Master Mariner Robert Greenhill Hanna served in the Merchant Navy during World War One and World War Two. Born on 7th May 1881, he was the son of Henry Hanna and Sarah Jane Hanna (née Harrison) of 6 Richmond Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim.
Hanna first took to sea at the age of 17 years old on the Venecia belonging to John Edgar and Co. of Liverpool. In 1905, he transferred to the Brocklebank Company. On 5th May 1905, he received a Certificate of Competency enabling him to serve as First Mate on a foreign ship of the British Merchant Navy. His career progression continued apace with a Certificate of Competency for the role of Master Mariner on 22nd June 1907.
He married Agnes Elsie Kirker on 5th October 1910 in Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Reverend J MacConaghie performed the ceremony, witnessed by David Hanna and Irene Greer. The couple lived at Farringdon, one of the large houses at 288 Antrim Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim. The house belonged to Agnes’ parents Gilbert Samuel Kirker and Jeanie McKenzie Kirker.
During the First World War, Robert Greenhill Hanna was in command of the SS Malakand when it was torpedoed on 20th April 1917. He later took charge of the cadet training ship Anchoria.
Bravery on Indian liners
In 1924, Hanna received 2 distinguished honours while commanding the Brocklebank liner Mathura. The awards marked 2 distinct showings of bravery and humanity at sea. The first came as a result of his extinguishing of a fire on the steamer when travelling from Calcutta to London. The owners of the Brocklebank line presented him with an engraved gold watch and chain.
The second presentation came from Sir Francis C Dansen of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society. He presented an illuminated certificate of thanks to the Belfast man for his efforts in rescuing an Indian fireman who had deliberately jumped overboard on 25th May 1924.
It must indeed be a unique record that a shipmaster should receive two such distinguished honours within such a short period, and Captain Hanna is to be highly congratulated on his bravery and humanity. Belfast has every reason to be proud of its honoured citizen.
Belfast Newsletter – 4th August 1924.
On 23rd July 1924, TW Moore, Secretary of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild wrote to the Under Secretary of State for India. The letter concerned the rescue of Captain Robert Greenhill Hanna’s bravery in rescuing the Indian seaman. The Guild believed the India Office or the Indian Government may also wish to show their appreciation.
At 0630hrs on 25th May 1924, the Chief Engineer on the Mathura reported 3rd Fireman Tindal missing. After an argument in the engine room at 0330hrs, he had jumped overboard. The ship had carried on but Hanna ordered the crew to turn around and they spent around 4 hours searching for the missing man. They found him alive at around 1000hrs and rescued him in a small boat in overcast weather and heavy rain. The man had survived as the steamer disappeared 78 miles into the distance leaving him in the water with the likelihood of shark attacks.
The mainly Indian crew appreciated Hanna’s efforts, especially as a British shipmaster rescuing a crew member regardless of race. The Governor of Bengal presented Robert with a gold cigarette case at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, Calcutta, India on 21st January 1925.
Remembering Robert Greenhill Hanna
Hanna and his wife, known as Elsie, later lived nearby at Greenedge, 21 Downview Avenue, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Robert died on 29th January 1946 aged 64 years old. His last ship was the Liverpool registered SS Martand before he retired through ill health in 1941.
Robert Greenhill Hanna’s grave is in Section B, Grave 18 of Carnmoney Cemetery, Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim. The funeral took place at 1215hrs on Thursday 31st January 1946. Names on the collapsed headstone are difficult to read but one other is that of a Merchant Navy Captain William Craig killed in action on 9th June 1917. Effects of the Master Mariner’s will went to his widow and an ophthalmic surgeon David H Craig.