For a couple of years I lived in a seaside village in East Yorkshire when, in autumn and early spring, storms would blow in. Sometimes I watched from the cliff tops as huge waves, crested white, rolled relentlessly on to the beach smashing themselves in fury against the cliffs. The raw power of the sea, uncontrollable, unfettered, filled me with awe tinged with not a little fear. Occasionally I would catch a flicker of light on the horizon – some ship making for shelter or just riding out the storm. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be out there and what it must have felt like in earlier times before modern technology made the sea a slightly safer place. There were times when I watched the RNLI lifeboat launch when it seemed almost impossible for it to remain afloat and admired the courage and dedication of the crew. When all else fails it is the bravery and determination of lifeboat crews and coastguards that save lives.
This is the story of the day of February 10th 1871 when a violent gale tested the courage of all who went to assist ships and sailors in distress.
For several days earlier atrocious weather forced ships to seek shelter in ports along the north eastern coast of Britain. When a break in the weather occurred, a convoy left shelter and headed south. But the westerly wind that helped them on their way dropped suddenly on the evening of February 9th and many of the ships were becalmed in Bridlington Bay on the east coast of Yorkshire. In the early hours of the morning of February 10th the wind got up, increasing in strength and bringing a maelstrom of sleet and snow. Crucially, it also changed direction and blew from the south-east straight into Bridlington Bay and in doing so trapped many of the ship in the Bay.
In the grey morning light, lifeboats and all their crews were readied. Clearly many of the ships were in great danger. Some captains tried to run their ships ashore for safety; others, choosing to ride out the storm, found their vessels driven mercilessly onto the shore by huge waves and boiling surf. Bit by bit, with anchors dragging behind them, 17 ships were thrown ashore to be pounded and smashed up by mountainous waves.
Both Bridlington lifeboats were launched. 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.
The lifeboat Robert Whitworth went out time after time to the wrecks, snatching the sailors from certain death. In one case its crew fought for two hours to reach a vessel but was repeatedly beaten back. On returning to harbour, exhausted crew members were lifted from the boat with hands raw and bleeding from the oars. By this time conditions were so dangerous the Robert Whitworth was withdrawn from service, having saved 12 lives.
Meanwhile the other Bridlington lifeboat, the Harbinger, put out to sea again and again and as one crewman fell exhausted another stepped forward to take his place. However, after the seventh launch, during which sailors from another four vessels were safely recovered, replacement crew were becoming difficult to find. At this point it appeared that the Harbinger, like the Robert Whitworth, would have to be withdrawn.
It was then that David Purdon, Harbinger’s builder and John Clappison, his assistant, stepped up and volunteered to take her out. Another seven men came forward to help. They set off to rescue the crew of the 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 only one crew member, the captain, remained, clinging desperately to the rigging. The rest had taken to the brig’s lifeboat and drowned when it capsized.
Just as the Harbinger hove alongside the Delta a tremendous wave struck the brig sending her crashing into the lifeboat. The lifeboat, hit by the same wave, was thrown into the air and turned turtle. For a few minutes the Harbinger hung upside down until another wave righted her. Only crewman Richard Bedlington remained in the boat; he helped another, John Robinson, to climb back in, using his scarf as a rope. One further crew member, Richard Hopper, managed to scramble back aboard. The six other lifeboat crew all perished, including the first two volunteers David Purdon and John Clappison. All the boat’s oars were lost or smashed and eventually the boat drifted ashore near Wilsthorpe.
As the day wore on the destruction and loss of life continued as it became almost impossible to launch rescues, though 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. At daybreak on February 11th the wind dropped and the devastation of the storm was revealed. Estimates put the number of ships lost to be around 30 and the number of lives lost to be 70.
On February 14th the first mass funeral took place. An estimated 4,000 people turned out to pay their respects. A public fund was set up to assist the widows and orphans of those lost as well as those who manned the lifeboats. Public subscriptions also paid for a monument erected over the mass grave at Priory Churchyard in Bridlington in memory of all those lost. The inscriptions serve to remind us of the price paid that terrible day. On one side of the monument the inscription gives the names of those lost, ‘whilst nobly endeavouring to save those whose bodies rest below’. The other three sides contain inscriptions, ’in lasting memory of a great company of Seamen who perished in the fearful gale… on February 10th 1871’, listing 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’.
(Extract from “Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast” )
Memorial – Bridlington Priory Church