Ian Holbourn and RMS Lusitania

Ian Holbourn and RMS Lusitania

John Bernard Stoughton Holburn, (1872-1935), often known as Ian, was a very successful academic and writer. He was educated at Slade School of Art and Merton College Oxford. He worked in extension programmes for Oxford and Cambridge University, was a founder of Ruskin College, Oxford, and developed the art programme at Carleton College, Minnesota. He was a widely sought after lecturer.

In 1899, on an expedition to Iceland he passed the island of Foula, Shetland's most isolated place. He visited there in 1900, and was determined to buy. He did, and found himself laird of Foula. He and his family began to spend summers there. He was there in 1914. Foula, famously remote, found out about World War One on 10 August. He was to begin a tour of the USA shortly afterwards. In 1916 he returned home on the Cunard liner Lusitania.

The Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine  about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, on 7 May 1915. Despite being relatively close to land, 1,191 out of the 1,962 people on board lost their lives.

Ian Holbourn survived. He seems to have been more alive to the possibility of disaster than many on board and urged the trying on of lifebelts. Some people didn’t appreciate his efforts. He named them the "Ostrich Club". The Lusitania, of course, was a civilian vessel. Many on board probably believed that the rules of war prevented them being attacked.

Probably, if more people had familiarised themselves with lifebelts and other drill, a few more would have survived. As it was, Ian Holbourn made a successful intervention in one case. He met a little girl, Avis Dolphin. Her father had died in the Boer War, and her mother was sending her from Ontario to the UK to be educated. She was accompanied by Miss Ellie and Miss Sarah Smith. He had taken an interest in her while helping her recover from neuralgia. When the ship was struck he sought her out and got a lifebelt on her. He offered his own to Miss Smith but she refused it on the basis that he had his own wife and children.

He was unable to get into a boat himself, said goodbye to Avis and her guardians and went off the starboard side. He saw Avis' boat capsize and her go underneath the water. In the end he saved his own life and some of his manuscripts, clinging on to a rope behind a lifeboat. He was picked up and taken to Queenstown. He found that Avis had survived, the lifebelt had saved her after all. Her guardians had not.

He looked after Avis, taking her to her grandparents in Worcester. They remained friends for the rest of his life. When she complained that adventure books for girls weren’t as good as those for boys, he wrote a book for her The Children of the Moat. She met her husband in the Holbourn house in Edinburgh.

Avis Dolphin died in 1996, having been a source for a number of works on the sinking. In what must have been one of her final acts concerning the sinking, she was listed as contributor to a TV movie, Lusitania, Murder on the Atlantic (2007). In it, Ian Holbourn was portrayed by the actor John Hannah, and Avis by Madeleine Garrood.

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The Kame, Foula.
The Kame, Foula, part of Ian Holbourn's Estate. Shetland Museum.
An artist's impression of the sinking.