Early History

Copy of a paper read to the Ladies of Shanklin Evening Institute, October, 1951

 ANNALS OF BEMBRIDGE LIFEBOATS AND BEMBRIDGE LIFEBOATMEN by Capt R C Watson RNR

By way of introduction, may I say that the members of my family, comprising my father, two brothers, and myself, have either together or separately served the Bembridge Lifeboat Station from its infancy, that is, from the date of its establishment in 1867. That my personal connection with the Lifeboat Service covers a period of something over twenty-eight years, of which some eight years were in an administrative capacity as the Institution's representative Honorary Secretary; it follows, therefore, that I have perhaps a more accurate knowledge of the actual work of the station than any other person.

Assuming this to be the case, and because I wished to express to you my appreciation of your very welcome donation to our funds, I rashly promised your Honorary Treasurer that I would furnish you with a concise history of the work of the Bembridge Lifeboats during the past eighty odd years. With that object in view, I commenced writing, but soon discovered that without free access to original documents and letters, etc., it is impossible for anyone to attempt writing an historical account of any kind, and, unfortunately, the duplicate station records of the rescues performed by our first Lifeboat, "City of Worcester" have in some mysterious way disappeared; at least, they were never passed on to me when I took over the working of the station. 

The loss of these original papers led me to realise that I had been very rash in promising to write a history of the station, and I decided to compromise by changing the word " history" into the more elastic term "Annals".   At the same time, I have in every way endeavoured to make these annals fundamentally accurate, and, to that end, though I have a very vivid recollection of our first Lifeboat, and of my father having served as a member of her crew for many years, I was not content to write from hearsay, but, by request, obtained from the Institution a transcription from their Journal of the whole service of the "City of Worcester" between the years 1867 and 1887, when she was replaced by a larger and somewhat improved type of boat. 

As I have to reconstruct the Institution's record for your benefit, I will remind you that I am by profession a sailor, not a writer, and for that reason I would suggest that you view both my composition and grammar with considerable leniency.

It is quite possible that some among you are quite ignorant of everything connected with Lifeboat work, and, assuming such to be the case, I propose first to try and explain something of the very questionable conditions which prevailed at sea during the early Lifeboat days, but  I have no intention of going back into remote history, or to the founding of the Institution in 1824.  Moreover, I expect you will think that I have gone back quite far enough if I commence with the time of your grandfathers, and I select that particular time because it was then that the proud reputation of the Lifeboat Institution was built up, on the great hearts and stout muscles of the grand old men who served as crews for the small pulling and sailing lifeboats stationed round our coasts.  But to really understand the heroism of these grand old fellows, and to give them full credit for their marvellous rescues, and for their self-sacrificing efforts, one must be possessed of some considerable knowledge of the prevailing conditions at sea, say, during the 'sixties, 'seventies, and 'eighties of the past century, because during those years the whole commerce of our country was carried on under sail, in ships which were for the most part constructed of wood.  Those were the days of the famous tea and wool clippers, which the historians and writers of romance have so brilliantly portrayed in word pictures which excite our greatest admiration, but from which we get a very exaggerated idea of life at sea of the period, for while these magnificent sailing ships, with their splendid crews, were making history by their speedy passages out and home, there were many hundreds of smaller vessels of every rig and description swarming round our coasts, many of them very old and leaky, many very ill found in the matter of sails and rigging, some with badly worn anchors and cables which parted when let go on a lee shore.  Moreover, I would have you remember that I am speaking of the days before the great Samuel Plimsol succeeded in forcing through Parliament his Act against overloading, for until that Act became law, very many large and small ships frequently left the dock with their decks awash, or with such formidable deck loads that the sails could not be worked efficiently. In fact, it was a common sight in the Thames Estuary to see a sailing barge with a full-sized hayrick on deck, with a man at the top to direct the helmsman, while an old cow horn operated by the mouth was considered quite efficient as a fog signal.

In considering conditions at sea of the said period, we must also remember that the Aids to Navigation which then existed were not as we know them to-day. There were no gas lit buoys or beacons, no electric light beams from our lighthouses, no telegraph or telephone to our coastguard stations, and when the Lifeboat was required, the message had frequently to be passed by foot messenger or by a man on horseback.

It was quite a common sight, during a hard gale to see a ship trying to get to shelter with part of her masts or some of her sails blown away, and not infrequently, if they let go their anchor as a last resource, the cable parted or the anchor dragged home, and the vessel became a wreck on the rocks or sand, when, being of wooden construction, they went to pieces like a child's toy.

At such times the practice was to burn a tar or oil barrel as a signal of distress, then for the crew to take to the masts or rigging to await the arrival of the Lifeboat, or of a line from the rocket apparatus, which was then coming into general use.

