On the 7th of September 1838 Grace Darling and her father William saved nine people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire out on the Farne Islands.
On the 7th of September 2013, one hundred and seventy-five years later, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute celebrated the anniversary in Seahouses harbour and offshore.
The vessel was built by the Thames Iron Works at Canning Town in London in 1909. Given hull number TL37 and official number 594, the lifeboat was built at a cost of £722.9.1d, provided by a legacy from William Riley of Leamington. The Rubie 34 ft self righting lifeboat had an 8 ft beam, with 6 tubes used for relieving any water washed inboard. With a 5 inch wood and iron keel, two 16 ft bilge keels as well as two water ballast tanks she weighed 2 tons 6 cwt. The rowing, or pulling, lifeboat was one of the RNLI's lighter boats with no sails. Her 10 oars could have two men each, with a coxswain, assistant coxswain and bowman completing her crew.
The lifeboat was taken into service by the RNLI on the 11th June 1909. After trials she was allocated to the Upgang Lifeboat Station, one mile along the beach west of Whitby harbour, where she was only launched on service twice. The station closed on the 13th November 1919 with the lifeboat transferring to Whitby harbour where she became the number 2 lifeboat, being launched a further thirty-one times, saving 10 lives. She served until the 27th May 1931 when she was decommissioned. After a short time in store she was sold in November for just £35 and was converted at some cost into a motor cruiser. During the next few decades we know little of her history: rumour has it she was at Dunkirk. By the 1960s she was at Redston wharf on the River Severn. The ownership of the lifeboat was transferred to a builder in Stourport in 1982 and the boat was restored, including some re-planking, with a new engine being fitted. It was in the late 80s or early 90s that the boat was moved to Devon and moored at Barnstaple.
In 2001 William Riley was again sold, having been towed in by the RNLI after engine failure. Sometime later she escaped her moorings and was swept into the low bridge at Barnstaple destroying the wheelhouse. Later, on a low tide, the boat sadly settled onto a mooring post resulting in two holes in the hull below the waterline. The next owner had little time for repair work, her cabin rotted and vandalism resulted in further damage to the hull. In 2005 she was advertised on an internet auction site and acquired for restoration.
On the 30th October 1914 the hospital ship Rohilla, en route to Dunkirk with 229 on board, ran aground on the treacherous rocks of Saltwick Nab. In a truly remarkable feat the Whitby Number 2 lifeboat, John Fielden was hauled over an 8 foot harbour wall and dragged for a further three-quarters of a mile over the jagged slippery surface of the scar itself. The lifeboat was launched into the boiling surf rescuing 17 on her first trip to the grounded vessel. The lifeboat was launched into the sea again and was able to rescue a further 18. Back on shore it was found that the lifeboat was too badly damaged to be of any further use and she was abandoned to the elements, left on the rock scar, which had claimed the Rohilla.
The storm continued, making it impossible for the other Whitby lifeboat to leave the harbour. There seemed little hope of rescue for those stranded aboard the Rohilla's remains. Unable to stand by and do nothing the lifeboat men came up with a daring plan to aid those aboard the Rohilla. In an amazing feat the Upgang lifeboat William Riley was hauled over land to the cliff top, overlooking the wrecked ship. In what was to be an extraordinarily difficult task, the lifeboat was lowered down a 200 foot almost perpendicular cliff. However, despite all that had gone on to get the lifeboat into position adjacent to the Rohilla the lifeboat men could do no more as darkness fell.
The Scarborough lifeboat, Queensbury had been towed to the scene. But after 18 hours at sea and numerous valiant attempts to close on the wreck, they were forced to return home defeated. The Teesmouth lifeboat had launched but after sustaining damage in such poor conditions she had little choice but to return to her home port. The following morning both the William Riley and the Whitby l lifeboat, Robert & Mary Ellis, attempted rescues but despite heroic efforts neither was able to get close to the remains of the Rohilla. The Tynemouth motor lifeboat, Henry Vernon, which had sailed over forty miles in darkness and extremely hazardous conditions arrived at Whitby. The oil to be used for calming broken seas, that had been loaded on to the William Riley for a further rescue attempt, was transferred to the motor boat. Then, with the Whitby assistant coxswain aboard, the Henry Vernon succeeded in rescuing the remaining 50 survivors. Over the weekend as the tragic story of the Rohilla unfolded, six lifeboats were involved.
The RNLI lists this event as one of the most significant services in its history. Two gold and four silver medals were awarded after the rescue and the lifeboat crews were given cash awards. Of the lifeboats involved only the Robert & Mary Ellis (converted to a houseboat) and William Riley are known to survive.
In 2005 Dave Charlton spotted an advert on an internet auction for a derelict lifeboat: further reading revealed her to be the William Riley. A series of phone calls and some haggling saw a price agreed and the lifeboat was removed from the auction. Dave was simply interested in ensuring the survival of an important heritage item. Speaking to Peter Thomson, the curator of Whitby lifeboat museum, it was agreed that there would be considerable interest in seeing the old lifeboat returned to Whitby and restored to her former glory.
In order to facilitate the recovery and restoration, a well attended meeting was held in the old lifeboat station. The turnout was indeed confirmation that there was great interest in bringing the lifeboat back to Whitby. Dave described the state of the old lifeboat and what was going to be needed to make the restoration project feasible. A support group was quickly formed, made up of interested parties and a handful of enthusiasts who volunteered their assistance.
It soon became obvious that in order to progress it was necessary to form a charitable trust to oversee the project. Several individuals volunteered as trustees and Dave undertook the required work to set up the charity. The meeting also brought forward a team of volunteers who would go down to Devon to recover the boat.
In August Dave and his wife Sara, Peter Thomson, and Tim Hicking set off to recover the lifeboat from a grass bank on the River Taw that had been the resting place for the ex-lifeboat for many years. A few weeks before the recovery exercise Dave and Sara had cleaned out several bin bags of debris, accumulated over several years, from the boat, patched the holes and inserted strengthening beams. Timing was critical for only at the highest spring tides would William Riley float and then only for about one hour.
William Riley was at a very inaccessible location and in order to get the lifeboat to a suitable lifting point about 200 yards away, the team were forced to wade waist deep along the grass bank when the tide was in, no mean feat when you are also delegated to pulling the lifeboat along at the same time. The grass bank was littered with obstructions and debris that the team had to navigate round. Eventually the lifeboat was pulled alongside a small quay where it was secured ready for lifting. Strops were carefully placed under the hull and the lifeboat was lifted carefully out of the water and placed onto a trailer for transport. The crane had been provided at cost by a local firm and the trailer and transport arrangements were kindly provided by Jeff Robinson, owner of a haulage company in Skinningrove free of charge. Only when the ex-lifeboat was safely secured could the recovery team breathe a sigh of relief and credit themselves with a job well done.
On the 20th of August the lifeboat finally made her return to Whitby along with a proud recovery team. The news of the arrival was quickly reported around the town and shortly thereafter a crowd of onlookers had gathered to witness the homecoming. After several days on display af the marina she was taken to her temporary home at Cross Butts Farm where she was to be restored.The main work was just beginning.