WHENEVER stories of the treachery of the sea are told, that of Christopher (Kit) Brown of Bridlington must surely be among the most incredible.
He lived within a stone's throw of the harbour waters in a small cottage [now demolished] at the bottom of Spring Pump Slipway. This is the sloping roadway which leads to Harbour Road from Prince Street.
Born in 1842, and no stranger to the dangers of the sea, Kit was among the resting crew when the lifeboat Harbinger went out on her fateful final trip during the notorious Great Gale of 1871 Six lifeboatmen drowned in this disaster.
In November 1893, another great storm struck the East Coast. Kit had already gone to bed, but his sons Fred and Frank were still downstairs reading. Around midnight, Fred said he would take a walk onto the pier, to check that everything was all right. In the gale that swept the coast that particular night, all was not well. Fred saw a boat showing a flare – help was needed.
He ran back home and woke his father. Kit immediately ordered Fred to call Dick Purvis and Tom Clark, fellow fishermen who lived nearby. Kit then went to the harbour to the Swiftsure to prepare her for sea. She was a 24ft sailing coble owned by George Champlin. Fred called on Purvis and Clark, and they were making their way to the harbourside when they met Jack Usher. Jack said he couldn't sleep because the gale was rattling his windows. Hearing a ship was in distress he quickly joined the others as they made for Swiftsure.
Swiftsure had hardly reached the harbour mouth when a huge wave crashed into the pier, and water cascaded into the coble. One of the men remarked: "Don't you think it's a lot over much for a coble to go through, Kit?" Kit said they had come this far and could turn back if it became too much for them. Under full reefed sail, Swiftsure fought her way through the storm and neared the distressed vessel, Victoria, whose flare "cast a lurid light." Aberdeen-owned, she was laden with cement.
There was no reply to the Swiftsure's first shouts and it was thought that they had been lost. Two of the men clambered aboard and found a crew unable to believe they were to be rescued. The captain stood "ramrod straight, clutching the wheel, with eyes like glass staring at the heavens." The rescuers quickly led the men to Swiftsure. As they were about to return to harbour, one of the rescued gasped that the cook had been left behind. Taking their lives in their hands again, the local men climbed aboard and found him unconscious on a coil of rope in the galley. He too was transferred to Swiftsure.
No sooner had rescuers and rescued left Victoria than she plunged beneath the waves as her keel was torn away by the sand.
Despite the increasing ferocity of the storm, Kit's skill brought Swiftsure towards the harbour mouth. All he could see were a few lights on shore and the breakers pounding the pier. Kit steered the boat through the waves crashing over the sandbank which protected the entrance and brought them all to safety.
Within minutes all the men were on shore, the rescued taken to John Grantham's Waterloo Café, where the men had a hot bath, a meal and bed, paid for by the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society. The rescuers trudged home to bed.
At dawn the next day, much consternation was expressed at the wreck on the sands at low tide. It was assumed there would be corpses washed ashore and townsfolk started their grim search. When this news came to Kit Brown, he remarked that the crew was safe and well. He was disbelieved at first as no-one thought that a rescue could have been made in those conditions. On seeing the state of the sea when he joined others at the pier, Kit Brown is quoted as saying: "If I'd known it was that bad I might not have gone. The hand of God was surely on the tiller last night."
The five local men became overnight heroes. They travelled all over the country to receive money collected in their honour. At one reception, Kit's speech included the words: "We were only doing our duty, saving others from a watery grave. Our mother is the sea and she shall not have them." During this reception, Fred Brown was kissed by the young lady presenting the medals. She said: "I am now going to do what I may never have a chance again to do. Kiss the youngest hero I have ever met." After the cheering died down, Fred responded: "I will go through it all again for another kiss like that."
The men also received silver medals from the Board of Trade and the R.N.L.I. at a special reception in the town. [Kit's silver medal is held at Sewerby Hall, near Bridlington.]
Five years later, another storm raged in Bridlington Bay. The town's lifeboats at this time were Seagull and William John and Francis Booth. The first was the fishermen's boat, the latter that of the R.N.L.I. Seagull had been bought by the Rev. Lloyd Greame of Sewerby Hall in response to the requirements of local men following The Great Gale.
On the evening of Friday, March 25, 1898, a brigantine was showing a flag for a pilot, but this was misinterpreted as a request for assistance. Despite caution being advised by both coxswain and lifeboat secretary, the national boat crew had assembled and waited for permission to launch.There had been controversy about a launching some time previously in which the lifeboat secretary, Captain Thomas Atkin, had refused the lifeboat permission to launch. The men at that incident felt their bravery had been in question and now crews of both boats wanted to launch and go to the assistance of the stricken vessel.
The national boat was waiting to be launched from the slipway on Sands Lane, but Seagull had been taken further north to the Limekiln Lane slipway. Seagull, locked in her boathouse, had been commandeered after frantic scenes by some of the younger fishermen – "having had a few rums and coffees in the afternoon" – who broke down the doors with an old mast, before dragging her to the slipway. Cox George Wallis declined all responsibility for the crew's actions.