I realise that I have presented you with a gloomy and somewhat fearsome picture of the conditions at sea during the 'seventies of the last century, but I reiterate that without such picture, or without full knowledge of conditions then existing, you cannot possibly appreciate the great work of the Lifeboat Institution, and you cannot give full credit to the gallantry of the fishermen, artisans, labourers, and gentlemen of leisure who voluntarily offered themselves as crews of the small Lifeboats furnished by the Institution, men who, at the call of service, were ready to risk all in an effort to save their fellows in peril.

The Institution's Journals contain very many records of most gallant work performed by individual members of some of the Lifeboat crews, and no doubt contain some reference to one such deed performed by old Coxswain Attrill, of the Bembridge Lifeboat, which it is fitting that I should mention in these annals.

On March 10th 1888, a sailing ship named the "Sirenia" ran ashore on Atherfield Ledge during the hard gale, and the Brook Lifeboat was launched to her assistance, but in the heavy sea running at the time the boat was thrown back on to the beach, and the Second Coxswain and another man of the boat's crew were killed against the rocks, and for some considerable time further rescue efforts were delayed.  Meanwhile word of the disaster had reached Bembridge, and Coxswain Attrill, of the Bembridge Lifeboat, decided to visit the scene of the wreck. He had no conveyance, but set off on foot, and walked the whole distance, some fifteen miles, in heavy leather sea hoots.  On arrival he inspired further efforts and offered himself as a volunteer in the place of one of the men who had been killed, and eventually the Lifeboat was again launched and succeeded in rescuing the crew of the ship.

This great and gallant act on the part of old Joey Attrill will ever live in the annals of   Bembridge Lifeboat service, but those of us who had the honour of personally knowing the old man feel somewhat shamed when we read in the old Minute Book in my possession that for his great work on this occasion the Mayor of Newport presented him with the magnificent sum of ten shillings!

In those early days of which I am speaking, the shores of our lovely Island were the scene of many disastrous shipwrecks, with attendant loss of life, and this was particularly so on the treacherous rocks fronting the cliff's between St. Catherine's Point and the Needles, while Bembridge Ledge, which extends for a mile and a half from the shore, sometimes caught ships when seeking shelter in St. Helens Roads, but it was not until the early 'sixties that the Institution decided to try and improve existing conditions by placing a lifeboat at Brook, and shortly afterwards by a second boat at Brighstone Grange.

The work and the numerous rescues performed by these two boats has been fairly fully recorded by the late Lord Mottistone, who was able to write from personal experience, he having for several years served as Coxswain of the Brook boat, and who, later in life, became the President of the Isle of Wight Lifeboat Board, in which capacity he did so much to promote and advance the work of the Island Lifeboats, and it says very much for the confidence which he inspired in the crews, that I am told at one time there were seven men of one family serving in the Brook Lifeboat.

It was not until 1867 that the Institution decided to place a lifeboat at Bembridge, and I believe that decision was implemented by the courageous rescue of the crew of the Norwegian barque "Egbert" by the fishermen of Bembridge in an ordinary open boat. This ship, loaded with barley, had run aground on Bembridge Ledge during a hard easterly gale, and the crew were in imminent peril from heavy seas which were breaking over her, and, as usual, had taken to the rigging.  A house-to-house call was sent round the village, and a party of volunteers set off to the wreck in an open boat belonging to the War Office. Their efforts were completely successful, and the whole crew were brought safely ashore, including one small boy who was too scared to come down from aloft, and who had to be carried down to the boat by one of the Bembridge men.  This spectacular rescue so excited the citizens of Worcester that they subscribed a sufficient sum of money to pay for a lifeboat, and presented it to the Institution to be placed at Bembridge, and very rightly named the said boat "City of Worcester."

This, the first Bembridge lifeboat, was of the self-righting type, some 32 feet in length, with seven and a half feet beam, and she was worked by ten oars double banked.  She was also furnished with a heavy storm lug sail, and the usual drogue or sea anchor. The floor of the boat was slightly above the load water-line, and was fitted with six non-return relief valves, which permitted free outflow of water when, as frequently happened, she was filled to the gunwale , while the buoyancy tanks were so arranged that if capsized she would right herself.  The boat was one which inspired confidence, and there was no lack of ready volunteers to serve in her; in fact, two complete crews were listed, so that there would not only be sufficient men as crew, but others to launch her.  The boat was mounted on a heavy transporting four-wheeled carriage, to which horses could be attached if required.  The Coxswain engaged the crews, and they, realising that their lives were in his hands, gave him implicit obedience, while it was the duty of the Coxswain to see that everything connected with the boat was kept in a high state of efficiency. Practice launches were carried out quarterly, under the supervision of one of the Institution's Inspectors.  By these practices the crew knew where everything was kept, and just what to do when the boat was called out, even on the darkest night, but launching during a hard south-east gale was both difficult and dangerous, because at high water during such gales the Bembridge beach is swept with heavy breaking seas, while at low water the boat had to be transported on her carriage some two hundred yards over rocks, sand, and mud before she could be got into the water, and as this transportation, had to be done by the light of oil flares in the wildest weather, it is not surprising that much valuable time was lost; in fact, my old Minute Book reveals that on one occasion all efforts to get her afloat completely failed, and in consequence the Institution went to great expense to build a roadway to facilitate low-water launching.

