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The Bridlington Lifeboat tragedy - 19th August 1952

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last updated :

26th October 2005


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On the afternoon of the 19th August 1952 reports were coming in of two teenage girls who had got into difficulties whilst swimming in Thornwick Bay on the north side of the head. The Flamborough lifeboat, which normally covered this area, was only yards away from the incident. Unfortunately at this time the Flamborough boat, 'HOWARD D', was off service as the slipway was being repaired and extended, making a launch impossible. At 5.08pm the Coastguards requested the Bridlington lifeboat launch.

There was a strong north-north east wind blowing the sea into a rough state, which was sweeping the girls out of the bay. The Flamborough rocket life saving company had already mustered on the cliff top and had succeeded in firing a line across to the girls. At this point one of the girls appeared to be unconscious and the other was attempting to swim back to shore but was getting weaker.

As the Bridlington boat came round the head she received reports that the Bridlington based R.A.F rescue launch had recovered the body of one the girls. This later transpired to be 16 year old Joan Ellis of Sheffield. The other girl, Gillian Fox, also 16 and from Sheffield was still missing. The lifeboat continued and passed the R.A.F launch making its way back to Bridlington.

Thornwick Bay TodayIt was reported that the missing girl was floating off North Landing and the rocket team had a line on her. Coxswain Walter Newby started his search from here until reaching Little Thornwick. As nothing was found he turned around and proceeded back to North Landing. The lifeboat started to enter Thornwick Bay but was hit broadside on by a large wave, caused by the wind, ebbing tide and backwash from the cliff. This wave completely rolled the lifeboat over, throwing five of the seven-man crew into the water. Coxswain Newby had held onto the wheel but force of righting had thrown him overboard. Second motor mechanic Derek Nightingale had managed to wedge himself under the engine canopy and was the only crewman remaining aboard. He saw the Bowman, Robert Redhead clinging to the stern of the boat and Coxswain Newby trying to swim back when another wave swept both away. Nightingale then heard shouts and found crewman Herbert Smith half way aboard and clinging to the guard chains, so he helped him back aboard.

By now most of the five crewmembers in the water were starting to come ashore in Thornwick Bay. The huge crowd of onlookers that had watched the tragedy unfold were helping them out of the water. Unfortunately Robert Redhead had washed ashore face down and was dragged onto the beach. He was given artificial respiration, but had drowned as a result of his injuries.

Ended up hereWhen the lifeboat had capsized her anchor had fallen out and effectively anchored her. The engines had also cut out as they were designed to do. Derek Nightingale re-started the engines and Herbert Smith took the wheel, despite injuries to his arm. As the boat's axe had also been washed away, Nightingale had to cut the anchor line with a knife, whilst pulling in all loose ropes. The "TILLIE MORRISON, SHEFFIELD" was steamed clear of Thornwick Bay and the broken water, where they stopped to see if everyone else was clear of the water. They then decided to make for North Landing, but quickly realized the lifeboat was now taking on water rapidly. The boat headed straight back into Thornwick Bay and one of the engines stopped. The drogue was deployed to allow the swell to carry the lifeboat to the beach. When they were within 50 yards a line was thrown ashore and Coxswain Cowling of Flamborough supervised a group of around 50 to haul her ashore. The damage below the waterline was quite visible and it is thought that this occurred when the boat righted, possibly onto a submerged rock.

The five crewmembers that had made it ashore were Coxswain Walter Newby, John Newby, Jim Robinson, Bill Bird and Robert P. Redhead. Mr. Redhead had sadly died shortly after coming ashore, and Coxswain Newby had to be detained in hospital overnight. The two girls, who had been staying in a caravan near by, were also sadly drowned. Gillian Fox, who the lifeboat had been searching for washed up near Briel Newk some time later.

The inquiry into the capsize was conducted by Commodore J. M. Upton, RNR, a senior official of the R.N.L.I. Mr. P. James, the district engineer, and Commodore H. L. Wheeler assisted and a full report was made to the then London Headquarters. The district surveyor, Mr. H. G. Larter, who happened to be in the area also made a full report into the condition of the boat. This left no lifeboat cover in the immediate area as the nearest reserve lifeboat was in Whitby. Arrangements were made to have this sent down, but the crew were first asked if they were prepared to man it as it was not a self righting type. In true R.N.L.I. traditions they all agreed.

Robert Redhead was only 55 years old and left a wife and three sons. Mrs Redhead had been in the cinema at the time of the tragedy and was informed there. The R.N.L.I paid her a pension equivalent to leading ratings in the Royal Navy. Funeral costs and allowances were also paid to his children. Local fishermen took a collection and the Bridlington Fishermen's Widows and Orphans Fund donated £100. Mr Redhead was taken to his final resting place in Bridlington Cemetery by life-boatmen. A plaque was unveiled by Lady Hotham, in the lifeboat house which reads: "In memory of Robert P. Redhead, Bowman of the 'Tillie Morrison, Sheffield,' who lost his life whilst on service August 19th 1952."

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