Dramatic tale of SS Rohilla

The crew of the Henry Vernon.
The crew of the Henry Vernon.

Just before the start of the First World War Granda McClements took the King’s Shilling and joined the British Army.

Prior to that he had worked as a labourer in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Yes, he worked on the Titanic, and no, it wasn’t his fault that it famously sank on its maiden voyage.

The Titanic was one of three sister ships built at that time in the yard. Many people know about the Olympic, damaged early on in a collision with a naval vessel, later repaired to see 40 years of service before being scrapped at Jarrow. The fittings went on auction, with part of the first class lounge being re-fitted in the dining room of the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, which is still there today.

The Britannic, the third and lesser known of the White Star Line ships, and also the biggest liner in the world at that time, served as a hospital ship in the war, but its service ended on November 21, 1916, when it struck a mine off the Greek island of Kea and sank nearly an hour later with the loss of 30 lives.

While looking at the fate of hospital ships in general, I came upon the dramatic and extraordinary story of the SS Rohilla, also built at Harland & Wolff some eight years before Britannic.

The Rohilla, named after a community of Urdu speakers in Uttar Pradesh, had picked up the King’s son, Prince Albert, from Scapa Flow where he had taken ill and transported him to the mainland. The ship, after an urgent call, then left Scotland on October 30, 1914, barely three months into the war, en-route to Dunkirk to pick up the wounded from France and Flanders.

The weather was terrible, with violent storms following its progress down the east coast. With visibility so bad and no lights on shore due to the blackout, the Rohilla ran aground just a mile off Whitby.

In rough seas the ship broke into three sections and the race was on to save survivors. Some were picked up by the RNLI rowing boats from Whitby, but 50 people were still trapped aboard.

A desperate call was put out to the Tynemouth RNLI, which sent the only motor lifeboat in the north east, the Henry Vernon, piloted by Coxswain Robert Smith. In terrible conditions the people on the deck of the Rohilla were rescued and Smith became a national hero.

Sadly though, of the 229, mainly medical staff on board, 84 lost their lives. One of those who died was Henry Weatherstone, from North Shields, a general servant on the ship.

The captain was later exonerated from blame in the subsequent inquest and, indeed, received the Bronze medal from the RSPCA for saving the ship’s cat. Coxswain Smith was awarded the RNLI Gold Medal. It was the last time rowing boats were sent out to a stricken ship in British waters.

The Rohilla sinking still generates interest to this day, particularly in the Whitby area. As recently as 2016 a new housing development overlooking the sight of the sinking was named Rohilla Close.

The Northumbria World War One project welcomes anyone with information on any of the casualties of the Great War from the North Tyneside area, or anyone who wishes to become involved in research.

Our website is northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call in to our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre in North Shields, open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, or you can contact me at tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk