The Zetland Lifeboat

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In all my thirty odd years of life I must have passed by the Zetland Lifeboat Museum thousands of times. I could spot the boat through the glass doors and I wouldn’t think much about it. It was just a boat – what’s the big deal? Then last year I saw an advertisement on Facebook doing the rounds –volunteers were wanted for a few hours a week, any age, no experience required – just a smile. I can smile! I thought, it would put these Crest whitening strips to good use. As a parent of a toddler my days fly by in a daze of nappy changing, cooking (sometimes five difference courses to entice the guy to eat – much of it he turns his nose up at – maybe I should invest in some cooking courses), and generally not being able to finish a thought never mind anything else. But I have Sundays free, and I was finding myself a bit lost as to what the hell to do with myself. Having been out of the loop of normal life since my Son was born I was hungering for some adult interaction that didn’t involve drinking and making a moron of myself.

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The Advert that first enticed me through the doors of the museum.

So, the day after I saw this advert I was passing by the museum like I have done all those thousands of times, and I went in. A lovely lady called Brenda was there with another volunteer and when I said I was interested in volunteering they couldn’t have looked more pleased – even with my newly shaven head and leather jacket which made me look a bit yobo. The next Sunday I went in and walked around the museum. I had thought it was ‘just a boat’ – but found myself reading story after story about things I’d never known. There were suddenly real people I could imagine in the boat, thrashing through stormy seas to save hundreds of seafarers. Tales of shipwrecks and tragedies. I never knew we had a natural harbour here due to the rock formations, and that we were at one time planning to be a proper harbour for ships caught in storms on their way to the River Tees. I didn’t know of the young lady – Margaret Emmans – who came out  to help pull the boat in the middle of the night and ended up getting tripped over by a man in front, and killed by the wheel of the boat carriage going over her head! On one occasion 52 people were on that boat, rowing through massive waves  -How the hell a wooden boat carried that many people and how it got back to shore through the sheer will of the lifeboat crew says everything, really. With each new story I stood back and looked at the Zetland lifeboat again, seeing it through new eyes and with new appreciation.

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The Zetland and her crew posing for a picture on the beach.

This boat was the vessel that saved over 500 lives! Not just a number. Each person had a mother and father, siblings, friends, children. Such an impact –  just imagine someone you love being caught out there and their ship going under? These lifeboat men dropped everything to get to the lifeboat, haul it out in the most horrific conditions, putting their own lives aside to focus on saving a stranger caught out there. Just amazing.

When I’m at the museum on a Sunday now, I stand at the door sometimes and imagine (I do a lot of imagining – I really could do with a pipe) the old wooden boats – schooners and barques (I didn’t know anything about ships until I started volunteering) on the horizon. I also didn’t know that there was such a thing as a rocket brigade – Coastguards who would shoot out a rope from a device to a distressed boat and then pull crew members in using a pulley system. The thing they had to wear in order to be pulled in is hanging in the museum – it looks like a pair of strong looking shorts. Imagine! Not only being shipwrecked and freezing and terrified, but then having to get into this pair of shorts and be pulled, while dangling across a stormy sea? Crazy! And we think we’ve got it hard!

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The Shorts! – If anyone can tell me more about how this whole thing works I’d be very grateful.

Each time I go in to the museum there is something new to discover, and I can’t get enough of it. Me, the person who got a certificate for going to school for a full week. Upstairs in the museum is just as fascinating. All the old pictures and snippets of stories of the characters that played such an important role in the town. Some of these old lifeboat men and fishermen had nicknames which tell a story all of their own. There is even a room which has been made to look like the inside of an old fisherman’s cottage. (I’m dying to get behind the glass screen and see what the old books on the shelves are about, and to sit on the rocking chair and pretend I was really there).

I feel ashamed that I walked past this place so many times and thought nothing of it. How much I would have missed out on had I not gone in. I feel a new sense of pride in Redcar and a thirst to know more about our ancestors. The older volunteers know so much, stories they’ve lived through or stories passed down from their own relatives – and I would hate for this to be lost. I was nervous about mixing with all of these new people at first, but I was welcomed straight away and many of them have become friends. The conversation is always interesting and the stories you hear from visitors – many of them coming back here after years and reminiscing about their old family members are just as good. Someone always knows something about Redcar that you’ve never heard before – there’s still so much mystery, and even a few scandals – that’s the cool thing.  The picture of the town just gets more and more vivid.

I’m looking forward to the new season starting on April 8th. I’ll have my Zetland Lifeboat Jumper on with pride – it does get a bit cold in there, but it all adds to the atmosphere. The building itself used to be home to one of the lifeboat crew, and I spend too long imagining them looking out of the window with a telescope. There are also some amazing paintings by Philip Boville (also a volunteer) which depict some of the Zetland Lifeboats heroic rescues. I’m hoping that someone buys me one for Christmas sometime (small hint). We even have our own musician – Stan Whalley – who has written and performed a song (and produced a CD – all proceeds go back into the museum which relies solely on donations) about William Guy – the only lifeboat crew member to have tragically lost his life during a rescue…and on Christmas Day. It’s a beautiful song.

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Phil’s amazing painting -‘Hard on the Blue’.

Anyway, my point to writing this is: Don’t be an ignoramus like me. Go down to the museum and check it out for yourself. There are lots of new display boards going up ready for the new season and I’m excited to see them – the story of the two Redcar piers that were in competition, the motorbike and car racing that went on on the beach – there’s a shocking story of one man who was trying to do a record breaking long jump which would result in him flying through a hoop on his motorbike – but he plummeted head first to his death in front of a horrified crowd. These things actually happened – I think they are worth remembering.

If you like what you see in there, which I am positive you will then maybe you could consider volunteering yourself. I’ll be in on Sundays and am more than happy to talk anyone’s head off and give them a grand tour.

The museum are looking for new volunteers and I highly reccomend giving it a shot if you have some spare time.

Visit the museum website by clicking here.

Do you really ‘see’ Redcar?

 

 

oldphotoOctober marks the start of the stormy season on the Redcar coast. You only have to look through the records of the lifeboat to see how the townsfolk of old times would be gearing up for unpredictable seas, raging gales, and the anxiety for the lives of their loved ones who made a living from the sea.

Growing up in Redcar (and Dormanstown) I always felt that there must be more to life than this and dreamed about moving far, far away. One day,  I did. I took a boat to Dublin and stayed there for a couple of years. The thing is,  I missed home and family and friends. The city was so big – and all the people I knew a whole sea away.  Whenever I came back to visit it always surprised me how I could have overlooked how quaint and cosy and interesting Redcar is. One time I even stood looking at Morrison’s after I got off the train with a tear in my eye. When I finally moved back I was humbled and not quite so arrogant as I had been before I left. Sometimes you do have to go away to appreciate what’s been right under your nose.

A year or so ago, I moved right into the heart of Redcar, to a house overlooking the fishing boats on South Terrace. At night I can sometimes hear the fog horn sounding out to sea  and  I often wake at four in the morning and watch the fishermen pulling their boats out of the yard with tractors. I started thinking about how hard life must have been for Redcar people back then – before cars and heating and Morrison’s –  and how far they came from it being a tiny fishing town, to a thriving holiday resort up until a few decades ago.

