Tynemouth lifeboat Henry Vernon and the crew who saved 50 survivors from the SS RohillaTynemouth RNLI lifeboat services during World War 1

Tynemouth lifeboat station’s most notable service of World War 1 was the service to the hospital ship Rohilla, which was wrecked off Whitby in 1914, but the lifeboat Henry Vernon and her crew of volunteers also performed a number of difficult services during the war which we’ve listed together here for the first time, along with photographs of the original service returns completed by the Coxswain-Superintendent, Captain H E Burton. The Henry Vernon was one of few motor lifeboats in the RNLI fleet at the time and served at Tynemouth from 1911 to 1918.

The narratives, handwritten by Captain (later Major) Burton from the service returns are reproduced, and larger versions of the images can be viewed by clicking on them. To read them in better detail, right click on the image and ‘save image as’ to your computer before opening.

30th October, 1914. Service to the ketch William. Lifeboat with 9 crew launched at 8.30am in a strong gale and heavy sea.30th October, 1914. Service to the ketch William. Lifeboat with 9 crew launched at 8.30am in a strong gale and heavy sea.

The ketch “William” of Peterhead attempted to make the harbour but was overpowered by the sea and driven against South Pier.  The boat was launched but was could not render service owing to shoal water. The crew were taken of by lines by a party of soldiers and workmen. The life boat then stood by the undernamed minesweepers and returned to moorings at 11am “Ranter” “Langley Castle” “Agnes” “Rhodesia” “Valentia” “Shamrock” “Nellie” “Petrel” “Saxon Prince”.

The William was a total wreck.

31st October, 1914. Service to the hospital steamship Rohilla. Lifeboat with 12 crew launched at 4.30pm in a strong gale and heavy sea.31st October, 1914. Service to the hospital steamship Rohilla. Lifeboat with 12 crew launched at 4.30pm in a strong gale and heavy sea.

Call received from Whitby for motor boat to proceed to wreck of “Rohilla” – hospital ship which had stranded at WHITBY. Left the Tyne with full crew at 4.30pm on Saturday 31st Oct. arrived Whitby 1am 1st Nov. Cleared boat of all unnecessary gear & prepared for action at daybreak. The services of the Second Coxswain of the Whitby boat were requisitioned to pilot the motor boat. Left the harbour at 7am returned with all survivors 7.55am.. Crew breakfasted & left for Tyne 9.30am 1.11.14 Returned to moorings 4pm 1.11.14

31st October, 1914. Tynemouth RNLI lifeboat Henry Vernon launches on service to the hospital steamship Rohilla. Lifeboat with 12 crew launched at 4.30pm in a strong gale and heavy sea.The Rohilla was a total loss. She carried 220 people of which 146 were saved.

The understated tones of the service return fail to do this service justice:  Captain Burton joined Coxswain Robert Smith and the lifeboat crew as they set off on an epic 45-mile journey to Whitby, undertaken in an open boat, in the dark, in heavy seas and gale force winds. Lights along the coast had been extinguished due to the war, making navigation extremely hazardous.

Rowing lifeboats from Whitby, nearby Upgang (from where their lifeboat was dragged overland and launched after lowering it down a cliff), Scarborough and Teesmouth started rescuing survivors of the wreck in what were heroic efforts. The Tynemouth lifeboat rescued the final 50 in that last hour, including the Rohilla‘s Captain who left his ship last. More about the rescue can be read by clicking here http://www.rohillawhitbycentenary.org.uk/rohilla_history.htm.

For their bravery during the rescue, the RNLI’s Gold Medal was awarded to Captain H E Burton and Coxswain Robert Smith, and the Silver Medals to Second Coxswain James Brownlee.

17th January 1915. Service to the three-masted Russian Schooner Monitor. Lifeboat with 9 crew launched at 3.45pm in a heavy sea.17th January 1915. Service to the three-masted Russian Schooner Monitor. Lifeboat with 9 crew launched at 3.45pm in a heavy sea.

The three masted Russian Schooner “Monitor” of Riga, in tow outside harbour broke tow line and attempted to make the harbour but was overpowered by wind and sea and driven against the South Pier.
The boat was launched but could not render service as just before it arrived the crew managed to land on the S.Pier with the assistance of coastguards and others.

Monitor had 7 crew, all of whom were saved. The ship was a total wreck. A full description of the wreck can be read here.

6th February 1915. Service to the British steamer Enfield. Lifeboat launched with 10 crew at 11.30am in a heavy sea.6th February 1915. Service to the British steamer Enfield. Lifeboat launched with 10 crew at 11.30am in a heavy sea.

