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Bridlington's Maritime Disaster

Mike Wilson, Bridlington writer and historian

SIX LOCAL LIFEBOATMEN drowned, scores of other seamen lost and up to thirty vessels destroyed. These bare facts alone cannot fully express the drama in Bridlington during that dreadful February day which witnessed The Great Gale in 1871.
Two days before, the eighth, dawn was clear and calm. Hundreds of sailing ships – barques, brigantines, brigs – set sail from Tyneside laden with coal for the south, eventually destined for Paris, at that time under siege by Germany. Many of the vessels were in poor condition with fraying and rotting ropes, torn sails and wood-wormed spars and planks, but nevertheless laden to deck level. There was no legislation regarding mariners' safety at sea, although Samuel Plimsoll, MP for Derby, was highly critical of the Board of Trade. Only a month earlier, the Hull Times condemned: ". . . the system which allows the sacrifice of nearly 1,000 lives per year through vessels being allowed to leave our ports in an unseaworthy condition."
On the evening of the ninth of February, however, a lull in the westerly wind left a flotilla of perhaps three or four hundred ships becalmed in Bridlington Bay. There was no danger: how could there be? The bay was renowned as a Bay of Safety. The skippers of the vessels anchored there to await a fresh breeze. Unfortunately, just after midnight on the morning of the tenth, the wind did spring up – but from the south-south-east, the worst scenario for Bridlington Bay. Bridlington's sheltering arm of Flamborough Head and the coastline to Holderness restrained the fleet. The winds increased, blowing a violent icy gale at the armada of ships anchored there.
In conditions like these it was custom for skippers to keep well away from the shore. However, they could not reach the relative safety of the North Sea because of Smithwick Sands. They were trapped. Some ships were deliberately run ashore by their masters, where they hoped their crews would be rescued. Other skippers decided to stay where they were and ride out the storm.
Towering seas battered the ships, and they dragged their anchors, helpless before the gale. Eventually their keels met the unrelenting sand and ships took on floods of water before sinking. Seamen clambered into the rigging of their vessels, shouting for help. At one time, seventeen ships came ashore at the same time, all being battered to destruction.
Bridlington's rocket company struggled to fire lines into the jaws of the gale, but their efforts were in vain. Coastguards ran into the surf to wrecked ships to persuade the terrified sailors to wade through the boiling waves to safety. Local people locked up their businesses and hurried to the seawalls to offer assistance.
In 1871, Bridlington had two lifeboats, one the fishermen's boat, Harbinger, the other the National [R.N.L.I.] boat, Robert Whitworth. Although Harbinger did not meet with all the specifications of the Institute, she was well liked by the men who crewed her.
In the teeth of the gale, Robert Whitworth rescued four crew off Friends Increase and went out again to save six each from Echo and Windsor. Then, for two long hours, the crew fought to reach another vessel in distress. They found it impossible and that ship went down with all hands. On return to harbour, the Robert Whitworth crew were so exhausted that they had to be lifted from their seats. Their hands were bleeding and red-raw. The lifeboat was taken out of service. But . . . the wrecks continued to pile up on shore.
One vessel attempted to enter harbour but was swept against the cold grey stone of the pier and she broke up. A brig carrying coal also tried to enter harbour but she too was carried past the entrance and disintegrated as her rotten bottom was torn out by the sand. All over the bay other vessels went to their doom.
It was then decided to launch the fishermen's boat, Harbinger. She at first tried to make way through the harbour entrance but was unable to do so. She was then carried shoulder-high by volunteers to launch from the north beach. She at once saved lives. As rescued sailors were landed, new men replaced crew members exhausted by their efforts. David Purdon (the builder of Harbinger) sent a telegram to Count Batthyany that the vessel had already saved five crews. Count Batthyany, now living in England after escaping oppression in Hungary, had funded the fishermen's boat.
Harbinger returned to shore after her fifth trip. So many men were exhausted and spent that it was difficult to find a crew. Only when David Purdon and his assistant John Clappison volunteered did enough men clamber aboard to make up the complement of nine men. Among the men resting after the seventh trip were Kit Brown and Dick Purvis, who were to feature in future lifeboat incidents.
Harbinger set out to reach a brig, Delta, aground off Wilsthorpe and likely to break up. During the trip, she picked up five other sailors on a grounded vessel and landed them on the south beach. Harbinger set out again towards Delta.
