Scarboroughs rowing lifeboats


The following history is reprinted from Arthur Godfreys book "The Scarborough Lifeboats"

The RLNI began in 1824, but as we have seen Scarborough already had a well established lifeboat of its own by this time, and did not need to seek the help of a new national body. Inevitably though, Scarborough mariners were interested in the movement, and when the RNLI ran a competition for lifeboat design, there was a lot of interest shown locally.

The competition was held in 1850, at the bidding of the Duke of Northumberland, who put up a prize of 100 guineas for the best lifeboat model submitted.

Four Scarborough men entered models, the most successful of these being one entered by John Edmond, a local fishing boat builder. Edmond actually submitted two models, both of which were based on the shape of the coble he knew so well. One of these was placed tenth out of 280 entries received.

It was described as having four thwarts, pulling eight oars, and it was 27 feet long and 7.25 feet in beam. Like the coble, it was built of larch planking on oak frames, fastened together with copper rivets, and was rigged with a single mast with a lug-sail. It had air cases at bow and stern, and these, together with a heavy iron forefoot, would cause her to right herself in the case of a capsize.

Edmond's lifeboat would carry 30 people, and could be built for just £53. Significantly, the winning entry - submitted by James Beeching of Yarmouth - cost £250 to build.

Scarborough's other entries came from William Cooper, Edward J. Harland (who later founded the giant shipbuilding company of Harland & Wolf) and John Woodall, one time mayor of Scarborough.

The lifeboatmen of Scarborough, however, were content with the boat they already had; in 1850 it was still "in fine repair", and as we have seen, it saw eight years service after this date.

In April of 1861, Scarborough received its first RNLI lifeboat, a vessel called the "Amelia" which had been presented to the institution by William Banting of London. The boat was given several stiff trials in the South Bay, and all seemed well pleased with her performance. Tragically, the "Amelia" was only launched once on service, an on that occasion it took life rather than saved it.

At 4 p.m. on 2nd November, 1861, the South Shields schooner "Coupland" tried to enter Scarborough harbour during a northerly gale. As she rounded the pier-end, the wind blew her sails inside out, and she was taken aback. The vessel was thrown helplessly across the South Bay, and she finally struck the rocks opposite the Spa, some thirty yards from the sea wall. The "Amelia" was manned and launched at once, and was soon within reach of the wreck amongst great foaming waves that had actually dislodged some of the stones of the sea wall.

Within seconds, the lifeboatmen realised that they had taken on more than they could handle; the boat was being hurled this way and that, and they were unable to control it. One man - Thomas Clayburn - was hurled from the boat, and was washed ashore where he was rescued by means of a lifebelt that was thrown to him.

All hopes of effecting a rescue had gone; the "Amelia" was repeatedly thrown against the sea wall, and three more men were hurled from the boat. One of these was crushed to death between the boat and the wall, another scrambled back into the boat, and the third was washed ashore exhausted, but alive. Eventually the lifeboatmen realised that their only hope of survival was to strike out for the shore whilst they still had strength in their bodies, and accordingly they left the lifeboat, one by one.

A large crowd of spectators had assembled on the sea wall by this time, and the braver ones waded out through the surf to try and help the lifeboatmen reach safety. Amongst these was Lord Charles Beauclerk who lost his own life trying to save others. Two other men, W. Tindall and J. Iles, died similarly in the surf, and a second lifeboatman failed to reach the shore.

Eventually, communication with the wreck was effected by means of rocket lines, and the six crew of the "Coupland" were saved in this way. These five men had died in the rescue attempt. The lifeboatmen were J. Burton and T. Brewster; the spectators who died (named earlier) were posthumously awarded Silver Medal for gallantry. The "Amelia" was smashed beyond repair, never to put to sea again.

The RNLI wasted no time in replacing the lifeboat; within a short space of time. Scarborough had anew lifeboat called the "Mary", paid for by a local lady called Mrs Cockcroft. The "Mary" was a smaller and lighter boat than her predecessor - in fact there had been suggestions that the "Amelia" disaster was partly due to the fact that the boat was too heavy and cumbersome.