Having told you something of the general efficiency of the boat and station, it only remains  for me to try and tell you a little regarding the type of men who voluntarily served the Lifeboat as crew, and here I have to be somewhat circumspect, because many descendants of the old men are still alive in Bembridge; moreover, it was not until I was something of a lad in my teens, and when the old Coxswain began to regard me as a trustworthy messenger, that I became sufficiently intimate with the members of the crew to be able rightly to estimate their true merits.   I soon realised that, under their rough bearded exterior, and behind their coarse humour, there existed a wealth of warm- hearted, genial good nature, and a very staunch regard as to what they considered their duty to their neighbour, and as I look back over a lapse of many years, I feel convinced that some few of them possessed those particular virtues and attributes which we generally accord to the finest men of our race.  I admit they had their faults, not least of which was an over fondness which some of them had for a pint of beer, or for two pints when they could afford them, but after about ten hours of their daily labour it was only to be expected that they would gravitate towards the local inn, and if friendship was not to be broken an extra glass, when offered by a mate, could not well be refused.  Also, if some of their language was a bit coarse, there was not actual evil in it, as it was only their manner of adding emphasis to ordinary conversation.

I concede that some of the said emphasis was both vulgar and deplorable; at the same time I would remind yon that when a person is seen struggling for life in a breaking surf, it matters little whether the aid given to that person was in the form of what the Institution and polite society would call "a life line," or what the lifeboat man would probably term "a bloody rope."   Again, some of the similes made use of by lifeboatmen to describe circumstances or conditions might well be regarded as poetical rather than vulgar, as, for instance, when alluding to the sea as the Old Devil, he describes the breaking foam on a submerged reef as "just scam on the Devil's stockpot."   On more than one occasion I have heard both sailors and lifeboatmen refer to a tangled rope as "a blasted Hurrah's Nest" and, though I have never contacted such a creature, and know nothing of her nesting habits, I can well believe from personal experience that the annoyance and sense of  frustration which a tangled rope will cause in an emergency can only be defined with some little assistance from Jack's vulgar dictionary.

No doubt in these days of higher grade schools and technical colleges the Lifeboat men of old would be regarded as wholly ignorant and uneducated, but as opposed to such an opinion, I assert that they possessed a wealth of education such as cannot be acquired in any school or college classroom, because nature in all its varying moods was their textbook, and experience their teacher.  Many of them were fishermen, who knew nothing of mathematics, but they could estimate the run and range of the tide with a change in the direction or force of the wind far more accurately than any computed Admiralty Tide Tables, and I have it on good authority that a certain old Bembridge fisherman, a member of the Lifeboat crew, astonished all the South-Western Fishery Board by a definite statement as to the rate of growth of a winkle, adding that he had proved it by penning one down under the ledge at Foreland in order to find out.

These men all knew and respected the tremendous power of the sea, and so arranged their daily work that they made this power their servant and not their master.  They could not talk glibly of economies, cubes, or quadratics, but with a bundle of wythes, a small coil of rope, in an old tarry boat, they could not only provide themselves with a dinner, but maintain a wife and family in reasonable comfort, and the best college professor can do little more.   In short, the simple old fisherman and lifeboatmen of my boyhood did things the memory of which will live long after the clever speeches and carefully thought out lectures of many educated men are forgotten.

In my sincere admiration for the Lifeboatmen of a past generation, I seem to have  wandered from giving you an account of the actual work of the Lifeboat, but again I submit that yon cannot fully understand that work without a knowledge of the men themselves, and the superhuman efforts which they made to serve others.  As a sailor who has experienced something of the sea in its worst moods, I am perhaps inclined to give more credit to our Lifeboatmen than you, or others less well informed, yet it may interest yon to know that in the old days, before the coming of Radio, and when a ship's position depended very largely on the accurate working of the chronometer, we used to navigate up Channel in a dense fog from an uncertain position by what was known as a "Chain of Soundings" or, to put it into sailors' language, we navigated "by Guess and by God," and it is pretty certain that when a lifeboat set out on a dark, wild night to try and find a ship in distress, she was navigated in much the same way, and I am inclined to believe that in some instances God must have given an extra flick to the boat's steering oar, or she would never have attained her object, or possibly never have returned home safely.

