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The Whitby Heroes Who Braved The Storm 159 Years Ago

The Whitby Heroes Who Braved The Storm 159 Years Ago

Published by Matthew Pells at 8:49am 8th February 2020. (Updated at 9:03am 8th February 2020)

On the 9th February 1861, the Yorkshire Coast was hit by a massive storm which saw more than 200 ships wrecked on the east coast.

Among the losses that day was Whitby’s lifeboat which capsized with the loss of all but one of the crew. The men had been attempting to rescue sailors from a stricken collier called Merchant and had put the lifeboat to sea for the sixth time that day.

The only lifeboatman to survive the capsize was Henry Freeman, who was on his first lifeboat launch and is thought to have survived as he was the only man wearing a new design of cork lifejacket. Freeman was awarded an RNLI Silver Medal for his part in the incident and went on to become Whitby’s most renowned lifeboatman, helping to save more than 300 lives during more than 20 years as Whitby RNLI Coxswain.

The Whitby Lifeboat Museum have marked the anniversary of the storm by sharing a picture from their archive of Henry Freeman in his cork life jacket.

Speaking ahead of the 150th anniversary in 2011, former Whitby RNLI Coxswain, Mike Russell, said the lifeboat disaster had a huge impact on the town and led to Whitby’s lifeboat service being taken over by the RNLI.

"When I think about the lifeboats, the equipment and the training the RNLI gives us today, it’s hard to imagine that these men went to sea in such a terrific storm in just an open rowing boat. They had already carried out five rescues that day and must have been completely exhausted, yet they still went out for a sixth time to try to rescue the crew of the Merchant. They showed such courage and determination but ultimately lost their lives trying to save others.

‘The whole town was in mourning for the men, who are commemorated on a memorial in St Mary’s Church. Henry Freeman went on to become the most famous Whitby lifeboatman of all and he is depicted on a bust on the wall of our lifeboat station, so the current crew think about him and his colleagues who never made it back every time we launch our lifeboat."

Soon after the disaster, the local lifeboat committee asked the RNLI to take over the lifeboat service in Whitby and they agreed, providing a new self-righting lifeboat and lifejackets for all the crew. A fund was organised to help care for the 10 widows and 44 children of those who died, raising more than £5,000.

It was initiated by the Reverend William Keane, Vicar of Whitby at the time. In a letter to The Times newspaper on the day of the disaster, he wrote:

‘We have had a fearful storm today. Half a mile of our strand is already strewn with seven wrecks. Our new lifeboat, but launched a few months ago, was manned with the finest picked seamen in Whitby. Five times during the day had they braved the furious sea and five times returned with crews from vessels in distress. A sixth ship was driven in behind the pier. The men, all exhausted though they were, again pulled out but before they had gone fifty yards a wave capsized the boat. Then was beheld by several thousand persons, within almost a stone’s throw but unable to assist, the fearful agonies of those powerful men buffeted by the fury of the breakers, till one by one twelve of the thirteen sank and only one is saved.’

The crew of the Merchant were later rescued with the use of a rocket line from the shore. The lifeboatmen who drowned were all wearing lifejackets but the one given to new recruit Henry Freeman was of a new design and had been donated to the lifeboat crew by the RNLI. The Institution wanted all seamen to adopt the cork lifejacket but had met some resistance. Subsequently, the cork lifejacket became more widely accepted among crews around the coast.

Whitby 1861 Disaster Crew

The twelve men who died were: John Storr; William Storr; John Dixon; Robert Leadley; Matthew Leadley; Robert Harland; William Walker; Isaac Dobson; John Philpot; William Tyreman; George Martin; Christopher Collins.



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