 

When British Steel closed down, the feeling of defeat amongst people was palpable. Walking through the High Street, noticing groups of men huddled together discussing when their sign-on date would be and what they will do now. It was understandable – and still is – that a lifetime of hard graft and the end of the tradition of British steel depressed the town.

But…

If you look around, you will notice the small business ventures cropping up, the revival of the music and arts scenes, and the increase in community groups that are cleaning up our town and reminding us of its heritage and beauty. Just today the town is bustling with volunteers who are taking part in a big ‘clean-up’ operation, scrubbing pavements, tidying up green areas. This week there has been a new coat of paint on the litter bins and the ‘beach clean-up’ is a regular occurrence. We have to be glad that there are still people who care enough about our town (and community) that they give their time generously. This week a dog was found buried alive at Kirkleatham Woods – there will always be a darker side in every town – but the fact that local business man Richard Wild rallied the locals and over a hundred of them carried out a vigil at the tragic scene – shows that our town is definitely not hopeless. Even if business is not thriving, our people are.

You hear the older folk talking about the good old days, when the beach was heaving with people and entertainments. I used to nod in agreement like I also remembered, and then change the subject to something I found more interesting. Maybe it’s because I’ve got over myself a bit now, and am interested in other people and their stories, but I started really listening and doing my own research in the library. Pouring over old pictures and records. Here’s what I’ve found.

It was not just our ‘golden sands’, but the entertainments we provided that brought in tourism and made the town prosper. Redcar council had a special Sands and Entertainments Committee which seems to have been the heart of what made Redcar so good ‘back in the day’.

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Old Redcar

We had stalls on the beach that sold tea and coffee, sweets, ice-creams, novelties, and fruit and newspaper kiosks. People could hire out deck chairs and sun loungers. We had a bandstand that was regularly populated by local and visiting musicians . We had two separate wooden stages/platforms on opposite ends of the beach which  brought in hundreds of spectators. One was used by local musicians who gave daily performances during the summer, and the other was a man  who provided entertainments for families and children (he was also a preacher, but that’s a topic for another time) – the point being – people were guaranteed to be ‘entertained’. It was a win-win situation.

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Billy Scarrow’s Optimists on Redcar Beach

We had pleasure boat trips, both big and small. The bigger boats (paddle steamers) would take people to Newcastle, Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough. Smaller boats were ran by the local fishermen who would row people out to the rocks and also offered fishing exhibitions. How many people in Redcar these days have seen the town from the sea? Why did the pleasure trips stop?

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Boat Trips

Over at the Coatham end of Redcar, the Boating Lake was lit up with fairy lights to create an ‘Enchanted’ walk for those that wanted to take in some evening sea air and a walk along the promanade at night. The Coatham Hotel (now the apartments called Regency Mansions) was a well known Jazz Club which brought in thousands of visitors each week. There was a roller skating rink, a thriving Coatham Holiday Camp, and organised motorbike racing on the sands which brought in a large group of regular visitors.

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The Boating Lake Illuminated

We had (and still have) horse racing – but did you know that Redcar Racecourse also traditionally hosted the Cleveland Show each year? We had a small fairground, two theatres and a ballroom. Our B&B’s (known then as ‘Boarding Houses’) were a thriving business.

We had (and still have…although I think only in name now, because I never hear anything about it) a Literary Institute that held regular public lectures and meetings on various subjects and at one point published a monthly newsletter. Whether the town is thriving or not, there is always a need for learning and sharing stories – it doesn’t just end once we leave the classroom.

We had Fishing Festival weeks (July), Carnival weeks (August) Stage Dancing (August) and for any other reason to celebrate, the town would work together to decorate the High Street in colourful bunting and have feasts in which the older people were given priority and well looked after.

Which is another thing that you may not have known about Redcar – It was the first council to create government funded Nursing Homes. Redcar has always looked after it’s older folk in the past.

To conclude what seems to have turned into a massive ‘on my soap box’ post, I want to say that all of this is not just something to be nostalgic about. Where is the Sands and Entertainments Committee now? Who decides how we treat our old people?

There is already lots happening in the town since the closing of British Steel. But to focus on entertainments in particular.

You only have to go to the Gypsy Rover, The Clevey, or some of the more underground haunts of Redcar to appreciate the musical talent we have here. What is to stop our musicians  from taking to a wooden stage on the beach and having weekly ‘sing-offs’? What about the beautiful bandstand that sits near the Boating Lake – that has been used just a handful of times since being put there? How much would it cost to get some fairy lights back up and running? Surely we could power them by a couple of those wind turbines.

The recent Redcar Arts Fair highlighted just how much talent we have in this area too. Where are our smaller studios? How are we supporting our locals who have gifts but not the financial backing?

Who stopped the organised motorbike races on the dunes end of the beach?  Have we forgotten that people like to compete and get their adrenaline pumping without having to get arrested or run over an innocent bystander in the process?

Why – and I ask myself this at least once a week – Why do we not have a theatre in Redcar? We used to have two. There would be two shows per day to accommodate audiences. I know plenty of people who are born to be on the stage but don’t have a place to express this…What a waste. Is it true that the old Coatham Memorial Hall is to be used as a theatre? Or was this just a passing idea that was never taken seriously?

 

Gertrude Bell. I’ll be honest – I’d never heard of the lady until this year. How? Well, I wasn’t a big fan of school and I wasn’t that interested in Iraq either – but now I know about her I find it a bit shameful that she isn’t simply common knowledge to Redcar people.  A way to rectify that: Don’t turn the Red Barns into yet more apartments. Use the place to educate our children on the impressive people who have lived here.

I’m not sure how to conclude this blog post as I only started out to make the point that there is still plenty of scope for greatness in Redcar. Not just business-wise, but with a definite focus on music, art and learning. As an old fishing town, too – how many of our young people know how to fish? or to make crab nets?

I’d be really interested in anyone’s comments on anything I’ve mentioned, or got wrong. I think  the more we remember what worked for our town in the past and what is remarkable and worth passing on to our children, the easier it is to push through the dark stuff and enjoy ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tragic Story behind ‘The Birger’ Anchor on Redcar Esplanade

Many of us pass by the Birger anchor that sits on Redcar Esplanade every day, without really knowing the story behind it.

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But once you know how it came to be here and can picture the individuals that were sadly lost that day, and the heroic men who braved the stormy sea in trying to save them, it’s unlikely you’ll feel  indifferent about it again.

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The ‘Birger’ (Berga Rauma) as she was built – Photo from Kirkleatham Hall Museum.

This story starts in September 1898 when the Finnish sailing vessel ‘Berga Rauma set sail from  San Felieu de Guixols, a small port fifty miles north of Barcelona, with fifteen crew members, all aged between just 18 and 35. The ship was heading to Abo in Finland with a cargo of salt, and the first leg of her journey through the straits of Gibraltar and the English Channel passed without a problem, aside from a small leak which had sprung up in the Mediterranean which was quickly brought under control.

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The crew of the Birger. Picture from Kirkleatham Hall Museum.

