William Riley of Birmingham and Leamington

The backbone of the Navy
William Riley of Birmingham and Leamington
William Riley off Whitby Harbour

The ROHILLA disaster

The SS ROHILLA was a steamship of 7,114 tons which had originally been built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast for the British India Steam Navigation Company. She was completed in 1906, and was in service between Southampton and Karachi. At the outset of the First World War she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted into a naval hospital ship.

On 29 October 1914, now known as His Majesty's Hospital Ship ROHILLA, she left Queensferry near Edinburgh having just been fitted out; she carried a full complement of 229 people en route for Dunkirk to pick up wounded from the battlefields of France. Sailing south through the North Sea, at around 4:00 a.m. on 30 October 1914, and in appalling weather conditions, she struck a notorious reef known as Whitby Rock at Saltwick, just south of Whitby harbour.

At the time there was a fierce gale, and due to wartime blackout conditions no landmarks were visible. Although the ship was only 600 metres from shore, the treacherous conditions of the high seas and storm force winds made rescue extremely difficult. Rockets with ropes attached were fired from the cliffs, but all missed. The ROHILLA had no rockets of her own.

Due to the severe weather conditions Whitby's own lifeboat the JOHN FIELDEN could not be launched from the harbour, so she was carried by hand over an eight-foot seawall and across rocks so that she could be launched from the beach nearest the ship. She was the first to reach the stricken ROHILLA, some five and a half hours after the liner struck the rocks.

The five women on board were the first to be rescued, by climbing down a swaying rope ladder into the lifeboat as it was being buffeted by the sea. The women included Keziah Mary Roberts. She was 42 years old when she signed on as a stewardess on board another of Harland and Wolff’s great liners, the TITANIC, lost two years earlier in 1912. Having survived the sinking of the TITANIC Keziah then signed on for the ROHILLA.

Seventeen survivors were taken off during the lifeboat's first run, and another eighteen were rescued on its second; there were still many others on board. However, the lifeboat itself was too badly damaged to continue the rescue. Many options were suggested for rescuing the remaining survivors and several other lifeboats were called into service: in all six were called out, including the Scarborough lifeboat, which was towed to the scene in rough seas; it had to return after eighteen hours without being able to get close to ROHILLA. The Teesmouth lifeboat was also called out, but it was damaged crossing the Tees bar and had to return.

One of the options put forward for rescuing those still aboard the ROHILLA was to use the Upgang rowing lifeboat, the WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON . This was located in a small cove two miles along the west beach. Facing the sea, it was impossible to launch the lifeboat into the surf under the prevailing conditions. But the heroic plans of the crew of the Whitby No. 2 lifeboat, JOHN FIELDEN, had resulted in her launch and an audacious plan was then hatched to launch the WILLIAM RILEY.

The lifeboat was taken overland, a journey of more than three miles by road, and along some very steep hills.  Using six horses and over a hundred people, the 36ft lifeboat was positioned on the top of the cliff adjacent to the ROHILLA. Long lines of men hung onto lines attached to the lifeboat, which was then perilously lowered bodily down an almost perpendicular cliff, 200ft to the bottom, a feat which was completed in just two and a half hours.

Despite the heroic efforts of her crew to row the lifeboat, she could not reach the ROHILLA. The WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON made several attempts to reach the ship, and finally got up comparatively close to her. But the eddy currents caused by the heavy sea between the middle and rear sections of the wreck caught her, and she was swirled around nearest the land. That happened every time she tried; the crew become exhausted and she failed to reach the ship.

The rescue of the remaining survivors, including the Captain, Captain Neilson, and the ship’s cat, was eventually made by the motor-powered Tynemouth lifeboat. In all the rescue operation lasted fifty hours, and eventually 144 of the people on board were saved, but 85 lives were lost in the disaster.

Thomas Langlands, who was Coxswain of the Whitby No. 1 lifeboat ROBERT AND MARY ELLIS at the time of the ROHILLA disaster, had previously served with the Upgang lifeboat for 25 years. He transferred to Whitby as coxswain on the retirement of Henry Freeman. For his actions in the ROHILLA disaster Langlands was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, its highest award.

The coxswain of theWILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON, R.P. Robinson, and her second coxswain T. Kelly, both received thanks inscribed on vellum from the RNLI. Each of the crew received £1 extra.

Keziah Mary Roberts, the survivor of two great sea disasters, declared that, of the two catastrophes, the sinking of the ROHILLA was the worse to endure.  In surviving the loss of the TITANIC it appears she was put aboard one of the ship’s lifeboats, quite possibly by Lightoler, in what were reasonably settled sea conditions, very different to the ROHILLA situation where the ship quickly began to break up under the constant pounding of wave, sea and wind. Keziah died in 1933 leaving a husband and three daughters.

