MARITIME HISTORY
The Lifeboat and other Ponderings
Michelle Hunter
10 September 2019
I love really old bits of paper. I like the idea of rescuing something from the past and bringing it to life again. Reading words that have sometimes been hidden for decades, for me somehow reawakens their author and I can whisper ‘I’m still listening!’ backwards through time. I’ve bought autograph books, baptism certificates, old postcards and periodically I do a sweep of eBay with the search ‘old documents’ in the hope that I might find something interesting!
I recently found an eBay listing entitled ‘Ephemera – includes Victorian documents’ which contained the tantalising promise of some old papers with a ‘short story written on the back’. I duly bid and won the auction, or rather bought it (as my husband points out, you don’t win, you just offer the most money!) and was eager to receive the parcel. I rather fancifully envisaged writing out the story as my first blog post, so I could fulfil the 100+-year-old wish of the author by ‘publishing’ his or her works at long last. I wasn’t disappointed. The short story turned out to be a fascinating and rather poignant poem about a lifeboat.

However, before I put fingertip to keyboard, I did what any ex-teacher would do, and typed the first line of the poem into Google. Up it popped! The poem had actually been written by George Robert Sims, journalist, novelist, playwright and poet and published in the 1880s. You can see a copy of the book The Lifeboat and other Poems here. Sims was a prolific writer, but is perhaps best known for his dramatic (and much parodied!) monologue ‘It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ (also well worth a read!).

Undeterred by this small defeat in my blog plans, I got to wondering why my writer decided to copy out this poem on the back of some general letters from an insurance company.

The letters are dated 1904 and 1905 – some 20 years after the first publication of the poem – so I don’t appear to have come across a hitherto undiscovered first draft of the original! There are also very few errors on the pages, suggesting the writer was probably copying from elsewhere, rather than writing from memory (it would be some feat to memorise 14 verses of 8 lines apiece!) Still, the writer obviously felt moved enough by the piece to want to keep a copy of it, so they did the Edwardian equivalent of ‘copy and paste’ or a scan or photocopy, and wrote the entire thing out by hand.  And what a fabulous hand it was.
So to honour these efforts, and the original poet himself, I decided I would quote the entire poem here after all. Grab a cup of tea – it’s long…..

The Lifeboat by George Robert Sims

Been out in the lifeboat often? Ay, ay, sir, oft enough.
When it’s rougher than this? Lor’ bless you! this ain’t what we calls rough!
It’s when there’s a gale a-blowin’, and the waves run in and break
On the shore with a roar like thunder and the white cliffs seem to shake;
When the sea is a hell of waters, and the bravest holds his breath
As he hears the cry for the lifeboat – his summons maybe to death –
That’s when we call it rough, sir; but, if we can get her afloat,
There’s always enough brave fellows ready to man the boat.

You’ve heard of the Royal Helen, the ship as was wrecked last year?
Yon be the rock she struck on – the boat as went out be here;
The night as she struck was reckoned the worst as ever we had,
And this is a coast in winter where the weather be awful bad.
The beach here was strewed with wreckage, and to tell you the truth, sir, then
Was the only time as ever we’d a bother to get the men.
The single chaps was willin’, and six on ’em volunteered,
But most on us here is married, and the wives that night was skeered.

Our women ain’t chicken-hearted when it comes to savin’ lives,
But death that night looked certain – and our wives be only wives:
Their lot ain’t bright at the best, sir; but here, when the man lies dead,
‘Taint only a husband missin’, it’s the children’s daily bread;
So our women began to whimper and beg o’ the chaps to stay –
I only heard on it after, for that night I was kept away.
I was up at my cottage, yonder, where the wife lay nigh her end,
She’d been ailin’ all the winter, and nothing ‘ud make her mend.

The doctor had given her up, sir, and I knelt by her side and prayed,
With my eyes as red as a babby’s, that Death’s hand might yet be stayed.
I heerd the wild wind howlin’, and I looked on the wasted form,
And though of the awful shipwreck as had come in the ragin’ storm;
The wreck of my little homestead – the wreck of my dear old wife,
Who’d sailed with me forty years, sir, o’er the troublous waves of life,
And I looked at the eyes so sunken, as had been my harbour lights,
To tell of the sweet home haven in the wildest, darkest nights.

