Date of Death:26/11/1914
Regiment:Royal Marine Light Infantry
Memorial:Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Panel Ref:Panel 6
Robert Shaw was born in Werneth, Oldham on May 27th 1894. His father Thomas - an Oldham native - was a moulder, Robert's mother was Lily and originally from Openshaw. He was the eldest child with younger siblings Maggie, Thomas, Lily, Norman and Harold. When Robert was only about 3 years old the family moved to Bolton and for a time after that they were in Loughborough. The pull of home was obviously strong as the Shaw's were back in the Oldham area in time for the 1911 census - living at 11 Cambridge Street, Royton. Robert was a next door neighbour of Charles Butterworth.
He enlisted in the Royal Marines at Manchester on July 9th 1913, before that point he'd been working as a piecer in one of the many local cotton mills. Robert went to Deal for his training and was there until May 7th 1914 when he was posted to Portsmouth. On July 28th he was posted to the HMS Bulwark. The Bulwark was a pre-dreadnought Battleship and upon Britain's entry into the war carried out numerous patrols of the English Channel whilst being based at Portland. Then in mid November she was sent, along with the rest of the 5th Battle Squadron, to Sheerness to help guard against a possible German invasion of England.
Robert wrote his last letter home on November 21st:
"I am just writing you these few lines in answer to your kind and welcome letters and papers. My mate told me that I should need a post office of my own if I kept receiving such a lot. I got the Woodbines all right...I shall want a "bacca" shop if you keep on instead of a post office. I am glad to know that you got my Bible and that you like it, and I want you to take care of it. You must excuse me not writing sooner as we have been very busy. If we keep on I shall soon have been more miles on sea than I have been on land. I would tell you what we are doing but I dare not. I will tell you more than you think if I ever come home, which I hope won't be long..."
Five days later at 07:50 a huge explosion tore the battleship apart. There were 750 men on board, only 16 survived - seven of those died in the ensuing days and most of the remainder were seriously injured. A witness on the HMS Implacable said:
"a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards... From the depths of this writhing column, flames appeared running down to sea level. The appearance of this dreadful phenomenon was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel."
The subsequent court of enquiry established that it had been the practice to store ammunition for the ship's 6 inch guns in cross-passageways connecting her 11 magazines. Contrary to regulations it seemed that 275 six-inch shells had been placed close together, most touching each other, and some touching the walls of the magazine, on the morning of November 26th. The most likely cause of the disaster appears to have been overheating of cordite charges stored alongside a boiler room bulkhead, and this was the explanation accepted by the court of enquiry.
The explosion was the largest death toll in the country's history from an accidental explosion. This was later surpassed by that of the HMS Vanguard in 1917.
The casualty list can be found here