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‘We brought the Rohilla back to life’

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Despite swearing just that week that he would never go out to a wreck again, bricklayer George Peart found himself diving into the freezing North Sea to rescue survivors from the Rohilla.

It was October 1914 and the ship had hit rocks off Saltwick Nab. Stormy weather conditions meant rescue was difficult, but Peart distinguished himself by repeatedly rushing into the water and dragging casualties to safety.

“Well, we could not see them ‘drooned’,” Peart later said.

Thanks to the gallant efforts of Whitby men, many lives were saved that day.

However, for 85 unfortunate victims the Rohilla became a watery grave - but they would rarely be left in peace.

Through the 1920s salvage divers removed the majority of the wreck, down to knee height, although the ship’s six Scotch boilers defeated them.

So the wreck was left alone until the 1960s, when advances in technology meant wreck divers could return to Rohilla, to seek their fortune.

Now aged 82, Sid Weatherill recalled how a small group were able to rediscover the Rohilla wreck and uncover priceless artefacts.

It was 1962 and Sid, Moia Porteus and Ben Dean had approached the wreck’s owner, Jim Weatherill, who became fascinated with the ship’s story.

On board Moia’s boat, named Yogi Bear, the trio headed out to Whitby Rock, where they knew the wreck was hidden beneath the murky waves.

“We went out to look for Rohilla,” said Sid. “But when we started, there were no other divers around here and nobody seemed to know where it was.”

It took the three divers almost an entire season to find the hospital ship, even though it was just 40ft below the waves.

This meant excavations were delayed until the following year.

“In a way the Rohilla was just like an old scrapyard,” said Sid. “The ships that went down with lives on are classed as war graves, but we didn’t think of it like that back then.”

In his garage, to the rear of his Stakesby Road home, Sid has a number of artefacts he recovered from the wreck.

There’s a milk jug, a gravy boat and a toast rack, all of which will have been used by the passengers in the hours preceding the disaster.

The items are inscribed with the logo of the British India Steamship Navigation Company and while some are corroded, others hint at their former splendour with a polished shine.

There’s also a large brass porthole inscribed with the number 265, which Sid hopes to one day hang on his wall.

But for these men at that time, it was large pieces of metal that were the goal.

Moia purchased a new boat, the Sea Urchin, and from that the team began to plan how they would recover pieces hidden below the surface.

Beneath the North Sea waves the going was slow and visibility was often reduced to less than two metres.

With limited means, the men were also largely using homemade equipment.

By 1969 they had discovered the ship’s propellor blades, and realised these could be sold for a considerable sum if recovered to the surface.

Legally-purchased explosives dislodged portions of the ship, but could only do so much.

Sid said: “Ben was a dentist and he said it would come out like an old tooth, but it wouldn’t budge.”

The men wrote to the shipyard which built the Rohilla, Belfast’s Harland and Wolff. This was the same shipbuilders as had built the Titanic, and they provided the information which allowed the team to work out their next step.

They purchased an air tank which was attached to the blade. Gas was steadily pumped into it, with dramatic results.

Sid explained: “I used a crowbar to free the blade and it began to rise. But because the air expands, by the time we had got it up, it started to take off.

“Moia was in the boat above and could just see bubbles all around him, and then the tank hit the bottom of the boat he was in.”

Mercifully, there was no lasting damage - aside from a dent to the air tank - and the victorious team returned the blade to Whitby, where it was unloaded on Endeavour Wharf.

However, the success was tinged with sadness as just the following day, the wreck’s owner, Jim, died of a heart attack.

So soon after securing their first major find, this left the men with the dilemma of how to proceed, and they purchased the wreck from Jim’s widow.

They set up a company named Whitby Marine Ventures Ltd and continued to remove pieces of Rohilla until 1976, when it was sold on to another scrap merchant.

“We were getting a little long in the tooth,” explained Sid. But Rohilla was the biggest wreck on the east coast and we would have gone down to Rohilla even if there was no money in it.

“It was just an adventure for us.”

Now, with the centenary of the Great War and the sinking of the Rohilla approaching, Sid said he is beginning to understand Rohilla’s place in history.

“It’s one of those things we have lived with all our lives,” he said. “It’s just an interesting episode in our lives and because we actually worked on Rohilla, we feel a connection to it, it feels special.”

 

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