But as the Birger made her way up the Norwegian coast she got pulled into a violent storm and was driven hard back down the North Sea. The battering from the ferocious waves and driving rain and wind reopened the ship’s leak, and she started taking on water. Captain Nordling decided to direct her to the port at Grimsby but his efforts against the storm proved futile and the ship was driven further up the coast towards Scarborough, where the lifeboat Queensbury was launched upon sighting her, along with the Scarborough Rocket Brigade. (coastguards who carry equipment which fires out rescue lines to a stranded boat that creates a pulley system to save crew members one by one).

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A diagram drawn by Gary Green which shows the Birger’s intended course, and the course she actually took due to the storm.

Captain Nordling’s skill in manoeuvring The Birger through the hellish storm at this point, and keeping her afloat, is claimed to be extraordinary by local diver, writer and member of Tees Archaeology society, Gary Green – who has carried out extensive research on the wreck of the Birger for the book Aspects of Teesside (a book well worth reading). However, the sea continued to drive the ship relentlessly up the coast – passing Whitby and Staithes so fast that the lifeboats and rocket brigade had no chance of catching up with her. One newspaper account regretfully states:

“When the vessel rounded Huntcliff Nab the coastguard saw her coming and hoisted a red signal as an indication that the ship might be safely beached on Saltburn sands. It is supposed that the master misunderstood the signal, as immediately after clearing the end of Saltburn Pier he stood out to sea, and got a mile and a half from land. The direction he took, it was at once seen, would carry him on to Redcar rocks.”

– North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Wednesday, October 19th 1898.

 

Thousands of people rushed to the Esplanade to witness the tragic scene, with some of the braver (or crazier) standing on Coatham Pier (where the Regent Cinema now stands) for a better view. The Redcar Lifeboat crew launched  the Brothers lifeboat as soon as the ship was sighted, and the Free Gardeners  boat the Emma was launched a quarter of an hour later.

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The ‘Emma’ lifeboat and her crew.

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The National  Redcar Lifeboat ‘Brothers’ and her crew.

 

The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette reported:

“First it seemed as though the mighty breakers would be too powerful for them, sweeping them back as though to dash them to destruction on the Coatham pier. But the hearts of such men were not to be daunted, the resistance they met with only causing them to double their efforts gradually reducing the distance between themselves and their intended goal. The wind, which was blowing in a slanting direction, made their task very difficult, and from the onset the attempt at rescue seemed futile. In the meantime the vessel struck with a terrific crash, and the work of demolition began in earnest. The fore and mizzen masts came down with a crash, and the terrible seas swept the wreck from end to end. The crew of the vessel were clustered under the bulwarks in the stern, and it was purely a matter of time. The lifeboat crew fought on in their superhuman efforts to reach the wreck – when, within a short distance, the end came. The mainmast fell, the hull divided, and, in the place where less than an hour before there was a fine three-masted barque, now was covered by a mass of wreckage.

– “The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898.

Captain Nordling and his chief officer were killed by the falling masts instantly, and the remainder of the ship’s crew thrashed around in the sea. The Emma lifeboat had to return to shore, having been driven through the pier and unable to make any more headway through the breakers. The Brothers lifeboat managed to battle on through the crashing waves and got close to the wreck but were unable to locate any survivors.

Moments later, through the chaos of wind and sea spray, a raft carrying three of the survivors was observed moving rapidly towards the pier. The following description of events is taken from Gary Green’s story:

“As the wreckage was driven through the iron legs of the pier, ropes were lowered down to the men, one of whom one managed to take a turn of rope around his arm and shouted to be hauled up. Numbed with cold and virtually exhausted, the unfortunate crewman could not hold on and was swept away by the waves. The remaining two men were by now clinging to the pier leg tie-rods and again ropes were thrown down to them. Huge waves quickly washed one man to his death, however the other, Emil Nordstom, managed to hold on just long enough to be pulled over the pier to safety. A little further along the beach a second survivor, Johan Makila, was dragged to safety from the clutches of the breakers by some of the willing members of the large crowd that had assembled to render what assistance they could.”

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Johan Makila and Emil Nordstom, the only two survivors of the Birger shipwreck. – Kirkleatham Hall Museum.

Despite such a devastating loss of life, the men who risked their lives in trying to save those of the Birger were highly commended in the newspapers for their bravery:

 “It was gratifying to see the manner in which attempts were made at rescue. In one instance, a seaman was seen floating upon a spar almost exhausted, when a fisherman named Richard Picknett (son of Mr Picknett, deputy coxswain of the ‘Emma’) dashed into the sea to meet him. First seizing the spar upon which the man was floating, and after a struggle, reaching the man, brought him ashore. Another man named Joseph Tratten, of 28, Oxford Street, South Bank, was one of those who, in the excitement of the moment rushed into the water to bring one of the shipwrecked crew ashore, when, a huge baulk of timber struck him, fracturing one of his legs. This is indeed a hard case. He is rendered quite unfit for work, and it will be truly hard, should such a gallant attempt to save life, go unrequited.”

– The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898

The article goes on to describe how events could easily have escalated into further tragedy:

“Immediately after the man was drawn on Coatham Pier by the line, there was a cry in the crowd that a raft was coming and they had only time to get clear when a large quantity of wreckage crashed into the piles where they had been standing and made a breach of some 100 yards in length. Had they not received the warning a most terrible calamity must have happened. It is estimated that the damage done to the pier will be £500 or £600.”

-The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898

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The damaged Coatham Pier (where the Regent cinema stands)

Wreckage washed up on the shore of Redcar over the following days, and the bodies of three of the crew were recovered. Rumours circulated that the Captain had had his wife and child aboard the ship, and that a cradle had been washed ashore on the night of disaster.

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The Birger wreckage.

The official inquest was held on Thursday 20th October, 1898 and is reported in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette as follows:

NORTH-EASTERN DAILY GAZETTE

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 1898

 THE GALE.

THE WRECK AT REDCAR.

Three of the bodies of the unfortunate seamen who lost their lives owing to the wreck of their vessel at Redcar have now been recovered. The first body recovered yesterday was washed ashore near the Breakwater, and later on in the afternoon two more were found. One of them, who was afterwards identified as Gustaf Forstof (21), was found near Coatham Pier. The other body, which was identified as Gustaf Lindross (22), was found near the South Gare Breakwater. The first body was removed to the Coatham Hotel, and the latter to the Coastguard Station. The Russian Consul at Newcastle. M. Riunnult, has appointed the Rev. J.F. Griffiths, Tees chaplain to the Missions to Seamen Society, temporary consul in relation to this wreck, and he will attend to the internment of the bodies that may be cast ashore.

