Lifeboat connection to champion city Leicester

THE GIFT THAT SAVED LIVES...the first Leicester lifeboat on its launch day in 1866. Picture: SUBMITT

THE GIFT THAT SAVED LIVES...the first Leicester lifeboat on its launch day in 1866. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

If there is a Press and public relations department within Leicester City Council, its staff must have been delighted when international fame resulted from two major events it had not generated. Thereafter, that publicity and promotional corps must have been hard pressed to keep up with the insatiable demands of the media worldwide.

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Mariners' Refuge at Gorleston to which shipwrecked and rescued sailors were oft

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Mariners' Refuge at Gorleston to which shipwrecked and rescued sailors were often taken and given dry clothing, hot meals and comfortable beds. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

It began with the discovery of human remains during work on a city centre car park, once part of a friary, in 2012 and the protracted aftermath as the latest technology was used to identify them as those of King Richard III, the last British monarch killed in battle.

His skeleton was formally re-interred in Leicester Cathedral last year.

Then, recently, came the astonishing feat by Leicester City’s football team, which just escaped demotion a year ago, in winning the Premiership last month against odds of 5000-1. The celebrations attracted coverage around the world, and the victors’ visit to Thailand, homeland of their owners, was greeted by delirious crowds in unprecedented numbers.

These two occurrences served to remind me there there was once an important link between that Midlands city and Gorleston: Leicester’s generous provision of three of our lifeboats, remarkable considering its distance from the sea perhaps making discussion of maritime matters comparatively infrequent there, except for family debates about which seaside resort to choose for a summer holiday.

A century and a half ago, Leicester had a National Lifeboat Association committee chaired by the Lord Mayor, Thomas Hodges, whose wife had been greatly moved by recent losses of life off Britain’s coasts and was inspired to begin fund-raising among her friends, hopefully to help some marine welfare society.

But this simple act of charity caught the imagination of Leicester folk and the fund amassed £700 (an astonishing £60,000 today) to provide a self-righting surf craft and a boathouse here, prompted by learning about a Gorleston private lifeboat capsizing after a collision in a crowded harbour’s mouth with the loss of 25 lives – six crewmen and 19 sailors whom she had just plucked from an abandoned ship.

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The Rescuer had sailed in stormy weather “in search of work”, scouring Yarmouth Roads seeking somebody to help when the crew of an anchored brig hailed them to report that a ship’s small boat was about two miles away.

She found the boat and its 23 occupants, all crewmen who had abandoned their the Hull-bound George Kendal when they feared she would be wrecked if she ploughed into Scroby Sands.

Returning to the narrow harbour’s mouth, the Rescuer met maritime mayhem. She jostled with three other vessels: the steam paddle tug Andrew Woodhouse, towing a damaged brig, and the fishing lugger James & Ellen. But tragically, Rescuer coxswain Joseph Moss did not spot the James & Ellen until her bow suddenly struck the lifeboat’s side.

This caused the Rescuer to capsize, but the lugger “carried on her way and gave no assistance to those in the water. The boats around did what they could but 25 men were drowned, including six of the Rescuer’s crew,” according to one account.

Remarkably, the Rescuer was the centre of tragedy no fewer than three times. The previous year she capsized in a storm with the death of 12 of her crew. And in 1888, four crew members perished while she was aiding the steamer Akaba in company with another local lifeboat, the Friend of All Nations.

The Rescuer was smashed against the Akaba’s hull, lost her rudder, and was taken in tow but, as she entered Yarmouth harbour, the tow-rope came undone and she was washed helplessly on to the North Beach near the pier, was struck by a big roller, and turned turtle.

Fortunately, coastguards on the shore managed to save three men but the lifeboatmen’s four companions drowned.

In Leicester, the new lifeboat arrived, transported from its builder free of charge by the Great Northern Railway, and on a public holiday in 1866, she was paraded through the streets, headed by a military band, for the citizens to see how their charitable donations had been spent.

Then she was launched on the placid waters of the River Soar where 30.000 spectators watched her self-righting ability demonstrated before she embarked on another journey by courtesy of the Midland and Great Eastern Railway which delivered her to Gorleston. Special excursion trains brought Leicester folk here for the official launch ceremony.

At first she was housed in a shed on Gorleston beach and launched through the breakers, but soon transferred to her new purpose-built boathouse, still there today on Riverside Road. She was powered by oars pulled by her crew, usually numbering 14-plus, and by wind in her sails.

But there was a problem, because the Leicester’s Gorleston crew had no confidence in their new acquisition, preferring the design and capabilities of their well-tested and familiar former lifeboat.

The Yarmouth Independent reported that at the 1870 annual meeting of the Leicester lifeboat committee Captain Robertson, an experienced Royal Navy officer representing the national institution, elaborated on the Gorleston crew’s reasons for disliking their self-righting craft and successfully recommended its replacement by one which met the users’ requirements and in which they had full confidence.

This decision did not provoke any acrimonious split between Leicester and Gorleston because the Midland benefactors were keen to maintain the strong link by providing that replacement – also to be called Leicester, and bearing the city’s coat of arms. A third Leicester arrived on station some years later.

For over half a century Leicester lifeboats were stationed at Gorleston, launching on service 118 times and saving 211 souls. Jack Bensley was their coxswain for many years.

Remarkably, before he was old enough to become a lifeboatman, he had stood in awe on the end of Gorleston Pier, witnessing that tragic trio of disasters that befell the Rescuer. Nevertheless, the potential danger and loss of life as doughty men battled the elements to save their fellow mariners did not deter him for a moment from following the same perilous calling, and as a young man he joined the lifeboat crew and performed this important work for fifty years.