The heroes of sea and land

THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM... Five Caister lifeboat coxswains all honoured with silver medals for b

THE SEA SHALL NOT HAVE THEM... Five Caister lifeboat coxswains all honoured with silver medals for bravery: (L-R) back – Jack Plummer, station honorary secretary Mr Clowes, Solomon Wright; front – John “Spratt” Haylett, James Haylett senior, Walter Haylett. Picture: Caister Lifeboat Service - Credit: Archant

FOR those in peril on the sea... That line from the mariners’ favourite hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, so often has a local resonance when vessels are in danger, stricken crews are at the mercy of the waves and stout-hearted would-be rescuers fearlessly risk their own lives in the cause of preventing others’ deaths.

Caister lifeboat Covent Garden III which was launched 153 times, saving 166 lives, in the 20 years s

Caister lifeboat Covent Garden III which was launched 153 times, saving 166 lives, in the 20 years she was on service (1899-1919). Picture: Caister Lifeboat Service - Credit: Archant

That was a scenario a century ago when the East Coast was battered by gales at a time when the nation had much to think about, for we had been at war for more than a year.

In early November 1915 the Norwegian steamer Inger Johanna was on passage from Newcastle, where she had taken 2400 tons of coal on board, to the French port of Rochefort when in darkness and foul conditions, she became the latest victim of our notorious Scroby Sands.

Her master and crew of 18 strove vainly to free her from the grip of the wave-pounded sands, whereupon he decided that her situation was so dire that help must be summoned. So distress signals were displayed.

Despite the spray and blinding rain squalls, those signals were spotted on shore, and the Caister lifeboat Covent Garden III under Cox’n John “Spratt” Haylett was launched – a tricky operation in those conditions because this was years before these rescue craft had engines, having to rely on sails and sturdy crewmen pulling at her 12 oars.

COMFORT AFTER THE STORM: the Shipwrecked Sailors Home on Yarmouth's Marine Parade . It operated from

COMFORT AFTER THE STORM: the Shipwrecked Sailors Home on Yarmouth's Marine Parade . It operated from 1901 to 1964, then becoming part of the art college before it was a maritime museum. It is now the tourism office. - Credit: Archant

According to the Yarmouth Mercury: “His boat had an awful time on her errand of mercy. Big seas were sweeping right over the stranded steamer, and even broke over her bridge.

“So bad were the conditions that it was impossible to get the Covent Garden alongside until six o’clock on Monday morning, and even then it was accomplished by magnificent seamanship.

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“The coxswain went on board the steamer and found she was filling with water.

“Four tugs also put out and at the top of high water tried to pluck the steamer off the sands on Tuesday, but were unable to move her.

“It was becoming clear that the crew must leave her. Ten of them jumped into the Covent Garden and were landed at Caister, whence they were brought to the Sailors’ Home at Yarmouth by motor car. Nine other hands were brought into Gorleston by a patrol launch, and they also proceeded to the Sailors’ Home where all were being cared for by Mr and Mrs H Bracey until arrangements can be made for them to return to Norway.”

Further efforts to haul the Inger Johanna free of the sand’s grip were made the following day, again without success.

Whether or not the stricken Inger Johanna was ever safely prised from Scroby Sands by tugs, or subsequently slowly broke up as had too many other stout vessels over the years, I do not know. It might well be that if she did become another hulk, her coal cargo could have washed up on the golden sands of East Norfolk, a harvest of the sea for beachcombers in an era when coal fires were in most homes.

The Covent Garden III served the Caister No 1 station from 1899 until 1919, and “Spratt” Haylett was her coxswain from 1903 until 1919. But his lifeboat career spanning more than three decades ended in 1919 as the result of another “shout” that was to cost him his illustrious life.

In a fierce gale and blinding blizzard that January, the Covent Garden III was launched to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous Antarctic exploration ship Nimrod – now a humble collier ferrying coal from Northumberland to Calais - that had broken her back and was being battered to pieces on the Barber Sands. Ten of the Nimrod’s crew perished.

During the difficult mercy bid, the heroic Cox’n Haylett sustained serious internal injuries exacerbated by complications, and he died six weeks after the Nimrod service, aged 54. He had sailed on 158 services and saved 805 lives, 310 as coxswain.

The Yarmouth Mercury issue chronicling the saga of the Inger Johanna also published a news item about a local lad serving in the Army with the Norfolk Regiment and who had fought in the infamous Gallipoli campaign.

Nothing unusual about that, you might well observe, considering the nation was at war and this newspaper included every week lists of those local men killed and wounded in action, and of those serving their country in uniform.

Well, Private George Robert Carr, who lived in Bowling Green Walk off North Quay, was deserving of his special mention...because he was still only 14 years old!

“He was born on December 21 1900 and is therefore not yet 15 years of age,” stated the Mercury.

“Educated at the Hospital School, Private Carr left school in order to enter the employ of Messrs Wenn (maker of wooden boxes and cases on North Quay) and there he worked until last March when he was among those who responded to a recruiting appeal and enlisted in the 2/5th Norfolks.

“Being a tall sturdy lad, he managed to pass as 19. Later, he was among the first to step forward when volunteers for Imperial service were asked for, and was then transferred to the 1/5th Norfolks.

“When his mother heard of this, she would have dissuaded him but the boy pleaded to be allowed to go, and his father added, ‘Let him go as he is so set on going.’ So in July he sailed with his regiment on the great adventure, he then being 14 years and seven months old.

“He survived the fighting at Suvla Bay and continued serving in the Peninsula for two months when he contracted dysentery and debility and was taken to hospital at Malta and subsequently came to England.

“He was home last week on sick leave after being in a convalescent hospital at Eastbourne but, having had a slight relapse, had to return to hospital.

“Private Carr’s father is serving with the National Reserve.”

The bitter and bloody nine-month Gallipoli campaign, fought in the Dardanelles (now Turkey), resulted in the death of roughly a quarter of a-million men on either side.