THE INQUEST

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Richardson, coroner, held an inquest at the Coatham Hotel, Redcar, on the bodies of – Boiger (20), Gustaf Forstof (21), and Gustaf Lindross (22), who were part of the crew of the ill-fated barque Berger Raumo. Mr.T.M Fallow was appointed foreman of the jury. The evidence of the surviving seamen was interpreted by Mr. J.L Busch, of Middlesbrough. Mr J.M.Meek the secretary of the National Lifeboat, local captain, and the Rev. J.F.Griffiths were also present.  The evidence in the case of Boiyer was taken first.- Emil Nordstom, ordinary seaman on board the vessel, said they were on a voyage from San Carlos, in Spain, bound to Finland, with a cargo of salt. They encountered the storm on Sunday, when the ship sprung a leak. They were driven across, and made for Grimsby. Witness heard the captain say “We will not go into Grimsby; we will seek Shields” The vessel became unmanageable on Tuesday, and they drifted down the coast. Witness did not think they tried to get the ship in anywhere. The mainsail and foresail were blown to shreds on Monday night. They sprang a leak on Sunday, and the water, getting to the cargo of salt, caused it to melt. There were eight men on deck when she struck on the rocks. There were three of them lashed to the rudder. Witness was several times washed overboard, and brought back with a rope. Witness last saw Boiyer when he was putting a life-belt round his body. Three of the crew jumped overboard – the cook the carpenter, and a seaman named Lindross, and he saw them floating away.

Witness and Forstof and Dokila got upon a tank or raft and floated from the ship. They came to the pier, and witness was drawn up with a rope under his arm. Boiyer was 20 years old, and an ordinary seaman. There was not a woman on board. The crew numbered 15. The lifeboat did not get to the wreck before she broke up. The first mate was in charge when the ship came on the rocks. There was no cradle on board. – Wm. Fall spoke to recovering body of Boiyer opposite the Coastguard station; and Dr. Legh de legh spoke to trying to resuscitate the body, but without success.- Michael Burnicle, coxswain of the National Lifeboat, said his crew went out to try to reach the wreck, but she broke up before they could reach her. Witness saw three men on a raft, which came under Coatham  Pier, and Nordstom was saved. Other two ropes were thrown from the pier, and another man caught hold of one, but when he was being hauled up he dropped off. The other man was dashed against the piles. Witness saw one man with his arms round one of the pillars of the pier.

The inquest on the body of Gustaf Forstof was taken next, and the witness, Nordstom, who identified the body, said he was 22 years old, and unmarried. He saw Forstof on the raft at the time he (witness) was drawn up the pier. – Thos. Snowdon Carter, fisherman, said he found the body in the water about 50 yards west of Coatham pier, about 11.15am to-day.

The inquest on the body of Gustaf Lindross was then being held, and after evidence of identification had been given by Nordstom. Thomas Stonehouse, labourer at the South Gare Breakwater, spoke to recovering the body near the breakwater this morning. Dr. Legh de Legh examined the body, and found it had a fracture of the skull.

The jury returned the verdict that the three deceased men died through accidental causes owing to the wreck of the ship Berger.

Over the following week it was reported that Christmas presents had floated ashore which the crew of the Birger were taking home to their families. The Redcar people sent what was salvageable, along with letters to the families of those of the deceased and later a letter was sent back to thank them for their thoughtfulness.

Then, 85 years later…

In the summer of 1983, local diver Gary Green received a phone call from his friend Jimmy Dick, a professional North Sea Diver, asking if he would go out to sea with him. Jimmy had been asked by a local fisherman to recover a line, or beat of crab pots that had become snagged underwater. Gary describes in his story (‘The Wreck of the Birger’ ) how it was a perfect day for diving, blue skies and brilliant underwater visibility. He goes on to tell of their discovery:

“The pots lay in shallow water almost in the middle of a triangle formed by the wreck of the Dimitris and the High Stone rocks. As we entered the water and adjusted our diving gear we could see, looking down from the surface the dappled sunlight bouncing off the rocky seabed below. Following Jimmy down the rope we soon discovered that the pots had become entangled around a very large Admiralty-pattern anchor, standing almost upright on the seabed”

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Picture showing a sea urchin on the Birger anchor before the lift. Pic from Gary Green.

With Jimmy attempting to recover the fisherman’s crab pots, the sand from the sea bed was stirred and visibility became poor, but later dives took place and eventually the Cleveland Divers club organised a project which would see the anchor being hauled up from the sea bed  in 1998, one hundred years after the tragedy took place. Members of the divers club filmed it all (and I will be adding this footage as soon as I can), and the anchor was given pride of place at Kirkleatham Hall Museum. And then in 2013, after the major renovation of the promenade, the anchor was brought to its present resting place – interestingly, very close to where the old Redcar pier used to stand.

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Picture of the diving team who lifted the Birger anchor and took it to Kirkleatham Museum. 1998. Picture from Gary Green.

I, for one, am so glad to know this story. I used to think that history didn’t matter. But it could have been any one of us, or one of our loved ones. Our ancestors will have been there to witness this tragedy right on our doorstep. It is also a reminder of our towns rich and dramatic history.

On the 18th of October I will be remembering the young men of the Birger shipwreck. A large memorial stone stands in Coatham Church.

The lost members of the Birger:

Captain Karl Oscar Nordling, aged 35

Gustaf Benctsson Boijer, aged 19 (buried at Coatham)

Gustaf Fredrik Forlsof, aged 20 (buried at Coatham)

Gustaf Fredrik Lindross, aged 21 (buried at Coatham)

Karl Arvid Silvendoineen, aged 34

Ernst Edvart Elonen, aged 20

Josef August Mattsonsven, aged 19

Emil Artur Arvonen, aged 18 (buried at Marske)

Wilko Wilk, aged 34 (buried at Marske)

Gustaf Ludvig Fogleman, aged 18 (buried at Seaton  Carew)

Johan Nestor Jokila, aged 19 (buried at Seaton Carew)

Zacharias Salonen, aged 25 (buried at Seaton Carew)

There is also a smaller single gravestone for Gustaf Frederik Forslof. Did his family arrange this I wonder?

I also wonder what become of the two survivors, Emil Nordstom and Johan Makila – how did their lives turn out after such a traumatic experience?

 


I’d like to thank Gary Green for his brilliantly written story of the Birger – the research he carried out for it is amazing, and for a much more in depth story of the Birger’s last voyage it is well worth buying a copy of Aspects of Teesside. I’d also like to thank Redcar Library staff (for putting up with me having my little man sat in his buggy next to me eating crisps – dropping bits on the floor, and watching Thomas the tank engine on my phone to keep him quiet). Thanks too, to Lol Hansom, Fred Brunskill and Mike Picknett.

If you would like to find out more about Redcar’s interesting history, please visit the Zetland Lifeboat Museum. Oh, also, the Cleveland Divers Club run a 6-week diving course for beginners for just £25!

The ‘Jane Erskine’ Rescue

Back in 1894, seventy-four year old Willie Dobson – referred to as ‘Master of the Old Lifeboat’ recalled the wreck of the ‘Jane Erskine’ in 1854.

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“Hard on the Blue” -Painting by Phil Boville depicting the Jane Erskine rescue.

It was the 15th November and a strong south-easterly wind had been battering the sea off Redcar all through the night. In the early hours of the morning, the brig, Jane Erskine had been driven onto the Lye Dam Scar rocks to the East of Redcar ( just opposite where the Stray Café is on the Coast Road now).

