HMHS Rohilla
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Shields Daily News 22nd December 1914




Speech by the Duke of Northumberland


The memorable voyage of the Tyne motor Henry Vernon to Whitby on the storm on October 31st, to rescue the people from the wrecked hospital ship Rohilla, and the successful accomplishment of the feat on the following day, were recalled at the great public meeting held in the Albion Assembly Rooms, North Shields, last night when a worthy tribute was paid to the gallant members of the crew. The presentation was promoted by the public committee, of which Mr J J Howard Catcheside and Mr J A Williamson were the hon. Secretaries. The function was organised in a manner entirely worthy of the occasion. The mayor (Mr H Gregg) presided and he was supported by His Grace the Duke of Northumberland K G, General Sir Herbert Plumer K C B, General Baylay (commanding the Coast Defence), Lieut – commander Herbert J Craig M P (Naval Volunteers), Sir Walter Runciman Bart. M P, Lieut – Commander Basil Hall R N (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), the Right Honorable the Mayor of Newcastle (Ald John Fitzgerald), Captain Burton (commander of the motor lifeboat), Mayor of South Shields (Mr Richardson), Ald J M Rennoldson, Rev H J Blount Fry, Rev R R Holmes (Vicar of Tynemouth) Rev R D R Greene (Chaplain to the Forces), Major H Oswin Bell A S C, Mr Jas Hogg, Lieut – Col Fred Scott V D (commanding Tyne Engineers), Mr Alfred Robinson J P, Col Petrie, Dr Wilkinson, Ald Isaac Black, Mr Charles Percy, Mr J R Davison, Ald S T Harrison, Ald J R Hogg, Commander Stapylton R N, Captain Wake R N, Major Newman, Mr William Baird J P, Mr J McConnell, Mr H Dennison, the Mayoress of Tynemouth (Mrs Gregg), the Lady Mayoress of Newcastle (Miss Fitzgerald), Lieut Strother Steward, Mrs Herbert Craig, Mrs Burton, Miss Burton, Mrs Stewart, Mrs McConnell, and the crew of the lifeboat.

There was a very large audience, which included a considerable sprinkling of military men in uniform, and members of the Life Brigade. The hall was tastefully decorated for the occasion. The words ‘Very well done’ were displayed in very large letters on the wall behind the platform, and a relic of the wreck, in the shape of a lifebelt from the ship Rohilla, was placed in front of the table on the platform. Before the meeting commenced, an excellent programmer of glees an songs was rendered by the Lindisfame Male Voice Choir, and by the following artistes:- Miss Dorothy Forster, Mr W D Spark, and Mr Richard Pearson. Mr R H Stapylton and Mr Geo Hopper officiated as accompanists.


The chief function of the evening was the presentation of the following rewards:-

To Captain Burton R E

  • from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the gold medal;
  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the gold medal;
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal, and a silver tray with silver tea service, and other articles.

To Coxswain Robert Smith

  • from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the gold medal;
  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the gold medal;
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal; and a Savings Bank Book, with a sum to his credit

To Second Coxswain J S Brownlee

  • from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the silver medal;
  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the silver medal
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal, and a Savings Bank Book with a sum to his credit

To J R Brownlee (bowman)

  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the silver medal
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal, and a Savings Bank Book with a sum to his credit

To Colin McFadyen (Motorman)

  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the silver medal;
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal, and a savings Bank Book with a sum to his credit

To Thomas Cummins

  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, the silver medal;
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal, and a Savings Bank Book with a sum to his credit

To David Martin, Archibald Craig, J T Scarth, J S Kay, J S Henry, and William Storey

  • from the Tynemouth Medal Trust, their Parchment Certificate to each man;
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew Fund, a gold medal to each, and a Savings Bank Book with a sum to credit of each.

To Messrs Smith and Williams, who volunteered to go in the lifeboat, £2.10s each.

  • To Lieut – Com. Basil R N<
  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Crew, a gold medal

To Richard Eglon (Second Coxswain of the Whitby Lifeboat)

  • from the Henry Vernon Lifeboat Fund, a gold medal and cheque

To J G Bellas (Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade)

  • from the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, a silver medal for life – saving

To Lieut R A Mountain, a cigarette case

To six Tyne Electrical Engineers, pipes etc.

In addition, the members of the crew were each presented with framed pictures of the lifeboat and crew, with the King of the Belgians’ congratulatory message lithographed and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s signature.

The Mayor, in opening the proceedings, said we were living in an eventful period. Unique incidents were occurring from time to time, but he thought that nothing that had occurred this century was more unique than the event they had met to commemorate. They on Tyneside had reason to be proud. The Wreck of the Stanley 50 years ago had given birth to the Volunteer Life Brigade in that town. Willie Wouldhave, a Tynesider, designed the first lifeboat, and the first volunteers were started on Tyneside. It was a great pleasure to him and the committee that the Duke of Northumberland had consented to perform the principle that night. The association of the house of Northumberland had been very advantageous to the borough, and he was expressing the wish of everyone in Tynemouth when he said they would gladly see His Grace more frequently among them.

Duke of Northumberland Speech

The Duke of Northumberland, on rising to make the presentations, acknowledged the kind remarks of the Mayor, and went on to say it was a great pleasure and privilege to be there to take part in recognising so gallant an act as that they had met to do honour. Early on 30th October the Government Hospital Ship Rohilla struck the rocks south – east of Whitby. The town was awoke by the booming of guns about 4 o'clock in the morning and all Whitby had been awakened to a different kind of booming of guns since then. The life saving Rocket Brigade went on duty but failed to establish communication with the ship. The lifeboat at Whitby had got out, but for a long time was unable to go to the aid of the shipwrecked people. At last they got off and saved a certain number of men and women in two trips, but the boat was damaged in the process and they were unable to do anything further

At 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the following day they telegraphed to Tynemouth for assistance. Captain Burton (loud applause) at once rose to the occasion, as he had risen to other occasions before, and had got together a scratch crew. The fact ought to be emphasised that this was a scratch crew, because it showed how many good men they had among them in the North of England – men who were not afraid to go forward in any emergency, and who, when they went forward, proved themselves equal to it. These men came forward and manned the motor lifeboat.

General Baylay sent out a searchlight to Whitby in order to enable the lifeboat when it reached Whitby, to communicate with the vessel. The searchlight went out under the charge of Lieut Mountain and a party of Electrical Engineers, and he was proud to say that his eldest son, now with the Army in France, was the Honorary colonel of that regiment (applause).


Captain Burton, who was warmly applauded on rising to return thanks, said he much rather be in the lifeboat than standing there - (laughter) – but he supposed a few words were necessary to explain why he was in the lifeboat. The question had been asked in the press many times, and out of the press also. To answer that question he would have to go back to a date about ten years ago when he was asked by the chief of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to take charge of the first motor lifeboat on the Tyne. They thought it was a good place to put the first motor lifeboat at, because the Tyne saw the first rowing lifeboat. It was a great honour to him to become associated with the good work. He had earned a certain reputation as a yachtsman, and so duly devolved upon him to engineer the new lifeboat scheme. The first difficulty was to find a crew. The civil population of Tynemouth did not favour a motor lifeboat, and prophesied that it would turn turtle if it went out in a 5 foot sea. In those days they had at Shields (in Clifford’s Fort, on the fish Quay) a division of submarine miners who were a particularly fine body of longshoremen, and when he asked for a crew, every one of them volunteered, undertaking the duty simply for honour, and without any pay. He waited eight months before he got a five foot sea, and when he got it he manned the boat with his soldiers, and they sailed to and fro in the waves on the bar of the Tyne.

The same night a collision occurred between the steamers Vauxhaull and Broadmayne, and although his boat was seven or eight miles behind the rowing lifeboat in starting, it was the first to reach the wreck, and that to him was a victory. Next day numbers of men offered to form a crew for him, but he decided to have pilots only. The result was that the pilots manned the boat – and an excellent crew they were – until an alteration was made to the Tyne Pilotage service, which robbed him of his crew. Associated with him were J R Brownlee, Thomas Cummins and J S Brownlee (now second coxswain). They had some difficulties in the appointments, and were working against the feelings of the local boatmen. They were met with jeers and ironical cheers when they went forth, and were dammed by faint praise both in the press and by the public generally. A little later he met his old friend Robert Smith (now coxswain) in whom he soon found he had a man of the right sort. They went out one day and there was some hasty broken water at Cullercoats. He said to Smith, “Robert, would you just shove the boat through those breakers?“

"Yes sir. Shall we go right through the middle of them”? (laughter and applause). He at once realised that he had a man of the right sort."

The next great success was the run to Blyth to save the crew of the ship Dunelm. They were disappointed because the crew were taken off before they arrived, but that voyage fully proved the value of the motor lifeboat, because it ran through the worse possible weather they could imagine. That experience was one of the worse he had ever had, and they had on that occasion less than half a crew, because it was difficult to get a crew to face the weather.

