Officially Frederick Neville Riley was born at Holyhead on 24 March 1896. However another source suggests that he was actually born on a Sailing Barque at Antwerp, his father Alfred Thomas Riley being Master of the vessel.
Neville Riley was brought up at Sunrise Terrace, Gors, Holyhead and in 1909 was a member of the fledgling 1st Holyhead Scout Troop. On a Saturday afternoon in June of that year, and dressed in his new Scout uniform, he went to the aid of a 10 year old boy, Richard Robert Jones, who had fallen into the water off Mackenzie Pier whilst fishing. The rescue was witnessed by a number of people and a recommendation was made for recognition of this brave act to the Chief Scout, Major-General Robert Baden-Powell. As a result Neville Riley was awarded the Scout Silver Medal for Saving Life. He was presented with the medal in the grounds of Llys Y Gwynt at Holyhead by Colonel Pilkington.
By 1913 Neville Riley was serving as a 17 year old Cadet on the Blue Star ship SS Broderick. We know this from a postcard sent from his mother, Miriam. The photograph was taken by his father, probably at Penrhos.
By 1915 Neville Riley had qualified as Second Mate and by 1917 as First Mate. In 1919 he gained his Master’s Certificate for Ocean Going Vessels. He was at sea throughout World War 1 and for this he was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal and British War Medal. His brother Ronald was employed on the clerical staff of the LNWR Marine Department when war broke out and was selected by Commander Holland to serve in the recently formed Inland Water Transport section of the Royal Engineers. He ended the war as Captain.
By the time of WW2 Captain Riley had obtained his own command and in 1942 was Master of the Blue Star vessel SS Brisbane Star. This vessel, together with her sister ship Melbourne Star, were selected to be part of the relief convoy to the besieged island of Malta under the code name Operation Pedestal. Both ships were fast and ideal for a quick passage through the Gibralter Strait. In all the convoy consisted of 50 ships with 14 merchantmen heavily loaded with essential supplies the island needed to resist the Axis onslaught. The convoy set off from Scotland in early August and passed through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar on the 10th August. The Brisbane Star‘s cargo included high octane aviation fuel in cans, torpedoes, bombs, gun barrels and other materials of war. On the 13th August she was hit by a torpedo in the bow, which resulted in a large gaping hole causing the vessel to significantly reduce speed.
Captain Riley decided to run for the shelter of the Tunisian coast and eventually anchored off the Tunisian port of Sousse. Here the French harbour authorities declared the Brisbane Star unseaworthy and tried their utmost to detain her, but since the ship had not actually entered the harbour they were unable to enforce their declaration about the state of the ship. It has also been reported that Captain Riley had helped persuade the French Authorities not to intern his ship with ample servings of good Scotch Whisky. With Malta about 200 miles away the Brisbane Star moved away from the coast under cover of darkness, later picking up an escort of Spitfires in order to hopefully complete the last leg of the journey with some sort of protection. Valetta was reached with her cargo intact on the 14th August, the day after her sister ship, the Melbourne Star had arrived. Only 5 of the 14 merchant ships managed to reach Malta but the war materials they carried allowed Malta to continue to survive.
Captain Riley was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), one of the first officers of the Merchant Navy to receive this honour for ‘seamanship, fortitude and endurance in taking merchantmen through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks by day and night from enemy submarines, aircraft and surface forces’.
Captain Riley married Jean Nicolina Ralston in 1937 and when he retired in 1962 they moved to live in Sydney, Australia. He died there in September 1979. His wife passed away in February 1992.
Contributed by Barry Hillier and Mark Bertorelli whose postcard was the starting point for finding out more about Neville Riley
© Holyhead Maritime Museum.
This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.
The photographs of Captain Riley and his Scout Medal are from https://www.militaryimages.net/media/frederick-neville-riley.137389/ and can be found at Fort St. Elmo National War Museum, Valletta, Malta.
The photograph of Neville Riley and Richard Robert Jones is from https://scoutsmon.wales/announcement/holyhead-scout-awarded-silver-medal/