Stewardess survived the Titanic. Then she was snatched from jaws of death again
Local records have revealed the remarkable story of a Nottingham woman who survived the Titanic disaster 100 years ago. Andy Smart reports...
COLD and frightened, the Titanic survivors huddled together in Lifeboat 16 as they watched the ship slip below the waves of the icy north Atlantic.
The lifeboat had room for 65 passengers – but only around 30 had been able to clamber into the boat as it was lowered down the side of the stricken liner. All but a couple were women, mainly from the third and second-class decks.
But records held by Notts County Council and researched by archive assistant Sue Norwebb show at least one person from the first-class section.
She was Mary Kezia Roberts, a 41-year-old First Class stewardess whose home address was given as 9 Chestnut Grove, Nottingham. The 1911 Census shows she was married to David Roberts, proprietor of West Bridgford Motor Company.
Liverpool-born Mary had joined the crew of the Titanic on April 6 from her White Star Line sister ship Olympic on a wage of £3 10s. She was one of the lucky ones. Just a few days later, she would become one of the 706 survivors out of 2,223 people on board.
Picked up by the Cunard liner Carpathia, she was taken to New York with the others who had been rescued. Initially, it was not known if she had survived. A short story in the Nottingham Daily Express of April 18 confirmed she had been on board the Titanic, before news of her rescue reached her husband.
The drama did not put Mary off a life at sea. She signed on soon after with the SS Rohilla, owned by British Indian Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. But then war broke out. The Rohilla became a hospital ship and all her passenger accommodation became hospital wards. She was also fitted with two operating theatres.
On October 29, 1914, the Rohilla set sail from Scapa Flow, heading into dangerous waters along the east coast of England.
Her captain, David Neilson, was unfamiliar with the waters and there was the ever-present threat of German submarines and mines. The Rohilla headed south, pounded by a typical North Sea storm. In the dark, unfamiliar waters, the Rohilla strayed too close to the rocky shoreline.
Whitby coastguards tried to warn her with Morse code lamps but to no avail. At four o'clock in the morning, Rohilla crashed into the rocks near Saltwick Nab.
Her complement of 229 people, including Mary Roberts, was in dreadful danger, even though the Rohilla was only 500 yards from shore.
Rescuers tried to reach the stricken ship, firing rockets in an effort to rig up a bosun's chair but three times they failed.
Conventional lifeboats were ineffective because the sea was too rough. It took five-and-a-half hours before one boat reached the doomed ship and rescued 17 people.
A second attempt was made, rescuing a further 18 passengers. The lifeboat was severely damaged and was abandoned.
As the Rohilla began to break under the sea's attack, more people, including Mary Roberts, were grabbed from the jaws of death.
But the casualty toll would still reach 85.
Twice rescued from a shipping disaster, perhaps Mary Roberts decided she had had enough of the sea. The records do not reveal what she did with the rest of her days, although she bore a son, Francis, and three daughters, Kezia Nora, Daisy Bell and Kathleen.
She died in 1932 in Epsom, Surrey, where she is buried in a plot she shares with husband David, who was killed in a motorcycle accident a year later.
Daisy Bell who died in 2005, and Kezia Nora, who died in 1984, are also remembered on her gravestone.
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, the county council archives service has prepared a display case in the reception area of its offices in Castle Meadow Road, Nottingham.
Visitors can read accounts of Notts people and view records from some of the survivors and those who lost their lives.
Sue said: 'The disaster has had a lasting effect, as it brings the relevance of the Titanic tragedy closer to the county, as there were local people involved. We hope the display case we have set up for the public to view will be of great interest."
Three Notts men were missing, presumed dead, following the sinking of the Titanic.
All were working on board at the time: William Moss and Albert Edward Lane, both saloon stewards, and William Ewatt Caunt, a grill cook. Boarding records show they were from the county, and state "it they were discovered, they were never identified" following the sinking.
One other key figure was Southwell-born Harold Thomas Cottam, who was a wireless operator on board the RMS Carpathia, which took the SOS call from the Titanic shortly after it struck the iceberg and played a critical part in the rescue of survivors from the icy seas.
The Titanic display is on for the next few weeks on Tuesdays between 9am and 8pm, Wed-Fri 9am- 4.45pm and Sat 9am-12.45pm.