John Preston-Smith was a member of the Royal Gwent Singers from Wales, but he was not Welsh. He was born in Southbanks, Yorkshire, but as his wife Anne later noted, “He was connected with the ‘Welsh Singers’ for so long, he seemed one of them.”
The Royal Gwent Singers had spent several months touring in the United States in early 1915; performing in the principal cities and giving special recitals before President Wilson, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller. They remained in Brooklyn during March and April, performing in various churches around the borough. There were fourteen singers in all, and they were to have sailed back to England together aboard the Transylvania, but nine of them transferred to the Lusitania. Dewi Michael explained why. “Some of us, too, thought as a matter of fact, that it would not only be more expeditious but safer to travel with the Lusitania.” Survivors remembered the choir standing at the rail when the ship sailed. They sang, “Star Spangled Banner” and “Wales, My Wales.”
The gentlemen of the choir performed in the Lusitania’s concert. Reverend Henry Wood Simpson had brought along his viola and violin and provided their musical accompaniment. Dewi Michael later recalled the final song led by their conductor George Davies. “He was so loved by us… Strangely enough, the last song he sang was ‘Down with the Salamander.’ A strange coincidence that he should have been singing that when he himself would be going down. He sang it well too; I fancy I can hear his beautiful bass voice now.”
The group was at lunch when the torpedo struck. They stayed together only a short time, and then became separated in the confusion. Preston-Smith was with Beatrice Williams and they ran back downstairs to get lifejackets. Miss Williams was placed in a boat and told to get out again.
“The ship was listing so heavily,” she said, “that I had to jump. Mr. Preston-Smith jumped with me and I was picked up and put on a raft.” The end of the Lusitania came quickly and Preston-Smith noted, “I got washed away about 100 yards, and then I got a hold of deck chair on which I rested for about 20 minutes before I got on a raft. I helped four others to get on it, but the raft was over-loaded and began to sink so I took to the water again, as I was the only swimmer. I got on a little iron tank, and held onto that for two hours, though it toppled over several times… It was a Yorkshire man who pulled me out of the water at last, and for half an hour after being rescued, I was utterly helpless. They also pulled out an Irishman named Doyle, who was singing Irish songs in the water. He had gone quite daft. We pulled six women and three men out of the water, and two of the women subsequently died. Whilst swimming towards the raft, and almost done up, a woman swept past me propped up with lifebelts and deck chairs all around her. She asked for assistance, but I was too done up to help her, because by now I had lost the use of my legs. She said she was about done too, ‘But, I am going down like a Briton,’ she added. Just then, a raft came by and picked her up, and all the boys on the raft gave a hearty cheer. They just went crazy with joy at being able to rescue her.
William ‘Spencer’ Hill claimed that he, Thomas ‘Risca’ Williams, William Gwynn ‘Parry’ Jones, and John Preston-Smith managed to get to the same raft and began singing, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow:” I don’t think I have ever heard it sung with more feeling. Then some of the women began to cry and as that would not do, we struck up ‘Tipperary,’ and then they laughed. Spencer Hill may have been misquoted or was incorrect in claiming that John Preston-Smith was with them. Preston-Smith was one of 11 people rescued by the Heron and brought into Kinsale.
John Preston-Smith married Anne and continued to tour with the choir; sometimes together and sometimes in smaller groups. Risca Williams gave lectures on the group’s survival, as late as the 1930s. The Preston-Smiths moved from Wales to Racine, Wisconsin in the 1940s. John had a stroke a few years later that left his right side paralyzed. When Adolph and Mary Hoehling were writing The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, they contacted the couple. Anne dutifully sent the answers to any questions with which John could help, and provided clippings about her husband’s involvement in the disaster. She also noted that they were still friendly with Beatrice Williams Harper, whose life John had helped save, and also with ‘Parry’ Jones. John Preston-Smith passed away on February 9, 1957 and was buried in Mound Cemetery in Racine. Anne Preston-Smith moved back to Wales, and died there in 1973.