On looking down the list of the services of our first Lifeboat, "City of Worcester" as copied from the Institution's Journal, I note that there is a great similarity in some, while others are so lacking in spectacular interest that I am inclined to confine my remarks to those rescues which are of special merit, or worthy of special admiration, and I cannot do better than commence with an account of the second service performed by that boat, which reads as follows:

On the night of the 11th November 1877, a man on horseback brought word to Bembridge that a ship was ashore on Luccombe Ledge in Sandown Bay.  It was blowing a perfect hurricane from the south-east, with blinding, heavy rain, and such a tremendous sea was running that the Coxswain decided that it was impossible to get the Lifeboat round Culver Cliff, and after some consultation it was decided to take the boat overland to Sandown for launching.   Six or eight horses were obtained from a neighbouring farm, and the crew and horses together dragged the boat on her heavy carriage over the intervening five miles.   Fences were torn down and hedges cut away to permit passage round some of the narrow corners in the lanes, but eventually they reached Sandown, only to experience great difficulty in getting the boat afloat over the soft sand and in the shallow water fronting the Bay.   '['hey finally got the Lifeboat afloat from the carriage, and at about 1.30 a.m. arrived at the wrecked vessel, which proved to he a brigantine called "John Douse" of Sunderland.   Heavy seas were sweeping over the wreck, and the crew had taken refuge aloft.   The Lifeboat succeeded in taking one man from the end of the jib boom, and picked the master of the ship out of the water; but before the remaining men  could be taken off a tremendous sea washed the lifeboat from the side of the vessel and took the Coxswain of the boat overboard, but fortunately he grasped one of the oars and was dragged back into the boat.   Further attempts to get alongside were frustrated, and, as the boat's oars were touching bottom in the hollow of the sea, with a falling tide, the Coxswain decided to hold off till daybreak, and the more so as the ship's masts, to which the men were clinging, appeared to be holding sound.   At break of day the Lifeboat was backed down to the wreck, but found that with the falling tide the Coastguard had succeeded in taking off the remaining men in their surf boat.   This spectacular service was very highly commended by the Institution, and the Coxswain, Charles Serle, was presented with an inscribed vellum certificate expressing the thanks of the Board of Management.

On the 21st of November, 1877, a large iron-built barque, named "Alpheta" of Shoreham, bound from Bremen to Cardiff in ballast, ran aground on Bembridge Ledge during a moderate gale and heavy rain.   She bumped heavily on the rocks, and soon began to fill.  The Lifeboat put off to her immediately, but, as the tide was falling, the crew refused to leave the ship, but two women and two children were passed into the Lifeboat, one of the latter being an infant, who was handed out in a wicker clothes basket, and I have heard on good authority that the whole crew of the boat were like a lot of nurse girls and very eager to prevent the baby from getting wet.

On March 28th, 1878, the training frigate HMS "Eurydice", when homeward bound from the West Indies, with nearly four hundred young seamen on board, was capsized during a hard snow squall off Dunnose, and, with the possible exception of the loss of the "Royal George," was, without doubt, the greatest disaster which has ever occurred near the shores of the Island, and it is the more remarkable because it took place on a fine afternoon when scores of people were gathered on the Shanklin cliffs watching the fine ship close inshore, with all sail set and flags flying, and with her gun ports open in readiness to salute on arrival at Spithead.   Suddenly, without much warning, a very hard squall swept down over Dunnose, bringing with it a flurry of snow, which obscured the vessel, but when the snow had passed she had completely disappeared, and it would seem that she had no time to shorten sail, and the squall hove her down on her beam ends, so that the water rushed in the open gun ports and carried her to the bottom.   Of her large complement of nearly four hundred sailors, only two escaped.   The Bembridge Lifeboat and several boats from Ventnor searched the vicinity all night, but saw nothing, but for several weeks afterwards the bodies of the young drowned seamen were left by each succeeding tide on the beaches from Ventnor to Bembridge, and many of them lie at rest in the churchyards of Shanklin and Bembridge.   The hull of the "Eurydice" was later salvaged by the Admiralty, and she was broken up in Portsmouth Dockyard.

On the 28th November, 1881, the Bembridge Lifeboat was called out by rockets fired from both the Nab and Warner Light vessels.   On contacting the Nab, the Coxswain was informed that a ship was ashore on Chichester Folds, and she proceeded to the place indicated, where she found the barque "Caducus" of North Shields, hard and fast on the sand, with heavy seas breaking over her.  Only the stump of her mizzen mast was standing, and the crew had lashed themselves to it to prevent being washed overboard.   By skilful manoeuvre the Lifeboat was laid alongside, and the whole crew, some ten in number, were taken into the boat, and later safely landed, but the lifeboatmen, having been afloat for some 14 hours, were very exhausted when they returned to the station, and several of them had to be helped from the boat, and this still remains one of the most outstanding rescues performed by the old "City of Worcester".

Before I finish speaking of our first Lifeboat, I would like to pay tribute to the memory of one gallant old gentleman of Bembridge, who was one of the members of our first Lifeboat Committee, and who later became the Honorary Secretary, and did so much to advance the cause of the Lifeboat and to unite together the members of the crew.  I refer to a former Vicar of Bembridge, the Rev. Canon John Le Mesurier.   He seldom missed attendance at the quarterly practices, when he generally went afloat with the Institution's inspector, and on such occasion his invariable costume was a long frock coat and a high top hat.   This peculiar dress in a lifeboat caused some little amusement in those days, and 1 have no doubt that to-day it would be said that he was playing to the gallery, as the saying is, but I can assure you that Canon Le Mesurier needed no self-advertisment, because his commanding dignity and abounding good nature inspired love from many and respect from all who knew him, so much so, that I am confident he would have received a warm welcome from the boat's crew even if he had taken an umbrella into the Lifeboat.   Our Coxswain, Edmund Attrill, better known as Joey, and the old vicar were firm friends and in their respective spheres had very much the same characteristics, for both had the ability  to command, combined with a high sense of duty to their fellows and a complete disregard for any personal danger which intervened in the matter of its performance.

