Robert Daniel Fletcher Chisholm was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England on 26 July 1882. On 24 December 1904 he married Agnes Ada Crawford and in 1906 the couple had a son, Alexander Robert. In 1915 the family home was at 22 Dalmorton Road, New Brighton, Wallasey, Cheshire.
He was a professional Mercantile Marine sailor and had worked on the transatlantic crossing for many years - particularly with the Cunard Steam Ship Company. On 12 April 1915 he engaged as Second Steward in the Stewards' Department on board the
Lusitania at Liverpool at a monthly rate of pay of £10-0s-0d. He joined the vessel at 7am on 17 April before she left the River Mersey for the last time. His previous ship had been the
Orduña, but he had also served on the Lusitania’s sister ship the
He survived the sinking three weeks later and afterwards, with Chief Officer AR Jones, was appointed to tour the mortuaries in Queenstown and Kinsale to help identify victims.
On 10 May he was called to a continuing inquest held at Kinsale Court House, Kinsale, County Cork, by Coroner John J Horgan, into the deaths of five of
Lusitania’s victims landed there on the evening of 7 May. The point of calling him was so that he could give his version of the sinking and evidence of identification on two of the victims. His evidence stated:
"I was second steward on board the R.M.S Lusitania on her last voyage. I was on the starboard side of the deck at the time she was torpedoed. This was shortly after two o’clock. I was looking over the side. I saw the wake of the torpedo as it approached the ship. The torpedo was about one hundred yards away when I first saw it. I immediately ran and told the chief steward that there was a torpedo coming. Just as I was telling him the explosion, took place. When the explosion occurred, water was thrown up over the deck. ‘B’ deck is about 30 feet over the water line.
There was a second explosion about a minute afterwards. I was then inside the ship. This torpedo struck the ship somewhere between the third and fourth funnels. We told all the passengers at once to go to their rooms and get their life belts. In every berth there is a life belt. There are notices and diagrams in every room showing how these lifebelts are worn. As far as I could see the passengers obeyed our instructions. This stewardesses also gave similar instructions to the passengers. There was no panic.
I then went to my own room and got my life belt on. Up to then I had not been on the boat deck. I went up on the boat deck. The ship was listed to starboard. I jumped in a collapsible boat and fell over the side into a lifeboat. There were about 45 people in her. She was on her way down to the water. She was safely launched. It was then about fifteen minutes after the accident. There were 36 passengers on her, the remainder were crew including stewardesses. There were four children on her. There was a crew (member) in charge of her. I took the tiller and we pulled clear of the ship. When she went down we are about 100 yards away. We were picked up about 6 p.m. by the tug “Stormcock”.
The boat that I was in could carry about 60 people. There were a large number of people in the water holding on to wreckage. We picked four people out of the water. We started to row to Kinsale. We remained an hour on the scene of the sinking. No one in our boat died. I was present on the 'Stormcock' when she took off the occupants of the fishing drifter. The captain of the
'Stormcock' ordered the captain of the drifter to put all his people on board the
'Stormcock'. We were then at the entrance to Kinsale harbour. The people were transferred accordingly. I was on the deck. I heard no protest. No passengers died on the 'Stormcock' on the way to Queenstown.
The luncheon meal was on the point of finishing in all classes at the time of the sinking. In the New York papers on the day of sailing there appeared a statement that Germany would not be responsible for any passengers carried in the ships of Great Britain or her allies after this warning.
I identified the body of ‘number two’ female, the elder of the two females as Mrs. Ryerson or Mrs. McDougall. ‘Number one female’ I do not know. ‘Number three male’ was one of the crew, Richard Chamberlain, one of the stewards. ‘Number two male’ I identify as George Cranston, another steward.
I never saw a torpedo before. The sea was still and the track of the torpedo was perfectly clear. We had been rowing for three hours when the 'Stormcock' picked us up. The explosion could be heard all over the ship. There were 300 first class passengers, about 600 second class and about 380 third. The crew numbered about 700. There were several of the ship’s boat's on the scene of the disaster when we rowed away. There were several trawlers on the scene of the disaster and a big steamer at the time the 'Stormcock' picked us up."
The 'Stormcock' was the Royal Naval tug HMS Stormcock. Mrs Ryerson was saloon passenger Mrs Mary Ryerson from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but there was no Mrs McDougall on board the
Lusitania’s last sailing. Second Steward Chisholm later revised his opinion of Mrs Ryerson’s identification, however, and decided that it was, after all, the body of saloon passenger Mrs Ida Campbell-Johnston, a British lady travelling from Los Angeles in the USA. Mrs Ryerson’s body was never recovered and identified.
Following his revised identification, Cunard sent a cable on 16 May, which stated:
"MR. CHISHOLM STATES BODY HE FAILED TO IDENTIFY AT KINSALE IS NOW POSITIVELY THAT OF MRS. IDA CAMPBELL-JOHNSTON, AND IS GOING FORWARD FOR LONDON."
‘Number three male' Richard Chamberlain, one of the stewards and ‘Number two male’ George Cranston, another steward, were correct identifications, but both held the rank of night watchman, not steward.
