Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Shipwreck disaster and heroes recalled


Yorkshire Post today

THE ship was breaking up and the last survivors were making rafts in desperate attempts to save their lives.

Hundreds of horrified spectators looked on helplessly from Whitby's cliffs as the drama unfolded – 90 years ago to the day.

Yesterday the grandchildren of rescuers, who saved dozens of people after the hospital ship Rohilla ran aground just outside Whitby harbour in the early days of the First World War, were remembering the tragedy, which is one of the best known on the Yorkshire coast.

A memorial service by the bandstand in the harbour ended with relatives of some of those who died boarding the Mary Ann Hepworth, an old RNLI lifeboat, and going to sea to lay a wreath at the scene of the wreck.

Rohilla, with 229 people aboard, rammed a fearsome rock ledge called the Scar, only one-third of a mile from the safety of the harbour, during a terrible gale in the early hours of October 30, 1914.

Over the next two days more than 80 people died as waves crashed across the 7,114 tons gross ship, which had broken its back and quickly started disintegrating in the colossal seas. Desperate, some tried to make it to shore and survived, but others drowned in the maelstrom.

Lifeboats – most of them rowing boats – came from 40 miles around and pulled many of the nurses and crew from the disintegrating wreck, performing incredible deeds of bravery in the pitch-dark. The Whitby boat John Fielden was dragged over an 8ft breakwater and three-quarters of a mile of jagged rock. The two-and-a-half tonne Upgang boat was lowered down a sheer cliff 200ft high.

When the motor lifeboat Henry Vernon got on board the last 50 – including the captain and the ship's cat – hundreds of people rushed to welcome them, sending up cheer after cheer in an unforgettable scene.

Peter Thomson, one of the organisers and a retired coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, said his father witnessed the dreadful events from the top of the cliffs.

"Just to watch a lifeboat go through heavy seas and go alongside what was left of a ship and see people scrambling down ropes must have been unbelievable. Apparently there were hundreds lining the piers and cheering; it must have been very emotional,'' he said.

Geoff Pickles's grandfather John Thomas Pickles perished when the Rohilla foundered, while his uncle Fred Reddiough survived. Both were asleep in their berths. "The only thing I can remember is that he shouted at my grandfather to get out and he never saw him again.''

For years the ship's wheel, which was washed up on the beach, stood in the family's hallway at Barnoldswick before it was finally donated to the Whitby lifeboat museum. "You don't necessarily feel sad – 90 years is a long while. It's just nice that this is on and to remember it,'' he said.

Yesterday's service was conducted by Whitby RNLI lifeboat chaplain the Rev Terry Leathley, while former Whitby lifeboatman Bob Harland, who won a RNLI silver medal for bravery in 1946, read The Pilot's Psalm.

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