltonians mourning the loss of one of their own, an innocent child. The entire nation grieved that day. An hour before the service, the church was filled to capacity (1200 people), mostly women and children. Two police officers stood at the doors turning away hundreds of mourners, but there were nearly as many people outside as inside, waiting for them to come out of the church.
The City of Hamilton ordered flags on city properties lowered to half-mast when the train arrived until after the service. All government buildings in Ontario and across Canada were ordered to fly at half-staff but only during the hour of service. The city’s 50th Mayor W.R Morrison and the entire Hamilton City Council members were in attendance. Mitchell F. Hepburn, Ontario’s 11th premier was there with his entire cabinet. Grenville native Howard Furgeson, who served as the province’s ninth premier attended too. Hamilton’s T.B McQuesten, then Minister of Highways, paid his respect. W.H.Taylor represented Prime Minister William L. M. King. C.L Cowan gave a fiery sermon condemning Hitler for his actions. Because of the oppressive heat inside the church Rev. E. Crossley read only a few of the hundreds of telegrams and letters of sympathy that were sent to John and Georgina from major organizations across the country.
Pallbearers carried the casket to the waiting cortege past a Guard of Honour of World War I veterans and the crowd that gathered outdoors in the rain. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Honour Guards and procession travelled along Barton, up James Street North to City Hall (currently the location of City Centre mall). The honour guards disbanded and the procession continued west along York Blvd. Mourners lined almost every metre of the route. Everyone lowered their heads in reverence as the procession got closer. The funeral was the largest in Hamilton’s history at the time. Just as the procession arrived at the cemetery, the clouds gave way to brilliant sunshine. A place of honor was reserved for the floral arrangements from Margaret’s classmates. A card had been placed in the center with each child’s signature scribbled in it. Premier Hepburn, Mayor Morrison and members of city council also signed the card. Margaret was given one of the most beautiful panoramic spots in the cemetery. She was laid to rest beside the Shrine of Christian Martyrs to War on Women and Children, which overlooks Dundas Valley and the beach where she and her family spent many unforgettable times playing alongside Burlington Bay.