Coxswain Attrill, and in fact the whole crew of the Lifeboat "City of Worcester", were the heroes of my boyhood, and now as I look back over a long life I find myself still regarding them as among the finest specimens of English manhood I have ever known.

Second Lifeboat ''Queen Victoria"

On the occasion of Queen Victoria's first Jubilee in 1887, the Lifeboat Institution presented a boat to the Queen, with a request that she would deign to name the boat after herself and choose a place for her to be stationed. No doubt the Queen was also given a list of places where new boats were required, but as Bembridge was one of them, and was so close to our first naval port, Portsmouth, the Queen decided that the boat named after herself should be stationed at Bembridge.

From my old Minute Book, I learn that the unnamed Lifeboat arrived at Bembridge on the 20th of July, and preparations were at once commenced for a launching ceremony by H.R.H. the Duchess of Edinburgh, on the 28th of that month.  A special landing stage was built in the vicinity of the station and the neighbourhood made very gay with evergreens and bunting, a Band and the village Church Choir were in attendance, together with a battery of Field Guns from the Royal Artillery at Sandown. At 2 p.m. the Trinity yacht "Galatea", acting as pilot, brought up off the station, and some 20 minutes later the Royal Yacht "Alberta" came in and anchored, and in a matter of minutes the Royal barge left the yacht with the Duchess on board. A salute of 21 guns was fired from the cliff top.  Her Royal Highness, with Prince Henry of Battenberg in attendance, landed on the slipway at 2.30, and the new lifeboat was handed over by Sir Henry Birkbeck to Captain Du Boulay, the Hon Secretary, on behalf of the local Lifeboat Committee.  The boat was then christened and launched by the Duchess with the usual ceremony, after which the Royal Party proceeded to inspect the boathouse and Watch Room. They re-embarked at about 3 p.m., when another Royal Salute was fired by the Artillery as the barge left the landing slip.   The new Lifeboat was then put through exhaustive tests by the crew under both sail and oars, and, being deemed very satisfactory, was housed and reported ready for service.

So passes the grand old Lifeboat "City of Worcester" and with her much of the romance of the early Lifeboat days, for though there were still very many sailing ships round our coasts, they were, by 1890, becoming ever more and more ousted by steam, and iron and steel were rapidly taking the place of wood in ship construction. Moreover, conditions at sea were gradually improving, for the passing into law of the Load Line Act had done much to prevent overloading, and there was a general improvement in the navigational aids, such as gas-lit buoys and beacons, electric light in many of our lighthouses, and storm-warning signals on docks and headlands, while the connection of coastguard stations with the telegraph and telephone did away with the old system of foot and horse messengers, and thus enabled the Lifeboat to get prompt warning of vessels in distress.

At the Lifeboat station the old carronade which had been in use for summoning the crew was replaced by detonating rockets with marked improvement, but despite all these advances both ashore and afloat, scarcely a winter passed without some calls for the service of the Lifeboat, and the record board in our boathouse shows that the two Lifeboats named "Queen Victoria" did considerable service to a number of small craft during the next few years, some of which stand out prominently and should therefore be mentioned in these annals.

On the 2nd of January 1899, the schooner "Rosalie", with a cargo of cement, came ashore on Bembridge Ledge, and, with heavy seas breaking over her, the six men of the crew took to the rigging, from whence they were promptly rescued by our Lifeboat, and on the night of the 16th of December, during a hard S.E. gale and in a nasty breaking sea, the Naval Torpedo boat No. 059 grounded on the corner of Bembridge Ledge, where she was constantly swept by the sea, so that the crew were in very imminent peril.   Our Lifeboat, under Coxswain J. Holbrook, was immediately launched to her assistance, but encountered tremendous difficulty in getting alongside this small vessel, and it was only by repeated runs that they were able to take off the whole crew of 14 men.   It is worth noting that the young Naval officer in command of this torpedo boat .was later well known as Admiral Beatty, who commanded the Cruiser Squadron at the Battle of Jutland during the First World War.   By our records, we find that Coxswain Holbrook was presented with the Institution's Silver medal for this meritorious service.

On the 13th of February 1916, the Transport "Empress Queen" ran ashore on Bembridge Ledge during a thick fog with considerable breaking swell.  In answer to signals of distress the Bembridge Lifeboat was speedily launched, and contacted the vessel, which was in great need of help, as she had no less than 110 men on board.  By four successive trips the Lifeboat brought all the said men safely to the shore, but the ship herself became a total wreck. This service is the more creditable as it was performed by a scratch crew of volunteers, as many of the proper Lifeboat crew had been called up for service in the Navy or Army.  I am told that several of these volunteers were badly seasick, but they stuck to the job until all the shipwrecked men were safe.