A young Willie Dobson, being up before daybreak as most fisherman are, hears about the ship and runs to let his father know. Soon they are launching their coble (small fishing boat) to join other local fisherman who are already braving the rough sea to get to the stranded ship. At this point there is no need for the lifeboat to be called and it is actually a great sight for local people, as it means an opportunity to make some money to put some food on the table for their families (or maybe for some – a few pints at the local). If a ship is stranded on the rocks (and not actually wrecked) it is possible to re-float it, with the help of skilled men and equipment. The fisherman get to the ship and come to an agreement with the Captain as to what money will be exchanged in return for them getting the ship off the rocks. Once terms are agreed, the fishermen lay an anchor in deeper waters and take a cable to the stranded ship. They will wait for the tide to rise so they can drag the ship off the rocks using a windlass (a large operated winch).

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This is how local fishermen would be trying to pull a ship off the rocks using a winch system.

The storm is getting heavier as 26 of the local fisherman climb aboard the Jane Erskine ready to start the heavy work of turning the windlass. Willie Dobson, Jim Thompson and Charlie Cole wait in a coble nearby as the sea becomes steadily rougher and are told to go ashore to wait until the tide has flowed. Just as Dobson is taking a gulp of his mug of tea at home, a friend runs in and tells them that the ship is showing a distress flag. They run back to the shore to see that the Jane Erskine is lying on its side and the men on board, in great danger, are clinging to any exposed part of the ship they can find.

The call is immediately put out for the Zetland Lifeboat and the drummer boy beats his drum loudly to the tune of ‘Come along Brave Boys’ to alert the lifeboat crew that there is trouble. The wind picks up strength and the waves grow heavier as the Zetland and her crew launch into the sea. The regular Coxwain, Robert Shieldon is not present on this occasion so George Robinson volunteers in his place and orders the boat to be driven windward which will favour the lifeboat’s course.

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Lifeboat Drummer Boy.

By now, the Jane Erskine is being pummelled by the onslaught of the wind and waves and the Zetland manages to get alongside and hold steady long enough for the 26 fishermen, and 9 of her crew to jump aboard. Within seconds, the ship breaks up completely.

 

The Zetland lifeboat, still battling the storm, makes her journey back to shore with 52 people on-board altogether! The largest amount of people she has ever carried.

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The Zetland Lifeboat with 15 of her crew inside – So can you imagine 52 on board in a raging sea?

One hundred and forty two years later, a huge piece of wood is washed up on the sands and local historian, David Philipson, identifies it as none other than the rudder from the Jane Erskine – which now stands proudly in the Zetland Lifeboat Museum, just a metre away from the heroic boat that rescued all of her crew.

Local artist, and fellow volunteer, Phil Boville was inspired to paint the beautiful picture ‘Hard on the Blue’ (pictured above) based on this story. The original hangs in the Zetland Lifeboat Museum. Prints are available on his website here, and via the museum.

If you would like to know more about the Zetland, please come and visit. Opening times and information can be found on the website, here. There is also a brilliant comic that has been produced by the RNLI on this story for younger children, which can be seen here.

Thanks as always to Fred Brunskill for providing me with information, and to Nathan Hobday for his knowledge of Redcar rocks and the sea.

The Redcar Windmill Brothers and the ‘Belsay Castle’ Tragedy

On the 8th April 1838, gale force winds raged over the North Sea forcing the brig ‘Belsay Castle’ to get stuck on the sands at the North Gare whilst attempting to enter the river Tees. Six of her nine crew died, and of the three members of the crew that were rescued, a young boy later died from cold and exhaustion. The situation was already tragic, but the circumstances surrounding it also prompted a very public fall-out between the Coulson brothers who lived in the two windmills that dominated Redcar’s coastline view.

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The Windmill on the left near St. Peter’s church in Redcar – Stephen Coulson’s home, and the mill on the right, situated on what is now Station Road -Robert Coulson’s home.

Much of this story was recorded in the York Chronicle newspaper, and the letters speak for themselves. But before we get to them it will serve this story to know about the ongoing struggle to turn Redcar into a port of refuge, and some background of the two Coulson brothers.

A proposal had been put forward in 1832 for Redcar rocks (which form a natural harbour shape)  to be used as the foundation stones for either piers or break waters in order to create a solid and functional  harbour called Port William. One of the main aims being to provide a safe haven for ships heading to the river Tees that were struggling in stormy weather. By 1838, plans had still not been approved and with every shipwreck and death of a sailor, frustration among some of Redcar’s townsfolk increased.  In effect, the ‘Belsay Castle’ tragedy might not have occurred had the plans for Port William been realised.

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Proposed plan of Port William.

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Artist impression of Port William.

 

On the 14th April, an anymous Redcar correspondent wrote the following which was published in the York Herald:

‘Stockton, – Fatal occurrence in the Tees. – On Sunday last a fatal occurrence happened at the entrance of the river Tees. The ship Belsay Castle, of Sunderland, Capt. Robson master, and other eight of the crew, struck on the South sand about 8am and continued till 2pm when she parted, and went literally to pieces, as appears from the wreck the sands are covered with. Six found a watery grave. Three were picked up by the Seaton life boat, two men and a boy, who were found floating on a piece of timber; the boy, however, died with cold and extreme fatigue.

Our correspondent says it is singular that the Redcar lifeboat which is the most celebrated in the kingdom for safety, was on the present occasion, never taken out, and he adds, – base indeed is the man who will not aid his fellow creature in need, and hard it was to see the sufferers hoist their flag in distress and take to their rigging, and yet the celebrated Redcar boat that has done miracles, to be kept back. The only cause, he says, was that the boat has been newly painted, and must be shown to visitors for what money the spectators please to give. The boat could have been taken down into smooth water by horses in an hour and a half if the life boat doors had been permitted to be opened.’

It was this letter which set the Coulson brothers against one another.

Robert Coulson ran the Coatham Mill, which was situated on Station Road (then Newcomen Street). He was also an Agent for Lloyds – assisting in the registry of ships, and carried out council duties such as gathering data from East and West Coatham for the Redcar census.

Stephen Coulson lived in the Redcar Mill, which was situated on Lord Street close to Fisherman’s Square. He lived with his wife, Jane and teenage son, John.  Father and son kept a journal of shipwrecks that occurred at Redcar between September 1825 and October 1858.

A lithograph of Redcar around the mid-nineteenth century by John Jordison. Far left is St.Peters Church...

A lithograph of Redcar around the mid-nineteenth century by John Jordison.

 

With these facts in mind, we can assume just how passionate the brothers were concerning the trials and rescues of the ‘Zetland’  Lifeboat. What follows is the correspondence between the two which was published in the York Chronicle, after the initial anonymous letter about the Redcar lifeboat not being brought out to rescue the crew of the ‘Belsay Castle’.

York Chronicle, 11th April, and the Yorkshire Gazette of 14th April. [David Phillipson writes that the information would seem to have been provided by Stephen Coulson of Redcar.]

‘Asylum Harbour at Redcar, – Shipwreck on 7th ult. We recorded the total wreck of the Brig Resolution of Sunderland on the Redcar rocks. The recent gale of Sunday last the 8th inst., has afforded fresh proofs of the want of this harbour. The Brig Belsay Castle of Sunderland was totally lost in attempting to enter the river Tees, and we are sorry to add that six of the crew perished, and three were taken from the wreck in a very exhausted state by the Seaton life boat.