The British Steamer “Enfield” when leaving harbour was seen by the Coxswain and members of the life-boat crew. The steamer narrowly avoided being driven on the North Pier end. The life-boat attended but no assistance was necessary. The boat then stood by four Admiralty Minesweepers entering the harbour and returned to her moorings at 1p.m.  The crew then remained on look out until the harbour was closed at 5.0p.m.

One man was killed on the deck of the Enfield, which suffered damage to her deck. She was sailing to an undisclosed destination under sealed wartime orders.

7th February 1915. Service to the steamer Michael A Andritsakis. Lifeboat launched with 12 crew at 10.45am in very heavy seas and rain, to go to Blyth.7th February 1915. Service to the Greek steamer Michael A Andritsakis. Lifeboat launched with 12 crew at 10.45am in very heavy seas and rain, to go to Blyth.

Message received through Port War Message Station by Capt. Burton stating that a vessel was in distress off Bondicar and that Blyth & Newbiggin boats were unable to get out. Message was sento to Coxswain to assemble crew and proceed as soon as possible. Before boat arrived at Bondicar the vessel had parted her cable and driven ashore at Hauxley. Crew saved by rocket apparatus. Henry Vernon attempted to return to Tynemouth but engine failed. Sail was set and boat beat towards Tyne – mouth all night. At 9.45 was picked up and taken in tow by drifter “Tynet” B.C.K 160 J.Green Port Gordon & brought in to Fish Quay, N.Shields at 10a.m. The drifter was bound for Hartlepool.

The Michael A Andritsakis was en-route from Piraeus to Sunderland and had overshot her destination harbour during the night by nearly 14 miles. She had 20 crew all of whom were rescued but the ship was a total loss.  It’s incredible to think that the 12 lifeboat crewmen spent 24 hours in their open boat, in freezing cold heavy seas, gale force winds and driving rain.

23rd February 1915. Service to the Belgian steamer Remier. Lifeboat launched with 9 cew at 7.10pm in a moderate sea and rain.23rd February 1915. Service to the Belgian steamer Remier. Lifeboat launched with 9 cew at 7.10pm in a moderate sea and rain.

The Belgian steamer “Remier” of Antwerp put to sea from the Tyne about 5.0p.m. but returned to harbour about 6.15p.m. (cause unknown) and when entering fouled the Black Midden Rock and remained fast. The Life-Boat attended but no assistance was necessary.

The 2119 ton Remier belonged to the Mercantile Shipping Co Ltd and had been sailing laden from the Tyne to Genoa.

18th March 1915. Service to the British steamer Bronze Wings. Lifeboat launched with 8 crew at 3.15pm into a strong gale, very heavy seas and a blizzard.18th March 1915. Service to the British steamer Bronze Wings. Lifeboat launched with 8 crew at 3.15pm into a strong gale, very heavy seas and a blizzard.

The British Steamer “Bronze Wings” when entering harbour was overpowered by a gale and sriven towards the South Pier. A message was received that the vessel was flying distress signals and required immediate assistance. The life-boat was attended but no assistance was necessary as after a considerable time the vessel was saved with the assistance of tugs.

The Bronze Wings was built by  Northumberland Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Howdon-On-Tyne in 1914 and had been on sea trials before being sold to a new owner. She was eventually lost in 1947 after running aground on the Needles.

23rd November 1915. Service to the Norwegian full-rigged ship Fullwood. Lifeboat launched with 9 crew at 12.30 into a rough sea and moderate gale.23rd November 1915. Service to the Norwegian full-rigged ship Fullwood. Lifeboat launched with 9 crew at 12.30 into a rough sea and moderate gale.

“Fullwood” in tow of tug “Homer” agains wind and tide just passing end of piers Hawser parted  and she drifted over pier buoy and only just cleared pier end. Assistant Coxswain J.S.Brownlee saw peril of ship gathered crew together and put out to help. In the meantime the tug “Homer” got hold of her again and with the assistance of another tug “Ulysses” hauled her out of danger and the lifeboat after speaking the ship and finding the tugs were making headway returned to station.
A considerable amount of water was shipped and crew drenched. In the emergency a motor man, W.Tate, was obtained from Clifford’s Fort. Engine worked in every respect satisfactorily.

