BARNOLDSWICK - THE ROHILLA DISASTER
Article Date: 20 November 1914
Courtesy of Craven's Part in the Great War
A terrible tragedy of the sea was enacted last weekend on the East Coast off Whitby, when a splendidly appointed hospital ship of some 7,000 tons burden struck on submerged rocks while on its errand of mercy to the shores of France, and, within a half a mile of land, broke in two and was battered to pieces in the presence of thousands of helpless spectators. It was a tragedy in which the residents in the Skipton district generally, and of Barnoldswick in particular, took a very poignant interest, inasmuch as 15 ambulance men from the latter place - the majority married and with families - who were called up for service on the outbreak of hostilities in Belgium, were known to be aboard. At the time of writing only three were accounted for.
The Rohilla was a Glasgow steamer on her way from Leith to Dunkirk to bring soldiers from the Front. There were between 150 and 200 passengers on board, including a medical staff and five nurses. The disaster occurred at ten minutes to four on Friday morning last, at the height of a tremendous gale which raged in the North Sea and accentuated the dangers of navigation. Shortly after 3.30 a sentry on duty on the Pier Head at Whitby was astonished to see a large vessel loom up out of the darkness and pass silently within a few yards of the pier. Almost simultaneously a Coastguard sighted the vessel, saw her peril as she skirted the submerged rocks which stretch from the foot of the South Cliff, tried to attract her attention but failed, and the inevitable happened.
STRUCK WITH A GRINDING CRASH
Half a mile further on, within a few hundred yards of a curious promontory known as Saltwick Nab, the vessel struck the rocks with a grinding crash. In a few minutes rockets were sent up from the ship and answered from the Coastguard Station, from which the call to rescue was speedily sent forth. The town was soon aware that a large ship had gone ashore near their coast, and efforts were made to give prompt assistance.
The vessel seemed to be about 800 yards from the cliff and at the mercy of a furious sea, which pounded her on the rocks - admittedly about the most hopeless position for rescue that could be imagined on the Yorkshire coast. Numerous wrecks have occurred there, but few, within the memory of sailors with life long experience of that coast, where the obstacles in the way of rescue were so great. It was impossible to launch the larger of the two lifeboats from Whitby Harbour, or to drag it under the lee of the cliffs to a more favourable position, and all attempts on the part of the Rocket Brigade to establish communication proved fruitless.
A GRIM STRUGGLE BETWEEN HUMANITY AND ELEMENTS
A cheer went up from the crowd on the cliffs when a number of men were seen dragging the smaller of the two Whitby lifeboats along the beach towards Saltwick Nab, where, after a superhuman effort, a suitable place was found for a launch. While this was in progress, a shout from the watchers above drew attention to the fact that one of the Rohilla's lifeboats had been successfully launched and was making for the shore. It was a grim struggle between humanity and the elements, but the boat came steadily on. Near the beach it was caught by a huge wave and tossed completely round, but eventually the little craft was grounded.
In it were the Rohilla's second officer and five of the crew, and the rescue of the remainder seemed assured for the boat had brought with it a line from the steamer. To the dismay of all, however, the strain on the line was too great and it snapped before any use could be made of it. It now remained for the crew of the ' John Fielden', Whitby's smaller lifeboat, to make their effort. They immediately put to sea and after a great struggle, in which the issue often hung in the balance, the gallant fellows reached the Rohilla.
GALLANT WORK BY WHITBY LIFEBOAT
Thanks to the admirable seamanship of Coxswain Langlands, 17 of the survivors were taken off the wreck. These included the whole of the women on board - five in all - four of whom are nurses and one a stewardess. The boat made a safe return with its precious load and once again the lifeboat men returned to the fray. The second venture was equally successful, 18 of the Rohilla's crew and staff being taken off.
Then for a second time the efforts of the brave rescuers received a cruel setback. In its double journey and rocky landings, the lifeboat had sustained such a battering as to render it un-seaworthy, and a third trip would have been courting disaster. Meanwhile, the Rohilla was suffering terribly from the seas. Prompt measures were taken to put the rocket apparatus into operation from the top of the Scar, and the local brigade were assisted by the men from Robin Hood's Bay.
