Commemorating a great uncle lost on HMS Hampshire

With less than eight months to go until the centenary of the sinking of HMS Hampshire, just off Orkney on 5 June 1916, we are starting to hear from more and more relatives of the men who were lost.

It is a privilege to be a volunteer on our project – to restore Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and create an HMS Hampshire commemorative wall – and to receive so many treasured mementoes, memories and photographs.

Meg Hartford is one relative who has unearthed a number of articles and cuttings. For our latest blog we are publishing her own story, as she tells it, of her great uncle. We’ve edited Meg’s account slightly to reflect the revised death toll – for many years it was thought that about 650 men were drowned when HMS Hampshire hit a mine, we now know it was 737.

Graham Brown

Robert Black's Service Record
Robert Black’s Service Record

Robert Brotherton Black, R.N.

Robert Brotherton Black, my grandfather’s brother, was born on 9 April 1890 in Westoe, South Shields.

The Black family were originally from Kilrenny in Fife but by the late 1700s had settled in Blyth. They were sailors and owned several vessels including the Caroline, which was captured by the French off Dungeness in 1809, and the Agenoria which traded between Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and various North East ports.

Robert’s father was James William Black, born in Blyth in October 1856. He was recorded as a sailor in the 1881 census but also spent time working as a driller in the shipyards before returning to the sea. He was lost when the benzine ship, The Vedra, grounded, caught fire and sank in Morecambe Bay in December 1914.

The Brotherton name comes from his mother, Margaret Kelly Brotherton, born in South Shields in 1857. The Brothertons were also of Scottish descent. The family are to be found in Leith in 1841. In the census returns, four sons of Adam, a seaman, and Christiana Brotherton are recorded as merchant seamen. Several of them settled in North and South Shields, married local girls and became mates and masters of vessels.

James William Black married Margaret Kelly Brotherton in South Shields on 15 September 1879. In 1881 they lived at Dairy Lane, Westoe with Adam Brotherton Black, aged seven months. By 1891 three more children had been born, Caroline in 1884, James William in 1886 (my grandfather) and Robert Brotherton Black in 1890. The family had two rooms at 34 Wellington Street, Westoe.

Between 1891 and 1901 the family moved to Sunderland. In the 1901 census 10-year-old Robert and his family lived in two rooms at 3 Wall Street, Hendon. His father and brother Adam were working in the shipyards.

Not surprisingly, considering his family history, Robert went to sea. He joined The Royal Navy on 1 June 1908, signing on for 12 years. His official Royal Navy number was K.13405. Before joining the Royal Navy, Robert had served aboard the SS Napo, formerly the Harmony, a Sunderland-built merchant vessel.

In 1911 he was an Assistant Leading Stoker aboard HMS Superb which was docked at Portsmouth. He remained on this vessel until 5 May 1913.

The Superb was a Bellerophon-class battleship. The vessel was built at Armstrong Whitworth’s Elswick yard and commissioned in 1909. Robert’s brother, James, a brass moulder, was employed at Armstrong’s, Elswick, for many years.

Robert married Ethel Whatcott in Sunderland in the October quarter of 1912. She was born on 19 April 1890 in Sunderland.

Robert was also deployed as an Assistant Leading Stoker on board the Victory II and the Fisgard until June 1913 when he was upgraded to acting Stoker Petty Office on board the Fisgard. He continued with this rating during deployments to the Victory II for a second time and to the Europa.

On 27 January 1914 Robert joined HMS Hampshire, a Devonshire-class armoured cruiser, on the China Station and he was commissioned as a Petty Officer, Stoker on 16 October 1914.

HMS Hampshire was another Armstrong Whitworth vessel, launched on 24 September 1903 at Elswick. Her first assignment was to the 1st Cruiser Squadron of The Channel Fleet. She underwent a refit at Portsmouth in December 1908 and after time in the Reserve and Mediterranean Fleets she was transferred to the China Station in 1912.

When the First World War was declared HMS Hampshire was still part of the China Station. At the end of August 1914 she sailed to the Bay of Bengal to search for the German light cruiser, Emdem, which was attacking British shipping. She remained there with other vessels until Emden was destroyed on 9 November by HMAS Sydney.

Hampshire then escorted an ANZAC troopship through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea to Gibraltar where she was refitted in December 1914. In January 1915 she was assigned to the Grand Fleet and later that year was escorting shipping in the White Sea.

HMS Hampshire, as part of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, was present at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, but she did not engage the enemy.

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

On 5 June 1916 the weather in the Orkneys was bad, gale force winds were blowing, so it was decided the Hampshire would sail through the Pentland Firth to shelter from the worst effects of the wind. As she met with her escort vessels, the destroyers Unity and Victor at 5.45pm, the gale became stronger and the wind changed direction, so that the convoy were heading directly into it. The escort ships were unable to keep up with the Hampshire.

At 7.40pm the Hampshire was between The Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head, off Orkney mainland, when she struck a mine and an explosion ripped through the ship causing her to heel to starboard. The explosion holed the cruiser between the bows and the bridge and the lifeboats were smashed against her side by the heavy seas as the crew attempted to lower them. About 15 minutes later the Hampshire sank by the bows with the loss of 737 men, including Petty Officer Robert Brotherton Black and Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. Only 12 crew managed to reach safety.

Robert’s body was not recovered for burial.

A small piece in the Sunderland Echo of 12 June 1916 gives details of an official notice and letter that his widow, Ethel, would have received…

A cutting from the Sunderland Echo announces Robert's death
A cutting from the Sunderland Echo announces Robert’s death

Ethel and Robert had no children. Ethel did not remarry. I remember her 35 years later, living in Priory Grove, Sunderland. She was great friends with my grandmother and they visited each other regularly. In fact my grandmother stayed with her for several weeks while our house in Brookland Road was repaired after suffering bomb damage in World War II.

Ethel died in 1978 aged 88.

As a child I remember the adults talking about the Battle of Jutland. I took little notice except to look it up in my atlas. Over 50 years later what they were saying finally made sense to me as I discovered my great uncle’s naval career and sad end.

Meg Hartford 2015

Thank you Meg.

We would love to hear on Facebook (@Kitchener.Memorial) and Twitter (@kitchenerorkney), or via this blog, from others who wish to share memories and photographs.

We are also seeking artefacts linked to HMS Hampshire for a planned exhibition around the time of the centenary. Please email kitchener.memorial@gmail.com or write to Orkney Heritage Society, PO Box 6220, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 9AD, UK.

Anyone who wishes to donate towards the project can do so online at justgiving.com/orkneyheritagesociety/ or send a cheque payable to Orkney Heritage Society.

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