One of the first service launches of the "Mary" took place on 21 December, 1862, when the Whitby schooner "Celestine" appeared in the offing in obvious distress. She had sprung a leak whilst bound for Middlesborough with a cargo of pig iron, and a storm that followed had made her situation dangerous. She headed for Scarborough, but, like the "Coupland" before her, failed to gain the harbour, and began to drift towards the rocks near the Spa.

The "Mary" followed the schooner across the Bay, and for a terrible moment, it seemed that history was about to repeat itself. One lifeboatman was thrown in the surf, but was pulled back by his hair. The crew realised that they were not going to be able to offer any help to the schooner, and remembering the "Amelia" disaster, did the only possible thing, and turned the "Mary" back towards the beach.

They knew that the rocket apparatus would be used to save the crew of the schooner, and this in fact proved to be the case.

Interestingly, this launch was not recorded by the RNLI on the station "tally boards", because despite the desperate effort they had made, the lifeboatmen had not carried out a rescue.

During her eleven years at Scarborough, the "Mary" was launched 25 times, and saved 32 lives. In 1870, a man called John Owston joined the crew of the "Mary", and he was to achieve fame for his work, as we shall see.

In September of 1872, the "Mary" was replaced by a larger and stronger boat called the "Lady Leigh", presented by the Freemasons of Warwickshire. It seemed like the local lifeboatmen liked to alternate between larger and smaller boats; each time they received a new boat, it was the opposite of the retiring one.

The "Lady Leigh" was essentially a sailing rather than rowing lifeboat, and as such, was not ideally suited for her work at Scarborough. Despite this, she was soon to earn the highest reputation possible, and she became a very popular boat with the Scarborough lifeboatmen.

The first rescue by the "Lady Leigh" took place on 10 November 1872, when the Whitby brig "Palestine" struck "Ramsdale Scar", a rock outcrop in the middle of the South Bay. The six crew were taken off by the lifeboat, and within two hours the brig had been smashed to pieces by the waves.

Many other successful rescues were carried out by Owston and his crew in the "Lady Leigh" but it was not until 1880 that her finest hour came.

A storm of tremendous violence broke over the Yorkshire coast on 28 October, 1880, and vessels in all parts of the North Sea made a dash for the nearest port. About a score of them made for Scarborough, and many of these failed to reach the area at all, let alone the harbour here. Some foundered at sea, whilst others ran ashore north or south of the town, to be broken up on the rocks. Nine ships reached the vicinity of the harbour, but only one managed to gain entrance, and ironically, this one broke its moorings and was washed out into the Bay to join the other eight stranded vessels.

The "Lady Leigh" was in use throughout the day , rowing back and forth through the raging surf to each of the wrecks in turn. Seven crew were saved, from the brig "Mary" of South Shields, five were taken from the Bideford schooner "Black Eyed Susan", and eight were saved from the French brig "Jeune Adolphe". From her return from this rescue, the lifeboat was accidentally grounded, and a fourth vessel the "Arun" of Littlehampton, was in need of desperate need of help from the shore. A party of fishermen grabbed a smack's boat, and pushed off from the shore in it. Eventually they reached the stricken brig and took off the six crewmen, before landing safely to a great cheer from the assembled crowd.

Three more vessels came ashore, and the crews managed to save themselves without the aid of the lifeboat. By this time the lifeboatmen had recovered their strength, and the boat was ready for launching once more when the ketch "J. Prizeman" from Plymouth came ashore. Darkness had fallen by this time, but the lifeboat was again successful in taking off three men, a wo man and a boy who were aboard the ketch.

All night the lifeboat and the rocket brigade waited in readiness , but it was not until noon the next day that the "Lady Leigh" was required again. A Dutch galliot came ashore, and the crew took to the rigging of the vessel. With great difficulty, the lifeboat approached the wreck and took off the two men and a boy. The Galliot was, according to the lifeboat records, named the "Herbruder", but other sources suggest that her name was "Gebruder" or even "Zwei Gebruder". This vessel was not a total wreck incidentally; she was repaired and bought by Isaac Cox of Scarborough, renamed "Five brothers" and put to work as a collier.

Seven of the nine stranded vessels were total wrecks however, but the most surprising feature of this destructive storm is that not a life was lost in the South Bay, thanks to the supreme efforts of the lifesaving services here. Coxswain, John Owston, received a Silver Medal for his part in the work, having rescued 28 men from five shipwrecks.