When the lifeboat came close to Delta, the crew could make out just one man, hanging onto the rigging. It was later learnt that the others of her crew had been lost when the ship's boat capsized as they were making for shore. Harbinger's crew drew closer to Delta and shouted at the man to jump. But he wouldn't. He was too frightened. Harbinger had just come alongside for a second attempt when a huge wave struck the brig, the water then bouncing back. Harbinger's stern dropped low in the water. Almost at the same time, another mountain of water struck her and lifted her prow high before turning her over, throwing men and oars into the waves.
For a few minutes Harbinger floated upside down. Another wave righted her. One man, Richard Bedlington, was still in the boat, while another, Robert Hopper, managed to clamber back in. He threw the end of his scarf out into the waves and John Robinson grasped it tightly, eventually gaining the safety of the boat. Harbinger drifted ashore at Wilsthorpe, the three men unable to help themselves as the oars had been taken by the storm. Harbinger was then taken out of service as she had sustained too much damage.
The six brave Bridlington men who died were Richard Atkin, John Clappison, William Cobb, Robert Pickering, David Purdon and James Watson. The man who would not jump also lost his life.
Still more vessels were wrecked and bodies washed ashore. By the next morning, the wind quietened and the town breathed a sigh of relief. The beaches were covered in timber, canvas, charts, clothing, stone, coal, sea boots – in places the wreckage was nine feet high. The exact cost of The Great Gale would never be known, although it was later estimated that some seventy lives were lost and thirty ships destroyed.
Among those vessels lost were Arrow of Sunderland; Caroline of Yarmouth; Delta, Rapid, Squirrel and William Maitland of Whitby; John of Whitstable; Endeavour and Lavinia of Seaham; Margaret of Ipswich; Produce of Folkestone; and Teresita of Harwich. Other vessels, their names unrecorded, also went to their doom that day. Over sixty sailors managed to make the shore with their lives.
Many of the bodies were taken to the Albion public house on Hilderthorpe Road. The bodies were photographed for identification and relatives from all over the north arrived at the Quay in search of their loved ones.
Bodies were still being discovered among the wreckage for days afterwards. Local schools reported that many boys were absent, "the excitement of Friday's calamity keeping them away." The townspeople collected the masses of coal on the beach all the while looking for their lost menfolk.
The first mass burial was held on Tuesday, 14th February. Shops were closed, and schools given a half-day holiday. The funeral procession was over a quarter of a mile in length and thousands stood at the roadside to pay their respects. Ships in the harbour flew flags at half mast. One of the Harbinger crew, James Watson, was buried that day and his grave can be seen in Bridlington Priory's churchyard.
James Watson's widow, Eliza, apparently went "mad with grief" and was taken to a York asylum where she died "a raving lunatic" within a few days. Other families also endured additional grief. Robert Pickering's daughter Ann Elizabeth died aged three years and Harriet Purdon, David Purdon's widow, died in childbirth shortly afterwards.
A fund was set up for the families of the lost men and donations poured in from cities and towns all over the north of England.
After repair, Harbinger served in Bridlington until December 1886. Following a launch to rescue the crew of Orb, she was thrown back onto the beach so badly battered she was beyond repair. Robert Whitworth was transferred to Ireland, taking the name Iris. She added another 73 lives saved to the 16 at Bridlington.
Public subscriptions also paid for the monument in the Priory churchyard. Every year the Bridlington lifeboat crew, led by their cox, attend the Lifeboat Service at the Priory on the Sunday nearest 10th February. Those who died are remembered, especially the six lifeboatmen who gave their lives for fellow mariners.
One good thing to come out of this tragedy was the introduction of the Plimsoll Line. This mark on all cargo vessels denotes safe levels to which the ship may be loaded. Samuel Plimsoll instigated moves which brought about the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876.


* * *
The Great Gale continues to fascinate local historians and in 1995 the production of the Bridlington Town Play, "Come Hell or High Water," dealt with the conflict and drama of that day in 1871. Created by Remould Theatre of Hull, the play featured scores of local people, many acting for the first time. The author was privileged to play the role of Kit Brown, whose life and death feature in the first of this Historic Heritage series. Many others worked behind the scenes, transforming part of the town's Leisure World into Victorian Bridlington.
Some two years later, when the south foreshore was improved, The Great Gale featured in the Maritime Mile, and the story is preserved there in stone.
The author of this booklet acknowledges use of the research material which created the town play, as well as other publications which have dealt with The Great Gale. He also acknowledges permission given to photograph paintings in Sewerby Hall.
This booklet is published to commemorate The Great Gale and "Come Hell or High Water," but particularly to give thanks to the men who keep alive the local tradition of saving lives at sea.
Give money to the lifeboat so they may continue their work.