Wearside sailor died alongside war boss

HMS Hampshire
HMS Hampshire
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A Wearside sailor who survived one of the bloodiest sea battles of World War One perished just weeks later - alongside Britain’s Secretary of State for War.

Robert Brotherton Black was aboard HMS Hampshire when the ship struck a mine on June 5, 1916. The petty officer was one of 650 to drown, as was Lord Kitchener.

Newspaper stories relating to the death of Robert and his Wearside companions aboard HMS Hampshire.

Newspaper stories relating to the death of Robert and his Wearside companions aboard HMS Hampshire.

“My great uncle Robert’s body was never recovered, and his widow Ethel never remarried,” said local historian Meg Hartford.

Robert - brother of Meg’s grandfather James - was born on April 9, 1890 at Westoe in South Shields, and hailed from a long line of sailors and ship owners.

Indeed one of the family’s vessels, Caroline, was captured by the French off Dungeness in 1809, while another - Agenoria - traded between Europe and the UK.

“The Blacks were originally from Fife, but by the late 1700s had settled in Blyth. Robert’s father, James, was born there and grew up to be a sailor,” said Meg.

Lord Kitchener is a recruitment poster.

Lord Kitchener is a recruitment poster.

“He later worked as a driller in the shipyards before returning to the sea. He was lost when the ship Vedra sank in Morecambe Bay in 1914.”

James settled in South Shields after marrying Margaret Brotherton in 1879, but the family moved to Sunderland in 1890s.

Indeed, the 1901 census reveals Robert, then aged ten, was living at 3 Wall Street, Hendon. His father and oldest brother, Adam, had shipyard jobs.

“Not surprisingly, considering his family history, Robert went to sea. At first he served aboard SS Napo, a Sunderland-built merchant vessel,” said Meg.

“But just a few days after turning 18, he signed up for 12 years with the Royal Navy. By 1911 he was an assistant leading stoker aboard HMS Superb.

“Coincidentally, the battleship had been built at Armstrong Whitworth’s yard where Robert’s brother James, my grandfather, was employed as a brass moulder.”

In 1912, while still serving on Superb, Robert married Sunderland-born Ethel Whatcott. Sadly, the couple would have only a few happy years together.

Robert’s career saw him deployed as an assistant leading stoker on Victory II and HMS Fisgard, and in June 1913 he was promoted to acting Stoker Petty Officer.

He continued in this rating until joining HMS Hampshire on January 27, 1914, where his hard work saw him commissioned as a petty officer on October 16.

“Hampshire was another Armstrong Whitworth ship,” said Meg. “She was launched in 1903 and her first assignment was the 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Channel Fleet.

“She underwent a refit in 1908 and, after time in the Reserve and Mediterranean Fleets, she transferred to the China Station in 1912 - where Robert joined her.”

Hampshire was still part of the China Station when war was declared and, in late August 1914, she sailed to the Bay of Bengal to track a German light cruiser.

The vessel, Emden, had been attacking British shipping - and Hampshire remained in the area until Emden was finally destroyed on November 9 by HMAS Sydney.

“In January 1915, Hampshire was assigned to the Grand Fleet - escorting shipping in the White Sea,” said Sunderland-born Meg, who lives in Nottingham.

“The ship was at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916, but did not engage. It was the largest naval battle of the war and over 6,000 British sailors died.”

Immediately after the battle, Hampshire was ordered to carry Lord Kitchener and his staff from Scapa Flow to Archangel, on a diplomatic mission to the Russians.

But bad weather hampered the voyage and at 7.40pm on June 5, 1916, as the ship hit a mine between The Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head, off Orkney mainland.

“The explosion holed the cruiser between the bows and the bridge, and the lifeboats were smashed against her side as the crew attempted to lower them,” said Meg.

“About 15 minutes later it sank with the loss of 650 lives. Only 12 crew managed to reach safety - but Robert and two other men from Sunderland did not.”

“I remember Ethel some 35 years later, as she was great friends with my grandmother. She died in 1987 aged 88,” said Meg.

“As a child I heard adults talking about Jutland. Now that I’ve discovered Robert’s naval career and sad end, what they were saying finally makes sense.”