The heroism of those facing perils of the sea
PUBLISHED: 13:47 01 July 2016 | UPDATED: 13:47 01 July 2016
Nowadays you can stroll along Gorleston promenade without spotting a single vessel at sea whereas a few decades ago there were plenty. Sailing past along the coast, or heading in and out of the harbour, a variety of shipping would have been evident.
The busier the shipping lanes, the greater the chances of collisions or running aground on coasts or sandbanks, exacerbated by weather and unsophisticated navigational aids. All these hazards contributed to the number of incidents and the resulting demands on the rescue services which selflessly exposed themselves to the potential perils.
Thus it was a century ago, for in 1916 the East Coast was battered by a great storm, the wind increasing to hurricane force and causing widespread damage on shore, conditions deteriorating even more after dark because of blinding snow.
Ex-Gorlestonian Arthur Bensley, long resident in Australia but regularly chronicling episodes from our borough’s past, writes: “On such a night the thoughts of coastal dwellers would have gone out to the mariners fighting their desperate battle to survive against the fury of the elements.”
After midnight a large flare was sighted off Corton, while another vessel was seen to be burning flares and drifting north of the St Nicholas light-ship. Cox’n Harris, of Gorleston’s Mark Lane lifeboat, immediately secured the services of a tug before heading towards the flares.
Although the vessel igniting them had lost both anchors, she was able to carry on under her own steam, needing no help. So Cox’n Harris steered towards Hopton where the Mark Lane, powered by sail and 14 oarsmen, found the schooner Dart had foundered.
“Only her masts could be seen above the water, with her crew of four lashed to the rigging,” says Arthur Bensley. “The coxswain dropped anchor and veered down to the vessel, the lifeboat actually passing over the wreck, an incident always attended with the gravest possible danger.
“The crew hauled the boat back into position again and after some difficulty, got close to the spars of the wreck, finding two men in the main rigging, their legs in between the ratlines.
“Lifeboatman Edward Bensley at once jumped into the main rigging and succeeded in getting the master and mate into the Mark Lane although they were quite helpless, having been exposed to the bitter cold and driving sleet and snow for 12 hours.
“Ted Bensley could not get on to the foremast, so returned to the lifeboat which Cox’n Harris manoeuvred into position for the fore-rigging. Ted leaped into the rigging again and bent a rope on to 81-year-old Charles Kent and assisted him into the lifeboat before attempting to get a line on to the remaining man.
“But the poor man fell backwards on being released from the lashings. Bensley called on lifeboatman William Newson to leap into the rigging to help him, and between them the fourth man was lowered to the Mark Lane. All four men were unconscious or semi-conscious after exposure to the hard frost, driving sleet and icy wind for many hours.”
During the voyage back to harbour, the survivors were vigorously massaged to stimulate their circulation. Two regained consciousness, one being the octogenarian.
On reaching the quay, a doctor found that although one of the men was dead; the other might possibly be saved, and this was fortunately achieved.
“The management committee awarded Cox’n Harris his fifth service clasp – the equivalent of five silver medals,” reports Arthur. “It was another tribute to the courage and seamanship of a man who, two years previously, had been selected...for the American Cross of Honour, accorded only every two years to some individual recommended by the institution for special and distinguished bravery in saving life.
“That occasion was the wreck of the Egyptian of Glasgow in wind of hurricane force when 33 lives were saved.
“The management committee also marked its appreciation of Edward Bensley’s gallant conduct by awarding him the silver medal. It was undoubtedly due to his courage and tenacity that the men were actually taken off the rigging so promptly, thereby saving their lives.”
At the inquest into the death from exposure of that one Dart crewman, the jury asked to see well-built and sturdy octogenarian Charles Kent, her master’s uncle. When the coroner suggested that he might prefer not to return to sea, he replied: “I go to sea for the benefit of my health...but I don’t want to go again.”
Did he not suffer from the cold? Kent answered: “My hands were numbed, but I had my sea boots full of water and this helped to keep my feet warm. I’m not joking. I have often found that sea water in my boots keeps the feet warmer than rain or fresh water would do.’’
Apparently that was a common practice; in bitterly cold weather lifeboatmen would often dip their gloves in the seawater and use them to prevent their hands from getting frost bitten.
Concludes Arthur Bensley: “My grandfather, Edward Bensley, stated that he had never seen such a man in his life as old Kent - truly a case of the Old Man of the Sea.
“It was not his time to die, and he knew it!”
The year 1916 saw other shipping incidents off Yarmouth. A Norwegian steamer, the Thoger, ploughed on to the Haisbro Sands while on passage from Hull to Dunkirk and, when efforts to free her failed, the crew of 12 took to their open boat and, fortunately, were spotted and picked up, being taken into Yarmouth where they were accommodated at the Shipwrecked Sailors’ Home on Marine Parade (now the tourist office).
The steamer Meeking was more fortunate: when she got stuck on that same sandbank, the Yarmouth-based tug George Jewson managed to haul her free.
“Aussie Arthur”, born in Pier Road in 1929 into a family with strong lifeboat connections, has an on-line website looking at a range of local topics, most of them related to our maritime history. The website was designed in 1999 by Ron Taylor, who ran a computer shop in Ormond Road in Yarmouth.