Rocket after rocket was dispatched, but the gale swept almost every line aside, the majority falling short. The failure of this apparatus was disheartening in the extreme, but the rescuers were undaunted. Word was sent to Upgang for the lifeboat to be sent from there and a period of waiting, terrible for those on the wreck and nerve wracking for the spectators on the cliffs, ensued. It was clear that the Rohilla was slowly breaking up, and about ten o'clock the stern, upon which a number of men still clung, was completely overwhelmed by an unusually large wave. When the smother of foam had passed by, the spectators saw that this part of the ship had turned turtle, and there was not the slightest trace of its former occupants.
LIFEBOAT LOWERED OVER CLIFFS
The bows were also settling down, and giving every indication of an early break-up. About an hour later the funnel fell away to seaward, and, after battering against the side of the ship for some time, sank out of sight. All who were left on board alive were now clustered on the bridge, the superstructure of the ship being alone above water. The bows had also broken away, leaving the central part of the boat standing like a small island in an angry sea, continually deluged by the waves.
News was now forthcoming that the Upgang lifeboat would shortly arrive. It had been dragged by men to within a mile and a half of Whitby, and was there met by six horses, pulled through the town, and up to the East Cliff. Then came the problem of getting it to the beach, some 250 feet below. The boat was dragged to the edge of the cliff and heavy ropes were attached, to which long lines of men hung while the craft was lowered bodily. After such exertions it was pitiable that nothing could be achieved, for, having got the boat safely beached, it was impossible to launch her. This seeming inactivity of the lifeboat men came in for some criticism on the part of many in the crowd, whose feelings were wrought by the awful helplessness of those who remained on the wreck. Meanwhile every attention was given to those who had been brought ashore, some of them half naked.
Throughout Friday afternoon the battered vessel - with its silent crowd clung amidships as the remnants of the vessel swayed to the impact of the sea and almost disappeared when a heavy wave broke over her - was watched by thousands of people. Capt. Neillson maintained his signalling, and by it the watchers learned that some on board were dead. Two men determined to reach shore by their own resources, they plunged into the breakers, almost naked, but wearing life-saving jackets, and, after much buffeting, were flung ashore, breathless and exhausted.
A NIGHT OF HORROR
Towards five o'clock darkness began to fall and the wreck took on the shape of a small, dimly compressed mass, in the centre of which a small yellow light shone with weird effect. In the midst of it all the Captain had managed to save an oil lantern with which he continued to signal ashore. Further bodies were recovered during the evening, and as the blackness of night descended on the scene it seemed as though nearly 100 souls must perish before the greyness of dawn.
With the ebbing tide came a lull in the storm, but it was deemed too hazardous to attempt to reach the wreck by lifeboat, and the rockets were a melancholy succession of failure. Shortly after eight the coastguards signalled suggesting that the surviving should try to reach the shore by rafts, to which the captain replied, "No thanks, prefer to wait until morning." As the tide receded stretcher parties, with their ghostly lanterns, carried out their mournful task, crawling at the foot of the cliffs searching for bodies washed ashore. Of these there were by this time eleven, making 54 members of the crew accounted for. At midnight the survivors on the bridge were still keeping their dreadful vigil, and the yellow light was burning faintly.
MEN SWIM ASHORE
The break of dawn on Saturday revealed the superstructure of the Rohilla still there with its tragic human load. A courageous attempt was made to reach the survivors by the crew of the Upgang lifeboat, but it was impossible for the little craft to get near the wreck. Further failures by the rocket apparatus disheartened all, and when it was known that the Scarborough lifeboat, which had been standing off shore all through the night, could not get near, and that the Redcar motor lifeboat had broken down three miles out, the position appeared a desperate one.
Events now took a dramatic turn. From the ship came the semaphore message, 'Prepare for men swimming' and three men were seen to drop into the water. Two were powerful swimmers, and made splendid progress, but the third was carried further away, albeit all arrived safely. More and more men dropped from the wreck and volunteers to meet them in the heavy surf were plentiful. Some were semi-conscious, and there were many pitiable sights as the rescued were removed on stretchers made from wreckage.
