Library & Archives Blog – Waves of Royal National Lifeboat Institution information (RNLI)…

The RNLI are celebrating 200 years! We have a variety of archival documents and books to read featuring heroic stories, handbook information and interesting facts about lifeboats and its crew.

Today I discovered the intriguing Lifeboat ‘green box’. Inside are leaflets from anniversary events, historical documents, poetry, remembrance plaque, newspaper articles and information booklets.

We also have a vast selection of books in our library cabinets and I have taken an extract from the chapter ‘The Yellow Oil Skins’ in the Dora Walker book ‘Freemen of the Sea’  about the lifeboat incident that happened in 1861 taking the lives of 12 brave lifeboat men.

“A formidable gale on February 8th developed into hurricane force in the night. During the morning of the 9th, seven members of the Whitby lifeboat crew were in the vicinity of Sandsend, and saw a ship, the ‘John and Anne’ of Sunderland, drive ashore between the Ness and ‘Kilders Steel’.

                Being bad weather, it is likely they had been to look for hazels for crab pots. They were John Storr, Will Dryden, Robert Leadley, George Martin, Will Tyremen, John Dixon, and Henry Freeman.

Borrowing a Sandsend coble, they launched it at once, at considerable risk, and brought off safely all the crew of the ‘John and Anne’. Seeing the likelihood of other wrecks, they then hastened back to Whitby to take their stand by the new lifeboat. None too soon! A collier schooner, ‘Gamma of Newcastle’, was the next victim. Barely were the same men with the rest of the lifeboat crew back to safety when the ‘Clara’, a Prussian barque, closely followed by the brig ‘Utility’ and the schooner ‘Roe’, were driven on the sands.

Almost it seemed as if some monstrous hand hurled the ships to destruction, and that no sooner was one crew snatched from death than another was flung into the pit. The sweat poured down the men’s faces, mingling with the salt and blinding them, as they bent to the oars under the lash of their own mighty determination.

A Brigantine approaching the harbour was flung broadside into Collier ‘Hope’. The lifeboat took off the crew.

                And then ‘Merchant’, another schooner, was seen through a haze of searing snow and sleet, her sails in ribbons, driving onto the sands. The seventh ship! The men had toiled without food or rest, forcing bodies and nerves beyond the scale of human endurance. No more than sixty yards from the pier ends a monstrous hand rose to grip them in the form of a mighty wave, and the sea had the victims it had striven for all day, which these men’s titanic efforts had denied it. The lifeboat, which had stood so well the frightful strain inflicted on it, was overturned, and the crew engulfed. The one man wearing the new R.N.L.I lifebelt, Henry Freeman, escaped the holocaust, and was dragged ashore; the rest perished.

                Their names, engraved on a stone in the old church-yard on the windy East Cliff, are an inspiration, well calculated to ‘water the root’ of the tree of Service, of which the Lifeboat Institution is so stout a branch.

                To dwellers of the quayside they have a familiar ring.

                “Jon Storr (Coxwain), William Storr, Robert Harland, John Dixon, Robert Leadley, William Walker, Will Tyreman, George Martin, Matthey Leadley, Chris Collins, John Philpot, and Isaac Dobson”

                The toll of life was fearful and yet when the brig ‘Tribune’ was driven ashore, four or five hours later, volunteers came forward to man the old East Side lifeboat ‘Petrel’ and effect a rescue. Four master mariners, a mate, three ordinary seamen, two jet carvers and a fisherman comprised her crew. They deserved great credit, as the old boat they manned had also upset and drowned four of her crew, Storr, Wilson, Walker, and Pattinson, in an accident on the Bar, as far back as 1841. For long after that she had been boycotted as ‘hoodoo’ and was only brought out again with the utmost reluctance. It speaks much for the quality of Mr. Gales old boat that she was still seaworthy enough to effect the rescue of the Tribune’s crew, and even to undertake further rescues, her name appearing on the boards of the R.N.L.I. in 1862, when she brought the crew of the ‘Royal Rose’ to safety.

Of Mr Falconbridge’s boat, which saved the crew of the seven ships before she was lost, no further mention can be found. Even her name is lacking. There is a legend that she saw service before she was christened. If so, then on February 9th, 1861, her baptism was in blood and her name was Sacrifice.”

A couple of lifeboat stories have caught my eye in the ‘Heroes of the Whitby Lifeboat’ booklet that features with our book collection.

Picture a cold wintery day on January 19th 1881.

 “A gale of intense fury with unabating violence; the waves dashed on the beach with all the power they could command; the towering cliffs and the very ground on which you stood seemed to shake…”

A message had come through from Robin Hoods Bay that lifeboat assistance was needed but…Robin Hoods Bay was 6 miles away and impossible to venture out onto the stormy seas so it was decided to transport the lifeboat over land! Hauling the boat through snow, over hill and moorland! Word spread of the mammoth task in hand, crowds gathered to cheer encouragement – a sight never to be forgotten.

The Lifeboat “Robert Whitworth” was hauled through snowdrifts up to six feet high by a powerful team of upwards of 20 horses and 200 strong men – it was proving an impossible task but still they staggered through tearing up hedges, knocking down walls, unhinging gates; fatigued, weary, exhausted! They reached the top of the declivity greeted by excited crowds – down the steep bank went “Robert Whitworth” entering the merciless waters, battling against crashing waves and rescuing the ‘nearly dead’ crew. As the boat neared the shore, a shout of victory hailed from the waiting crowd. It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 4 hours since they left Whitby, a rescued crew and a memory to the services of those courageous men including one John Storr, second coxswain of the Whitby Lifeboat…

Then there is the story of the women of Runswick Bay in 1901 who were in the situation of having to launch the lifeboat themselves as the men of the lifeboat crew were at sea in their fishing boats during a severe gale. They rallied round for help from local lads and old men, dragged the boat down the beach and launched out to sea.

“Such conspicuous bravery was rewarded, for they had the joy and satisfaction of seeing every man safely landed…”

Discover more about heroes of the Whitby Lifeboat in our library.

We also have playscripts and RNLI audios available to listen to in your leisure including an account of a life in the station by Ali Brisby and Andy Brighton.


Walker.D.(1951) The Yellow Oil Skins. Freemen of the Sea. A Brown & Sons Ltd, 1951. Page 108 – “Whitby, February 8th, 1861”

Pickering.W.B (no date) Heroes of the Whitby Lifeboat. W.B.Pickering, Bridge Street, Peterborough.

Claire Marris Archive Development Officer