The mystery of a tankard, a sailor and HMS Drake

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(2901PG19)

The ‘Journal’ is trying to unravel the mystery of a silver tankard awarded to a veteran sailor who served on board a famous war ship

The drinking vessel - presented to a man known only as ‘Rockfist’ Robson who served on HMS Drake - has been in the safe keeping of a Derry woman for more than forty years.

The Waterside woman - who wishes to remain anonymous - says the tankard was given to her father in the 1950s.

She takes up the story: “My father, who was from the Fountain, worked as nightwatchman in the old Sailors’ Rest at Foyle Street. One day, a man staying at the rest asked my father to hold on to the tankard until he returned to pick it up. However, he never returned and, when the rest closed in 1969, my father brought it home and it’s been in our family ever since.

“It moved to various addresses in the city over the years and my grandson stumbled across it recently while in the roofspace.

“It has no real sentimental value for my family and I think it should be returned to its rightful owners.

“I can only assume that ‘Rockfist’ Robson - who must have been a boxer with a name like that - is no longer alive but surely his family would like to have the tankard back.

“It is, after all, a family heirloom.”

An inscription on the silver tankard reads: “Presented to ‘Rockfist’ Robson For Long Service As Duty Pres. By CPO’s Mess, HMS Drake.

CPO’s Mess is thought to stand for Chief & Petty Officers’ Mess - the place where military personnel socialise, eat, and, in some cases, live.

The Waterside woman says she recalls her father often cleaning the tankard and mentioning that its owner was either married to or dating a local woman.

“I just want to try to track down its rightful owner,” she said. “I know if someone had something important belonging to my family, I’d like to have it back.”

Unfortunately, efforts to pinpoint the naval history of HMS Drake are somewhat difficult as there are no less than eighteen ships and a shore establishment of the Royal Navy named HMS Drake.

However, given that he was in Derry in the 1950s, ‘Rockfist’ may have served on the 14,100 long tons armoured cruiser built at Pembroke Dock in south Wales and launched on March 5, 1901.

John Jellicoe, future First Sea Lord and commander at Jutland, captained Drake in 1903-1904. Another notable figure who served aboard Drake was Humphrey T. Walwyn, a future Vice Admiral of the Royal Indian Navy, who served aboard her as a Gunnery Lieutenant.

At the time of her sinking, the Drake was commanded by Captain Stephen Herbert Radcliffe.

Drake served in the First World War and was torpedoed by the German submarine U-79, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Otto Rohrbeck on October 2, 1917 in Rathlin Sound off the North Antrim coast.

Eighteen men, all serving in Boiler Room No. 2, were killed. Her wreck, in Church Bay, Rathlin Island, is a favourite site for divers.

In the 1990s, the Royal Navy destroyed the wreck as its unstable ammunition and location near to Rathlin Harbour was considered a hazard.

Then again, perhaps ‘Rockfist’ served on an entirely different HMS Drake.

Anyone who can help unravel the mystery of the silver tankard or the identity of ‘Rockfist’ Robson can contact Sean McLaughlin on Tel: (028) 71 272254 or via email at sean.mclaughlin@derryjournal.com