She knew she was sinkin’ quickly – she knew as her end was nigh,
But she never spoke o’ the troubles as I knew on her heart must lie,
For we’d had one great big sorrow with Jack, our only son –
He’d got into trouble in London as lots o’ lads ha’ done;
Then he’d bolted his masters told us – he was allus what folks call wild.
From the day as I told his mother, her dear face never smiled.
We heerd no more about him, we never knew where he went,
And his mother pined and sickened for the message he never sent.

I had my work to think of; but she had her grief to nurse,
So it eat away at her heartstrings, and her health grew worse and worse.
And the night as the Royal Helen went down on yonder sands,
I sat and watched her dyin’, holdin’ her wasted hands.
She moved in her doze a little, then her eyes were opened wide,
And she seemed to be seekin’ somethin’, as she looked from side to side;
Then half to herself she whispered, ‘Where’s Jack, to say good-bye?
It’s hard not to see my darlin’, and kiss him afore I die.’

I was stoopin’ to kiss and soothe her, while the tears ran down my cheek,
And my lips were shaped to whisper the words I couldn’t speak,
When the door of the room burst open, and my mates were there outside
With the news that the boat was launchin’. ‘You’re wanted!’ their leader cried.
‘You’ve never refused to go, John; you’ll put these cowards right.
There’s a dozen of lives maybe, John, as lie in our hands tonight!’
‘Twas old Ben Brown, the captain; he’d laughed at the women’s doubt.
We’d always been first on the beach, sir, when the boat was goin’ out.

I didn’t move, but I pointed to the white face on the bed –
‘I can’t go, mate,’ I murmured; ‘in an hour she may be dead.
I cannot go and leave her to die in the night alone.’
As I spoke Ben raised his lantern, and the light on my wife was thrown;
And I saw her eyes fixed strangely with a pleading look on me,
While a tremblin’ finger pointed through the door to the ragin’ sea.
Then she beckoned me near, and whispered, ‘Go, and God’s will be done!
For every lad on that ship, John, is some poor mother’s son.’

Her head was full of the boy, sir – she was thinking, maybe, some day
For lack of a hand to help him his life might be cast away.
‘Go, John, and the Lord watch o’er you! and spare me to see the light,
And bring you safe,’ she whispered, ‘out of the storm tonight.’
Then I turned and kissed her softly, and tried to hide my tears,
And my mates outside, when the saw me, set up three hearty cheers;
But I rubbed my eyes wi’ my knuckles, and turned to old Ben and said,
‘I’ll see her again, maybe, lad, when the sea give up its dead.’:

We launched the boat in the tempest, though death was the goal in view
And never a one but doubted if the craft could live it through;
But our boat she stood in bravely, and, weary and wet and weak,
We drew in hail of the vessel we had dared so much to seek.
But just as we come upon her she gave a fearful roll,
And went down in the seethin’ whirlpool with every livin’ soul!
We rowed for the spot, and shouted, for all around was dark –
But only the wild wind answered the cries from our plungin’ bark.

I was strainin’ my eyes and watchin’, when I thought I heard a cry,
And I saw past our bows a somethin’ on the crest of a wave dashed by;
I stretched out my hand to seize it. I dragged it aboard, and then
I stumbled, and struck my forrud, and fell like a log on Ben.
I remember a hum of voices, and then I knowed no more
Till I came to my senses here, sir – here, in my home ashore.
My forrud was tightly bandaged, and I lay on my little bed –
I’d slipped, so they told me arter, and a rulluck had struck my head.

Then my mates came in and whispered; they’d heard I was comin’ round.
At first I could scarcely hear ’em. it seemed like a buzzin’ sound;
But as my head got clearer, and accustomed to hear ’em speak,
I knew as I’d lain like that, sir, for many a long, long, week.
I guessed what the lads was hidin’, for their poor old shipmate’s sake.
So I lifts my head from the pillow, and I says to old Ben, ‘Look here!
I’m able to bear it now, lad – tell me, and never fear.’

Not one on ’em ever answered, but presently Ben goes out,
And the others slinks away like, and I say, ‘What’s this about?
Why can’t they tell me plainly as the poor old wife is dead?’
Then I fell again on the pillows, and I hid my achin’ head;
I lay like that for a minute, till I heard a voice cry ‘John!’
And I thought it must be a vision as my weak eyes gazed upon;
For there by the bedside, standin’ up and well was my wife.
And who do ye think was with her? Why Jack, as large as life.