Fullwood was An iron full-rigged ship built in 1885 by Oswald, Mordaunt & Co., Southampton. She was employed as a floating whale oil refinery between Britain and the whaling colony of South Georgia, which is where she was sailing on this day.  She was presumed lost with all handsafter going missing on a voyage from Buenos Aires to Korsør in 1919.

10th December 1915. Service to the steam trawler Naval Prince. Lifeboat launched to go to Blyth with 11 crew at 8.55pm into a heavy swell and heavy rain.10th December 1915. Service to the steam trawler Naval Prince. Lifeboat launched to go to Blyth with 11 crew at 8.55pm into a heavy swell and heavy rain.

Coxswain Smith was called up by telephone at 8.30a.m. from Lloyds Station and told that the trawler had gone on the rocks north of Blyth at 1.0a.m; that the rocket apparatus had failed six times to get hold owing partly to distance and seas breaking over the vessel; that the local lifeboat could not approach and that five men had already been washed off leaving four on board. On arriving at the site of the wreck he found that he could not approach the vessel which was then on her side high on the rocks, and that the four men had been taken off by other means, the tide by this time having fallen considerably. On finding that he could render no assistance he put into Blyth Harbour, and then returned to North Shields.

The Naval Prince was part of the huge fleet of fishing vessels owned by the famous North Shields based Richard Irvin & Sons. She was built in 1898 by JT Eltringham & Co of South Shields. The five fishermen washed overboard were lost.

2nd February 1916. Service to the British steamship SS Spray. Lifeboat launched with 10 crew at 4.30am into choppy seas on a very dark morning.2nd February 1916. Service to the British steamship SS Spray. Lifeboat launched with 10 crew at 4.30am into choppy seas on a very dark morning.

Coxswain Smith reports receiving telephone message from Lloyds Station at 3.40a.m. that SS Spray of Aberdeen was on the rocks just north of Souter Point. He called the crew together and left Shields at 4.30. Owing to darkness had great difficulty in finding ship for she did not respond to his lights and he had to feel his way in with the lead. The ship was finally driven up high & dry. The crew did not leave. The lifeboat stood by until 8.30 then returned.

SS Spray was built in Sunderland by the famous shipbuilders S P Austin & Son in 1891. She was refloated after her grounding but was sunk in April 1917 by the German submarine UC-31  in 1917 just 6 miles north east Souter Point. There were no casualties.

19th November 1916. Service to the Norwegian steam ship SS Bessheim. Lifeboat launched at 8.30am with 9 crew into a strong gale, rough seas and heavy rain.

19th November 1916. Service to the Norwegian steam ship SS Bessheim. Lifeboat launched at 8.30am with 9 crew into a strong gale, rough seas and heavy rain.Weather being very heavy, Coxn R.Smith mustered crew for watch at 7.30a.m. S.S. “Bessheim” of Christiana going out was unmanageable between the piers at the mouth of the Tyne, and drifted on to Black Middens about 8.30a.m. [unreadable] The lifeboat seeing impending disaster had already started and was on th spot when the “BESSHEIM” struck. She went alongside between rocks and ship and brought off 48 persons – all passengers and stewardesses; second trip she brought about 34; and third trip about 36, including all remaining ship’s company. On returning from the first trip the boat touched the rocks two or three times, but did not appear to be seriously damaged, although it will be advisable for her to be examined at an early date. Note. The Lifeboat “Harry Reynolds” of S.Shields, having been towed down by the pilot cutter, brought ashore 16 men after “Vernon’s” second trip. No headway whatever came to be made by the other S.Shields lifeboat. The Volunteer Life Brigade landed 3 by rocket apparatus. The boat returned to the fish dock at 11.0 a.m.

The SS Bessheim was a passenger and general cargo liner owned by Fred. Olsen operating from the Tyne to Oslo. During World War 2 she was taken over by the Germans when Norway fell, and she was reported to have been sunk in November 1941 off the northernmost point of Norway by a mine laid by the Russian submarine K-21. Reports of her being sunk by a British submarine appear to be false.

20th & 21st November 1916. Service to the British steamer Muristan. Lifeboat launched to go to Blyth at 9.35am with 11 crew into a very heavy sea.20th & 21st November 1916. Service to the British steamer Muristan. Lifeboat launched to go to Blyth at 9.35am with 11 crew into a very heavy sea.

