The Great Gale
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.
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
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.
. . . 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. Volunteers
then carried her shoulder-high to be launched 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 seventh 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 sufficient men clamber aboard to
make up the complement of nine men. Among the men resting after the fifth
trip were Kit Brown and Dick Purvis, who were to feature in future lifeboat
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.
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.
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
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. But 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.
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
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 on
another page on this site. 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
page 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
page 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.
Richard Jones published
The Great Gale in July 2009. Copies are available at £8.00 from Garlands
Bookshop, Promenade, Bridlington, and the Tourist Information Centre, Prince
Street, Bridlington. You can also try