The early years of the Scarborough Lifeboat

This chapter first appeared in Godfrey Arthurs book the Scarborough Lifeboats

Since medieval times, the town of Scarborough had been important to mariners for its "harbour of refuge", where it was said, mariners would be safe "in any adversity, tempest or peril." Many found to their cost that this was a gross misrepresentation of the truth, for many ships were in fact wrecked whilst trying to enter the port here.

Consequently, local fishermen were amongst the first to carry out shore based rescues using their own cobles, and many a gallant rescue was carried out here. Sadly, most of these exploits were unrecorded, for there were no newspapers to sing the praises of these heroes.

One incident which escaped oblivion occurred on 6th October 1799, when a vessel was seen to be in distress a little to the north of Filey Brigg. A number of Scarborough men, led by John Harwood, manned a coble and rowed four miles to the wreck. They succeeded in taking off the crew, then rowed the four tortuous miles back to Scarborough.

Incidents of this kind made Scarborough people well aware of the value of the lifeboats, so it was inevitable that the town was to be amongst the first in the country to follow the example set at South Shields. Thomas Hinderwell, the well known historian, was a keen advocate of lifeboats, and he was amongst those who pressed for a local lifeboat to be based at Scarborough.

During 1800, meetings were held here, and an appeal for funds was launched. A committee was appointed, and lifeboat crews were chosen from amongst the local fishermen. A resolution stated that there should be twelve men in each crew, and that ".. each crew shall choose two steersmen from their number, and he who has the greatest number of votes shall have direction of the boat." It was also stipulated that the crews should work in rotation, and that the boat should not be launched without the consent of at least one member of the lifeboat committee.

By August 1801, the sum of £212 one shilling and six pence had been raised, and the boat became a reality. It was to be a Greathead boat the same as the "Original", and the committee had to pay 5 guineas for the plans. The boat was built by Chris Smith, who charged £129 5 shillings for his labours, plus an additional £17 17 shillings for the cork used in the boat. Since the boat was not named, it is generally referred to as the Greathead boat.

Appropriately, the first coxswain of the Scarborough lifeboat was John Harwood, who had already shown his worth as a lifesaver.

A levy of a halfpenny was put on local shipping to help defray the cost of running the boat, but nevertheless, finding sufficient funds was to prove something of a problem.

The first service by the boat took place on 1st November,1801, when the Newcastle brig "Aurora" came to grief off the town. John Harwood and his crew took off the seven crew of the brig, and landed them safely. The owners of the "Aurora" made a gift of five guineas to the lifeboat as a token of their appreciation. During that first year, similar gifts - all of five guineas - were made by the owners of the brig "Experiment", the brig "Assistance", the hoy "Catherine" , and two other vessels. Clearly, the Greathead boat had been in great demand from the start.

In 1802, the appeals were made for further funds; it was pointed out that besides saving lives, the lifeboat had also been the means of saving three vessels which would otherwise have been wrecked. A further £400 was raised in response to this appeal, an indication that people were greatly impressed by the work already done by the boat.

History is silent on the further exploits of the Greathead boat until 11 November 1807, when it affected two rescues. The crew of the "John and Ann" of Scarborough was saved, except the mate, who was killed in the wreck, and also saved were the crew of the "Mary Wright" of Yarmouth. A few days later, no less than seven vessels stranded between Filey Brigg and Scarborough, but details of the event are not available.

Another storm of great ferocity visited the Scarborough area on 4th November 1821, when six ships were wrecked at Scarborough. The collier sloop "Hope" of Wisbech capsized near the harbour mouth, and all on board died, and the schooner "Collingwood" of Rye suffered similarly.

Later in the day, the "Becephalus" of Shields came ashore in distress, and this time the lifeboat was able to effect a rescue. The three other casualties were the "Caladonia" of Boston, the "Providence" of Shields and the "Eagle" of London, all of which were stranded in the South Bay. There appears to be no record of whether lives were lost from these, nor whether the lifeboat was involved in rescue attempts.

Until this time, the lifeboat had been kept at Mill Beck, which was where the present Valley road joins the Foreshore, but in 1821, it was decided that the boat would be better kept nearer to the site of the West Pier. It was then housed almost opposite to where the present lifeboat house stands, on the side of the road away from the sea.

In 1822, the committee met and decided that the Greathead boat was too heavy and cumbersome; though they were happy with its seaworthiness, they felt a smaller and lighter boat might be better. Speed was of vital importance in launching the boat, and a lighter boat could be launched that little bit more quickly.

In any case, the boat was in need of repairs by this time, so it seemed the opportune moment for replacing it with a lighter one. A letter was sent to Lloyd's of London asking for financial help, for it was well known by this time that Lloyd's were keen to promote lifeboats everywhere.

When Whitby purchased a Greathead boat in 1802, Lloyd's had contributed £50 towards it, and a like sum was received by the Scarborough committee in 1822 towards their new boat.

In 1823, Scarborough received her second lifeboat, designed by James Peake, and built by Robert Skelton. Both of these men were later to achieve prominence in their separate fields incidentally; Peake became well known for his work in lifeboat design, and Skelton was to build the first fishing yawl ten years later, at Scarborough. Skelton's lifeboat was 28 feet long, and 9 feet in beam. Like Greathead's boat, it was ten oared, but unlike the earlier one, was fitted with "conduiting pipes", to allow water to run out of the boat.