More than a year passed before the "Lady Leigh" was called out again, but this of course does not mean that there were not any shipping casualties in the area. Numerous vessels were in fact wrecked, but the incidents either took place well offshore, or occurred at night and went unseen, or the crews saved themselves before the lifeboat could be launched; hence lifeboat records do not give a complete picture of all maritime casualties.

In July of 1887, the "Lady Leigh" bid farewell to Scarborough, having saved a total of 106 lives here in her 42 services. She was sent to London for alterations, before being sent to a new station.

Scarborough received a new vessel from the RNLI, paid for by Herbert A. Foster, who donated a total of £2000 to the Institution at this time. The new boat, called "Queensbury", had been built by Forrest and Son in London at a cost of £650. She was 37 feet long and had a beam of 8 feet, but John Owston and his crew were not happy with her.

They did not think that the "Queensbury" would empty herself of water as quickly as the old boat had done, and they went as far to ask for the "Lady Leigh" to be returned to Scarborough. A district inspector of the Institution came to talk to the men, and whilst admitting that the boat would not empty itself as quickly, pointed out that it was essentially a rowing lifeboat, whereas the "Lady Leigh" was designed as a sailing lifeboat primarily. Owston and his crew may not have been entirely convinced by these arguments, but they agreed to give the boat a fair trial.

The first rescue by the "Queensbury" took place on the 11th March, 1888 when a dandy-rigged collier called the "Vivid" came ashore in an east-south-easterly gale some 250 yards from the West Pier. The three crew were taken off successfully, but the "Vivid", an old fishing smack that had been put into the coal trade, broke up where she lay. The remnants of the vessel stuck in the sand, and successive tides buried her. From time to time the winter gales cause sands to shift, and on these occasions the wreck can be seen to this day.

Later in the same year, on 5th August, a Lowestoft lugger called the "Seagull" sank with the loss of nine crew off Scarborough, but sadly no one knew of the disaster until it was all over.

Twenty five more lives were saved by the "Queensbury" during the next two years; an average of between four and five lives being saved each time the boat was launched. In November, 1893, however, tragedy again cam eto this area, and again no one knew of it until it was all over. A tremendous storm blew up on the 18th of the month, and a Norwegian schooner came ashore unseen to southward.

Eight men died, only one survived. No blame could be attached to anyone for this disaster; they simply did not know about it until much later. The lifeboat had not been idle however; during the storm she had been twice launched to vessels in distress, and on the second of these launches she saved the three crew of the Poole ketch "Excel". The mate of the ketch was dead on board when the lifeboat arrived.

John Owston and his crew had never been happy with the "Queensbury", and they were not merely being obstinate; they considered her too heavy and not roomy enough for them to work efficiently.

In September of 1893, a further meeting was held with the crew, the committee and the Lifeboat Inspector present. The crew stated that they did not think that they could pull the boat through in a storm, and that they would like to have another boat identical to the old "Lady Leigh". In May of the following year official tests were carried out on the "Queensbury" to try to prove to the crew that they were wrong about the boat.

The tests were carried out before a large audience at the end of the West Pierearly on the morning of 24 May 1894. The boat was forcibly capsized a number of times under varying circumstances, and each time the boat righted itself within seconds. The crowd were tremendously impressed; each time the boat rolled back and drained itself, a cheer rang out. Owston and his men, however, said little, and when a vote was taken amongst the lifeboatmen, the result was conclusive. Three of them voted to retain the "Queensbury"; 25 voted for a smaller and lighter boat - like the "Lady Leigh" - which is what they had asked for from the start.

The Inspector suggested a ten-oared boat, 34 feet long and 8 feet in beam might fit the bill - such a boat would be half a ton lighter than the "Queensbury", which was twelve-oared, and 37 feet in length. The Scarborough crew said that was just what they wanted.

It was another year before they finally got it; on 12th July 1895, the new lifeboat - also called "Queensbury" - was first launched at Scarborough, and Owston and her crew were delighted with her. The original "Queensbury" left the town, having saved 35 lives during her 21 launches here. The second "Queensbury" spent only six years at Scarborough, during which time she saved 8 lives form distressed vessels on her 15 launches.

