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.
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.
Proposed plan of Port William.
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.
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,
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.
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,
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.