Mike and Diane Wilson -
Free Spirit Writers
WHENEVER stories of the treachery of the sea are told, that of Christopher (Kit) Brown (with bowler, standing centre) must surely be among the most incredible. He lived within a stone’s throw of the harbour waters in a cottage [now demolished] at the bottom of Spring Pump Slipway, Bridlington, on the east coast of Yorkshire. This roadway, alongside McDonald’s Restaurant, slopes from Prince Street downhill to Harbour Road.
Born in 1842, Kit was no stranger to the dangers of the sea. One of an earlier crew, Kit had been sent home for a change of clothing and a rest when the fishermen’s lifeboat Harbinger went out on her fateful final trip during the Great Gale of 1871 [The Great Gale of 1871 – No. 2 in this Local History Series]. 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. Knowing time would be wasted if he called out the lifeboat, Kit immediately ordered Fred to wake Dick Purvis and Tom Clark, fellow fishermen who lived nearby. Kit went to the harbour to the Swiftsure to prepare her for sea. She was a 24ft sailing coble owned by George Champlin.
Fred called out Purvis and Clark, and as they were hurrying to the harbourside they met Jack Usher. Jack said he couldn’t sleep because the gale was rattling his windows, and asked what the men were doing out so late. Learning that a ship was in distress he quickly joined the others as they made for Swiftsure.
All five now aboard, Swiftsure had hardly reached the harbour mouth when a huge wave crashed over the pier, water cascading into the coble, swamping the men. One of them remarked: “Don’t you think it’s a lot over much for a coble to go through, Kit?” Kit said they would carry on as they had come this far, but 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 into the night.” Aberdeen-owned, Victoria was laden with cement. There was no response to the Bridlington crew’s first shouts and it was thought that the sailors 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 the cook 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 violent waves crashing over the sandbar outside the harbour entrance and brought them all to safety.
Within minutes everyone was on shore, the rescued sailors carried to John Grantham’s Waterloo Café on Garrison Street, where the men had a hot bath, a meal and bed, paid for by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society. The rescuers then trudged home to bed.
When dawn lightened the sky, 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 heroes overnight. 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 (right) is occasionally on display 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 Frances. 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 fishermen 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.
Some months previously, there had been controversy during an incident in which the lifeboat secretary, Captain Thomas Atkin, a widely respected mariner, had refused the lifeboat permission to launch. The men on that occasion felt their bravery had been in question and on this occasion 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 was taken further north to the Limekiln Lane slipway. Seagull, locked in her boathouse as she was not in very good condition, 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 ran to Kit Brown’s home to tell him of the 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 the tide so high. The crew listened and said they would wait an hour until the tide was off the wall. But a drunken seaman in the crowd called out: “Get that bloody boat launched and don’t be a lot of bloody cowards.” This stung the men into action. The holding rope was slipped and the lifeboat 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 ropes to the next slipway to try to stop Seagull being launched. He was too late. Seagull had made some headway into the waves, but one by one the oars broke and she was smashed back against the walls, some of the crew being pitched into the waves. The men were floundering in the shallow but tumultuous seas. Grasping a chain held by the crowd, Kit ran down some steps into the water to attempt to rescue them. He saved his nephew Christopher Brown.
At about the same time, Jack Creaser had taken a rope and rescued John Robert Hopper, who by this time was only semi-conscious. Jack received a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society for his rescue.
As Kit was going down the steps again, Jack called to him: “Kit, your lad’s still aboard!” At the bottom of the steps, a wave lifted Kit off his feet and plunged him into the sea, eventually throwing him against the side of the lifeboat. There was a man still inside. 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 lifebelt round Kit’s shoulders and tied a rope to it. While being hauled up the seawall to safety, Kit slipped through the lifebelt.
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 waves. Stephenson was lowered once again. Kit was by now exhausted and shouted to Stephenson: “Oh help me!” Stephenson shouted: “Hang on!” but, unable to grip with his ice-cold fingers, Kit dropped back into the surging rollers. 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, after his coffin was 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 on Flamborough Road, 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 displayed shortly afterwards at Fort Hall [on the current site of the entrance area to Leisure World]. Here, she acted as a focal point for fund-raising for the relief of the families of the injured lifeboatmen, especially the family of Kit Brown.
Ninety-six years later, the Kit Brown saga came to light when Hull’s 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, and the experience was life-changing.
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 and created the text for parts of 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 Bridlington Priory Lifeboat Service in 1998, one hundred years after Kit’s death, the Rev. John Meek read out a piece written by the author about the life and death of Kit Brown. During this service in 2004 and 2005, Mike and Diane Wilson appeared in the pulpit and at the lectern to give their drama and poetry about the loss of a lifeboatman.
The author acknowledges his use of the Town Play research material and the permission granted by Sewerby Hall to record paintings and photographs. Material within quotation marks is taken from the memoirs of Frank Brown, Kit’s younger son.
This page is dedicated to the memory of Kit Brown and his family, to commemorate “Come Hell or High Water” and to honour those Bridlington men who still venture into tempestuous seas to rescue others.
The final words of the Bridlington Community Play, written by Rupert Creed and Richard Hayhow, and spoken by Fred Brown (played by Mike Connelly), were: “Money for the lifeboat, give money for the lifeboat. Help save a life at sea.”
Please continue to support the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. Remember the words of Kit Brown: “Our mother is the sea, and she shall not have them.”
Colour photographs by Mike Wilson, painting by Barry Reigate, The "Victoria Five" from a photograph by Michael Boak, Bridlington.