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The Flamborough Lifeboats

Will and Fanny Kirby Jason Logg

© Simon Robson

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The Great Gale - 10th February 1871

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last updated :

24th October 2005


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Before the RNLI
Station History

Shipping had been forced to shelter in the ports of Tyne and Tees as the weather had been bad for several days. Around about the 8th of February 1871 the weather changed for the better. A large convoy of ships set sail and headed south, with one report putting the fleet at 400 ships. The westerly wind suddenly dropped on the evening of the 9th of February. Many of the coal carrying cargo ships became becalmed in Bridlington Bay. At roughly 2.00am the next morning a south-easterly wind blew up and became increasingly stronger. By daybreak there was sleet and snow mixed in and it had become a violent ice storm. This was blowing straight into Bridlington Bay, trapping many of the anchoring ships.

The Great Gale MonumentThe impending fate forced some ships masters to run their ships ashore in the hope of reaching safety. Others who were trying to ride out the storm were being driven ashore by the mountainous seas and rolling surf. One by one the ships were driven ashore dragging their anchors behind them. In a short period of time some seventeen ships were all ashore and being quickly broken up by the pounding waves.

The rescue services in Bridlington quickly became over run. The rocket life saving company was assembled and both of Bridlington's lifeboats had launched. Local Coastguards swam through the surf to rescue crews from the nearest wrecks. The townsfolk had congregated on the sea walls to help out where ever they could.

The Great Gale MonumentThe fishermen's lifeboat the 'HARBINGER' attempted a rescue on the ship 'FRIENDS INCREASE', but found getting alongside impossible. The Institution's Lifeboat 'ROBERT WHITWORTH' succeeded and rescued the crew of four and brought them safely back to shore. The lifeboat then returned and attempted to go to the aid of the furthest wreck. This action saved six crewmembers from the 'ECHO', and whilst returning another six crew from the 'WINDSOR'. After landing them the lifeboat launched again to the aid of large vessel aground in a precarious position. The lifeboat crew fought valiantly for over two hours to the reach her but had to admit defeat as wind and sea had beat them. After returning to harbour some of the crew had to be carried from their seats as they were so exhausted and their hands were raw and bleeding. Eventually the casualty rolled over and sank with all hands aboard.

Conditions by this time had become so bad that the 'ROBERT WHITWORTH' was withdrawn from service. She had saved twelve lives, but the wrecks were still amassing. Two vessels had made for the harbour and made safety before the seas began breaking over the sand bar, effectively cutting off the entrance. A schooner decided to follow but was driven against the harbour wall. She initially stood up the relentless pounding by the sea but inevitably began to break up. The rocket life saving company went into action but unfortunately the crew were washed overboard and drowned before a rescue could be affected. A collier brig, despite watching this attempted the same route, but was swept passed the harbour and onto the beach. As an aging ship, she broke up immediately with the loss of all hands. Another ship was seen to founder to the South, and two others came ashore near Auburn with the loss of nine hands. Another brig was driven ashore near Ulrome with the loss of all crew except for the captain.

The Great Gale MonumentA three-masted brig the 'ARROW' of Sunderland was seen to disappear near to Flamborough. She was driven ashore between South Landing and the Lighthouse at a place known locally as Old Fall. Some of the Flamborough fishermen were there, watching the drama unfold. The Flamborough rocket life saving company managed to rescue two from the brig, but she soon started to break up. At this time there were no lifeboats at Flamborough, and the fishermen knew it would be impossible to launch a coble from South Landing. They could watch no longer and returned to South Landing. They carried a coble on their shoulders the one and a half miles back to Old Fall. The coble was successfully launched and rowing against wind and tide reached the 'ARROW'. The youngest crewmember Leonard Mainprize, managed to climb aboard the brig. He found a crewman tangled in a mass of rope and trying to free himself. He cut him free and helped him into the coble. The coble was then backed ashore owing to her being unable to come about in the heavy sea.