The crew was mustered for watch at 7.30a.m. Monday, 20th Nov. 1916. Coxswain R.Smith had been advised by policeman on duty at Cullercoats of wreck at Blyth Bay, and Coast Guard, Blyth, asked for assistance, but the Coxswain considered sea too high at the time. Further urgent messages  were received from the Coast Guard, and he decided to leave at 9.35a.m. going straight to the wreck, without incident. The ship “MURISTAN” was lying head to sea on the sand with only remainder of bridge and chart house above water – sea very heavy and broken. The Lifeboat was let down to the south side of the boat on the drogue, passing close to the ship but no sign of life of the “MURISTAN” could be seen. In any case it would have been impossible to effect any rescue, as the ship was lying absolutely swept by broken water, and with a quantity of wreckage on port-side and astern. Had she been broadside on, it might have been different. The journey appearing useless, the Coxswain decided to return to the Tyne, but after making out about half a mile into the open sea, the boat was very heavily struck, when the engine stopped suddenly – apparently due to action of capsizing switch when under heavy load. He anchored at once, burning three red lights for assistance and put up sail with difficulty. Engine was started but stopped again. He now decided to make for Blyth. In the mean time engine was restarted again and the harbour was safely made at noon, after the most severe buffeting the boat has ever experienced. During the afternoon the Coast Guard reported signs of life on the “MURISTAN”, but the condition of the sea made it absolutely impossible to consider any attempt unless the sea moderated. By this time with the assistance of the Naval authorities, the engines had been overhauled and were ready to run. It was deceided it was possible to make an attempt at daybreak Tuesday morning, an at 7.30 a.m. Tuesday morning the boat left the harbour, rescued all on board the “MURISTAN” (16) and brought ashore.

The Muristan had been sailing from the Tyne to Rouen and had been blown north. An amazing rescue with the lifeboat being away from the Tyne for over 24 hours, but eventually rescuing the 16 survivors of the wrecked ship. Mention must go to the note of thanks sent to the Royal Navy officers who looked after the crew and helped them restore the lifeboat engine to working order: The Cox. and crew of the Tynemouth motor lifeboat “Henry Vernon” desire to heartily thank the undermentioned officers, for the most kind and generous way they received us, and provided for our comfort during the time we were at Blyth, waiting to render assistance to the crew of the “Muristan”.  Lieut-Commander Barry RN, HMS Titania, Lieut Chapman, DSC, RN, Yacht “Fyne”. Lieut Powell RN. Mr Atkinson RN, Captain Montaldi RMSM.

19th December 1916. Service to a "Submarine of the C class". Lifeboat launched at 8pm with 9 crew in thick, freezing fog to go to Whitley Bay.19th December 1916. Service to a “Submarine of the C class”. Lifeboat launched at 8pm with 9 crew in thick, freezing fog to go to Whitley Bay.

Early in the evening on Tuesday, 19th November, Lloyds station at North Shields reported to the Coxswain per telephone that rockets were being fired somewhere opposite Whitley Bay and the crew were collected. Later the boat was asked for by the Naval commander to go to the assistance of one of H.M. Submarines which had gone ashore in the dense fog. About 8.0 she started out but was obliged to go very slowly feeling her way by the lead. After being out about 25 minutes when increased speed was ordered the throttle would not move and shortly after the engine stopped. On opneing out is was found to be blocked with ice. The boat was pulled back into the river and towed up by the Pilot boat. The crew oof the submarine was brought in by another boat.

25th October 1917. Service to a Royal Navy Minesweeper. Lifeboat launched at 10am with 11 crew into a strong gale to go to Whitby.25th October 1917. Service to a Royal Navy Minesweeper. Lifeboat launched at 10am with 11 crew into a strong gale to go to Whitby.

Requested to go to assistance of a mine sweeper on rocks at Whitby by the Senior Naval Officer, Tynemouth. Left 10a.m. recalled passing Sunderland, crew having been rescued by Rocket apparatus, evidently after having been further driven on the rocks. Strong North West Gale. Jib split in heavy squalls off Souter Point.

The Henry Vernon was also equipped with sails so she could make way if the engine failed and also to make better speed using both sail and motor as she had been on this occasion.

3rd December 1917. Service to the British steam ship SS Butetown. Lifeboat launched at 6.55pm into a slight wind and north east swell.3rd December 1917. Service to the British steam ship SS Butetown. Lifeboat launched with 11 crew at 6.55pm into a slight wind and north east swell.