He now came to the Whitby trip. Between Whitby and Tynemouth there were two motor lifeboats – and still they wired to Tynemouth for the motor lifeboat. That was another score, he thought. (hear, hear). They left the Tyne at 4:30pm. The coast was not easy to navigate. It was specially difficult when there were no lights showing. On arriving at Whitby at one o'clock in the morning he landed and went on the cliff, and was able, by the aid of the searchlight, to signal to the crew of the Rohilla to cheer up, and the boat would come out to their rescue at daybreak.

They set out at 7am, taking with them Mr Gallon, second coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat (as he was anxious that the Whitby lifeboatmen, who had put in some hard work, should share in the honour of the rescue), and commander Basil Hall, who was district Inspector of Lifeboats. They poured oil on the waters and steered towards the wreck, under the pilotage of Mr Eglon. It was a very difficult task to get through between the steel frame of the ship and the rocks. In the hollows of the seas the frames of the ship would come in like the jaws of some huge monster ready to swallow them. They got through, however and reached the lee side of the Rohilla – or what remained of it. The fore part of it had fallen away and was under water and the after part was under water and completely smashed up. Only the bridge remained. The sight of the poor men – nearly all of whom were just as they had rushed from their berths, and had had to face the cold and heavy seas for 50 hours – he would never forget. He could not trust himself to speak of it.

The rest of the trip was like a triumphal procession. He had accomplished two things. He had proved to the world the efficiently of the motor lifeboat, and he was instrumental in saving 50 poor fellows who possibly had given up all hope of rescue. If the word ‘I’ had crept in rather frequently to his narrative, it was because he felt he should answer the question why he was in the lifeboat. ‘My task is completed’ Captain Burton proceeded, ‘And I hand over full command of the boat to my old friend Robert Smith, and when Robert wants one to make up the number of his crew, or if he could do with an extra hand, he will always find me ready to serve under him.” (Loud Applause).

Coxswain Smith also thanked the meeting with a few appropriate words.


Lieut – Commander Basil Hall moved a vote of thanks to the Duke of Northumberland for the part he had taken in the ceremony. He spoke of the despair that was felt by everyone in Whitby when the local lifeboat was unable to complete the rescue and how cheered he was when Capt. Burton arrived with the motor lifeboat. He felt confident that the rescue would be completed because he knew the man and he knew the boat. He could say without contradiction, from a knowledge of lifeboat work extending over 20 years, that no lifeboats could have gone down the lee side of the Rohilla, except a motor lifeboat. Very few lifeboats could have taken off the fifty men in one trip. There were 64 men on board that boat when she returned to the shore at Whitby. (Applause). Tyneside had perhaps a closer, longer and more glorious association with the saving of life from shipwreck than any other spot in the world. Recently they were celebrating the Jubilee of their Rocket Life-Saving Brigade. The lifeboat boasts even a longer record. It was exactly 125 years since the first lifeboat was launched on that river, not many hundred yards from where they were, and shortly after that the second boat that was ever called a lifeboat was ordered by the Duke of Northumberland and placed at North Shields with an endowment for her maintenance. Ever since that time, the Dukes of Northumberland had been closely associated with the work of the lifeboat service.

Commander Hall concluded by presenting to His Grace a replica of the medals awarded to the lifeboat crew.

General Plumer seconded the motion and expressed his pleasure that both of the services were represented in this gallant feat. At this time of stress and trouble the two services, the Army and the Navy, were very closely connected, and were working together to protect the country. An act of gallantry like that they had been hearing of, in which a soldier among sailors so greatly distinguished himself, made both services feel extremely proud.

The Duke of Northumberland having replied, a vote of thanks was proposed by the Lord Mayor to the Mayor of the borough for presiding, and the proceedings ended with the National Anthem.

The solid gold medals presented to the crew by the subscribers, and the solid silver tray, kettle and tea service presented to Captain Burton were designed and supplied by Grant & Son, goldsmiths, North Shields.

The medals have on the obverse side a finely moulded scene in high relief of the Rohilla wreck with the Henry Vernon approaching, surrounded by the inscription in raised letters, ‘For brave conduct, wreck of the Rohilla. November 1st 1914’ and recipient’s name. The full arms of Tynemouth, with supporters, appear on the reverse side, also in relief, surrounded by a wreath of laurel.

The silver tray, kettle and tea service is of the Georgian period, with garland and shell border, the tray bearing the inscription and Tynemouth arms.

The musical programme of the evening was arranged by Mr J W Coward.

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