As the day wore on the advance of the tide cut off the wreck, and rendered further attempts and swimming ashore impossible. Wreckage was continually being washed ashore and occasionally a body was found. Three were discovered west of the pier in the bay between Whitby and Sandsend - a mile and a half away from the Rohilla. Throughout the night searchers with lamps carried out their exhausting task at considerable risk. Nor did they search in vain. Four men were found alive and three dead. How many more had taken the plunge never to reach the shore, those on the cliffs - including many relatives of men known to have been on the ship - could only think of with a thrill of horror.
TEIGNMOUTH MOTOR LIFEBOAT TO THE RESCUE
The closing scenes of the tragedy were thrilling in the extreme. On Saturday night scarcely a flicker of hope seemed to remain, but soon after 10 o'clock a message was flashed to Capt. Neillson urging him to hold on until daybreak when help would be at hand. In the meantime the motor lifeboat from Teignmouth had promised to come down the coast during the night, and it was hoped that two or three trawlers would arrive in time, with a sufficient quantity of oil to break the force of the sea in the neighbourhood of the wreck, and thus enable the lifeboat to approach on the leeward side.
During the night it was noticed there was a lower note in the wind and the rush of the breaking foam was less ferocious. In the darkest hours that little group of shivering beings were greatly encouraged by the rays of an Army searchlight which reminded them that the watchers on shore were all at their posts.
At four o'clock the purr of a motor could be heard across the water. It heralded the arrival of the 'Henry Vernon' from Teignmouth, which had raced past the Harbour mouth, conveying to the sufferers the joyful news that she intended at daybreak to commence the work of rescue. After an exchange of signals with the Rohilla the motorboat entered the Harbour.
OIL POURED ON THE WATER
Dawn was just breaking when she crept out of the shelter of the piers, breasting the breakers bravely, and reaching the calmer water beyond the bar, heading for the wreck. Nearer and nearer she approached until no more than 200 yards separated the frail little craft from the remains of the Rohilla. Then she turned seaward, and some began to think she would never reach the object. Presently the lifeboat stopped and discharged gallons and gallons of oil over the boiling sea. The effect was remarkable; within a few seconds, as the oil spread over the surface of the water and was carried by the current towards the wreck, the waves appeared to flatten leaving a gently undulating sea in the region of the vessel. In the meantime the lifeboat turned about, raced at full speed outside the line of breakers, past the stern of the wreck, and then turned towards the shore. The most dangerous moment came when she was inside the surf and broadside on to the waves, but, guided with splendid skill and courage, she moved forward steadily, and a cheer of relief went out from the shore when she reached the lee of the wreck immediately beneath the crowded bridge. What were the feelings of those on board as they saw salvation at hand can only be imagined.
FIFTY SURVIVORS TAKEN OFF
But there was not a moment to be lost, for already the effects of the oil were beginning to pass off and the waves were noticeably higher. Quicker than thought a rope was let down on to the lifeboat, and immediately figures could be discerned scrambling down into the boat with a quickness and agility that seemed extraordinary in men one presumed to be exhausted almost to death. In less than a quarter of an hour more than 40 men had been taken into the boat.
It was then, while the rest were preparing to leave the wreck, that two enormous waves were seen rolling up from the sea at a tremendous speed. One after the other they swept over the bridge and across each end of the remnants of the deck on to the lifeboat at the other side, enveloping it fore and aft. Each time the tough little craft disappeared for a moment beneath the spray, re-appeared, tottered, and righted herself gamely.
Not a man was lost, not a splinter broken. Closer still she hugged the vessel's side till every man aboard - 50 of them in all - had been hauled into the rescuing boat. The last man to leave his lost ship was the captain, and as he slipped into the lifeboat the crew of the latter gave a rousing cheer that was echoed again and again by the people ashore.
PATHETIC LANDING SCENES
In a short time the gallant little craft was safe in harbour and townspeople, having heard of the rescue, rushed with blankets, tea and other comforts for the rescued. Cheer after cheer rent the air as the boat neared the quay, and as the pathetic procession of survivors made its way up the steps both men and women were moved to tears. Not one was so utterly exhausted or badly hurt that he had to be carried up, but many tottered giddily, and all were pale and hollow eyed. Some bled from cuts, nearly all were barefooted and poorly clad, some only in pyjamas.