Whilst this was going on the 'HARBINGER' lifeboat was still putting to sea time and time again. As one crewman became exhausted, another took his place. After a seventh launch, in which the crews of another four vessels had been saved, it was becoming difficult to find crew for the boat. It was looking as though this lifeboat would also have to be withdrawn from service. It was not until David Purdon (who built the 'HARBINGER') and his assistant, John Clappison, volunteered to take her out again did another seven volunteer. They set off to save the crew of the brig 'DELTA', which was aground and breaking up at Wilsthorpe, but came across another grounded vessel. The crew of five were rescued and landed on South Shore beach, before 'HARBINGER' once more set off to assist the 'DELTA'.

The Great Gale MonumentThe lifeboat found only one crewmember remaining aboard and clinging to the rigging. The other crewmembers had taken to the ship's lifeboat and had been all drowned when it was capsized. The lifeboat had only just got alongside when the brig was struck by a massive wave, which sent her crashing into the lifeboat. This pushed her stern down into the water and she was hit by the same wave. The lifeboat was thrown into the air, rolling her over. The lifeboat remained capsized for over four minutes until another wave rolled her back upright. Amazingly, Richard Bedlington remained in the boat and Richard Hopper managed to climb back aboard. He used his scarf to help John Robinson get back aboard. All the oars had been smashed or lost and the lifeboat eventually drifted ashore near to Wilsthorpe.

As a result of the capsize, the following men lost their lives: Robert Pickering, John Clappison, Richard Atkin, James Watson, David Purdon, and William Cobb. The local press published the words of thanks from the surviving crew, who were so close to meeting the same fate as their colleagues. It read: "We are requested by the survivors of the crew of the life-boat 'HARBINGER' to present their heartfelt thanks to those persons who, with Mr. Robert Dodson, rendered such timely assistance to them when they drifted on to the south beach without the means to help themselves, their physical energies being exhausted, and conveying them to a place of safety; and also, to Mr. Appleby and family, of Wilsthorpe, for their kindness in administering their wants under his roof."

By daybreak of the following day the wind had dropped and debris, timbers and spars littered the beaches. Piles of coal were scattered everywhere amongst the wreckage of the ships. The exact number of lives lost on that fateful day will never be known for sure, but the R.N.L.I estimated the number lost as seventy with thirty ships a total loss. Bodies were still being washed up fourteen days after the storm. Tuesday 14th February saw the first mass funeral take place. Three captains, nineteen crewmen and James Watson from the Harbinger, were buried that day in the graveyard of Bridlington's Priory Church. The funeral procession was said to be one quarter of a mile long with and estimated four thousand onlookers paying their last respects.

A fund was set up "for the purposes of rewarding the boatmen who manned the life-boats and for the relief of the widows and orphans of those who were lost." A committee under the chairmanship of Mr. George Richardson administered this. Donations were received from the Bridlington townsfolk, and additionally large sums were sent from Bradford, Halifax, Hull, Leeds and Sheffield. Public subscriptions paid for a monument to be erected over the mass grave at the Priory Churchyard in memory of all those who lost their lives. Engraved on the four sides is a stark reminder of the carnage that took place in Bridlington Bay on that day.

The monument reads:

In remembrance of
Robert Pickering
John Clappison
Richard Atkin
James Watson
David Purdon
William Cobb
who lost their lives in the
Harbinger Life-Boat
whilst nobly endeavouring to
save those whose bodies rest
In lasting memory
A Great Company of Seamen
who perished in the fearful
which swept over
Bridlington Bay
on February 10th 1871
The waves of the sea are
mighty and rage horribly
but the Lord who dwelleth on high
is mightier.
The "ARROW" of Sunderland
The "CAROLINE" of Yarmouth
The "DELTA" of Whitby
The "JOHN" of Whitstable
The "LAVINIA" of Seaham
The "MARGARET" of Ipswich
The "PRODUCE" of Folkstone
The "TERESITA" of Harwich
and an unknown English
Schooner were wrecked on the
10th February 1871 with loss of
life in Bridlington Bay.
Thirteen other vessels were
lost in the Bay in the same gale.
Forty-three bodies of those who on that day lost their lives, lie in this Churchyard.

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Helmsman - Flamborough Lifeboat Station