Our Lifeboat rendered valuable assistance to several small craft during the next few years, and saved the crew of two of them, but the only other service worth recording is that given to the American ship "Walculla" of Los Angeles, which ran ashore on the sand off  Chichester on the night of August 28th 1919. This steamer was lying nearly broadside to the sea and was being heavily battered by it when the Lifeboat reached her, but the boat was able to board her on the lee side and took in some 13 of her crew, which they landed, but, on returning to the ship, the Lifeboat herself took the sand and nearly capsized; in fact, it was only the oars sticking in the sand which prevented her from turning right over. On the rising tide and with much less wind and sea both the ship and Lifeboat were refloated, and the later returned to the station.

First Motor Lifeboat - "Langham"

The year 1922 saw very great changes at the Bembridge station, because the Institution decided that the time had come to introduce a powered Lifeboat in place of the old pulling and sailing boat, but this change-over needed very great alteration at the station itself at great expense, for, though the Institution had received a legacy for the provision of the boat, she could only be installed by building a concrete pier some 250 yards in length from the shore to the outer ridge of rocks.   At the seaward end of the said pier, a commodious boathouse was erected on concrete piles, with a launching slip directly into deep water outside the reef.   In due course, a single-screw motor Lifeboat of the self-righting type arrived at the station, and, after the usual ceremony, was christened and launched by a lady of the donor's family, the boat being rightly named "Langham" after the gentleman who had presented the legacy.  With this new boat, and from the new boathouse, it was possible to launch immediately the crew assembled, and 1 have known the lifeboat to be afloat only 14 minutes from the firing of the assembly rocket; hence, from 1922 the Bembridge station could be regarded as quite up to date and fully efficient, and, as the range of the boat under power was so greatly extended, it was considered that the stations at Brook and Brighstone Change were redundant, and those two stations were closed.

I have no intention of recording each of the numerous small services of the "Langham" during the next few years: in fact, it will, I think be quite adequate if I mention that she was frequently launched and rendered much assistance to a number of small craft, such as yachts, barges, fishing boats, and seaplanes, sometimes saving the vessels, and, in all, rescuing no less than 40 persons, as shown on the record board in the boathouse. Some of these services were performed under trying conditions and in foul weather, but they fully reflect the courage, skill, and determination of Coxswain Gawn and his crew of seven men, and it is worth nothing that on the 2nd of November 1930, she was called out for service no less than three times in 24 hours, and each time with the same men as crew.

Twin Screw Lifeboat "Jesse Lumb"

In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, the Institution decided to place a larger and more powerful boat at Bembridge, and after enlarging the existing boathouse and making sundry other alterations, a twin screw boat of the Watson cabin type, with engines of 40 horse-power designed to work under water, and using diesel oil instead of petrol, was substituted for the earlier boat " Langham," which boat, being still serviceable, was taken into reserve for relief work at stations undergoing overhaul.   This new Lifeboat was also the direct outcome of a legacy presented to the Institution by a gentleman of London and Leicester named Lumb.   She arrived at the station on July 21st and was dedicated by the Right Rev. Lord Bishop of Salisbury, Dr. Neville Lovett, D.D.  She was accepted on behalf of the Institution by their Chairman, Sir Godfrey Baring, was christened "Jesse Lumb" and was launched by Miss A. L. Lumb in memory her brother.

The new boat was fitted with all the latest appliances, searchlight, radio telephone, loud hailer, and a line-throwing gun.   Her speed was but 8½ knots, but she could well maintain that speed in moderately heavy sea, and she had accommodation for from 90 to 100 persons.   The outbreak of war soon brought this new Lifeboat into prominent service, and during the next 10 years she rescued no less than 138 persons.  Some of these rescues are worth special mention, because they were performed under war conditions, and with the added risk of being fired on by our own batteries on the cliff tops near the station.  In fact, in the early days, it was necessary to warn the said batteries before launching the boat, and the Lifeboat herself was provided with a couple of rifles with which to repel any attack made on them by the enemy while out on their errand of mercy.

On the night of the 29th of January, during a wild and bitterly cold night, the Naval Mine Sweeper "Kingston Cairngorm" went ashore on Chichester Bar, and soon the crew were in imminent peril.  In answer to their signals of distress, the "Jesse Lumb" was launched and sent to her assistance.  There was a heavy breaking sea on the bar, and the boat had great difficulty contacting the wrecked vessel, her bows were under water, and all her mine sweeping gear was dragging away to leeward, so that at great risk the Lifeboat had to board on the weather side, but, with admirable skill on the part of Coxswain Gawn, the whole crew, some 21 in number, were safely taken into the boat and later landed at Portsmouth.  For this highly commendable service, Coxswain Gawn was presented with the Institution's bronze medal, and Engineer Watson the Institution's thanks on a vellum certificate.  It is remarkable to note that the officer in command of the wrecked vessel was the L.B. Institution's Chief Inspector, who had been recalled to the Naval Service.