The captain seemed a man of iron. Unassisted he walked firmly up the steps, wearing his great overcoat and pince-nez, and looking as unperturbed as if he were returning from a pleasure trip. As soon as he reached the top of the quay he asked for a smoke, and then he stood quietly by watching the other survivors being hurried off after being given hot tea, to the Cottage Hospital, the Convent, and to private houses, where hospitality had been offered.
On Monday there was deep sadness in Whitby. Hundreds of relatives came from all parts of the kingdom to glean tidings of their loved ones, succoured from the wrecked hospital ship or lost in the sea, and one may not reveal the sorrow of despairing visits to a silent mortuary, where many of the dead are laid. To anxious and distressed visitors from afar, as well as to exhausted survivors from the wreck, the people of Whitby showed a hospitable and a tender regard.
THE ROLL OF HONOUR
The following is a list of the Barnoldswick men on board:-
Missing or Dead
THE TOWN IN MOURNING
The terrible disaster on the east coast has plunged the town into mourning. Since Friday last, when the first news was received from the two survivors, the centre of gravity in regard to the war has been transferred, for the moment at any rate, from the Continent to Yorkshire. Being a Red Cross ship the ill-fated 'Rohilla' cannot be disassociated from the war, which brought it into being, and though not directly a victim of the actual conflict it, along with twelve of Barnoldswick's brave and devoted sons, has fallen a victim to the mightier and no less relentless forces of wind and wave.
When it became known that after the long vigil of Friday night the lifeboats had been unable to render assistance, a number of relatives and friends of the Barnoldswick men went through to Whitby by rail and motor car, others following on the Sunday, when the worst fears began to be entertained for the safety of the remainder. Eastwood was the only Barnoldswick representative rescued alive amongst those who had withstood the terrible fifty hours' ordeal on the captain's bridge. The circumstances of poor Barter's death are most pathetic, he having made the attempt to swim ashore on Saturday and all but reached safety when he was dashed against the rocks by a wave, and killed.
The 15 Barnoldswick men were amongst those called up on the outbreak of war. They had only a short time previously returned from their annual training, several of them having been serving on men-of-war in Bantry Bay, Ireland. They were accorded a hearty send-off on their departure to headquarters at Chatham, whence the fifteen were drafted to northern waters for service on a hospital ship. During the intervening three months they have spent most of their time in the neighbourhood of the Scottish coast from Queensferry to the Orkneys. This was their first attempt to cross to the Continent, and there was a touch of irony in the fact that so many of them should meet their fate within sight of the coast of their own country.
As will be seen from the list, eight of those who have lost their lives were married men, two of them leaving large families. Most of them had devoted years of service to ambulance work, and had attained a high degree of proficiency.
Sergt. Petty was the secretary of the Barnoldswick Ambulance Brigade, and the services of Corpl. Birtwhistle were frequently invoked and freely given in accidents of a minor character. With two exceptions - Dunkley, a baker, and Barter, a railway goods porter - all the men were employed in the cotton manufacturing trade.
Mr. J. W. Thompson, gas and waterworks manager, who is the local superintendent, and has taken a deep interest in organising the Sick Berth Reserve, was naturally very much upset by the disaster. He went to Whitby on Sunday night, and was present at the inquest on Monday, when he put in a strong plea for the transference of any further bodies recovered to their own friends.
The body of Barter was taken on Tuesday to Worcester, where his father resides, for interment.
Feeling references to the sad event were made from most of the pulpits in the town on Sunday, and a public memorial service is being arranged for next Sunday at the Queen's Hall.
The flags of the Conservative Club and the Liberal Club have flown at half-mast throughout the week.
A TERRIBLE NIGHT: PTE. RIDDIOUGH'S AWFUL EXPERIENCES
The following letter from Private F. Riddiough gives a graphic description of the terrible disaster. He states:-
Whitby, October 31st.
"I suppose you will have heard the news by now, but not quite all. We were sailing down the east coast bound for Dunkirk (France) on Thursday night. It was one of the roughest nights we have had since we have been away. The wind was blowing the ship wherever it wanted. We could not get to sleep all night. About 4 o'clock the following morning the ship shook from stem to stern. We all nipped out of bed. The water was pouring down the hatches in torrents. When I got out of bed I was ankle deep in water. I slipped on my pants and grabbed a life-belt and ran. When I got to the end of the line of bunks some bottles came dashing past and cut one of my toes clean off, all bar a bit of skin. I was walking about like that for four hours, so you can just imagine what I went through.
