HMHS Rohilla
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Shields Daily News 2nd November 1914





At daybreak on Saturday rescuers resume the attempt to reach the wrecked hospital ship Rohilla, which went on the rocks at Whitby. Among the thousands who were on the cliffs, few hoped to find that any of those exposed to the buffeting of the seas would yet be alive.

When dawn broke it was seen that there were still men moving about the vessel’s remnants, and shortly afterwards, signals passed between the boat and the shore.

The signal from the ship ran, “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, a cheery yet soul – stirring hint that they had waited long for aid. To such a message there could be one reply, and as soon as light prevailed put out again, in still tremendous seas. Unfortunately, after two hours’ work in the tow of a tug, the lifeboatmen were unable to achieve their object.


As this effort failed, it was observed that there was some exceptional activity aboard the Rohilla, and shortly after, two men of the ship’s crew, stripped to the waist, were seen to poise themselves on the bulwarks, and then plunge into the waves, there to be carried slowly but surely towards the beach. From the shore, human lifelines immediately stretched out to meet the swimmers, and, terribly exhausted and bruised, yet still alive, three men were hauled to safety.

Two more followed their example, but whilst one reached the shore alive, the other was recovered from the sea dead. Other’s followed, whilst further ineffectual efforts were made to slip a line over the ship from the rocket apparatus. In the afternoon, the seas had increased considerably, and at intervals, completely submerged the wreck of the Rohilla, whereon some 40 or 50 men were still imprisoned. Many gallant acts are recorded. As survivors swam ashore, men waded out neck – deep in the heavy seas, ignoring the dangers of being carried backwash against the rocks.

Several persons put out from the wreck on rafts, but nearly all drowned. One raft which drifted northward past the piers was chased by the lifeboat and was brought ashore, having upon it the only one of those who sought this means of escape who reached safety.

Officially the disaster is attribute to abnormal currents and to the heavy seas, and to the fact that the crew had no lights on shore to guide them.

By Saturday evening, the ship had broken into three parts, the bridge being the only place of safety for those on board.


A Press Association message received last night says:-

“The remaining survivors, numbering fifty, were rescued from the wrecked hospital ship Rohilla about 7 o'clock yesterday morning. The weather had moderated, and the Tyne motor lifeboat, after a nine hour’ journey, reached Whitby at one o'clock. She afterwards proceeded to the scene of the disaster, and took off all who were more than fifty hours and their sufferings had been terrible.

The lifeboat, which was severely buffeted, was out and backs again with the survivors within about half an hour, and then returned to Shields.

Captain Neilson, who was in command of the Rohilla, remained manfully to the end, and though much exhausted, walked ashore. Chief Officer Bond swam ashore from the wreck on Saturday night. The Tyneside Territorial Engineers brought searchlights by special train, and assisted in the rescue work during the night. Of the 216 persons on board, 146 were saved, thus the total number of lives lost is 70.

The second coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, who went out with the Shields lifeboat, says the motor lifeboat could probably have saved the men from the outset. Capt. Milburn, Lloyds’ agent at Whitby had sent for assistance to other ports, and the Scarborough and Tyne lifeboats had arrived.

Twenty bodies have been washed ashore. Those identified are G. Faison Barker, naval rating, J. Kane, fireman; Rose, carpenters mate; Norris and and Page, naval ratings; Perrin, electrician; Fireman Moore; Third Officer Nicholson and John Brown, third engineer.

The inquest on the bodies of ten of the victims was opened on Saturday afternoon. Their names were:- Shute, sick berth steward; John Hare, hospital cook; John Reid, cook; Canon Gwydir, Catholic Priest; George Gover, storekeeper; George. Braine, carpenter; James Sellaise, sick berth reserve; J. Hogarty, steward; George Parsons, sick berth reserve and F.W. Morgan, master – at – arms. After formal evidence, the inquest was adjourned till today.



The return of the heroic lifeboat crew to North Shields yesterday was awaited with eager expectancy by a large crowd of people assembled on the Fish Quay, who accorded to the heavily oilskin-clad boatmen a most hearty and vociferous welcome.

During the morning the news flew round the town how successful the crew had been in their daring feat, and there was a spontaneous determination that a welcome should be arranged appropriate to the accomplishment of a feat which is unique in the arrivals of the lifeboat history.

