The UK seems to be the target for a particularly nasty storm over the next 48 hours so I thought it appropriate to give you this story. I need only add that now, as in 1871, the Lifeboat Service (RNLI) is manned by volunteers.
On 10 February 1871 a violent gale tested to the limits the courage of all who went to assist ships and sailors in distress.
For several days earlier the weather had been atrocious and ships huddled for shelter where they could. When a break in the weather occurred, a large convoy of ships made a break for it and headed south towards Bridlington. However, the westerly wind that helped them on their way dropped suddenly on the evening of 9th February and many ships were becalmed in Bridlington Bay. In the early hours of the morning of 10th February the wind got up, increasing in strength all the while, bringing sleet and snow with it until it turned into a vicious ice-storm. Crucially, the wind changed direction, blowing from the south-east straight into Bridlington Bay and in doing so bottled up many of the becalmed ships.
As soon as grey morning light broke it was obvious that many of the ships were in great danger. Some masters tried to run their ships ashore for safety, others, tried to ride out the storm but were driven mercilessly onto the shore by the huge waves and boiling surf. Bit by bit, with anchors dragging behind them, seventeen ships were thrown ashore to be pounded and smashed up by mountainous waves.
The two Bridlington lifeboats launched and the rocket crews assembled. The local coastguards swam or waded chest-high through turbulent surf to pull crews off the nearer wrecks and get them to safety. Townsfolk ran to the sea walls to help out wherever they could.
Both lifeboats, the Robert Whitworth and the Harbinger went out time after time to the wrecks snatching the sailors from certain death. On returning to harbour, exhausted crew members were lifted from the boats with hands raw and bleeding from the oars. By this time conditions were so dangerous the Robert Whitworth was withdrawn from service having saved twelve lives.
The Harbinger continued its work and as one crewman fell to exhaustion another stepped forward to take his place until after the seventh launch no replacement crew could be found. At this point it appeared that the Harbinger, like the Robert Whitworth would have to be withdrawn.
However when David Purdon, Harbinger’s builder and John Clappison, his assistant, stepped up and volunteered to take her out another seven volunteers came forward. They set off to rescue the crew of a brig Delta, aground and breaking up on Wilsthorpe Sands. On the way they came across another grounded vessel and took off the five man crew, landed them and then turned back to the brig. When they finally got there they found only one crew member, the Captain, clinging desperately to the rigging. All the others had taken to the brig’s lifeboat and drowned when it capsized. Just as the Harbinger got alongside the Delta a tremendous wave struck the brig sending her crashing into the lifeboat. The lifeboat, struck by the same wave, was thrown into the air and turned turtle. For a few minutes the Harbinger remained upside down until another wave righted her. Just one crewman, Richard Bedlington managed to stay in the boat – all the others being plunged into the sea. Bedlington dragged one crewman back in, using his scarf as a rope and a third Richard Hopper, managed to scramble back aboard. The six other lifeboat crew all perished including the first two volunteers David Purdon and John Clappison.
As the day wore on the destruction and loss of life continued as it became almost impossible to launch rescues although not for want of trying. Those on shore could only watch helplessly as men struggled for their lives. A contemporary report describes how:
“the piercing cries of the drowning crews were frequently heard amidst the howling of the storm.”
All through the night distress signals were seen far out at sea but by daybreak on the 11th February the wind dropped and the devastation of the storm revealed. Debris littered the beaches amongst the wreckage of the vessels. Estimates put the number of ships lost to be around 30; the exact number of lives lost is not known but generally estimated at around 70. Corpses were still washing ashore two weeks after the storm.
On February 14th the first funeral took place of three captains, nineteen sailors and James Watson a crewman from the Harbinger. People turned out in their hundreds to pay their respects and a public fund was set up to assist the widows and orphans of those lost. A monument erected over the mass grave at the Priory Churchyard in Bridlington serves to remind us of the price paid that terrible day. On one side of the monument the inscription gives the names of those lifeboat men lost “whilst nobly endeavouring to save those whose bodies rest below”.
The other three sides list the names and number of ships lost before finishing with the grim tally:
“Forty-three bodies of those who on that day lost their lives, lie in this churchyard.”