Henry was born in Bridlington on 29th April 1835, the son of a brickmaker. At sixteen he was working as a farm labourer in Flamborough, later returning to Bridlington to take on his father’s trade. Henry moved to Whitby in 1855, aged 20, and after working as a brickmaker and labourer he turned to the sea. There is some evidence that he worked as a seaman on colliers sailing to London but by 1861 Henry was working as a fisherman.
On 9th February 1861 during a great storm the lifeboat men carried out five launches (one of them in a coble, the rest in the lifeboat) rescuing the crews from five vessels. Although he had not been one of the lifeboat crew before, Henry took part in all of the rescues that day. On that fifth launch the lifeboat overturned and Henry was the sole survivor, (probably because of the new type of life jacket he was wearing). He was awarded the RNLI’s Silver medal.
He married Elizabeth Busfield, daughter of a jet ornament manufacturer in October 1861.
Throughout the 1860s Freeman carried on working as a fisherman. In 1870 he was registered as being master of the Alexandra, a coble working as a herring boat, and in November 1870 he purchased his first boat, a line fishing coble called the “William and Margaret”.
After the 1861 disaster Henry Freeman is not recorded as having been used as a crew member for the RNLI lifeboat until the opening of the Upgang Lifeboat station in 1865, although he was associated with an unofficial lifeboat, the “Fisherman’s Friend” which did not take part in any major rescues. After a rescue by the Upgang lifeboat on December 31st 1866 Freeman is not listed as having taken part in more rescues with that boat although he was still one of the reserve crew of the Upgang lifeboat.
In 1875 on the retirement of the Whitby coxswain, John Pickering, the lifeboat committee decided to remove responsibility for the Upgang station from the Whitby coxswain and appointed Henry as coxswain to the Upgang lifeboat. In 1876 Henry was coxswain on the “Robert Whitworth” lifeboat when the crew of a coble in difficulty were rescued. This was Henry’s only rescue as Upgang Coxswain. In January 1877 the Whitby Coxswain, Samuel Lacy was drowned with two other crew while attempting a rescue, and a few weeks later Henry Freeman was appointed to replace Lacy.
There was some opposition to the appointment of Henry Freeman as Whitby coxswain. The secretary of the Whitby branch of the RNLI Committee, Mr. Smales, resigned over the decision while Thomas Hartley, one of the most experienced lifeboat men, refused to serve under Freeman. The Committee refused to accept Mr. Smales resignation and passed a motion “relieving him of all responsibility arising from the appointment of Henry Freeman”.
Despite this inauspicious start to his career as Whitby coxswain, the crew under Freeman’s command carried on the excellent tradition of the Whitby lifeboat men. Over the next three years the crew of the “Robert Whitworth” saved sixty lives.
On 28th October 1880 a severe gale similar to the one that caused the 1861 lifeboat disaster affected the North-east coast. Henry Freeman was involved in four rescues that day and was awarded a silver clasp for his 1861 RNLI silver medal.
In January 1881, Freeman was involved in the epic rescue of the crew of the “Visitor” at Robin Hood’s Bay. In severe weather the “Robert Whitworth” was hauled by men and horses six miles overland through snowdrifts and then down the steep road into Robin Hood’s Bay. The lifeboat was launched with Freeman in command but after an hour’s struggle to reach the endangered men, the lifeboat was struck by a huge wave, breaking six of the oars. Freeman returned the lifeboat to the beach, took on fresh oars and a fresh crew, then launched the lifeboat again and rescued the “Visitor’s” crew.
Henry Freeman retired as Whitby coxswain in 1899 after 22 years service. His wife Elizabeth had died in 1898. In 1901 Henry married Elizabeth’s widowed sister, Emma. He died on 13th December 1904 aged 68, leaving his widow Emma but no children.