When I got upstairs into the saloon passage it was full of water and I was sent up against the wall. I then went up some more steps on to the promenade deck. No sooner had I got there than I was swept off my feet about three times, the waves coming mountains high. Then I got hold of a ventilator along with some other chaps, when a wave came and swept all of us off our feet right up against the rails. There I was in about three feet of water trying to get my wind! I got up and got behind a boat out of the way of the waves when I saw Tony (Pte. Anthony Waterworth) just beside me. We went forward and got into the Marconi chap's cabin, where we stayed until daylight.
Then the ship's doctor came and said we had better come out as it was not safe. We spied our chance (I was with Willie Anderson then; I had lost sight of Tony) - we waited until a big wave had gone by and then nipped forward into another cabin. Then I lost sight of Anderson, so I was on my own as far as our chaps were concerned. I stayed there about other hour and a half, when there was a lifeboat coming alongside, and the Captain shouted, 'Women first!'.
As you know we had four sisters and a stewardess on board. Well, these got in and some more chaps, so I said to myself, 'When that boat comes back I'm for it,' so I climbed on to the rail and waited for it, and when it did come back I got hold of a rope and slid down into the lifeboat. A man pulled me in by the feet. When I looked up I saw Tony standing on the rail, so I threw the rope back to him and he came down into the boat.
I think we were the only two from Barnoldswick that got saved. I am now in the Cottage Hospital and am lucky to be here, I can tell you. I wouldn't go through it again, not for a fortune. I think I shall be here for a while yet; then I shall get home on leave for a while."
HOW PTE. BARTER LOST HIS LIFE.
From Mr. Harold Waterworth, who went to Whitby on Saturday to see his brother, and who returned home on Monday night, our representative was favoured with some interesting particulars of the wreck, and the rescue of the survivors on Sunday.
He arrived at Whitby by the 3-40 train. Mr. Waterworth found that his brother (Pte. Waterworth) had been ordered by telegram to report himself, along with some 35 others belonging the Naval Reserve and crew, at the headquarters at Chatham, so that he was only able to see him for a few minutes before his departure by the 3-55 train. He then proceeded to the mortuary to see if he could identify any of the bodies washed ashore, but could only recognise that of Pte. Harry Barter. The latter (Mr. Waterworth learnt) was one of those who had attempted to swim ashore, and had actually got within a few yards of safety when a big wave dashed him against the rocks and killed him.
"From what I could learn (our informant proceeded) only five of the Barnoldswick men reached the captain's bridge - Riddiough, Eastwood, Barter, Waterworth and Anderson. Barter, Eastwood, and Anderson all made the attempt, along with another man named Moore, to swim ashore. Eastwood could not make any headway and was hauled back on to the wreck. Anderson was not seen again, and Moore was picked up dead.
Another survivor said when he was putting on his lifebelt after the vessel struck, he noticed several of the Barnoldswick men in the act of putting on their clothing when a big wave came and dashed in the side of the ship, knocking down the bunks on top of them, so that they had no chance of escape.
The scene on the beach on Saturday night baffled description. Bodies were being picked up almost battered to pieces, while those which retained a spark of life were in the most pitiable condition, some of them nearly black from head to foot. Only one amongst those whom Mr. Waterworth saw rescued alive was able to walk.
Eastwood, who was amongst those who had withstood the 50 hours buffeting on the wreck, was brought ashore on Sunday morning by the Teignmouth Motor Lifeboat. In a brief interview with our informant on Monday Eastwood said that not once during the whole agonising period did he hear anyone grumble about anything, nor even ask for either food or drink, knowing there was none to be had. The survivors did what they could to buoy each other up, and their heroic patience was rewarded. The Captain was the only one amongst the number of those rescued on Sunday able to walk up the steps of the jetty without assistance. Eastwood was able to recognise his friends who were so anxiously awaiting him on shore.
Mr. Waterworth was deeply impressed by the uniform kindness and sympathy of residents of Whitby, not only towards the rescued, but to their relatives. Indeed, there appeared to be quite a keen competition for the honour of gratuitously entertaining the survivors. One boarding-house proprietor, where Mr. Waterworth and four more visitors from Barnoldswick stayed, could not be induced to accept any remuneration.
