Harold Edwin Robotham was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1894, the son of Charles Edwin and Annie Maud Robotham. Charles Robotham was a salesman who dealt in various lines during his career, including sewing machines and baby carriages!
The family moved from Ireland sometime after Harold’s birth, and are known to have resided in Sheffield before finally settling in Leicester. Edwin was educated at Wyggeston School, Leicester, and his adult home was at 15 De Montfort Street, Leicester.
He was a professional waiter in the Mercantile Marine and he had served on the Cunarder
Ivernia, sailing from New York to Mediterranean ports, until she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for war service as a troop ship on the outbreak of the Great War. It was while serving on this ship that Robotham fell down one of the ship’s hatches and sustained injuries which had to be treated, (ironically) by a German doctor. According to a article written later about the waiter in
The Leicestershire Daily Mercury, the doctor expressed surprise on Robotham’s lucky escape with the words :-
You English seem to have nine lives like a cat and we cannot kill you!
After her requisitioning, the Ivernia was one of the first vessels to bring a contingent of The Canadian Expeditionary Force to Britain, later becoming a prison ship.
Harold Robotham engaged as a first class waiter in the Stewards' Department on the
Lusitania at Liverpool on the morning of 17th May 1915, just before the liner left her Pier Head mooring on what became her last ever voyage out of the River Mersey. At the time of his engagement, he was allotted just one shilling, (five pence), presumably because he had no proof of his worth, or his seaman’s Continuous Record of Discharge Book. One source states that he was
clerk to the chief steward, who on the liner’s last voyage was Frederick V. Jones.
Having arrived safely at New York, he was on board ship on the afternoon of 1st May 1915, when she left there for her return voyage to Liverpool and he survived her sinking by the German submarine
U-20, six days later, when she was within sight of the coast of southern Ireland and only hours away from her home port!
He later gave an account of his experiences to a newspaper correspondent, which was later syndicated across the world. The account stated: -
I was running about here and there, doing what I could until I forgot my own peril. I went down with the ship, and was so close to the large ventilators that I felt sure that I was doomed by its suction. Just as I was thinking this, there was a terrible explosion, and a smell of something like milinite entered my nostrils. I felt myself getting drawn down, and then shot up all in a second of eternity.
When I came to the surface I was bleeding from the nose and ears and at that moment I did not care whether I was saved or not. Fortunately my nerves got a little under control. I found myself close to an overturned lifeboat, on which there were three other men. We floated along, tried to joke with each other, and lilted a chorus, without, however, adding to our courage or cheerfulness, and then we espied a Yorkshireman, who was swimming strongly.
He was a picture of joviality. We shouted to him and he hulloed back "How are you boys? Where are you going?". We told him we were hoping that a steamer we had seen on the horizon had observed us. She passed on, however, and I can't help wondering what her people were doing not to have seen the disaster of the Lusitania. Our Yorkshire friend did not come to our boat, but seeing a raft further ahead swam away to it, shouting, "Good luck boys, I'm off to this.".
Then a few minutes after, an incident of an excruciatingly amusing kind happened, which really bucked us up immediately. A lifeboat locker, one of which was placed on the boat deck of the Lusitania, beside each lifeboat, ready with rations and appliances for any emergency, came floating towards us. I knew what it was, and knew what it was likely to contain. We four were watching the box intently, when some one said, "Look at the shutter," and just as we glanced at it, out shot the head of a man from the aperture, just for all the world like a mechanical figure, the head swinging from side to side and the jaws grinning spaciously.
We laughed, we could not help being amused, as the occupant of the box disclosed himself. He was one of the stokers, and was attired in no more than a brown singlet. From the locker he produced a diver’s helmet, boxes of biscuits, and various other articles, and after getting rid of most of these, he went from us. He was amongst the saved, but the last we saw of our jovial friend was as he was lowering his head into the interior of the box, for although the weather was warm, it was no Garden of Eden for the costume he was wearing.
First Class Waiter Robotham was eventually taken from the sea, by the Royal Naval patrol boat H.M.S.
Heron, and landed at Kinsale with eight other survivors and five corpses, on the evening of the sinking. His medical condition was such that he was then taken to the hospital at the military barracks there, from where he later gave his account to the newspaper correspondent.
He was detained in hospital there for a while and then eventually, returned to Liverpool, where he was officially discharged from the
Lusitania’s last voyage and paid the balance of wages owing to him in respect of his service on the steamer. This was reckoned to be from 17th April until 8th May 1915, 24 hours after the liner had foundered.
Very little is known about Harold’s life after his survival of the sinking of the Lusitania, although it is known he continued to serve in the mercantile marine as a waiter on passenger vessels.
It is believed that he got married in Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1920, but the identity of his wife is unknown. He died in Leicester, Leicestershire, England in 1949, aged 54 years.
Cunard records show Harold Robotham’s surname to be spelled Rowbotham, however; his correct surname was certainly Robotham.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, Cunard Records, Jess Jenkins, Halifax Evening Courier, Leicester Daily Mercury, Leicester Mail, PRO BT 100/345, Yorkshire Post, White Star Journal, PRO BT 348.