It is much lamented here that the Redcar life boat was not got out, the fishermen and many of the pilots being firmly of the opinion that the whole crew might have been saved thereby. The person holding the key of the life boat house however refused to open the door, from what cause has yet to be learned. The brave crew of the life boat, with their usual alacrity to save their fellow men, were all in readiness, but by the apathy of the individual alluded to were prevented from adding fresh laurels to the many they have already achieved.’

 

16th April, York Chronicle

Note that the letter has been signed by Robert Coulson.

‘To the editor of the York Chronicle.

Sirs. In your paper of last week there is a paragraph headed “Asylum Harbour, Redcar”, in which some severe reflections are cast on the Master of the Redcar life boat, stating that he refused to open the door of the boathouse for the boat to be got out, and leaving your readers to infer that in consequence of such a refusal the Master and five of the crew of the Belsay Castle were lost. We beg you will set the matter right by stating in your next paper the following facts, and then the public may judge what credit is due your Asylum Harbour Correspondent’s statement.

It is unfortunately true that six of the crew of this vessel were drowned, but no blame can attach to the master and crew of the Redcar lifeboat. The facts are these:- The ship was first seen from Redcar about 9 o’clock on Sunday morning, the 8th Inst, on shore on the North Gare, about a mile and a half from Seaton Carew (where there is a lifeboat) and six miles from Redcar.

It was then low water, and at that time, and for two hours after the crew could have saved themselves in their own boat. So confident was the master that there was no danger, and that the vessel would drift over the sand with the tide into the Tees, that he even did not hoist a Signal of distress. But as the tide flowed up the crew began to feel the danger of their situation (the ship being a very old one) and then a signal of distress was hoisted – but too late for any assistance to be given them from Redcar; for with the flood tide and wind directly against her it would have been impossible for the Redcar life boat to have rendered any assistance whatever. We the undersigned committee of management for the Redcar life boat, consider it our duty to say thus much to refute the base calumny attempted to be cast on a brave and worthy man – who has at all times – and at all risks – ever been the first to brave all danger when the lives of his fellow men have been at stake.

We trust Sir you will hereafter be a little cautious in giving to the public the statements of your Asylum harbour Correspondent in such a case as the above, for it is calculated to do much injury, and could not possibly be productive of any good, even had his statement been true.

Signed: Alex Tod-Lieut Col residing at Kirkleatham, Thomas King – Kirkleatham, Joseph Wilkinson – Minister of Redcar, Robt. Coulson – Redcar Agent to Lloyds, Christ. Moore – Redcar.

 

23rd April, York Chronicle

To the Editor of the York Chronicle

Sirs- In reply to the attempted contradiction of my communication of the 11th, instant, I state it is a fact that the vessel was seen aground little after eight o’clock; and as respects the distance, if any of your readers will take the trouble to examine a chart of the Bay and River Tees, it will be found that the distance to the place in question is not more than four miles, and the distance from Seaton lifeboat house (which is laid down on the chart) is very near two miles.

By referring to the tide table it will be found that it was not low water before 9.36am at which time and for two hours afterwards the Redcar lifeboat could have got alongside without any difficulty.

As your “Asylum Harbour Correspondent” did not presume to give any opinion of his own in the paragraph complained of, he will now endeavour to maintain his position by a plain statement of facts, which he defies the committee with any consistency to contradict. First it is a fact that the master of the lifeboat was importuned to open the doors of the lifeboat house by several of the fishermen and pilots, and it is also true that Mr Robt. Coulson, agent to Lloyds, and Mr Robt. Sheildon, pilot, rode down the sands together to within a short distance of the vessel, when they were both so satisfied of the dangerous situation she was in, that they rode back to Redcar with all possible haste, when the same Mr Robt. Coulson repeatedly urged the master to get the boat out – with what success has already been seen.

It is moreover stated “that the master of the Belsay Castle did not hoist a signal of distress till too late” – The Committee may be asked if it be usual to wait for more signals of distress before the lifeboat is got out – when a vessel is on the bar of the Tees and the sea breaking over her; – and whether when the moment a vessel has been seen in so perilious a situation, it has not been always heretofore considered a sufficient signal of distress:- no sooner were they seen in such cases, than a drum (kept solely for that purpose) was beat through the town, at which sound a force was always mustered in a few minutes doubly able to man the boat.

Much to the credit of the Redcar pilots and fishermen, such is their eagerness to man the boat that many feel sorely disappointed at being left ashore after a full crew is obtained. It is also true that the Redcar lifeboat while Robt. Sheildon Snr. Was master, has often been got out in the stormy dark nights of winter when a signal could not be seen, and even under the disadvantage of darkness and amid the pelting of the pitiless storm many crews have been saved from a watery grave.

Your correspondent has only now to add that three crews have been saved by the Redcar lifeboat on the same place as the Belsay Castle, Viz the crew of a Swedish vessel the Magdalene, consisting of fourteen; the crew of the St Martins Planter consisting of sixteen (or nineteen); and the crew of the Aurora, of nine and a female passenger.

My reason for heading my communication “Asylum Harbour at Redcar”, was that I trusted that common sense would make it instantly apparent that had Redcar harbour been completed the master of the Belsay Castle would have run for that much wanted deep water refuge harbour, and not have perished with his crew on the dangerous sands at the mouth of the Tees.

I beg also to state that five other brigs and a schooner which were also running for the Tees for refuge were apparently deterred from doing so by the fate of the Belsay Castle. They brought up and rode out the gale between the Seaton Long Scar buoy and the Tees Bar buoy. It is the opinion of nautical men that had the wind on the 8th inst been a heavy gale, they, in all probability would have suffered the fate of the Belsay Castle.

With respect to the present master of the lifeboat, his individual gallantry is unquestionable, and has been repeatedly proved. My opinion is that he has relied too much in this instance on the timely exertions of the lifeboat on the opposite side of the bay, which had the advantage of being to windward of the wrecked vessel. I remain Sir,

Your Obdt. Servant,

Stephen Coulson.

PS I beg your readers to observe that Mr Robt Coulson the Agent to Lloyds, was the only person present of the five who have ventured to contradict my statement, Lieut Col Tod and Mr King being at their homes at Kirkleatham, the Revd Joseph Wilkinson was at Upleatham and Mr Moore was absent from Redcar.

Stephen Coulson wishes it to be distinctly understood that he had nothing to do with the writing or sending of the paragraph, relating to the wreck of the Belsay Castle which appeared in the York Herald (14 April), neither was he aware that any such article had been written or sent to the editor of that paper, before the Herald containing the same arrived at Redcar.’

 

Letter sent to Robert Coulson from Stephen Coulson – 24th April.

‘Dear Brother,

Notwithstanding the late untoward affairs, we are still the offspring of one mother and as such I am determined not to quarrel with thee, although thou certainly was reprehensible in signing a document which was sent forth to the public declaring that thy brother was a liar; yet I say notwithstanding this we are brothers! And I willingly attribute thy signing the same as a hasty act, done without mature consideration, and as such believe me when I say that I yet love thee as one brother ought to love another.