A MELANCHOLY MESSAGE
Mr. J. W. Thompson yesterday (Thursday) telegraphed on Wednesday afternoon as follows:
Lifeboat has just returned from visiting the wreck. They didn't find any bodies on it. The inside of the ship is washed out. Our eleven still missing. Divers have volunteered and will search the submerged parts of the ship tomorrow.
At the monthly meeting of the Barnoldswick Urban District Council on Wednesday the Chairman said he could hardly allow the occasion to pass without saying a few words upon the sad fate that had overtaken the hospital ship and a number of their fellow townsmen. He thought the least they could do would be to pass a vote of sympathy and condolence with the families of the 12 men who had given their lives in the service of their country, and also to express admiration of their conduct. He believed they were all efficient in the class of work they had taken up, and it reflected credit upon the town that such men offered themselves for disinterested service. He moved accordingly.
Cr. Patten, in seconding, remarked that while their deaths were not directly attributable to the war, they were the outcome of it.
Cr. Jas. Edmondson, in supporting, said they were all men of sterling character, for whom everyone had a good word, and whom the town could ill afford to lose. Cr. Edmondson, from personal observations, spoke in terms of the highest praise of the overwhelming kindness of the Whitby people to the survivors and their friends from Barnoldswick, for which they refused any remuneration.
The motion was unanimously adopted.
Reference to the sad event was made at a meeting of the Brotherhood on Sunday afternoon, when Mr. John Heald, the chairman, said the Brotherhood, with which some of the men were connected, desired to express their deep sympathy to the relatives and families of the men who had sacrificed their lives whilst seeking to save the lives of others.
The Rev. E. Winnard, Baptist minister, also referred to the disaster, and the congregation signified their respect by the formal act of rising at the request of the pastor.
The young man Elsworth was a useful member of the Bethesda Baptist Church, and reference to this and to the sad event generally was made by the Rev. W. H. Lewis.
The Primitive Methodists have also been sufferers by the loss of members, and reference was also made to the event on Sunday.
A RELIEF FUND
It is said that the Naval Sick Berth Reserve being a comparatively new service, no fund for widows and orphans has been established, and we hear that efforts are being spoken of as likely to be made to assist the families of victims from the Prince of Wales's Fund, or failing this, or in addition to this, the local Relief Fund. Dalby has left a widow and a family of half-a-dozen small children.
Mr. John Elsworth, of Barnoldswick, whilst walking on the beach at Whitby, picked up a small box bearing the name of his nephew, Pte. A. Elsworth, who is amongst those lost in the wreck. Amongst other odds and ends, the box contained a photo of his friend, Corpl. Dalby.
AN OFFER OF ASSISTANCE
Mr. Wm. Harrison, relieving officer, has received the following prompt offer of assistant to any of the dependents of the men from the Port of Hull Sailors' Orphanage:-
To Mr. Wm. Harrison, relieving officer, Barnoldswick.
Port of Hull Sailors' Orphanage,
November 4th, 1914.
"Dear Sir, - We are very sorry to hear of the loss you have sustained at Barnoldswick through the wrecking of the hospital ship Rohilla, and my Board last night instructed me to make inquiries in order to ascertain whether, in accordance with our rules, we could assist any of the cases. Will you kindly inform me as to their circumstances?"
JNO. W. DAY, Secretary.
SOME OF THE LOST
The two Horsfields amongst the missing were brothers, sons of Mr. James Horsfield, Essex Street. The elder (Tom) has been an enthusiastic worker in the Salvation Army. Pte. Dunkley was closely associated with the local branch of the Y.M.C.A., being the chairman of the committee up to leaving. The members extend their deepest sympathy to his wife and child.
A singular coincidence is related in connection with the wreck. On the night before it happened a child was registered at the office of the local registrar in the name of Hazel Rohilla, the latter name being adopted out of respect to the Barnoldiwick men who were known to be serving on board.
Pte. Walter Horsfield had two periods of service in the South African War, for which he received two medals. During the first period (April to October 1900) he was attached to No. 8 General Hospital at Bloemfontein, and the following year (January to August) to the General Hospital at Dielfontein.
Copyright © Colin Brittain 1999 - 2022