The ROHILLA disaster marked the end of the rowing lifeboat’s long and illustrious career. It was the failure of oar power on this occasion that convinced the RNLI and their crews to adopt mechanical power in favour of manpower.

By 1919 Whitby had a motor lifeboat of its own. The old Upgang lifeboat station was closed, and the sea soon destroyed the lifeboat house and slipway. Whitby was however the last RNLI lifeboat station to retain a pulling lifeboat, but she was in reserve. The ROBERT AND ELLEN ROBSON had been built in 1918 and was originally stationed at Tramore in Ireland and later at Aberdeen. She served as the Whitby No. 2 lifeboat between 1947 and 1957. When she was taken out of service she had been out eleven times in the previous eleven years. 

WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON herself continued to serve as the Upgang lifeboat until 1919. She had only one other launch, in 1919. On the closure of the Upgang lifeboat station she served as the reserve lifeboat at Whitby between 1919 and 1931.

Where is she now?

WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON is located at Whitby Lifeboat Museum. She is fully operational and is available for fundraising and educational purposes.


Brittain, C. (2002). ‘Into the Maelstrom: The Wreck of HMHS ROHILLA’, Tempus Publishing Ltd: Stroud, Glos. 

Wilson, K. (1982). ‘Wreck of the SS ROHILLA’, Carrprint: Barnoldswick, Lancashire.

Newspaper photo of attempts to get line onto SS ROHILLA.

Many photos of lifeboats attempting to reach SS ROHILLA.

‘Oars to Engines: The Story of the WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON, Whitby Historic Lifeboat Trust.

Model of WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON on display at Whitby Lifeboat Museum (photo available).

Service log of WILLIAM RILEY OF BIRMINGHAM AND LEAMINGTON held at Whitby Lifeboat Museum (photo available).

An extensive commemoration of the SS ROHILLA disaster is being planned by Whitby Council. See http://www.SS ROHILLAwhitbycentenary.org.uk/

Contemporary accounts of the SS ROHILLA disaster:

http://www.weetoddy.com/theSS ROHILLAdistaster.htm

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2Fthumb%2F4%2F4b%2FSS ROHILLA_(steamship)_grounded_1914.JPG%2F300px-SS ROHILLA_(steamship)_grounded_1914.JPG&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FSS_SS ROHILLA&h=222&w=300&tbnid=nUx7JAnmIr3MMM%3A&zoom=1&docid=TC2z8JB5itXkcM&ei=Pog6U47BBcy3hAfP4ICgDA&tbm=isch&ved=0CFgQhBwwAQ&iact=rc&dur=2891&page=1&start=0&ndsp=19

http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&docid=0doKnr9ZWpA_jM&tbnid=eORbba-vnhQTMM:&ved=0CAUQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.eskside.co.uk%2Fss_SS ROHILLA%2FSS ROHILLA_tragedy.htm&ei=x4g6U9WxJsSm0AXksoDgDw&bvm=bv.63934634,d.ZG4&psig=AFQjCNFr3rmN2WT8ECTrkeakndiCtIPRhg&ust=1396431294592500

http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&docid=2bCA6rZHQ-St-M&tbnid=g6sxaudNpiPyrM:&ved=0CAUQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.biship.com%2Fhistorical%2FSS ROHILLA.htm&ei=k4k6U8-1AcTY0QXlgIGwCg&bvm=bv.63934634,d.ZG4&psig=AFQjCNFr3rmN2WT8ECTrkeakndiCtIPRhg&ust=1396431294592500

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fahoy.tk-jk.net%2FImages_Oct_2010%2FHMHS-SS ROHILLA-2011-09-11%2FHMHS-SS ROHILLA-Storm-Colin-Brittainx750.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fahoy.tk-jk.net%2Fmacslog%2FIntoTheMaelstrom-TheWreck.html&h=477&w=750&tbnid=i-vQ8Kocsb5BuM%3A&zoom=1&docid=s2V02qqVkiv-AM&ei=Pog6U47BBcy3hAfP4ICgDA&tbm=isch&ved=0CHYQhBwwCw&iact=rc&dur=2703&page=1&start=0&ndsp=19





National Register of Historic Vessels entry http://www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk/register/2174/william-riley-of-birmingham

Whitby Lifeboat Museum http://rnli.org/aboutus/historyandheritage/museums/Pages/Whitby-Museum.aspx

 RNLI Heritage Trust http://rnli.org/aboutus/historyandheritage/Pages/Heritage-Trust.aspx

 SS ROHILLA Centenary commemorations in Whitby  http://www.SS ROHILLAwhitbycentenary.org.uk/