1954 Scarborough Lifeboat disaster

One of the duties of the lifeboat is to escort fishing boats back to port during bad weather. Storms can whip up out of no where and the lifeboat would be there to help just in case. On the 8th December 1954 such a storm occurred and the Scarborough Lifeboat was sent out.

On the day of the disaster the lifeboat had already completed a callout. In the morning a small motor boat "Venture" had broken down in Cayton Bay. The lifeboat helped tow it back in. Some of the crew had already been out in their own fishing boats since the early hours of the morning. They jumped on the lifeboat immediately after they returned in their own boats. After arriving back from this callout they went over to a waterfront cafe for tea and food.

Later in the day the fateful storm began. Now there were six boats reported overdue. Four were larger fishing vessels but two were just cobles.

After five hours several of these boats had already been escorted home. In the meantime the lifeboat was lying off the castle hill in this fierce south easterly gale when she received a radio message that the last overdue fishing vessels - "Courage", "Rose Mary" and "Pilot Me" were in Whitby harbour. The lifeboat crew were thinking their job had been well done and it was now time to get home.

The lifeboat started to make a wide turn ready for the run in to the harbour entrance. Scarborough is not an easy port to get into in a fierce gale as there are some very strong cross currents. Within two hundred yards of the harbour entrance two huge waves struck the "ECJR" broadside and it capsized.

This new Scarborough lifeboat was their first self righting boat. There must have been tremendous confidence in this and after it capsized it turned straight back over. Yet in the process five men were thrown into the sea.

One of the men thrown into the sea was Robert Crawford who said: "I was immediately thrown into the water along with four other members of the crew. I kicked off my sea boots, and being a strong swimmer I managed to fight my way back to the side of the lifeboat, where I was pulled on board again."

Whilst in the water, Mr Crawford remembered "surf riding" in South Africa during his war service. He said "The experience of hitting the water when I came off the surf board was exactly the same as when I hit the water this time. And I rolled with the waves exactly as I did then."

Ernest Eaves was the other man who was thrown into the water but pulled out. He too "kicked off his sea boots" and started to swim back to the lifeboat which by this time had righted itself. He said: "I managed to get to the side and held on to a rope. I waited while Robert Crawford was pulled back on board, then I was pulled on board by Tommy Scales. By this time I was all in."

He added "If the boat had overturned outside the far pier, nothing on earth could have saved us. The short time that I spent in the water seemed like and eternity"

Allen Rennard, on board the lifeboat said: "Two of the crew who were hanging onto the side were hauled in. The whole thing lasted only a minute or two, but it seemed a long time to me".

The two men who were thrown into the water (Ernie Eaves and Robert Crawford) were both lucky. Three others were still in the water and would drown.

Allen Rennard had managed to get the engines started again and Jitta Sheader brought the lifeboat back into harbour. The port rail was damaged. As she passed the end of the pier the crew shouted "Men washed overboard." After the men were hauled in he took the helm and headed for harbour. They tried to head the lifeboat into the sea riding through the big waves.

Mr Derek Watson, a 29 year old fish merchant's manager, immediately phoned the police ambulance and fire services. He then went down onto the sand to help with the rescue work.

On the shore Mr Fred Trotter, of Merchants Row, witnessed the whole thing. He saw the lifeboat turn over and right itself. He heard the crew shout that some of the crew were in the water. He then drove his car down to the sea front to help illuminate the massive waves to help in the search.

Back on the beach Derek Watson described how he helped with the rescue work: "Some of us waded in and saw two men in the water. They were Jack sheader and Jack Cammish, and I could tell they were in a bad way."

Jack Sheader was pronounced dead when pulled out. Jack Cammish was still alive when pulled from the sea and was rushed to St Thomas's Hospital on the Foreshore. There was no resident doctor here and so a call for help was sent to Scarborough Hospital. Three doctors were sent and Mr T.F. Griffin, surgeon at Scarborough hospital, took charge of the artifical respiration operation.

Meanwhile Francis Bayes was still missing. Firemen and soldiers from the ack-ack unit stationed at Burniston Barracks shone searchlights on the sea to help with the search.

The sea front strip lighting, normally used to give Scarborough a festive appearance, was also switched on to help in the grim search. It created a fantastic sight as many of the bulbs, lashed by the wind and rain, crackled, gave off flashes of sparks - and faded out.

Everyone did what they could. Many could do nothing and simply had to watch and wait by the harbour walls waiting anxiously for news.

Frank Bayes body was eventually washed up by the steps near the lighthouse three hours after the lifeboat capsized. Old Tom Rowley, along with others, pulled out the body. Ann Mancrief, a relative of young Francis, remembered Francis as a good looking boy but his face must have been caught in the propellers that day as it was badly marked. There was a cut down one side of his face several inches long.

The three men who died were the cox John Sheader, Francis Bayes and John Cammish.

John Cammish was born in 1899 and served in the navy before returning to Scarborough to work on the fishing boats and to volunteer on the lifeboat. He had served the Scarborough and Filey lifeboats for 37 years. He had been second coxswain for eight years.

Francis Bayes was signalman on the lifeboat that day. His father Old Frank Bayes had flu and pluracy that day and young Frank Bayes decided to go instead of him. He took Old Franks Bayes place on the lifeboat .

He was engaged to be married to Miss Maisie Conner, at St Mary's Church next Easter. She had been staying with Franks parents in Eastborough. The Evening News stated she "Spoke in a whisper as she recalled meeting Frank while serving in the WAAF". She said "I did not see him again until I came to Scarborough from Middlesborough two years ago to work at Sportocrat. We saw each several times after that and started courting in June of this year."

