Saved at sea at 3 months old sparking a family’s lifesaving legacy
RNLI 200 Voices talks to Mark Hudson, grandson of Audrey Lawson Johnston the youngest survivor of the Lusitania disaster, on his family’s remarkable story that ignited a life-long passion and commitment to helping save lives at sea.
On 7 May, 1915, en-route from New York to Liverpool, the passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Cork. Sinking within 18 minutes 1,200 lives were lost.
Against the odds Mark’s granny Audrey, who was just 3 months old at the time, survived, along with her mother Amy Lea, father Warren, brother Stuart and one of the family's nursemaids, 18-year-old Alice Lines.
Mark explains the chaos of his granny’s rescue once the torpedoes had hit the ship: ‘Alice grabbed Audrey and Stuart and ran to the deck to try and get in a lifeboat. The ship was listing dramatically, a lifeboat was lowered… she jumped off the side to try and land in it, holding my granny in her arms and Stuart by the hand.
‘They landed in the water and were pulled into a lifeboat and were saved that way.’
Courtmacsherry RNLI volunteers rowed for more than three hours to reach the area in an attempt to help with the rescue operation.
Mark said: 'They had no motor and no wind and the RNLI spent three and a half hours rowing to the scene. By the time they got there any survivors had been picked up, so they then spent 8 hours recovering bodies.’
Sadly, Audrey’s sisters Susan and Amy along with the family’s second nursemaid, Greta Lorenson, were never found.
This pivotal moment in the family’s life became the start of their long association with the RNLI.
‘We can’t find out how much my great granny (Amy Lea) did for the lifeboats, but the whole family became very involved for obvious reasons. It’s said she always raised money for the lifeboats which she passed onto granny.’
Amy Lea was infact pregnant when she survived the sinking of the Lusitania and 8 months after the tragedy, Vivian ‘Perky’ Warren Pearl was born.
Perky and Audrey continued their mother’s dedicated fundraising for the lifesaving charity and in 2004, they raised enough money for a new D class lifeboat which they named Amy Lea.
Amy Lea became New Quay RNLI’s inshore lifeboat – that went on to aid 93 people and save four lives during its operational service. This wasn’t the only lifeboat funded by the family, led by Mark’s father Martin and his brother Hugh, the family raised enough money for New Quay’s next inshore lifeboat naming it Audrey LJ.
When Amy Lea was retired, Audrey LJ came on service and is still operational today - although soon to be retired at the end of this year. During its service Audrey LJ has launched 189 times, aided 150 casualties and saved the lives of six people.
Mark said: ‘For me it’s just so perfectly circular that she was saved from drowning and then spent a good deal of her life raising money to give the RNLI the tools to save other people… And in turn, gave that legacy to her children and grandchildren.
‘You just think “wow”, because of this it does make a difference – those people were saved as an indirect result of this whole legacy that’s been set in motion.
‘One thing my granny used to say was, “I was saved for a reason and this is it” and that’s what she said when she dedicated the Amy Lea.’
Last month Mark wrote his own name into his family’s lifesaving story as he organised a charity bike ride as a fitting farewell to his granny’s legacy and the soon to be retired Audrey LJ lifeboat.
Cycling a punishing 190 miles from Swansea to New Quay, 21 cyclists visited 10 RNLI lifeboat stations along the way. So far the Tour de Dyfed has raised almost £28,000 and counting, and all the proceeds will be shared equally between New Quay and Tower Lifeboat Stations.
‘It was the most incredible experience for everyone involved… this amazing camaraderie developed and it opened the eyes of all of us as to what these people do.
‘The community that builds around the lifeboat stations is something truly incredible to behold… I love being a part of this story, giving something back.’
The RNLI’s 200 Voices podcast is releasing a new episode every day for 200 days, in the run-up to the charity’s bicentenary on 4 March 2024, exploring captivating stories from the charity’s history and through to the current day.
The charity has been saving lives at sea since it was founded in 1824 and, in that time, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 lives. Funded by voluntary donations, and with lifeboats crewed by specially-trained volunteers, the RNLI is a truly unique rescue organisation with a remarkable 200-year story to tell – many highlights of which are shared through the podcast series.
Available across all podcast platforms and the RNLI’s website, listeners can hear from survivors, supporters, volunteers, lifeguards, celebrity ambassadors, historians and many more from across the UK and Ireland – and beyond.
To find out more about the RNLI’s bicentenary, visit www.RNLI.org/200.
Notes to Editor:
Bill Dewsbury: A Family Affair
Write Her Name With Pride: Tanni Grey-Thompson
Future Lifesaver: Finlay Hassall
Searching Blind: Ben James
Catch up on all previous episodes by visiting RNLI.org/200Voices.
RNLI media contacts
For more information please contact RNLI Regional Media Officer, Eleri Roberts on [email protected] or 07771 941 390.
Alternatively you can contact the RNLI Press Office on [email protected] or 01202 336789.
For further information about the 200 Voices podcast series and upcoming episodes, contact Claire Fitzpatrick-Smith, RNLI Regional Media Officer, on [email protected] or 07977 728 315.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.
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