The first service by the Skelton boat took place on 11th October 1824, when the Sunderland brig "Hebe" was wrecked in the South Bay. The seven crew of the brig were saved, and silver medals were subsequently awarded to James Fowler and Smith Tindall for their gallant conduct during the rescue. As far as can be ascertained, these were the first medals awarded to men of the Scarborough lifeboat - indeed, the awarding of medals was only begun in that year, 1824.

Two days later, the Skelton lifeboat was called on again, to save the crew of the brig "Rose" of Sunderland, which was wrecked in almost the same place as the "Hebe".

A third Silver Medal was won at Scarborough in 1828, when coxswain Thomas Clayburn and four others saved the eight crew of a vessel called "Centurion" which was wrecked at Osgodby. On this occasion, Clayburn used a small boat, and not the lifeboat, to effect the rescue.

During the next seven years, there were many more wrecks at or near Scarborough, but sadly we have no indication of whether the lifeboat was involved in rescues or not. Since there is no official record of these wrecks in lifeboat history, it is perhaps worth recording them here, with brief comments on what is known.
- 5th March,1828 "Liberty's Increase" wrecked, nothing known of her.
- 28th April 1829 "New Albion" of London wrecked with three crew perished
- 14th October 1829:Cowslip of Lynn wrecked;Thomas and Martha of Whitby wrecked with the crew saved; Isabella ran ashore with the crew saved.
- 1st September 1833: Lively's Increase of Whitby with crew saved; Perseverance stranded near the Spa with crew saved; Diana struck outer pier with crew saved (overall 61 British ships were wrecked on the East coast on this day.
- 23 January 1835 St Helena of Shields wrecked
- 20th March 1835 Thomas and Ann of Scarborough struck the pier.

Disaster overtook the Scarborough lifeboat for the first time on 17th February, 1836, when the sloop "John" of Aberdeen was seen to be in distress in the south bay. The lifeboat was launched through very heavy surf, and as she approached the outside of the broken water a huge wave tipped her end over end.

The crew were thrown into the surf, save one, who was trapped under the boat. There were fourteen men in the lifeboat; only four of them were to survive. Of these, three were fortunate enough to be able to grasp the upturned lifeboat as she washed ashore, whilst the fourth man, William Mollon, was still trapped beneath the boat. He was able to breathe through the draining tubes, which went right through the bottom of the hull of the boat.

Amongst those lost was a man called John Owston Dale, a name that was to occur over and over in Scarborough lifeboat records.

Ironically perhaps, the three crew of the sloop were rescued by means rocket lines fired from the shore. The system of attaching lines to a rocket which was then fired over the wreck had been devised some years earlier by one Captain Manby, and Scarborough was one of the first ports to use this method of lifesaving.

A disaster fund for the relief of the bereaved was set up after the incident, and this raised the considerable sum of £1,400. Meanwhile, Skelton's lifeboat was repaired, and put back into service. She was in use right up until the year 1861, during which time she saved many more lives. Still there was no official record, however, for though the RNLI had been formed in 1824, Scarborough remained independent of this organization until 1861. Many vessels came to grief near Scarborough in the years before that date:
- 10 December 1836 Amicus of Blyth was wrecked.
- 4 February 1837 Bessy Bruley of Newcastle was run down
- 22nd November 1840 Hoop of Sandwich wrecked at White Nab
- 24th February The Emulous and The Jerome both of Scarborough were both wrecked
- 9th October 1844 Vivid of Sunderland wrecked
- 9th January 1845 Aquillon of Newcastle wrecked
- 14th March 1846 Gironde of Sunderland wrecked
- January 1847 Thetford of Whitby wrecked
- 24th September 1848 Agnes of Sunderland wrecked. Three perished
- 15th April 1849 Northumbria of Newcastle wrecked
- 3rd December 1849 Ribston of Scarborough stranded
- 2nd October 1851 Isabella stranded by Cayton Bay with crew saved
- 13th January 1852 Two Brothers wrecked with crew saved
- 16th June 1854 Postboy stranded in South Bay
- 17th October 1854 Courier of Goole stranded with crew saved
- 23rd November 1854:Lady Delavel of Shields foundered with all lost; William of Shields foundered with all lost
- 9th December 1854 Prosperous of Ramsgate stranded with crew saved
- 30th October 1855 Miner of Newcastle stranded with crew saved
- 5th November 1855 Evans of Scarborough wrecked

A service which was carried out on 14th November 1856 brought a fourth Silver Medal to the town, when the Sunderland brigantine "Elizabeth" appeared here in distress. Henry Wyrill put off with five others in his coble, took off the five crew and landed them safely. Within a matter of hours, the Elizabeth had been dashed to pieces by the waves, and Wyrill had joined the growing band of medal holders from Scarborough.

The following year a fifth Silver Medal was awarded to Thomas Clayburn, not for any specific service, but because Clayburn had completed his fortieth year of service to the lifeboat.

Shipping disasters continued during this period:
- 4th January 1857: Thompsons of Whitby stranded and 8 saved by lifeboat; Wilsons of Shields stranded with 1 lost and 9 saved by lifeboat.
- 5th January 1857 Samuel Cunard stranded 10 saved by rocket line
- 7th January 1857 Ivy of Scarborough wrecked Cayton Bay
- 25th December 1858 Yorkshire Lass of Hull stranded
- 21st November 1860 Charity of Scarborough stranded
- 9th February 1861 Agnes of Grangemouth stranded with crew saved by lifeboat

This was the last service of the Skelton lifeboat; it had been in use for almost forty years, and had saved many lives- just how many will never be known.

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