She could also claim the distinction of having assisted many local fishing vessels which were returning to port in heavy weather, however, and doubtless the men manning these boats were glad to see the "Queensbury" in attendance at the time. One of the last services carried out by the second "Queensbury" was to the assistance of a brigantine called "Kathleen" which ran ashore two and a half miles north of the town on 21 July 1900. Captain Whitaker, the five crew and a dog were rescued from the wreck.

A temporary lifeboat called the "Edward and Lucille" came to Scarborough to replace the "Queensbury II", and only here for a couple of years, she had a very successful stay. On 13 November, 1901, a number sailing vessels were seen in the offing during an east-north-easterly gale, and the lifeboat was made ready.

It was the old, old story again; many sailing vessels had been caught by the storm, and were now making for the nearest harbour of refuge. At 7-15 a.m., the first casualty arrived after a Scottish fishing vessel successfully negotiated the harbour mouth and was berthed safely.

A second vessel, the ketch "Invicta" of Rochester, attempted to follow suit, but when she was some 1000 yards from the pier, a huge wave struck her, and she foundered almost at once. It happened so quickly that the lifeboat had no chance of offering assistance. One minute the ketch was heading for the harbour mouth, the next minute she had gone, and all hands were lost.

At 9-30 a.m., the Whitstable brigantine "Boxer" came into view with her canvas in ribbons. Bound for Hartlepool with chalk ballast at the time, she had been caught by the storm and now came ashore in the middle of the South Bay, quite helpless. The lifeboat went alongside the wreck and took off the eight crew. Within a short time, the brigantine broke up and her remains were sold by public auction for the sum of £8.

A month later the temporary lifeboat carried out a second and almost identical rescue. At 6 a.m. on 14 December 1901, the barquentine "Satellite" of Dover was seen off the town with her sails hanging in shreds from the yards. At 7.10 a.m. she ran ashore, right in front of the Grand Hotel, and the lifeboat was alongside her at once. Though hampered by wreckage from the "Boxer", the lifeboatmen succeeded in taking off the eight crew of the "Satellite", and landed them safely. The barquentine was left high and dry when the tide receded, but subsequent heavy weather broke her up.

A third "Queensbury", cost £729, came to Scarborough in 1903 and most of her service launches were carried out for the protection of local fishing boats. In her first five years of service she saved the lives of 28 fishermen, and escorted many other cobles to safety during bad weather. During this period another disaster occurred locally , when on 19 January 1906, the steamer "Sumas" foundered off the town.

A man who was walking at the foot of the cliff at Gristhorpe discovered the bodies of some of the crew of the steamer - and this was the first that anyone knew of the tragedy. It transpired later that all nine of the crew of the Middlesborough had died, yet to this day no one knows just how or where the steamer went down.

In 1911, John Owston had to retire from the position of coxswain of Scarborough lifeboat due to ill health. He had been a lifeboatman for 41 years, and the constant struggle he had waged against the elements finally began to tell on him. On 13 December 1911, Owston and a young crew member called Lewis Plummer were washed out of the lifeboat during a service launch, and though both were hauled back aboard, the coxswain had to be taken to hospital due to exhaustion.

Many times he had come to the shore after a rescue soaked to the skin and physically exhausted, and no man can withstand this kind of strain indefinitely. John Owston retired then, after having taken part in the rescue of 230 lives, a truly remarkable record which will always have a place of honour in the RNLI records.

The new coxswain was John Owston junior, who was to follow in his fathers footsteps, being coxswain for the next 25 years.

By the time of John Owston senior's retirement, the role of the lifeboat here was beginning to change, for the coastal sailing ships that had been so numerous were fast disappearing from the North Sea. The steamships that were replacing them were not so vulnerable to bad weather, and did not need to seek protection of harbours of refuge like Scarborough. From this time on, the lifeboat found itself more concerned with the protection of local shipping, especially the fishing fleets.

The advent of World War One changed things yet again, as one would expect, and numerous rescues took place as a result of this. On 30 October, 1914, the Hospital ship "Rohilla" stranded south of Whitby, and though she was not classed as a war loss, it is clear that she would not have stranded if there was not a war on.