In June, 1940, the Lifeboat rescued four men from an aeroplane which had come down into the water off Selsey, and, again in August of the same year, she brought ashore eight men from a Motor Launch belonging to the R.A.F, which had been disabled by enemy action.

As I have occasion to record two very prominent rescues from the barrage boom across the Spithead Anchorage, it is perhaps advisable that I give a brief account of this said barrage boom, which, though very useful as a defence measure, was nevertheless a menace to any craft that might be carried by wind or tide, into its immediate vicinity, and spelt certain disaster to any vessel that actually foaled it.

The said boom was constructed of old railway metals embedded vertically and diagonally in a concrete bed, so that the ends stuck upward like the spines on the back of a hedgehog, and as many of the these spikes were submerged at high water nothing could possibly escape destruction which had the misfortune to contact them.  Some portions of this boom were further protected by spiked buoys of large dimensions, chained together so that neither submarine or enemy E boat could possibly raid the Spithead Anchorage.  As I have here remarked, this boom meant certain disaster to friend or enemy which contacted it, and in December 1944, the Naval Drifter "Minora," in some unexplained manner, fouled the boom and sank almost immediately, her crew of six men scrambling for safety to the top of one of the large buoys mention above, in which perilous position they remained some six hours, for it was not until daylight that they were seen, and the Lifeboat sent to their rescue, but the very purpose for which the boom had been constructed mitigated against the boat's approach to the fearsome spiked horror.   The Coxswain decided that the men had to be taken off, irrespective of any damage to the boat, and to that end he drove the stern of the boat directly against the chain holding the buoys together, and, by so doing, drew them in on either side of him, but the Lifeboat crew had considerable difficulty in getting the men front the buoy into the boat, as the shipwrecked men had become exhausted by their night's exposure and could scarcely help themselves.  The Lifeboat returned to the station with her fore compartment flooded, as both bows had been pierced by the spikes on the buoys, but the Coxswain and crew decided that the boat was still seaworthy. and she was reported ready for service.

This artificial barrier was responsible for the loss of two other Naval vessels, but fortunately by the prompt service of the Bembridge and Selsey Lifeboats, without loss of life.  I have no knowledge as to how the Sloop "Saltburn " managed to foul the boom, but she did so on the night of the 25th of October, and was driven by the strong wind and tide right over the obstacle, grounding on the spikes on the inner side with her bottom badly torn open. To add to this trouble, the Dockyard Tug "Swarthy" which had been despatched to the assistance of the "Saltburn" also fouled the spikes and foundered on the weather side.  The Bembridge Lifeboat anchored to windward, and was veered down on the "Swarthy" and rescued her crew of 14 men, but the position was one of great danger, as the spikes were sticking out of the water on either side, and the Coxswain had to get out quickly into clear water.   The commanding officer of the "Saltburn" realising that there was no hope of saving his ship, decided to abandon her, and the two Lifeboats, at great risk to themselves, eventually succeeded in taking off the whole crew, and our boat later landed some 68 of them at the Dockyard, while the Selsey boat brought in the remainder.

I regret to have to record one very sad incident which occurred towards the end of the war, in close proximity to the Lifeboat station, and when the movement of the Lifeboat was under Naval control.  I mean that the boat could not be launched without definite permission being given by the Naval Authorities.  This control was rendered necessary in order to prevent local batteries firing on our own boats or ships.  On a beautiful fine calm night, two of our airmen came down in the neighbourhood  of Sand Head Fort; one of them managed to get ashore and reported himself by telephone; the other man drifted down with the tide within a few hundred yards of our boathouse, and his cries for help were clearly heard ashore.  The maroon calling out the Lifeboat crew was fired, and the Hon. Secretary phoned the Senior Naval Officer for permission to launch to the rescue of the helpless man, but the telephoned report of the man who had safely landed must in some way have been confused with the report regarding the drowning man, as sent from the boathouse, for all efforts to get permission to launch the Lifeboat were refused, and the unfortunate man was drowned less than a mile from our station.   The crew and L.B. Committee were very incensed by the knowledge that the boat was ready for launching and had almost a certain hope of being able to rescue the man, yet were prevented from making the effort by sheer officialdom.   An inquiry was demanded, and later, in the presence of the Institution's Chairman and Chief Inspector, the Naval Officer responsible for the error accepted all blame, and fully exonerated everyone connected with the Lifeboat. The body of a young sergeant airman was later recovered close to the Lifeboat pier.

Towards the end of the war the Lifeboat was called out to the Troopship "Cuba" reported sinking from enemy action some miles south of St. Catherine's Point.  On arrival at the scene of the disaster, they found that all on board the troopship had been rescued by Naval vessels, and that the ship had since sunk, leaving all her lifeboats drifting down Channel.  The Lifeboat proceeded to pick them up, and it was a remarkable sight to see our boat returning to the station with eight ship's lifeboats in tow. These eight boats were handed over to the Admiralty, and later the Lifeboat crew received a small sum from the Ministry of Transport by way of salvage.