It was him as I’d saved from drownin’ the night as the lifeboat went
To the wreck of the Royal Helen; ’twas that as the vision meant.
They’d brought us ashore together, he’d knelt by his mother’s bed,
And the sudden joy had raised her like a miracle from the dead;
And mother and son together had nursed me back to life,
And my old eyes woke from darkness to look on my son and wife.
Jack? He’s our right hand now, sir; ’twas Providence pulled him through –
He’s allus the first aboard her when the lifeboat wants a crew.

It’s a wonderful (if a little cheesy!) goose-bump-inducing read, and I fully understand why the writer wanted to remember it. Did it resonate for personal reasons? Did he or she have relatives who were lifeboat crew? Had they known loss or joy in the same way?

I also got to wondering where Sims had done his research for the poem. Some of the dialect words used sound very ‘northern’ – babby, skeered, allus, rullock (what’s a rullock?!) – for a poet born in London, educated in Eastbourne and then the University of Bonn in Germany. Was it loosely based on a true story, told by an un-named crew member?

With the lifeboat crew roles being voluntary, would we even know if our own ancestors had been crew members, or those who assisted them? How many people walking around today are actually descended from Sims’ muse?! Many volunteer crew members might just be recorded on census returns with their day job occupation – e.g. ‘fisherman’ or ‘boatman’. Unless they were awarded a medal or died during a rescue, and received a local write-up in the paper, we perhaps may never know if, in our trees, there are forgotten heroes, who week on week risked their lives rescuing stricken souls from the freezing seas.

Rowboat from “Victoria and its Metropolis, past and present”. *

[Vol. 1 by A. Sutherland; vol. 2 by various authors. Illustrated.]
It’s easy to assume that for as long as there have been boats, there must have always been people willing to go out assist others in mortal danger on the waves. However, it has only been for the last 200 years that there has been a concerted effort to do so. Prior to the late 1700s, only the foolhardy or the desperate and hungry would venture into the rough and rocky seas surrounding the UK to reach a freshly wrecked ship. For some starving coastal communities, whose men had been unable to fish due to long periods of bad weather, their intentions were nearly always mercenary rather than humanitarian as they rowed out to gather booty for their empty tables before the remains of a ship and its cargo sank.

It was only as Britain’s shipping and commercial industries took off in the 18th century that ports, boats and their valuable cargo became of increasing importance. The loss of a ship and everything and everyone on board could be quite a financial blow to a local merchant or company. With more and more ships arriving, and wrecks often happening close to the shoreline too, there was also a groundswell of feeling amongst witnesses that something more must be done to help the wretched crewmen drowning before their eyes. The 1770s gives us the earliest mention of a boat used specifically to rescue shipwrecked sailors, and also the bequest of the then Bishop of Durham, Nathaniel Crewe, which was to set up a trust to deal with the increasing number of tragedies at sea.

“Wreck of the ‘Iron Crown'” *

Drawing, The Life Boat, study for watercolor, 1881
There are three people credited on their monumental inscriptions as being the first to develop a purpose-built lifeboat: Lionel Lukin, a London coachbuilder and inventor who, in 1786, designed an ‘unsinkable’ vessel using cork and buoyancy chambers, William Wouldhave, who won a competition in South Shields in 1789 set by local businessmen to design a rescue boat and Henry Greathead, a South Shields boat-builder who constructed a vessel using the best features of Wouldhave’s and the other entrants’ designs!

The Greathead boat came to be known as ‘The Original’ and Lloyds of London encouraged numerous local societies to acquire and operate one of their own. It was only when eminent baronet and seafaring adventurer Sir William Hillary joined the volunteer crew of the Greathead lifeboat on the Isle of Man that the idea for a nationwide rescue service was born. Thanks to his influence and vision, the ‘National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks’ gained the backing of MPs and the Archbishop of Canterbury and was established in 1824. The ‘Shipwreck Institution’ as it was colloquially known, not only sent out lifeboats, but also provided for sailors’ widows and rewarded volunteer crewmen with medals and cash – all from voluntary contributions!

The lifeboat design underwent several revisions over the next 25 years, before James Beeching and James Peake developed a 30 foot self-righting vessel which was to become the model used for the next 50 years. A display of their designs at the Great Exhibition in 1851 ignited public interest, and the Institution was renamed the ‘Royal National Lifeboat Institution’.

Seaton Carew and Lifeboat Crew *

In 1852 The Life-Boat journal was first published, a copy costing only a penny and a half. 160 years later, it is still running! The good news for family historians is that the journal archives are online and are searchable, from 1852 to 2017. You can see a transcription (OCR, so some dodgy spellings!) or click a link to view a pdf of the original, some of which even have images. You can also consult this resource at the RNLI headquarters in Poole, Dorset.