Poor Robert Chisholm seems to have been used by Cunard as its chief identifier of recovered corpses, perhaps because of his long record of service on the transatlantic run and his knowledge of the company’s passengers. He was also successful in corroborating documentary evidence of identification, in the case of another saloon passenger, Mr Percy Seccombe, whose body he also recognised. This was important because Mr Seccombe's body was cremated at Liverpool Crematorium on 18 May 1915 at the request of the family attorney, Mr HT Patten of Boston, Massachusetts, USA and his ashes despatched home the following day.
However on May 25 1915 a cable was received in the Cunard Offices at Queenstown, seeking information as to how Seccombe's body had been identified.
The company sent back a cable on 28th May, which stated:
"PERCY SECCOMBE IDENTIFIED BY VISITING CARDS AND RAILWAY PASSES BEARING HIS NAME FOUND ON BODY. ALSO IDENTIFIED BY SECOND STEWARD CHISHOLM."
He was also able to identify the body of saloon passenger Mr Miklos N Pappadopoulo at Queenstown.
In an article published in 'The Cork Examiner' on 2 June 1915 a tribute was paid to Robert Chisholm's work in helping to identify the dead. It stated:
"Mr. Robert Chisholm who was on board the Lusitania when her thousands were massacred, and who had an exciting experience when boats and bodies went down the big ship's funnels in the awful suction, only to be blown out again, who saw the first torpedo's wake as it neared the ship and who declares strongly that the heaviest weapon aboard the giant Cunarder was a ship's officer's revolver, said his work for week's past has been very gruesome. He knew so well most of the passengers aboard the ship that he had been deputed to identify the recovered dead.
"It was a hard but a pleasing task. Every body identified meant the settling of so many awful suspense and doubts, that I feel despondent that we could not have set the minds of many more at rest. The vast majority of the Lusitania's passengers and crew have, to my belief gone down inside the ship, and never will be recovered till the day on which we shall all meet."
Questioned for particulars, he felt sure Mr. Stone, son of the General Manager of the Associated Press, U.S.A. had gone down inside the ship. He could identify Mr. Alfred Vanderbilt by his singularly-formed ankles, if by nothing else. His acquaintance with Transatlantic passengers is singular and varied. He had served in many other Cunarders, including the Mauretania."
In common with many survivors from both passengers and crew, as we have seen from his deposition, Robert Chisholm believed that there had been more than one torpedo fired by the
U-20. Although four people are known to have been sucked down one of the giant funnels and blown back out again - first class bedroom steward Edward Bond, second cabin passenger Margaret Gwyer, saloon passenger Inspector William John Pierpoint and third class passenger Harold Taylor - there are no accounts extant which mention any lifeboats suffering the same fate!
Saloon Passenger Herbert S Stone from New York had been killed in the sinking but his body was later recovered and sent back to his native city for burial, and although Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was also killed, his body was never recovered and identified. Thus Robert Chisholm's assertion that he "could identify Mr. Alfred Vanderbilt by his singularly-formed ankles, if by nothing else" was not as certain as he had thought! Whom he had actually wrongly identified in one of Queenstown's temporary mortuaries is not known after all this time.
Robert Chisholm himself was almost wrongly identified as being one of the victims, for 'The Cork Examiner' stated in article about the tragedy on 10 May 1915:
"In the morgue on Lynch's Quay the chief steward lies and also the second steward. They are both fine types of men, and apparently suffered little in meeting death."
As Chief Steward John Jones and Second Steward Robert Chisholm both survived, one of the two corpses must have been that of Extra Chief Steward Arthur Ford but the identity of the other is uncertain. Neither of them however was Robert Chisholm.
On his eventual return to Liverpool Chisholm was officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s last voyage and paid the balance of wages owing to him in respect of his sea service from 17 April to 8 May, 24 hours after the great liner had foundered. This amounted to £8-17s-10d (£8.89).
In June 1923 former ship’s carpenter Neil Robertson together with a Mr RO Chisholm was granted a provisional specification for a patent by The Patent Office in London for a 'Steering course indicator for night and day use'. It is not known whether this apparatus ever made the pair any money but Robertson was also a survivor of the Lusitania's
final voyage and it is likely that fellow patentee Mr RO Chisholm was the former second steward Robert DF Chisholm.
Perhaps Second Steward Chisholm’s last tangible link with the Lusitania ended when he attended the funeral of its captain Commander William Turner on 26 June 1933 in Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey, in Cheshire, not far from where Chisholm lived at the time.
Robert Chisholm continued to serve in the Mercantile Marine until his death, at the age of 54 years, at Koko, Nigeria, on 2 September 1936, while he was serving as chief steward aboard the
SS Ashantian. The cause of his death was recorded as cerebral malaria and heart failure. On 3 December 1936 administration of his estate was granted to his wife Agnes. His effects amounted to £672-18s-4d (£672.91). Agnes Ada Chisholm died in Wallasey in 1957.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Cork Examiner, Cunard Records, Imperial War Museum, NGMM DX/1478, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv D92/2/160, UniLiv. PR/13/6, UniLiv. SI/431/ii, Wallasey News, Bernard Cogings, Probate Records.