Royal Navy, H.M.S. Natal, 30th December 1915
Synopsis of Life and Military Service
According to Royal Navy records, Wilfred Albert Edward Trim Roberts was born in Bolton, Lancashire on 7 April 1898. Little is known about his parents other than his mother died when he was three, and he was looked after by his mother’s sister, Mrs Winnie Bush in East Ham, London.
At some point in his youth, Wilfred was admitted to the Essex Industrial School for Boys. The school was established in 1872 by a local businessman, Joseph Brittain Pash in Great Baddow and provided accommodation, clothing, education and practical training for destitute boys, especially orphans or those at risk of falling into crime By 1876 demand had outstripped supply and a new building was established in Rainsford End, Chelmsford. The school appears to be well equipped with a library, gymnasium and even a swimming pool. Newspapers reports of a Christmas dinner in 1911 (when Wilfred would have been there) of hot roast beef and vegetables followed by Christmas puddings in which 40 china dollies were hidden which could be exchanged for a threepenny piece.
The boys industrial training consisted of tailoring and shoemaking with the younger boys employed in paper-bag making. There was also a large garden which also provided employment for the boys in supplying vegetables to the school and also in sending fruit to the local market. It was hard work with one child complaining in 1906 that the hours “were 80 hours a week”.
On leaving the school, Wilfred joined the Merchant Navy as a steward and, a year after war broke out, on 29 November 1915 joined the Royal Navy as a boy servant at the shore base, HMS Pembroke 1, at Chatham. His records provide the following description:
- 5 ft 0.5 inches tall
- 34 inch chest
- Brown hair
- Brown eyes
- Fresh complexion
- Scar on left side of forehead
- Scar on right cheek
On 23 December 1915 he had left Chatham to join HMS Natal in Liverpool but stayed with his aunt in East Ham, London. He left her early the next day and made his way to the ship.
On 30 December 1915 HMS Natal, a Warrior class armoured cruiser, was with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet anchored in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland. On that day, the Captain, Eric Back, had organised a film party and invited the wives and children of officers, civilian friends, and nurses from the hospital ship Drina to attend. At about 3.20pm smoke was spotted near the ship’s mainmast followed shortly by flames and then an explosion. Within minutes the ship began to heel over to port and then capsized with the loss of over 420 souls.
Newspapers soon announced the loss of the Natal and names of the crew started to appear in casualty lists. On 6 January 1916, Wilfred’s aunt wrote to the Admiralty, one of many enquiring after loved ones:
Will it be asking you too much trouble for information about Wilfred A E T Roberts, Boy Steward he came to say goodbye on Dec 23 in the evening and left my house on Dec 24 early in the morning saying he was going to Liverpool on the 24th to join the HMS Natal (from Chatham) and I haven’t heard a word about or from him since. I am his aunt I took him when 3 years of age when his mother died so of course feel anxious. I would myself come up but only came out of Soho Hospital on Dec 23rd so am not well enough and the suspense is making me ill so if you could possibly give me any information I should be very thankful.
Wilfred did not go to Chatham until Nov 29th as he was a new recruit although he had been away to sea as boy steward in the Merchant service for sometime. He I am sure would have written me had he been alright. Trusting I am not giving you too much trouble.
Mrs W Bush”
Sadly, Wilfred was not on any of the survivors lists. His body was not recovered for burial.
The following family information has been ascertained :-
- Aunt: Mrs Winifred S A Bush.
Records show that Wilfred lived in:
- 1911: Essex Industrial School and Home for Destitute Boys, Rainford Road, Chelmsford.
- 23 December 1915: stayed with his aunt at 70 Lathom Road, East Ham, London.
Wilfred Roberts is honoured and remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent.
Links to Additional Information
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Wilfred Albert Edward Trim Roberts
- Lives of the First World War – Wilfred Albert Edward Trim Roberts
- A Street Near You website – Wilfred Albert Edward Trim Roberts
- Find a Grave website – Wilfred Albert Edward Trim Roberts
- 1911 Census for England and Wales.
- National Archives ADM 178/122.
- British Royal Navy Seaman 1899-1924.
- Chelmsford Chronicle 29 December 1911.
- Royal Navy War Graves Roll.
- Civil Registration of Births 1837-1915.
- Pension Ledgers and Index Cards
- Naval Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1972
- Trevor Torkington