This is a great resource and whilst you might never had picked up from regular BMD records that your ancestor was a volunteer crew member or shore staff, you may find him or her listed here and be able to add some colour to their lives! A search for Jacob Harrison of South Shields, for example, brought up a hit in the March 1852 edition, where we learn that he and other local pilots “distinguished themselves in going off to save life in the Shields lifeboat” – Jacob having gone off 48 times! A search for the same Jacob Harrison in the census returns stated, of course, simply that his occupation was ‘pilot’. If your ancestor lived in a coastal community or had a job in shipping of any kind, do have a search on these records (and let me know in the comments if you came up with any surprises!)

On Advanced Search, you can also search by name of vessel – both for the lifeboat vessel and the boat receiving assistance. Sometimes the census returns give the name of the ship on which your ancestor may have been working on census night – you may find a report about it listed here with some neat little extra details. For example, in February 1885, the Herbert Ingram lifeboat went out to aid the schooner John Lee which carried a cargo of oilcake!

There are lots of helpful hints and tips on how to search on the RNLI archive page, and you can also contact them via heritage@rnli.org.uk if you need further help or information.

If you think your ancestor may have volunteered, it is also highly worth your while to arranging a visit to the local lifeboat station or museum, which may have its own archive and photos. Again, you can find details of these on the RNLI website.

Additional sources for research or for general background information on lifeboat crew:

  •  Newspapers are always great resource. Try the British Newspaper Archive (often free to access in local libraries) and local newspaper archives in the area you are interested in
  • Individual lifeboat stations often have their own websites, for example: Wells Lifeboat
  • There are lots of books on the subject. A few worth mentioning:
    • Lifeboat Gallantry edited by Barry Cox is a list of all those awarded gallantry medals. It is also indexed on the members page of the Society of Genealogists website
    • Lifeboat Men by Dr Simon Wills (Pen and Sword)
    • Mayday! Mayday!: The History of Sea Rescue Around Britain’s Coastal Waters by Karen Farrington and Nick Constable
    • Riders of the Storm by Ian Cameron
    • The Lifeboat Baronet – Launching the RNLI by Janet Gleeson
  • The Royal Merchant Navy Education Foundation has a long and fascinating history of supporting children of serving merchant navy seaman, fisherman and lifeboat crew
  • There are family history websites dedicated to lifeboat crew in specific areas such as Whitby Lifeboat
  • Headstones and obituaries may refer to lives lost at sea.
  • The National Archives has maritime records and directories
  • Visit the RNLI heritage centre in Poole, Dorset archive and library
  • Visit a local general maritime museum. The Scottish Maritime Museum also has a library of periodicals, journals, books and ships’ registers (appointment only for the library)
  • The RNLI memorial in Poole has a list of all those who died in service. You can also view the list online.
If you know of other resources, please comment below and I’ll update the list!

Perhaps you have been inspired, as George Robert Sims was, to dig a little deeper into the lives of your coastal ancestors. Do share below if you discover a lifeboat crew ancestor or uncover any tales of gallantry!

* References and Further Reading

Wake-Walker, Edward. (2007) The lifeboats story. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press

George Robert Sims. https://beyondthename.weebly.com/sims-george-robert.html : accessed 14/09/2019.

Landow, George P. Christmas Day in the Workhouse. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poem.html : accessed 14/09/2019.

PoemHunter.Com. The Lifeboat – Poem by George Robert Sims. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-lifeboat-2/ : accessed 14/09/2019.

Images: Drawing. The Queenscliff lifeboat. [Victoria and its Metropolis, past and present.] 1888. British Library, London. https://picryl.com/media/rowboat-from-victoria-and-its-metropolis-past-and-present-vol-1-by-a-sutherland-6175e3 : accessed 14/09/2019.

Images: Drawing. The Life Boat, study for watercolor, Wreck of the ‘Iron Crown’. 1881. Winslow Homer. Cooper Hewitt collection. Smithsonian Design Museum, New York. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drawing,_The_Life_Boat,_study_for_watercolor,_%22Wreck_of_the_%27Iron_Crown%27%22,_1881_(CH_18173815).jpg : accessed 14/09/2019.

Images: Photograph. Seaton Carew Lifeboat and Crew. c1900. Photographer unknown. Collection no.: 2517. Museum of Hartlepool, Hartlepool, Durham. https://www.flickr.com/photos/hartlepool_museum/7005691019 : accessed 14/09/2019.

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