The rescue attempts that followed made one of the famous lifeboat epics of all time, and Whitby lifeboatmen, in particular, distinguished themselves. Out of a total of 229 crew and staff aboard the "Rohilla", 84 died; the rest were saved by lifeboats from Whitby and Tynemouth, whilst the lifeboats from Upgang and Scarborough made attempts to reach the wreck without success.

The Scarborough lifeboat was towed to the scene by a one of the local steam trawlers, but it was found to be impossible to reach the wreck from the seaward side. The full story of this can be found in many lifeboat books, including "The rowing lifeboats of Whitby" by A.F. Humble published in 1974.

The war affected Scarborough even more in December of 1914, when a German battlecruiser squadron bombarded the two with shells, causing many deaths and casualties and a great deal of structural damage. During the bombardment the "Kolberg" laid 100 mines between Filey and Scarborough, and these wreaked havoc amongst passing cargo ships in the next few days. In most cases the mine victims went down in a matter of minutes, usually two miles or more from the harbour.

This meant that the lifeboat could not help; the sinkings were over long before she could get anywhere near the scene. Notwithstanding this, the boat did put off on numerous occasions in the hope that she might be the means of saving life, and she did in fact land 17 members of the crew of the Dutch steamer "Leersum". She rendered useful assistance to the "Gallier", a large collier that was eventually salved, being launched three times to the assistance of this vessel on various occasions.

Towards the end of the that fateful year, the third "Queensbury" was launched to the aid of minesweeping trawlers that were clearing the Scarborough approaches. Once the sting had been removed from the minefield, there was little work for the lifeboat as a direct result of the war, and went back to her more familiar role of protecting the fishing fleets.

But ships continued to be sunk locally in frightening numbers; when the mines had ceased to be a problem, German U-boats began to appear in home waters, and they were very successful in their terrible work. These sinkings always took place outside of the range of the lifeboat, however, and took place even more quickly than the mine victims.

"Queensbury" number three was taken out of service in 1918, by which time she had saved 98 lives on her 60 service launches. More than 70 of those saved were fisherman, incidentally.

Scarborough's next lifeboat was to be the last of the rowing boats; called the "Brothers Brickwood", she had been stationed earlier at Brightstone Grange, and had been built at a cost of £871. By the time she came to Scarborough, the town had ceased to have importance as a commercial port, and most of the passing cargo ships were far too far off shore for a pulling lifeboat to offer any help that might be needed.

Hence, the "Brothers Brickwood" found that most of her services were to assist local cobles, though there were some notable exceptions to this.

A few sailing traders could still be found in he North Sea, and one such vessel, the "Melba" of Newcastle, was bound for Blyth from Treport, France, in June of 1919. She encountered heavy weather off the Yorkshire coast, and was taken in tow by a Scarborough paddle steamer, which brought her into the South Bay here. The vessel anchored, and prepared to ride out the storm, but the weather worsened.

At 10pm distress signals from the vessel were seen on the shore, and the lifeboat was launched. After a hard pull across the Bay, the lifeboatmen took off eight of the crew of the "Melba", and the vessel was left to the mercy of the elements. All night she rode out the storm, but the following morning it was seen that she had dragged her anchors and was been driven across the bay. She finally struck the rocks near White Nab, where she broke up.

Less than a year later, on 11 April 1920, the "Brothers Brickwood" went to the assistance of a second sailing ship, the barque "Cito" of Kopervik. This time the lifeboatmen saved not only the ten crew, but the barque as well.


1785 - 1st boat was 'Safety Boat' to 1823 when 'Skelton Boat' was introduced.

1852 'Peake' Lifeboat until 1861 when RNLI delivered 4th boat 'Amelia' wrecked in 1861 storm.

1861 Mary, 1872 Lady Leigh, 1887 Queensbury, 1895 Queensbury 2, 1901 Edward & Lucille, 1902 Queensbury 3, 1918 Brothers Brickwood, 1924 Herbert Joy, 1931 Herbert Joy 2, 1951 ECJR, 1956 Annie Ronald & Isabella Forrest, 1958 JC Graves of Sheffield, 1978 Amelia 2, 1991 Mersey Class Fanny Victoria Wilkinson & Frank Stubbs, 2009 Inshore boat IB1 clas D724 John wesley Hillard 3, 2016 Shannon Class (jet turbine) Frederick William Plaxton to present.

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