Rohilla Disaster

Rohilla Rescue Remembered:

One of the most dramatic lifeboat rescues in Whitby’s history was remembered 90years on at a special ceremony in 2004.

Eighty four people out of 229 on the Rohilla – a First World War hospital ship – perished on October 30, 1914 when it ran aground on reef at Saltwick Nab.

No fewer than six lifeboats were involved in the rescue, from stations as far apart as Scarborough and Tynemouth.

They battled to save as many people as possible in horrendous storm conditions.

Relatives and friends of those connected to the disaster – many of the men who died were part of the same St Johns Ambulance Brigade group in Barnoldswick, Lancashire were invited to attend the Whitby RNLI-organised service on Saturday 30th October which started at 2.30pm at the bandstand.

After the service, weather permitting, it was planned to have a wreath laying at the site of the wreck from the old lifeboat, the Mary Ann Hepworth, which was to be escorted by the current lifeboat.

To mark the occasion Greig Tindall of the Whitby Gazette recounted the disaster which portrays the  true bravery and heroism of the lifeboat volunteers which is inherent in the counterparts today…

THE steamer Rohilla, a 7,100-tonne hospital ship, was on her way from Queensferry to Dunkirk with 229 people on board.

Shortly after 4am on 30th October 1914, in a fierce east-south–easterly gale, she ran onto a reef of rocks at Saltwick Nab near Whitby.

The ship broke in half as soon as she struck – and those in the aft part of the ship were washed away or drowned.
Daybreak was the earliest the people of Whitby could begin their rescue attempt.

In an extraordinary effort, the towns number two lifeboat - John Fielden - was hauled along the rocky foreshore and over an 8ft sea wall.

Amid great waves, the lifeboat reached the Rohilla and took 12 men and 5 women, all of whom were nurses.

One – Mary Roberts – had amazingly survived the sinking of the Titanic two earlier.

The lifeboat stationed at Upgang was called for and a remarkable overland journey followed through the town, across fields and by rope down to the beach.

The weather had the final say and huge seas meant the rescue had to be put off.

Six RNLI lifeboats from Whitby, Upgang, Scarborough, Teesmouth and Tynemouth – most of them rowing boats – were involved in the rescue.

But for their efforts many more than the 84 who did lose their lives would probably have perished as well.

What makes the Rohilla incident so poignant was the prolonged rescue attempt to save those still on board.

It was 5o hours after the stranding that the last survivors were brought ashore in full view of the hundreds of townsfolk who came to watch the rescue from the beach and cliffs above the wreck, waving lanterns and cheering on the rescuers.

In recording the event, the lifeboat journal said “the services rendered have added another splendid page to the annals of heroism and humanity which make up a story of the lifeboat foundation of the institution.”


   A full account of the Rohilla disaster is displayed at the Whitby RNLI Lifeboat Museum in Pier Road and on the website:

An excellent account is also available in Whitby author Colin Brittain’s book - Into the Maelstrom – The Wreck of HMHS Rohilla.

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