Dick Purvis called on Kit Brown to tell him of possible calamity. With no maroons having been set off to assemble the crews, Kit did not know of the incident, and was having his tea. Dick asked Kit if he had any ropes as the lifeboats were being launched – and it was high water. Both men were aware of the potential for disaster and left Kit's with three coils of rope, about sixty feet each.
At the slipway where the national boat was about to be launched, Kit and Dick warned of the dangers of launching with tide so high. The crew listened and said they would wait an hour but a drunken seaman in the crowd called out: "Get that bloody boat launched and don't be a lot of bloody cowards." The holding rope was slipped and she began to glide down the slipway. She was only half-way down when a huge wave hit her broadside and pitched her into the sea. Onlookers threw ropes and chains into the boiling surf and men clambered up the seawalls to safety.
All the men from the national boat were eventually saved. Kit Brown left Dick Purvis and ran with his rope to the next slipway to try to stop Seagull being launched. He was too late. They had made some headway into the waves, but one by one the oars broke and Seagull was smashed back against the walls, some of the crew being pitched into the waves. As the men were floundering in the shallow but tumultous seas, Kit ran down steps into the water to rescue them. He saved three, John Robert Hopper, Jack Creaser and his own nephew, Christopher Brown, then ran back into the surf again.
At the bottom of the steps, a wave lifted him off and threw him against the side of the lifeboat. There was a man still there. It was Fred, his son, who asked him: "What are you doing here?" Kit replied: "I'm trying to do my best for everybody. Save me!" Fred managed to put a lifebuoy round Kit's shoulders and tied a rope to it. While being hauled up the seawall to safety, Kit fell through the lifebuoy.
At this point Mr Alfred Stephenson, the harbourmaster, tied a rope around his waist and was lowered into the sea. He grasped Kit and once again onlookers strained on the rope. The crowd hauled the men to the top of the seawall, but could not reach Kit because of the bible-back (the huge top stone). Kit was jerked from Stephenson's grasp and he fell into the water. Stephenson was lowered once again. Kit was by now exhausted and shouted to Stephenson: "Oh help me!" Stephenson told him to hang on but, unable to grip with his ice-cold fingers, Kit dropped back into the boiling waves. A huge wave then took him out to sea and he was drowned. While this was happening, Fred had been hauled to safety but both his kneecaps were shattered.
Three days later Kit's body was found by a fisherman at Hornsea, 12 miles down the Holderness coast, and the reward of £50 for finding his body was claimed.
A naval officer and six ratings from the Admiralty arrived in Bridlington the day after the discovery of Kit's body. He had been sent to make all the funeral arrangements. When Kit's sons Fred and Frank asked why this was so, they were told that, in his younger days, Kit had been the pilot for all the naval cutters that came into the Bay. He was therefore entitled to a naval burial.
Kit's body was placed on a gun carriage, his coffin being carried up Spring Pump Slipway by local fishermen. His funeral procession, some half a mile long, was one of the largest ever seen in the town. When the head of the procession was passing Trinity Church, the last of the mourners were still at the harbourside. At the cemetery, the coffin was carried by the six naval ratings and two coastguards to the church. After the church ceremony, Kit was carried by other fishermen to his grave.
The damaged Seagull was shortly afterwards displayed at Fort Hall [on the site now used by Leisure World]. Here, she acted as a focal point for fund-raising for the relief of the families of the injured lifeboatmen, and especially the family of Kit Brown.
Ninety-six years later, the Kit Brown saga came to light when Remould Theatre created the Bridlington Town Play "Come Hell or High Water." The play was performed by over one hundred local people with others behind the scenes transforming Leisure World into Victorian Bridlington. March and April 1995 saw eleven performances of the play, for many their first experience of acting or theatre work. It was the author's privilege to take the role of Kit Brown.
Two years later, during refurbishment of Bridlington's south shore, the Kit Brown story was preserved in stone. London writer Mel Gooding used material which led to the Town Play to create the script for the nautical mile. One group of stones reads: "Kit Brown, fisherman, lifeboatman, Swiftsure hero of '93, drowned reaching out for his son in merciless seas, March 1898."
During the Lifeboat Service in 1998, one hundred years after Kit's death, the Rev. Meek read out a piece written by the author about the life and death of Kit Brown.
The author acknowledges his use of the Town Play research material and the permission granted by Sewerby Hall to record paintings and photographs.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Kit Brown and his son Fred, to commemorate the Town Play and to honour those men who still venture into tempestuous seas to rescue others.
The final words of the Town Play, spoken by Fred Brown, and written by Rupert Creed and Richard Hayhow, were: "Money for the lifeboat, give money for the lifeboat. Help save a life at sea." Please continue to do so.
This page of Bridlington's history was updated in September 2014. Twenty years ago the Town Play was being planned, created and rehearsed.