So much respect had I for thy counsel as a brother that I determined in my mind, long before thou left my house on Saturday night, that I would make no reply to the scurrilous contradiction of my communication – I have however been advised not to sit down with it, and this too by some friends who were able to judge the matter, and I have no doubt but I shall be able to convince thee that I had no other course left, had I not done so I would have been stigmatized as a liar when the finger of scorn would have been pointed at me wherever I went. In doing this, it is to say to thee, who knows the whole affair that truth will bear me out in all I have assured.

In replying to the attempted contradiction of my first communication I have been obliged to make use of thy name, but I have done this in such a way as will prove to the public that thou did thy duty in the melancholy affair to the very uttermost – and whoever may henceforth be blamed for dereliction of duty thou cannot.

As my reply may prove rather caustic to some of the parties concerned, and as thou may be consulted in the matter, I think it prudent to give thee a copy of my reply that thou may be prepared to answer them as a man and as a brother – let the conclusion of such reply I have given the master of the boat the full credit for his former gallantry and concluded it saying that in this instance, it was my opinion that he had replied too much on the timely exertions of the lifeboat at the opposite side of the bay. This must not only satisfy Geo. Robinson but also the whole of the Committee concerned, at least if they have any pretensions to the better feelings of gentlemen.

Not doubting but this untoward affair will be productive of much good not only as regards the duty of the Redcar boat but also those on the opposite side of the Bay. I remain Dear Brother,

Thine truly,

Steph. Coulson.’

 

20 April – York Chronicle

‘To the editor of the York Chronicle.

Sir. Particular references being made to me in Stephen Coulson’s letter which appeared in your paper of last week, I consider it my duty to state the following particulars, I first saw the vessel ashore shortly after nine o’clock am: I immediately went to Geo. Robinson to know if the life boat should be taken out when not only he but many others of the pilots, and nearly the whole of the fishermen were together, and it was then the unanimous opinion of all present that the Redcar lifeboat could not be got down to the Tees in sufficient time of tide to get to the vessel. It was also said that if any assistance was needed, the Seaton lifeboat was just at hand.

The weather now having become thick, I rode down to the Tees to see what had become of the vessel, and was soon followed by Robt. Shieldon Jnr. We ascertained that the vessel had driven a considerable distance near the Tees and was in less danger. The crew could then have left her in their own boat, having both wind and tide in their favour.

After waiting a considerable time on the sand, we observed a signal of distress and then returned to Redcar to report what we knew, but I never yet demanded the key, nor urged the master to get out the boat. I am Sir yours respectfully,

Signed Robt. Coulson

The above is a correct statement of the case as far as regards myself. Signed Geo. Robinson, Master of the boat. Redcar April 20th 1838.

That was the last record of any correspondence found between the brothers.

What is known, however, thanks to local historian (and author of All Her Glories Past: The Zetland Lifeboat) David Phillipson, is that two months after this, Stephen Coulson put his windmill up for auction. It is not difficult to see why, when he lived so close to Fisherman’s Square – the hub of Redcar fishermen’s lives. It is recorded in 1848 that Stephen Coulson ran a Lodging House in Coatham and that in 1851 his wife, Jane, had taken over the running of it as a widow.

Stephen’s son, John moved away from Redcar but later returned and took on the role of Innkeeper at the Cleveland Hotel in Coatham. He was also a reporter for the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette. 

In March 1859 the proposed harbour of refuge for Redcar was overruled by commissioners who chose to build a harbour at Hartlepool instead.

It is not known whether Robert and Stephen ever overcame their differences.

If you would like to read more about the history of the Zetland Lifeboat, please visit the museum website here.

I would like to give thanks to David Phillipson for his fascinating book ‘All Her Glories Past: The Zetland Lifeboat’. The majority of the above information is from there. I would also like to thank Fred Brunskill for his time, knowledge and patience.

You can buy  a copy of All Her Glories Past: The Zetland Lifeboat by following this link.

 

 

 

Young Redcar Woman Died While Helping Launch the Lifeboat

It was a dark and stormy night in Redcar on the 21st January 1921, and the Greek coaling ship, ‘Aphrodite’, had been stranded near Salt Scar rocks since three o’ clock that afternoon. As midnight approached, gale force winds raged with increasing violence and the ship began taking on water.

A distress signal was sent  up by the ship and the alarm gun fired for the Redcar lifeboat. Within minutes, a large crowd of local residents gathered on the esplanade where the lifeboat ‘Fifi and Charles’ had been brought out of the boathouse on its carriage. Seeing that the horses were not yet there to help transport it to the water, some bold members of the crowd grabbed hold of the drag ropes and spurred the carriage into motion along the esplanade towards the nearest slipway, opposite Bath Street.

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The ‘Fifi and Charles’ Lifeboat.

As the carriage built up speed from the crowds labour and the wind roared all about them, a man at the front of the ropes tripped and fell, and in the midst of this upheaval, and the unstoppable forward motion of the carriage, a young woman stumbled over him and was killed instantly when the iron-clad wheel ran over her.

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The route that the lifeboat used to take for launch before the present lifeboat slipway was built.

Margaret Emmans was a 28 year old woman from Red Lion Street in Redcar and had been recently widowed, having lost her husband, George Emmans, in the war. It would be easy to imagine why she would be out alone at that time of night in the middle of a storm – under those circumstances – but according to newspaper reports, amongst the other men and women helping to launch the lifeboat that night was another lady who lived on Red Lion Street called Miss E. Carter, who it could be assumed was her friend. Miss Carter also sustained minor injuries and was treated for shock at a nearby residents house.

Owing to the chaos of the moment and the noise from the gale force winds, the tragedy was not immediately registered  – but for the crowd standing by –  and the lifeboat carried on to complete its rescue, which was reported as follows:

“The black hulk of the derelict could then be discerned clearly from the shore, owing to the brightness of the moon, and it was apparent to the watchers that she was turning and rolling considerably.

When the local lifeboat reached the vessel the fore part was under water, and her own lifeboat had been washed away. Two of the crew had been taken off, and were carried to safety by a cobble manned by members of that hardy family of Redcar fishermen, the Picknetts, who had cut to the steamer earlier in the evening.

The remainder of the crew were in readiness, and although the state of the sea and force of the winds rendered the operation difficult, the men were transferred without mishap to the rescuing boat.

After about an hour’s absence the lifeboat returned in the face of a heavy gale bearing the skipper, Captain John Colenso, and the eight other members of the crew.”

NORTH EASTERN DAILY GAZETTE – 22nd January 1921

In the days that followed the tragedy, members of the tight-knit community of Redcar, in particular, a Mrs Robinson – who ran the Cabin Cafe – organised a collection for Margaret’s mother – Margaret Crosby. It seems from the obituary notice (copied below) that Margaret Emmans was survived by no other family.

death noticeSeveral newspaper articles about the lifeboat tragedy appeared in the following weeks, including the article below:

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The original article – hard to read without a magnifying glass!