Jack Sheader had served with the Scarborough life-boat for 40 years - ten as coxswain. He had 5 children (two sons and three daughters). Normally lifeboatmen retire at 60 but Lou Sanderson, Chairman secretary of the Scarborough RNLI had asked him to stay on a bit longer because "he was as good as a man of 40. But he would have retired in July next."

Tommy Rowley, a volunteer at the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Center and Deputy Launch Assistant with the lifeboats remembered the disaster: "This was my first taste of how dangerous the sea could be. I was only a young boy. People were running up from the harbour and said that the Lifeboat had capsized. I didn't know what capsized meant - I was just a little boy in short trousers and had never heard that word before. I soon learnt though!... I went down with my Mam and stood on the West Pier looking for survivors.

Everyone was talking about this tragic event. Witnesses and lifeboatmen told their stories to the newspapers. William "Jitta" Sheader told his whilst still shuddering with cold. Robert Crawford told his story of being thrown into the water to the Scarborough Evening News whilst his daughter played by the fire.

Various funds were set up to help the widows. The Scarborough Evening News set up its own fund for readers to donate. Money arrived at the Town Hall and was passed onto the families of those lost.

Lou Sanderson Chairman of the Scarborough RNLI was handed an anonymous donation by a lady. She handed him £50 in notes. and said "I want to give you a little donation for your lads" and added that they should not forget the widow of Frank Dalton, who died just three years earlier whilst serving on the Scarborough lifeboat.

Donations came from near and far. The children of a school in Surrey were so touched by the tragedy that they decided to donate the proceeds from their Christmas carol service.

The Mayor received a donation from a single parent woman who stipulated that this must get to the widow of one of the widows as quickly as possible.

Next came the funerals. Silent crowds filled the approaches to St Mary's Church as the coffins were carried in for the service.

The procession was led by the Rev WE Cowling, preist in charge of St Thomas's church (the fishermens church. He was followed by the lifeboatmen bearing the coffin of the former Coxswain Jack Sheader. Then came the representatives of the lifeboat crews and fishing communities from Filey, Whitby, Bridlington and Runswick Bay.

In the service the Archsbishop of York said "We are thankful for all they have done to rescue those in peril from storm and wind. We are proud of their courage and endurance, and when, therefore, live are lost in this service we have a sense of personal loss."

Jack Sheader's grave is easy to spot in the Dean Road / Manor Road cemetery (section V). It has a picture of a lifeboat on it with the following inscription:

"In loving memory of my dear husband John Nicholas Sheader coxswain of the Scarborough life-boat drowned 8th December 1954, aged 63 years."

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends."

This disaster had a devastating impact on the local fishing community. You must remember that the old town has always been so tightly knit. Daughters of fishermen would marry young fishermen. Everyone knew everyone else. Most of the Scarborough fishing community were related in some way to at least one of the men lost. So this disaster hit everyone very personally in the Scarborough fishing community.

Pressure grew in the town for some kind of monument. A plaque was put up outside the Lifeboat house with the following inscription:

In honoured memory of John Nicholas Sheader coxswain John Harrison Cammish 2nd coxswain Francis Bayes signalman of the Scarborough Lifeboat 'E C J R' who were drowned when the lifeboat capsized near the harbour entrance 8th December 1954. "o hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea"

For the living life has to go on. Within 48 hours the lifeboat was back on station and ready to go to sea again. Denk Mainprize took over as cox. Bill Jitta Sheader became second cox. A young man by the name of Tommy Rowley joined the crew. He was to become a stalwart of the lifeboat's for many years and went on to win the RNLI's bronze medal for gallantry. For the fishing community of Scarborough this disaster did not put off new volunteers - far from it. This new volunteer, Young Tommy Rowley, had been at sea himself in his coble the "Premier" and had been got home safe and sound.

This tragic loss of lives has a long-lasting resonance that is still remembered and honoured in Scarborough to this day with an annual service at St Marys Church to commemorate the disaster.

On the fiftieth anniversary in 2004 Scarborough fell silent for a minute as a sign of respect for the men lost in the disaster. For Councillor Tom Fox this was a sad day as he was related to John Sheader who died in the tragedy. Although not a fisherman himself he was born and brought up in this tightly knit community. His Great Grandfather William Sheader was one of the crew on the last rowing lifeboat called the "Brother Brickwood", which was finally taken out of service in the 1920s.

Scarborough lifeboats have a proud history going back more than 200 years. During that period many courageous men have ventured out into seas which we can only but imagine. The 1954 disaster was one of four occasions in the Scarborough Lifeboat history where lives were lost - the others being in 1836, 1861, and 1951.

A second plaque at the Scarborough Lifeboat Station reads:"In loving memory of those who have given their lives rescuing those in Peril on the sea". It then lists those who have lost their lives:

17th February 1836 - Joseph Allen, Thomas Boyes, John Clayburn, Thomas Cross, John Owston Dale, James Day, Richard Marchman, James Mawer, Thomas Walker and James Waugh

2nd November 1861 - Thomas Brester and John Burton

9th December 1951 - Frank Dalton

8th December 1954 - John Sheader and John Cammish Francis Bayes."

The plaque ends with the quote "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends"

- The Scarborough Evening News and Mercury (December 1954)
- Tommy Rowley's personal recollections

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