At 5.30p.m. Coxswain Robert Smith heard ships whistle blowing from the rocks north of the wireless station. Rockets and flares had previously been fired and the Cullercoats lifeboat was being got ready. Mainly N.E. Swell coming in and weather very thick and dark. He telephoned to Shields to muster the crew and hastened there himself. By 6.50 all was ready to start. Lloyds Signal Station telephoned to Cullercoats to know position of ship and crew and received replay from Port War station  that “they caould make little out as the weather was foggy and dense.” That the local boat could not reach ship and rockets had failed, and that the ship was a large one. On receipt of this reply the Coxswain considered it right to take the boat out and left at 6.55. When he arrived at Cullercoats he found that the local boat had returned. He then went out to sea and tried to signal for information but getting no reply either from ship or shore returned to station at about 08.30.

The SS Butetown was loaded with coal at Blyth and due off the Tyne to join a convoy across the North Sea to Fredrikstad , Norway. The ship was a total loss but all of her crew were saved.

7th January 1918. Crew assembly for possible service to H.M. Examination vessel. Lifeboat not launched but 12 crew assembled.7th January 1918. Crew assembly for possible service to H.M. Examination vessel. Lifeboat not launched but 12 crew assembled.

A call for the services of the “Henry Vernon” was made through the police at 7.0 p.m. to the assistance of H.M. Examination Vessel which had stranded just south of the Groyne Lighthouse at South Shields. The crew assembled shortly after 8.0 and were on board for about two hours. The motor mechanic, F.J. Harmison, was unable to start the engine owing as he finally discovered to the needle valve of the Carburettor being frozen. He had the engine running satisfactorily during the day. The temperature was very low 15 Farenheit.

The crew of the Admiralty Examination vessel were all rescued by rocket apparatus, most likely by the South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade. The temperature on the day was -9 degrees Centigrade.

1st February 1918. Service to the Royal Navy Minesweeper Hercules. Lifeboat launched at with 11 crew at 5am into a smooth sea with slight wind, but thick fog, to go to Blyth.1st February 1918. Service to the Royal Navy Minesweeper Hercules. Lifeboat launched at with 11 crew at 5am into a smooth sea with slight wind, but thick fog, to go to Blyth.

Shortly after 3.0 a.m.  the Senior Naval Officer telephoned to police at North Shields to say “Please tell Tyne Lifeboat to proceed to assistance of trawler ashore near Blyth.” The Police called up the crew and the boat left Lloyds Pier about 5.0. Sea calm but thick fog. Proceeded to Blyth sounding all the way but could not find ship. Patreolled the coast between Blyth and Tyne without result and returned to moorings at 9.45. The S.N.O. informed me afterwards that the vessel had got off the rocks as the tide rose and that as a matter of fact another mine sweeper had been ashore a little distance north of Blyth. Temperature just above freezing point. Engine gave no trouble.

13th February 1918. Service to HMS Minesweeper No. 6. Lifeboat launched at 5pm with 9 crew into dense fog but smooth sea.13th February 1918. Service to HMS Minesweeper No. 6. Lifeboat launched at 5pm with 9 crew into dense fog but smooth sea.

At 4.15p.m. a call was received through the Police Station at North Shields from the Senior Naval Officer for he service of the boat to go to the assistance of a mine sweeper on rocks at Cullercoats. Left mooring in heavy fog at 5.0 taking soundings at frequent intervals but could find no trace of ship. As a matter of fact she had refloated and was towed in to Tyne. Whilst still making North the lifeboat came across a ship’s dinghy containing the crew of a tug which had been sent to help the stranded vessel but had herself struck some wreckage and sunk. There were four men in her. The name of the tug was Hugh Bourne of South Shields

This was the last service of the Henry Vernon at Tynemouth and the last service carried out by the station during the war. She was replaced three days later on February 16th by the new motor lifeboat Henry Frederick Swan.  Henry Vernon continued in service with the RNLI and was transferred to Sunderland, sailing there on February 20th. She remained there until 1935 and was sold out of service in 1936, but herself later met a tragic end, having been converted into a motor yacht and named Rohilla. She was chartered by a school and sailed from Sark to Cornwall on September 19th 1959 when she was presumed lost  with the loss of her master and five boys.

Henry Vernon was classed as a Self Righting Motor Lifeboat and was one of the earliest standard motor designs produced by the RNLI.
She was built in 1910 by the Thames Ironworks. Blackwall.
Cost was £3,664 and was covered by Mrs Vernon’s Legacy.
Weight 10 Tons 18 cwt. Official Number 613.
40ft x 10ft 6ins.
1 x 40 Bhp Taylor Engine.
Served Tynemouth 1911 to 1918. Launched 26 times and saved 206 lives.
Served Sunderland 1918 to 1935. Launched 28 times and saved 64 lives.
Sold 1936.