Accordingly, as the afternoon wore on, the Fish Quay assumed an unwonted aspect of animation for a Sunday afternoon. The staff of Clifford’s Fort (Royal Engineers) assembled on the Government Jetty, The Tynemouth Volunteer life Brigade marched down from their headquarters and were drawn up two deep on the quayside and there were besides a very large gathering of the general public.

The Mayor and Mayoress (Mr and Mrs S Gregg) were present, adorned with the chains of office, also Brigadier General Baylay (commanding N.E. Coast Defence), the Chaplain of the Forces, (Rev. R.D.B. Greene) Mr J.J Howard Catchside and Mr J.A. Williamson (secs. of the Life Brigade) and a detachment of the Life Brigade Ambulancemen (in charge of Capt. W. Dunn) ready to render any services that might be required by the crew after their previous exploit.

Besides the Fish Quay, the advantage on both sides of the harbour were occupied by spectators. From the flagstaff of the Life Brigade house flew the message “Very well done.” Shortly after half past three the Henry Vernon could be discerned south of the Tyne, making good progress under sail and engine power. At quarter to four she rounded the pier and sailed steadily up the harbour. The first to give voice to the welcome were the Navy men on board some destroyers lying at South Shields, and their cheers were lustily echoed by the lifebrigadesmen, soldiers and others assembled on the Fish Quay, as the motor boat with its crew, looking hale and hearty, and well pleased with their journey, drew up to the quay.

The first to land was the Commander, Capt. Burton R.E., who was received by the Mayor and Mayoress, and heartily congratulated on his exploit. The Captain was then pounced upon by the soldiers, shoulder heighted, and carried into the fort amid a sight of extraordinary enthusiasm. The crew, as they followed, were also cheered to the echo.

In the precincts of the fort, the men were photographed, and the Mayor then made a short speech of congratulation, in the course of which he said, “I am sure a great amount of heroism was necessary to set out in such a terrible sea as was raging yesterday, in such a frail craft as the Henry Vernon. This dread will resound to the farthest parts of the world, and will live in the annals of British history.”

Mr. Catcheside also congratulated Capt. Burton and the crew on behalf of the Life Brigade.

Captain Burton in reply said, “You know this sort of thing cannot be carried out without a crew. It is the last thing in the world that I wish, to be put in the foreground when work like this has to be done by a number of men, all willing to take great risks. More credit is due to the crew than to me. I am a man trained to discipline and supposed to take these risks, but those men who have been with me – Robert Smith, Brownlee and the others – on previous occasions – I think they deserve every credit. I can’t make a speech. If you have seen the sights we have seen this morning – poor fellows without clothing, bruised from head to foot – you would not feel much inclined for speeches.” This closed the ceremonial proceedings.


The following is a list of the crew of the Henry Vernon who undertook the record trip:-

  • Captain Burton (commander)
  • Robert Smith, coxswain
  • James Brownlee, second coxswain
  • Colin MacFadyen, motorman
  • John Robert Brownlee, bowman
  • Tom Cummins
  • John Kay
  • John R. Henry
  • Archie Craig
  • David Martin
  • John Scarth
  • W. Storey

Two other men – T. Smith, assistant motor mechanic and Mr. Williams started in the lifeboat, but, having no lifebelts, were put on the shore again.

Another item of valuable service from North Shields that was rendered at the shipwreck was by a search section of the Tyne Division Electrical Engineers;- Lieut. Mountain R.E., Cpl Beanchi, 2nd Cpl Drandorff, John Henry Stanford and sappers Hunter, Coxon, Ermundson and Guthrie, who were dispatched by the Brigadier General by a special train to Whitby, taking with them the portable searchlight which was mounted on the cliffs opposite to the wreck, and which was in operation when the motor lifeboat arrived on the scene.


It was 4.19 Saturday afternoon when the Henry Vernon left Shields on her mission of mercy. Shortly before that time, the following message had been received from Mr. Milburn, Lloyd’s agent at Whitby:- ‘Please dispatch motor lifeboat to the wreck of the Rohilla at Whitby. About 40 persons remaining alive onboard. Ordinary lifeboats have failed to reach her.’

The boat was already manned and ready when this authoritative message was received, a preliminary communication having been made by telephone.

The opinion was expressed yesterday that the actions of Captain Burton and his crew was worthy of public recognition, apart from any mark of approval that the government might bestow, and the Mayor expressed his intention of opening a fund for that purpose.

James S Brownlee, a North Shields man, who is second coxswain on the motor lifeboat, a former ferryman under the Tyne Commissioners, was interviewed shortly after they stepped ashore at Shields on their return. He was met by his wife and children and a host of friends at Clifford’s Fort gates. They lustily cheered him to his home in Hudson Street.

Brownlee says that after leaving the Fish Quay they had a straight run of precisely eight hours an three quarters. It was non-stop run. Everything worked delightfully, the motor engine was in splendid order and there was not a moment’s anxiety about it. The seas were running very high and the wind from the South-East, and although the weather had slightly moderated, it was still very rough. The lifeboat shipped some big breakers, but none of the lifeboatmen were any worse for their drenching. The night was pitch dark, but this did not have any effect on the determination of the crew in their dash for Whitby. Off Hartlepool the seas seemed to rise like mountains.

When the lifeboat succeeded in reaching Whitby, the lifeboatmen saw at once that it would have to be daybreak before an attempt could be made to effect the rescue.

The Morse signals from the lifeboat soon informed the people on the cliffside this, and the lifeboat was taken into the harbour, where the gear and masts were transferred to the shore to make room for the reception of the shipwrecked people on board.

At about six o’clock in the morning the lifeboatmen proceeded on their way to reach the side of the wreck. Great difficulty was experienced getting near the remaining part of the wreck standing out of the water, which considered of a portion of the amidships, being safely supported by the engine room and the boilers. The lifeboatmen’s difficulties were enormously increased by the state of the tide, and the comparatively narrow channel between the wreck and the high rocks. The current was very strong and the life boat had to be very skillfully handled.

Brownlee says it was a heartrending sight to see the poor shipwrecked people, all members of the crew, huddled together on this portion of the hulk.

The bridge remained intact, and here the survivors had taken refuge, the only safe spot. Brownlee says that even though the poor creatures were almost dead with exposure they raised feeble cry of thankfulness to their rescuers. It was evident, Brownlee says, that several of the survivors must have been in their berths when the vessel struck, as some were only in their night attire, and it was pitiful to see them. They were clinging to the woodwork and rails of the bridge to prevent themselves from dropping into the sea. They could not have held themselves afloat if they went overboard. Many of the survivors let themselves down into the lifeboat by means of ropes hanging over the sides of the wreck. Several of the men were able to jump into the boat which was high out of the water forward. One man, Brownlee says, had a narrow escape from being drowned. Endeavouring to jump into the forward part of the lifeboat, he slipped overboard. Brownlee got hold of him and pulled him aboard. The 50 or 51 survivors were rescued in one trip. The ship’s cat was also rescued alive.

It is interesting to note that the Henry Vernon aroused widespread public interest in the great storm of January 11th 1913 when they went to Blyth, under most trying conditions, to the wreck of the steamer Dunelm.

The heroes of the gallant voyage of rescue by the Tynemouth motor lifeboat were the object of much attention this morning. The ‘scratch’ men of the brave crew, who are employees on the North Shields Fish Quay, proceeded about their work in an unassuming way, and refused to be ‘lionised’ by a crowd of hero worshippers.


The Lifeboat Institutions Message

"An Admirable Piece Of Work"

The lifeboat institution, London, have sent a congratulatory message to Capt. Burton, expressing the institutions appreciation of the motor boats fine achievement on Sunday. The telegram reads :-"Please except my heartiest congratulations, and a tribute of admiration for the splendid work of the Tynemouth boat, under coxswain Smith and yourself The whole crew have done an admirable piece of work which adds lustre to the record of Tynemouth lifeboat service - Shee, Lifeboat Institution, London.1' Capt. Burton, Coxswain Smith, and the whole of the crew that braved the elements to Whitby and back, are to attend the first performance of the Howard Hall, North Shields, to-night, when special pictures of the exploit of the motor lifeboat Henry Vernon, will be shown. The performance will be under the patronage of the Mayor of Tynemouth (Counc. H. Gregg), the town clerk (Mr. S. Wilson), and the aldermen and the councilors of the borough. The Mayor and Alderman Black are expected to address a few words of congratulation to the crew.

Cinema Enterprise

A cinematograph operator representing the Albion Cinema was on the quay when the motor lifeboat returned, and obtained views of the boat and the enthusiastic reception, also of the more formal proceedings inside Clifford’s fort. The picture will be shown at the Albion Cinema tonight.

Unfortunately, there's no trace of that film now!

The Daily Shields newspaper also ran a special addition to this page which can be accessed using the link.

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