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A copied version of the article. Note that her age is stated as 26 but was later corrected to be 28.

 

The one good thing that came of this terrible accident, was the attention given to the lifeboat launch procedure. Up until this point, the lifeboat carriage had to be brought along the esplanade and onto the slipway opposite Bath Street, but following Margaret Emmans death, plans were made to create a slipway directly opposite the lifeboat house.

On Tuesday, 25th January 1921, a large gathering of local people, including members of the lifeboat crew, coastal service, railway workers, employees of Mr W.G.Lennard, friends and neighbours stood in Redcar Cemetery to pay their respects to the young woman who had died whilst helping to save others lives.

Records show that Margaret was buried in the same grave as a child named Lilian Chambers, and that it was a ‘paupers grave’ – in that it lay unmarked.

Then, in 2013, after reading about Margaret Emmans in an article written for the Friends of Redcar Cemetary Newsletter (which I would love to read) by local historian (and ex-lifeboat crew member), David Phillipson, the Redcar Co-Operative Funeral Care service offered to provide a headstone. [Full article can be read here.]

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Margaret Emmans and Lilian Chambers shared Gravestone at Redcar Cemetery – erected in 2013 through the goodwill of Co-Op Funeral Care and the Friends of Redcar Cemetery.

As well as this kind local gesture to honour the life of a brave young woman,  she is also remembered by the RNLI at their headquarters in Poole, Dorset, where a memorial to the hundreds of people who have died saving lives at sea was unveiled by The Duke of Kent in September 2009.

In researching this article, I desperately wanted to find a picture of Margaret – to put a face to her name –  and was told that there was a picture of her in one of the newspaper articles of that time, and that she was beautiful. I haven’t been able to locate the picture but I am still looking!

There are many unanswered questions in this tragic story. What happened to Margaret’s husband? Were they together long before he died? What happened to the rest of her family? What state of mind was she in the stormy night when she decided to take the drag ropes and pull with the rest of the crowd?  And who is the little girl that she is buried with?

To be continued…

To find out more about your local lifeboat and its history, please visit the Zetland Lifeboat Museum website here and the Redcar RNLI website here.

Special thanks to Marlene Calvert, Fred Brunskill and Nathan Hobday for providing information for this article.

The Day 20,000 People Came to Redcar

On 30th July 1877 (One hundred and thirty nine years ago today) Redcar thronged with over 20,000 visitors who had come to watch the opening ceremony of the building which now houses our ‘Zetland’ lifeboat (the oldest lifeboat in the world!) The building was originally designed for the lifeboat known locally as the ‘Emma’ – her namesake given in honour of a Mrs. Emma Dawson of Weston Hall, Otley, who had a great respect for the fishermen and people of Redcar and was very charitable with her wealth.

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The Dawson Boathouse – Now The Zetland Lifeboat Museum.

Perhaps the reason for such an amazing turnout was due to the controversy that surrounded this new lifeboat.

In 1858 the RNLI had taken over the running of Redcar’s lifeboat and had deemed their beloved ‘Zetland’ – who had served them for the past 62 years – unseaworthy according to their standards and arranged for a carpenter to break her up on the beach. The locals were outraged that the much-loved boat, which had saved upwards of 500 lives, was to be disposed of so ruthlessly. With much negotiation the ‘Zetland’ was given back to the townsfolk and housed in a boathouse in the Redcar East area.

In the meantime, the RNLI had provided Redcar with a new lifeboat – the ‘Crossley’ but the crew expressed great distrust at this new ‘self-righting’ designed lifeboat and refused to man her.  Another boat was provided called the ‘Burton-on-Trent’ but this was still considered too heavy to manoeuvre over the sands, and still no match for the ‘Zetland’.

The dispute was still going strong in 1875 when a charitable society called The United Free Gardeners generously offered to build Redcar a lifeboat similar in design to the ‘Zetland’. There was still reluctance on the part of the RNLI to accept a boat not of their own design, but it was eventually accepted on the grounds that it would be used for ‘additional service’ to the current RNLI lifeboat, the ‘Burton on Trent’.

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The ‘Emma’ and her crew.

The new lifeboat required a new boathouse, and so what now stands as the Zetland Lifeboat Museum was built at the cost of £700 and included a reading room for the fishermen and accommodation for the coxswain (the person who steers the boat). It was completed in 1877, and on Monday 30th July of that year, a christening ceremony took place. Local historian D. Phillipson writes about the day in his book Redcar’s Forgotten Lifeboat:

“It attracted the largest number of sightseers that Redcar had known to that date, most of them brought to the town by special excursion trains. Mrs. Dawson of Weston Hall was called upon to perform the ceremony as she spent much time in Redcar during the summer months and was a great benefactor and popular figure with the local fishermen. At noon the various lodges of Free Gardeners assembled at Coatham Pier. The members of each lodge were identified by their coloured scarves and the name of the lodge by its distinguishing banner. They marched in procession along the esplanade accompanied by several bands and groups of children dressed in white and carrying small bouquets. The lifeboat was standing resplendent on top of the Royal slipway, and was hitched to a team of six horses and followed the procession through the principle streets of the town. Unfortunately, the carriage gave way in the middle of the High Street, and it took some time and exertion to transfer the boat to the carriage belonging to the Zetland. Between one and two o’clock, the boat was run down the Bath Street slipway onto the sands and was brought to rest before the platform supporting Mrs. Dawson and senior lodge members and civic dignitaries. Much speech making followed before Mrs. Dawson was called upon to christen the boat [officially as] ‘United Free Gardener’. After the traditional bottle of wine had been broken over the bows, the band struck up and amidst cheers the lifeboat was run down to the water’s edge and quickly launched. During the afternoon Mrs. Dawson and other members of the party were taken aboard and two of the lifeboat crew jumped into the sea to demonstrate the buoyancy of their cork lifejackets. The celebrations were brought to a close by a public luncheon in the Central Hall, the day having been made more memorable by the blessing of fine weather.”

The ‘Emma’  lifeboat ended up saving upwards of 64 lives, but exact records of this, and of her eventual fate, are still a mystery. She made her last rescue on 18th October 1898, when the Finnish barque (a sailing ship with three or four masts) ‘Birger’ was caught in gale force winds and struck Saltscar. Only two members of her crew of fifteen survived. After that tragic day nothing is known of what became of the ‘Emma’. Some say she is at the bottom of the North sea, others say she ended up in Hartlepool. Nobody knows for sure.

By the early 1900’s the boathouse stood empty but the legendary coxswain Thomas Hood Picknett and his family lived in the rooms above the boathouse for 60 years.

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Thomas Hood Picknett and the ‘Emma’ behind him.

In 1907 building work commenced on Granville Terrace so a new home was needed for the ‘Zetland’ and so she took ‘Emma’s’ place. During the 1950’s alterations took place to build the coastguard lookout on top of the building and the reading room was used as a café and a fishermen’s shop. Eventually the living accommodation and reading room were combined to make the museum as it stands today – with the ‘Zetland’ as its focal point.

If you would like to know more about the fascinating history of Redcar Lifeboat please check out the Zetland Museum – here is a link to the website.