What we found
We found quite a lot of material and evidence about the Rohilla wreck, off the Whitby coast in 1914, the rescue attempts and the crew on board the ship which helped us to write songs, poems and the play.
The event was very dramatic and there has been much interest over the years. This means that people have looked for, and looked after, material relating to the story.
In 2014 it was 100 years since the disaster and the Whitby Lifeboat Museum had an exhibition with lots of paintings, letters, photographs, documents and artifacts about the Rohilla and the lifeboats launched to try to save the crew on board.
Pete Thomson, the Hon Curator of the Museum, has an excellent collection of material and Colin Brittain, a Whitby based author, has written two authoritative books about the wreck.
Here are some of the things we found and the story they told:
‘Rohilla’ was built in 1906 by Harland and Wolff, Belfast. Built as a luxury passenger steamer of the British India Steam Navigation Company, sailing between London and Calcutta, she was very soon used as a troop carrier.
Captain David Landles Neilson commanded ‘Rohilla’ from the day she was launched.
‘Rohilla’ was a troop carrier sailing between Southampton and Karachi.
When World War 1 broke out, ‘Rohilla’ was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted to a hospital ship. Her luxury passenger accommodation was converted into wards and two operating theatres.
HMHS Rohilla was sent to the Naval base at Scapa Flow, Orkney, to join the Grand Fleet.
During her time at Scapa Flow, Prince Albert (later King George VI), who was serving on board another ship there, was taken on board suffering from appendicitis. He was transported by Rohilla to Aberdeen and the ship then went on to moorings at Leith Docks, Edinburgh.
She had a crew and medical staff of 229. A number of them were St John’s ambulancemen from Barnoldswick. Twelve of these men lost their lives during the wreck and some are buried in Whitby.
On 29th October 1914, Rohilla set sail from Leith bound for Dunkirk to evacuate wounded troops from the Western Front.
The route down the East Coast was a treacherous one. There were German submarines and mines and wartime restrictions meant that navigation lights and signals weren’t permitted.
The weather was poor and, although the Whitby coastguard signalled for 30 minutes to warn the ship, Rohilla continued her course and at 4.10am on Friday 30th October, 1914 struck the rocks at Saltwick Nab at full speed with 229 people on board. She broke into three pieces with one part sinking immediately.
The weather had worsened and become a full blown storm. Although only 600 yards from shore, the tumultuous waves meant it was impossible for Whitby’s No 1 lifeboat, ‘Robert & Mary Ellis, to launch and reach her.
A herculean effort to launch Whitb’s No 2 lifeboat took place. It was rowed across the harbour, lifted over an 8ft wall then dragged across the scar where it was damaged. Despite this it was launched twice, rescuing 35 crew members from the stricken ship before it was too badly damaged to launch again.
The next rescue attempt was another daring feat of bravery and determination. The Upgang lifeboat, ‘William Riley’, was hauled six miles over land and then lowered down the cliffs close to the shipwreck. When it was eventually able to launch, it was beaten back by the waves each time it attempted to get close to Rohilla.
Meanwhile the Scarborough lifeboat, ‘Queensbury’, was towed to the scene and stood by for 18 hours waiting for an opportunity to launch. She too was beaten back and was also unable to make a rescue. The Teesmouth lifeboat similarly had set off but was so badly damaged on her way to the scene, was forced to abandon her mission.
Survivors on board ship were becoming more desperate. Freezing and weakening, with no water or food, and watching successive rescue attempts fail, some were washed overboard or decided to jump and attempt to swim for shore. A few made it but many were drowned or dashed against the rocks.
The people of Whitby and the surrounding villages came out in their hundreds to help. They pulled people, alive and dead, from the sea, gave them drinks and wrapped them in blankets and warm clothes. They took them to the town’s hotels, to hospital, or to their own homes to care for them and they welcomed their relatives when they arrived to collect, or mourn for, their loved ones.
On the morning of 1st November, Whitby’s No 1 and No 2 lifeboats again attempted rescues but still neither could get close as the storm raged on.
The remaining 50 on board were rescued later that day by the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, ‘Henry Vernon’.
Of the 229 crew, doctors and nurses originally on board, only 145 survived. Many of the bodies were never found. Miss Mary Roberts, a nurse, was also on board ‘Titanic’ when it sank two years earlier and described the Rohilla disaster as more harrowing than that of the more famous vessel.
Many of those who died were buried in Whitby. The Rohilla owners erected a monument in the local cemetery to the loss of the ship and those who did not survive.
As a result of this disaster, the Whitby rowing lifeboats were replaced with motorised ones, of the type that was succesful in rescuing the last souls from the wreck.