On December 3rd 1947, the Naval Trawler "Erraid" in tow down Channel, broke adrift from the towing vessel during a hard S.S.E. gale, just to the eastward of St. Catherine's Point, and the Bembridge Lifeboat was called to her assistance.  On arrival, she succeeded in getting a new tow rope passed to the trawler, but this rope also broke in the heavy sea which was running, and the drifting vessel let go both anchors, which, however, failed to hold, and she commenced dragging slowly toward the breakers close to leeward. The officer in command realised that the position of both ship and crew was one of imminent peril, and gave orders to abandon the vessel.  With great difficulty, and at considerable risk, the Lifeboat was manoeuvred alongside, and the whole crew, some 18 in number, with the ship's dog and cat, were taken into the boat and later landed at Bembridge.   This spectacular rescue was deemed very meritorious by the Institution, and they signified their admiration by presenting Coxswain Baker with a vellum certificate of service and to Engineer Watson a special letter of thanks and an extra monetary award to each member of the crew.

When I commenced writing this account of the outstanding services of the Bembridge Lifeboat during some 80 years, it was my intention to confine my writing to brevity and accuracy, and, though I claim that I have adhered to the latter, I fear that I have extended these annals far beyond my original intention, but I offer no apology for having done so, because a simple statement of the dates of launching, with the names of the various ships served and the number of lives saved from each, would have been most uninteresting without some account of the types and changes of boats, together with some information regarding the men who served them and the conditions of that service and, even now. I have told you nothing of the numerous occasions on which the boat was launched to stand by vessels in trouble with engines broken down, of the frequent launching of the Lifeboat to search for missing boats or small yachts, of taking doctors off to ships, or bringing sick men ashore, all of which are part of the Lifeboat's ordinary duties, but the actual incidents which I have mentioned, and the fact that the record board in the boathouse shows that some 394 persons have been rescued since the station was established, offers most convincing proof that Bembridge Lifeboats and Bembridge Lifeboatmen have done their share in maintaining the proud reputation of the Lifeboat Institution, and, though the work of the old men in the early pulling and sailing boats commands our greatest admiration, it is evident that their sons and grandsons working in the modern powered boats are worthy disciples of those older men, and, though the service in the modern boats may be, and in fact is, free from the terrible hardship which the earlier men endured, yet it is none the less exacting, because the modern powered Lifeboat serves an area four times as great as did the old boats, and a radio call for help often sends the Lifeboat many miles from the station, and must be responded to with utmost promptitude, irrespective of weather conditions and by day or night.

In presenting you with this report, I have been actuated by a sincere desire to make some return for your welcome donation to the funds of our Lifeboat, and, at the same time, to offer you convincing proof that your interest in the work of the said boat has not been misplaced.  I would, however, remind you that my account of the services of our Lifeboat applies equally to the other Institution boats round our coasts; in fact, many of those boats can show a much more glorious history than that I have here recorded, for all the boats are of much the same description and the same spirit actuates the men who serve them, and, though I have to admit that of late years the Lifeboat Institution has to some extent acquired the nature of big business, the fact remains that it is still maintained solely by voluntary contributions and legacies, and, speaking from 29 years' experience of Lifeboat work, I am  confident that no State control could give us such admirable service as we have at present, but I must avoid politics; hence, as I have nothing further to add, I will finish off this, my first literary effort, by once again thanking the members of your Institute for their expressed interest in the Bembridge Lifeboat.

 

CAPTAIN R. C WATSON,

Hon. Secretary,

R.N.L.I  Bembridge

 

APPENDIX

 

In writing this paper I have endeavoured to render a fairly true account of the work of the Bembridge lifeboats and their Crews, and throughout have carefully refrained from any allusion to the administrative work of the Lifeboat Committee, first because it would have lacked interest, and secondly, because it is not fitting that work done in Committee should be publicly discussed, but it is both fitting and proper, now that I have retired from active service, that I should put on record my warmest thanks to those Members of the Lifeboat Committee who have given me such generous help in the performance of my secretarial duties, and, in particular, I would like to pay a respectful tribute to the memory of our former Chairman of Committee, the late Sir Charles Campbell, to whose sound advice and abundant help I attribute any measure of success which may have attended my efforts during the onerous war years.   I doubt very much if the Institution or the members of the Lifeboat crew realise all that they owe to the thought and care which Sir Charles gave to everything appertaining to Lifeboat work  He did not confine that care and thought to the Committee Room, but was often among the first arrivals at the station when the Lifeboat was called out.   Failing health at times prevented him from doing all that he wished to do in the way of active work, and, when I remember that, I have in mind those famous words of the poet Tennyson: "THEY ALSO SERVE WHO ONLY STAND AND WAIT."