Rohilla case resurfaces for 99th anniversary

Pete Thomson, Honorary Curator of Whitby Lifeboat Museum, with a case which belonged to Mary Roberts on the Rohilla which was shipwrecked off Whitby''w134514a
Pete Thomson, Honorary Curator of Whitby Lifeboat Museum, with a case which belonged to Mary Roberts on the Rohilla which was shipwrecked off Whitby''w134514a

A long-lost artefact from one of Whitby’s most famous maritime disasters has resurfaced for the first time in nearly a century on eBay.

The luggage trunk of Mary Roberts, who survived the sinking of the Rohilla in 1914, has been recovered by Whitby lifeboat museum’s Pete Thompson after he spotted it on the online auction site.

Mary Roberts, survivor of the Titanic and Rohilla tragedies

Mary Roberts, survivor of the Titanic and Rohilla tragedies

Mary Roberts became famous across the country when she survived both the sinking of the Rohilla and the Titanic, two years earlier, and Mr Thompson said it feels like fate that the trunk has now come to light.

Wednesday saw the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the Rohilla, where lifeboat crews battled for 50 hours to pull 144 survivors from the wreck.

“It’s spooky,” he said. “The fact that I have got this here now, 99 years later. Mary Roberts carried it on to the Rohilla and then she never saw it again.”

The trunk had been presumed lost to the North Sea since Rohilla smashed against rocks to the west of Saltwick Nab at around 4am on October 30.

“When the sea calmed down the rocks would be crawling with people picking up items and it’s been missing for the last 99 years until it surfaced on eBay for sale a month ago,” said Mr Thompson.

The former lifeboat coxswain was not even aware of the antique’s existence until he contacted a friend who had attended the 90th anniversary in 2004 and happened to mention the trunk.

“If I hadn’t made that phone call I wouldn’t have got it,” he said. “It was an absolute freak of luck. It’s such a coincidence, it’s almost as if the Lord’s looking out for us.”

Mr Thompson contacted the seller, an antiques dealer in Louth, Lincolnshire, who agreed to sell it to the museum for just £50.

Made of tin, with wooden struts, the box had come to light following a house clearance in York earlier this year, but prior to that its history is unknown.

The Rohilla was built in 1906 by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, the same shipyard that would later construct the equally ill-fated Titanic.

As the Rohilla sank Mary Roberts was brought ashore by Whitby’s No. 2 lifeboat ‘John Fieldon’ and she was later quoted as saying the Rohilla sinking was worse to endure than the Titanic.

Whereas the Titanic sank in calm water, the weather during the Rohilla disaster was tempestuous, with gales and huge waves battering against the ship as it broke apart.

Mary had been a stewardess for the White Star Line for several years when she signed on for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, for which she would be paid £3 10s. She left the doomed liner on lifeboat Number 11, helping to look after a small baby until being rescued by the Carpathia. She would later note that the White Star Line stopped her pay at 2.20am, the exact time Titanic sank.

Following a short time of recovery she returned to her job at sea, signing on to the Rohilla as a nurse.

Since purchasing the trunk, Mr Thompson has been in contact with the family of Mary Roberts, who didn’t know of its existence.

The trunk is now set to feature in a national World War One exhibition focussing on the brave lifeboatmen who rushed to the aid of the stricken vessel and its survivors.

Called Hope in the Great War, the touring exhibition will celebrate the courage and bravery of the lifeboat crews who risked their lives for strangers during the First World War.

Whitby’s renowned lifesaving story has been chosen to feature alongside five other RNLI lifeboat services that took place during the conflict.

The RNLI has also teamed up with members of Whitby Art Society to create a piece of work for the tour, creating 64 individual items of artwork which will be collated to form a storyboard of the rescue.

Sue Morton, secretary of the art society, said: “The project has created an amazing sense of working together for a common cause. We are hoping the whole thing will be a tremendous boost to Whitby and to the centenary commemoration next year.”

The lifeboat museum is now appealing for anyone who has artefacts or anecdotes they would like to contribute to the exhibition to get in touch by calling (01947) 602001.